Shake Hands With Danger

Stephen Knight’s career was cut short by brain cancer in 1985, but he’ll forever be remembered for two books. The first is 1976’s Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution, in which he aired a unique theory that the Ripper murders were carried out not by a single individual but by a trio of assassins acting, they believed, in the best interest of the British Crown and of Freemasonry. The second is 1984’s The Brotherhood, an investigation into the level of undue influence exercised in particular professions and social institutions by Freemasonry and Freemasons.

Specifying “Freemasonry and Freemasons” is important to Knight’s thesis, because he is careful to draw a distinction between Freemasonry as an institution and Freemasons as the people who occupy that institution. The great majority of anti-Masonic literature over the years has concentrated on attacking the institution of Freemasonry itself, alleging that it is purposefully and deliberately designed as a sinister edifice of corruption.

To an extent, The Final Solution fell into this trap a little – giving credibility to the nonsense garbage conspiracy theories promulgated by Leo Taxil in the 19th Century, before he gave a speech exposing all of his anti-Masonic work as a hoax, a prank played on the (predominantly Catholic) anti-Masonic conspiracy theory underground which went further than Taxil ever expected, simply because the conspiracy theorists were so credulous that Taxil simply couldn’t dream up a claim so absurd that they wouldn’t swallow it. In fact, Knight went so far as to make the claim that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion – a document which has been comprehensively debunked over and over again – was actually a credible internal document from the global conspiracy, just disguised a little so that all the crimes of the Freemasons would end up being blamed on the Jewish people if it got out.


Knight does not chase off down that tangent here. He claims, at least, to be much more careful about filtering between credible information and utter disinformation; how much this can be trusted when he still apparently stands by the claims of The Final Solution, which includes information which Knight, if he’d really researched as deeply as he claimed, must have known was disinformation (or at the very least not credible enough to build any sort of story on) is questionable.

Nonetheless, the position Knight takes here is actually a fairly reasonable one. It’s a position which he had some flashes of in the more reasonable portions of The Final Solution, and which in general is vastly more supportable than most of the more simplistic anti-Masonic conspiracy theories. It’s a position which, specifically, relies on being able to make a nuanced distinction between Freemasonry as an institution and Freemasons as people.

The idea is this: Freemasonry, as an institution, is no better or worse than any other kooky little club with a particular religious philosophy attached to it. In a late chapter Knight questions whether Masonry is compatible with Christianity, and comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t – but this is largely because he’s working from a comparatively conservative definition of Christianity which puts a high value on Christ’s “I’m the only way to Heaven” line from the Bible, such that any philosophy which concedes validity to other religious paths is inherently incompatible with Christianity – but on the other hand, he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything particularly wrong with religious ceremonies based around the stories of Hiram Abiff and the Knights Templar and the veneration of Jahbulon or whatever.

The problem, as Knight would have it, is that whilst Masonry in theory has these strong ethical principles and sets significant rules to attempt to prevent it from being misused – for instance, politics and business are not supposed to be discussed at Lodge meetings – all too many Freemasons themselves fall short of that moral standard. Though the institution of Freemasonry itself and its ultimate governing bodies are well-meaning, bad shit still happens because the body of individual Masons includes its fair share of shitty people – and perhaps more than its fair share, attracted by the cloak of secrecy which Masonry offers and the reputation the Craft has for offering these opportunities for corrupt dealings.

Whilst not every Freemason will give preference in job advancement, business, legal cases or other situations to fellow Freemasons, enough are willing to do so to make it a problem. Whilst not every Freemason joins the organisation joins the organisation for mercenary motives, seeking to advance their career or business or make corrupt links with police or other officials, enough do so that those who come to Masonry seeking those benefits will often be able to find them. Whilst it is not true that Freemasonry as an institution will sanction criminal and malicious activities, there’s enough bad apples in there that when they band together they can get up to all sorts of horrible shit without the sanction, permission, or awareness of the governing bodies of Masonry.

If Knight has a major criticism of the Masonic governing bodies, it’s not that they’re hubs of Illuminati-esque conspiracy – it’s just that they’ve turned a blind eye to all this, and perhaps at times prioritised avoiding scandal and passed up opportunities to properly clean house, and maybe prize the secrecy of Masonry to a sufficient extent to make it difficult to root out this sort of corruption.

The thing is that the sort of men that Knight was investigating – the police, property developers, businessmen, lawyers, judges, civil servants, town councillors and so on and so forth – constituted the Establishment, as it existed in the early 1980s. Whilst it is arguable that some aspects of Masonry – in particular, its tendency towards secrecy, and the emphasis it places on oaths of mutual assistance – make Masonry particularly amenable to this sort of corruption, I wouldn’t say that Masonry is the source of the corruption in the first place.

The source is the money and power which those men are able to trade with each other in order to mutually get ahead, and the thing about the Establishment is that it is going to indulge in this sort of power-brokering regardless. Masonry might provide a convenient cover for it, but reforming Masonry won’t dissolve the corruption – it’ll just mean that the individuals in question will turn to other bodies in order to do their networking and peddle influence accordingly. That isn’t to say that some form of internal house-cleaning isn’t necessary within Freemasonry – just that Knight might have had cause and effect reversed here. Freemasonry isn’t a corrupting influence on the British Establishment – the British Establishment was shitty to begin with.

Knight’s research is somewhat shallow; much of the book involves him recounting anecdotes told to him by informants Masonic and non-Masonic alike, often with enough details changed to make it impossible to investigate and corroborate his allegations, but sometimes with enough specific names to be more persuasive. At the very least, if there were no smoke to the fires in question, it’s astonishing that some of the figures in question didn’t sue for libel when the book came out.

The lack of depth to Knight’s research comes out in some very significant errors he makes in his research. For instance, early on in the book he makes the blunder of all too many anti-Masonic writers in assuming that the various degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite – from Secret Master to Sovereign Grand Inspector General – constitute a secret hierarchy which is integral to the structure of all Freemasonry, when in fact it’s better understood as a “side order” of degrees that Masons interested in taking their involvement in a particular direction can take; Knight shows no apparent awareness of the York Rite of degrees which offers a similar pile of extra degrees.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but there’s a major error here in addition to the gap in Knight’s Masonic knowledge it exposes: it’s the assumption that members of the fourth degree on up in the Scottish Rite are superior to members of the three degrees of baseline Craft Masonry. In fact, that’s only true for those Masons who are in the Scottish Rite to begin with – Masons who haven’t signed up to that side order have sworn no oaths to it and owe nothing to its members, beyond what they might owe to any other third degree Craft Mason.

In addition, the idea that these degrees constitute a secret leadership of the Masons falls over when you consider that, if they were really kept secret from the first three degrees of Masonry, they couldn’t exert control over them; a chain of command requires underlings to recognise their superiors as superiors, and if most third degree Masons aren’t aware of the higher degrees (as Knight implies), there’s no way for the higher degrees to tell third degree Mason what to do.

Furthermore, Knight seems to have fallen for the idea that there is only one flavour of Masonry – that which is governed by the United Grand Lodge of England, requires belief in a deity, and excludes women. There’s extensive Masonic bodies out there – in the UK as well as around the world – who don’t owe loyalty to UGLE and don’t apply one or both of those restrictions on membership. Whilst the book’s UK-based focus might explain why Knight doesn’t seem to be aware of Continental forms of Masonry, it’s another form of ignorance on Knight’s part – one which suggests that he’s been taking UGLE’s claims of being the sole seat of Masonic legitimacy at face value without doing his fact-checking. Then again, if Knight were one for fact-checking he wouldn’t have boosted the Taxil hoax and the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion eight years earlier in The Final Solution.

What’s particularly odd is that, whilst he does make these errors early on in the book, in later chapters he seems to be both aware that there’s a God-optional Continental vein of Masonry and that the Ancient and Accepted Rite and other such things are side degrees. It’s like he simply didn’t go back and revise his earliest chapters – possibly because he felt rushed for time, in between his terminal illness  and the shenanigans involved in publishing the book in the first place.

On the first point, it’s worth noting that Knight had been diagnosed with the brain cancer which would ultimately kill him some five years previously, and at points in the book makes passing allusions to have had to pause his research to deal with bouts of ill health; he was probably suffering terribly from the symptoms, and on that level it’s kind of astonishing that he was able to retain the power his writing undeniably holds. On the second, Knight accuses the main men at New English Library of passing on the book solely because their dad was a Mason and they didn’t want to upset him; the book eventually emerged through Grafton. This is one of those instances where it feels like there must be some smoke to the fire, because why would NEL let the accusation lie otherwise?)

Taken as a whole, The Brotherhood is an extremely readable and thought-provoking book which falls over largely due to the scarcity of facts involved. What value there is here exists less in the specifics of the cases outlined and more in the concerns raised about how Masonry seems to offer a fertile ground for corruption, has enough of a reputation for being a “jobs for the boys”-type arrangement to attract people looking for precisely that sort of influence-trading, and doesn’t really seem to have an effective means of cleaning house.

Whilst it is entirely believable that the book painted a broadly accurate picture of the situation in the early 1980s, it feels like a snapshot of a situation which has largely resolved itself – not because society has necessarily become less corrupt, so much as joining the Freemasons has become so intensely boring and uncool that the Craft is now suffering a severe recruitment crisis. Odds are that there’s vastly superior tools, platforms, and venues for influence-peddling these days, and I suspect they’re vastly less time-consuming and require much less in the way of charitable contributions than Freemasonry.

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