The Wisconsin Persecution

The Wisconsin Persecution

It isn’t every day that a criminal investigator turns up at the door, any door. When the investigator turns up and wants to see – and then confiscates – a Masonic Lodge’s charter, that’s rarer still.

That happened the evening of Friday, 20 August 1943, at the home of 60-year-old widow Annette Schmitt and her grown daughter, Marcella, on North Franklin Place in Milwaukee. They were far too intimidated by the grizzled detective from the city’s police department to object too much when he took the charter, and them, downtown.

As with most modern examples of persecution against Co-Freemasonry by male-only Masons in North America, no one was physically harmed, and it largely was words, most of them polite. The incident in no way resembled flame wars on Internet Masonic forums and elsewhere online today. Anyone expecting brass knuckles and drive-by shootings will be disappointed, but we are, after all, talking about Freemasons. It simply won’t get that ugly.

However, the Wisconsin persecution of 1943/44, or “the Wisconsin situation” as it was known among Co-Masons at the time, is unique in that the police, a county district attorney, and the Wisconsin Secretary of State’s office were involved. Persecution of Co-Masons under the color of Profane law is, thankfully, quite rare. This is how one of those incidents happened.

It began a few weeks earlier when the Brothers of Lodge Amen-Ra No. 584, who’d been meeting less formally in Milwaukee for a while, decided they’d grown numerous enough to justify meeting in an actual lodge setting. Annette Schmitt, Amen-Ra’s Senior Warden, and her daughter Marcella, Amen-Ra’s Secretary and coordinator for a local vocational school, were designated to find a good place. They shopped around and soon found a space in the Milwaukee Odd Fellows Temple.

The room had raised platforms and, though it was more square than oblong, it was generally arranged enough to be adapted for a meeting of Freemasons and “the carrying out of the ceremonial in a dignified and beautiful manner.” That is how North American Co-Freemasonry’s Grand Treasurer and District Deputy of the Great Lakes District, Sidney Cook, described it.[1] The Brothers had to have been impressed by the floor: terrazzo stone in concrete.

Cook gave formal approval of the room and suggested the Brothers of Amen-Ra secure a two-year lease. The Odd Fellows rental agent accepted a check for the first month’s rent and all seemed to be arranged, nothing appeared amiss.

Perhaps the first clue should have been comments by the rental agent, a “Miss Purdy,” who was a member of the Order of Eastern Star in Wisconsin. It also turned out that the Chairman of the Odd Fellows Board was a past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin.

It isn’t clear how trouble began but someone was interested in making it.

A few days after arranging for the lease, Miss Purdy let Annette Schmitt know that they needed more details about the nature of the work. Annette Schmitt gave Purdy a brochure about Co-Freemasonry, the type of brochure that Co-Masons are known to carry around. Shortly after that, Annette Schmitt said she got a call from a “Mr. Rumple” from the Better Business Bureau who wanted her to come see him. “He is also a Mason,” Annette Schmitt said.[2]

A week after that, on 19 August, William F. Weiler, Past Grand Master and Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin[3] arrived unannounced at the Schmitt home.

“During the conversation, he informed us that we were infringing upon the rights of their Order, that we were a spurious and clandestine organization, that we could not call our organization Masonry, and that we could not work under the lodge system,” Annette Schmitt said in her subsequent letter to Cook. Weiler also named a Wisconsin statute he said Amen-Ra was violating but didn’t provide a copy.

Weiler seemed to think that was that, though it’s hard to imagine why he thought saying it made it all so. Perhaps he felt emboldened by the Schmitt’s response, which was to be thoroughly gobsmacked and to let him know that speaking for their Order, let alone all of Co-Freemasonry, was well above their pay grade. Which, as a Freemason, Past Grand Master and a current Grand Secretary, he should have known.

Perhaps it suddenly occurred to him. Weiler then demanded a meeting between “our Grand Officers,” and told the Schmitts he could set up a meeting with the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin Grand Master Louis D. Potter.

For their part, the Schmitts assumed Weiler wanted to set up that meeting between and their own Order’s Grand Commander, Edith Armour, and they wrote that same day to Cook, following protocol, to see what could be arranged. However, this seems not to have been the case. The male-only Freemasons involved in this episode, as we’ll see, largely ignored Armour and, instead, continued to harass the Schmitts and developed a bit of a fixation on Cook.

Granted, Cook was a Past Grand Senior Warden in Co-Freemasonry and was then Grand Treasurer, but he certainly wasn’t the highest ranking Co-Mason in North America. He also appears to have worked very hard to avoid even the appearance of usurping Armour’s Masonic authority in North America, which explains at least part of the communications issues that were coming.

The Schmitts, possibly to get Weiler out of their home, apparently at least mentioned Cook to Weiler. They may have even provided Cook’s address in Wheaton, Illinois, because Weiler fired off a letter to Cook postmarked 8:30 p.m. the same day. “I have information that your organization, under the name ‘Co-Masonry’ is entering Wisconsin with the intention of establishing lodges or local units,” his letter to Cook said. Weiler asked for pamphlets explaining Co-Freemasonry, as well as copies of the Order’s bylaws, petitions for membership, “and other literature that may be available.” He stated, “it is quite imperative that we have this information at once.”

Cook, when he received Weiler’s letter, immediately complied, sending out the requested literature. He also wrote the Amen-Ra’s Master and the Order’s future Grand Commander, Helen Wycherley, about what was going on. Given the speed at which things were moving, Wycherley may not yet have heard what was going on.

In any case, Cook was more perplexed than concerned. “I suppose we will talk this all over at the end of the week,” he said in his next letter to Armour. “You have had experiences just like this before and know exactly what should be done about them.”

Meanwhile, as Weiler’s and Schmitt’s snail mail inched their way to Cook. Back on August 20th, at the Schmitts home that night, there was a knock at the door.

“Events took shape rapidly, and the police were on our trail even before we had the opportunity to contact you,” Annette Schmitt said in her letter to Cook the following day. “We told Mr. Weiler that we were going to write you immediately.”

Either “immediately” had not been good enough for Weiler or the fellow at the door was acting on his own. The latter seems unlikely but the remaining record doesn’t make it entirely clear.

If he wasn’t acting on his own, Detective Lt. Joseph A. Schalla, then a 32° Mason under the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin, seems an interesting choice to send after the Schmitts on the evening 20 August 1943. Then 43, he was a World War I veteran severely wounded in action in December of 1918[4] and became a police officer in 1928, joining the Old North Milwaukee Police Department. He established his law enforcement cred working in the department’s hold up and burglary squad. He soon moved on to dealing with more hardened criminals, thieves, rapists and murderers, as attested by dozens of news clippings remaining from the period.

In 1952, Schalla would be reprimanded by his superiors for threatening a local news reporter who wanted to publish a story about a local politician that Schalla did not want published.[5] Whatever else could be said about him, Schalla was no one to cross.

The widow Schmitt and her daughter clearly found him intimidating. “We showed him the Charter,” Annette Schmitt said in her next letter to Cook. The Schmitts might have used Amen-Ra’s charter as something of a shield,and it clearly got the police detective’s attention. Schalla also wanted to know how many members the Order had, the amount expected in dues, initiation fees and other information, not all of which the Schmitts could have told him. They recommended Schalla get information from higher ranking Brothers than themselves.

Not getting all his questions answered, Schalla took the Schmitts and Amen-Ra’s charter to the police department. It isn’t certain the Schmitts actually were arrested but it is clear they didn’t feel they could refuse to go. There they were introduced to another male-only Freemason, Chief of Police Joseph Kluchesky[6], who took a good look at the charter but said he didn’t have time to read the brochures on Co-Freemasonry that the Schmitts offered.

The police apparently thought Amen-Ra was a swindling operation, which could possibly explain, more than their Masonic ties, why the two officers had taken an interested. “It was evident that when the complaint was made to the Police Department, it was on that of soliciting, for that seemed to be the basis upon which the investigation was made,” Annette Schmitt said in her letter to Cook.

The police made a photostat copy of the charter but backed down shortly after closely examining it. Either Schalla or Kluchesky commented: “Well, we can’t stop you. Whoever drew up that charter knew what they were doing.[7]” The Milwaukee police exit the story at this point.

Finding themselves free to go, the Schmitts went to a Western Union office and sent a telegram to Cook, letting him know to expect another snail mail to follow-up on the one already on its way. A flurry of mail, much of it crossing enroute, followed but everyone seemed to be caught up by the middle of the following week, during which Armour sent a four-page letter to Weiler describing Co-Freemasonry’s long history in North American and the larger world and describing other cases in which male-only Masons tried to interfere with Co-Freemasonry and failed.

If Weiler answered that letter, there’s no evidence of it and quite a few references in what record does remain suggests that Armour never received a reply.

Despite the police involvement, Cook still was not very alarmed. “Bro. Cook feels that there is no cause for alarm and that the matter will be straightened out satisfactorily in due course,” Ann Werth, a member Amen-Ra Lodge then in Wheaton, wrote to Annette Schmitt on 23 August. “I can imagine that you might have been a bit surprise to have the police visit you!” 

Cook’s own advice to the Schmitts, as well as other Amen-Ra members was:

Should you be questioned further, just give such information as seems pertinent to the case and necessary, using your own good judgment in the matter, as you have been doing.

He also stalled for time, telling the male-only Masons who wanted to talk to him that it would have to wait until the middle of September[8].

While his tone in that letter was soothing enough, Cook was more firm in his next letter to Weiler. Cook wrote:

I question very much whether the establishment of a lodge of The American Federation of Human Rights in the city of Milwaukee would in any way come within the jurisdiction of or conflict with the activities of organizations already established there. However, if  you will be good enough to give me full data as to the basis of your questioning, I shall be glad to cooperate in arriving at an understanding.

If Weiler answered that letter, the location of the reply currently is unknown.

Wycherley wrote to Cook on 31 August, wondering whether Amen-Ra should proceed with its next scheduled meeting on 12 September. “It seems to me that to hold a meeting while the legality is in question would get us in more trouble,” Wycherley wrote. “And since it is little over a week till [sic] the scheduled meeting, I ought to do something at once if it is to be postponed.”

Cook replied that Amen-Ra should tough it out, still speaking with reassurance that little was likely to happen.

Cook also contacted the Wisconsin Secretary of State’s office asking about the statute Weiler claimed existed and that the Milwaukee Co-Masons allegedly were violating. Cook also asked if there were any laws in the state pertaining to meetings by small  groups of men and women for study and ceremony.

Wisconsin Secretary of State, and former Governor, Fred R. Zimmerman replied the following day that he knew of none.

It was during this time that Armour, her first letter apparently ignored, wrote another letter to Weiler. Armour wrote:

Since writing you on August 23, in reply to your inquiry of August 20 regarding the Co-Masonic Order, it has been brought to my attention that you have made claims to our members in Milwaukee as to the prerogatives of the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin, attempting to interfere with their legitimate activities, and have made unwarranted statements as to the character of our organization.

Armour again provided a brief history of Co-Freemasonry in North America and pointed out that just because the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin  didn’t – as it doesn’t today – recognize Co-Freemasonry doesn’t mean Co-Masons aren’t Freemasons and certainly doesn’t negate the legal rights of  Co-Masons in Wisconsin. She again pointed to similar cases over the previous half century in which male-only Masons tried to interfere with  Co-Freemasonry in North America and failed, including a 1907 incident in which male-only Masons maneuvered the arrest of two Co-masons. In that case, the male-only Masons’ efforts failed in the courts, setting some interesting precedents.

The entire effort in Wisconsin was equally pointless, Armour wrote:

Our organization could not possibly harm or damage the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin. Our influence is neither demoralizing nor contaminating. We teach and practice good citizenship. We prohibit soliciting members and we do not permit applicants to join under the impression that they will gain any social prestige or commercial advantages. On the contrary, they are told of the hardship and disadvantages of pioneer work.

Male-only Masons who’ve tried to affiliate with Co-Masonic Lodges have been turned away, “explaining our situation and telling these applicants to remain in their own Lodges,” Armour wrote.

Armour’s 4 September letter, like her first letter, apparently was ignored.

Meanwhile, the check for the lodge’s first month rent for the room that the Odd Fellows decided the Co-Masons couldn’t use had been cashed and there was no getting those funds back. “Looks like we are just out that amount,” Wycherley wrote to Cook on 8 September.

There was no further word that week from the male-only Masons and the Milwaukee Co-Masons seem to have settled down as their 12 September meeting date approached. The unpleasantness appeared to have blow over.

It hadn’t.

The Schmitts received a letter, postmarked on 10 September, from the office of Milwaukee County District Attorney James J. Kerwin, ordering them to a  meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday, 16 September, “without fail” with Second Deputy District Attorney Charles J. Kersten. It was at this time that Co-Masons found out what Wisconsin statute Weiler had been talking about all along.

Wisconsin statute 343.251, long since repealed, made it illegal to “willfully wear the insignia, rosette, or badge or any imitation thereof” of various groups and orders, including “Free Masons [sic].” However, the statute did not define who “Free Masons” are, a topic any Masonic grand officer would be unwise to let Profane courts sort out.

That notwithstanding, the Schmitts were summoned to the District Attorney’s office, which prompted Werth to write a hasty note to Cook alerting him to the latest development. The Schmitts, Werth said, had had about as much of the Wisconsin Situation as they could stand and “they are quite concerned” about being summoned to the district attorney’s office.

Marcella Schmitt called the district attorney’s office in an attempt to put off the appointment so that someone else – anyone else – could represent the Order. It was during that call that Marcella Schmitt received some stunning news. “She said that they [Marcella Schmitt and her mother] had been told they should not hold any meetings and she didn’t know what they should do about the one scheduled for Sunday – tomorrow,” Werth wrote to Cook.

Werth then asked a question that had gone unasked for weeks: Why were the male-only Masons of Wisconsin and Profane law enforcement harassing a widow and her daughter who had no authority to speak for the Order? “Isn’t there some way that Marcella and her mother can get the authorities to work through the Grand Officers instead of riding them about it?” Werth asked in her note. “Marcella was afraid that if they held the meeting tomorrow someone would interrupt them with a search warrant.”

While the record remains incomplete, it seems the Brothers of Amen-Ra did quietly meet in a location other than the Odd Fellows Hall on 12 September 1943 without “someone” showing up “with a search warrant.” Meeting elsewhere might be, at least in part, why that didn’t happen. It could also be that the proponents of this legal action didn’t want to go that far.

When the Schmitts, with great trepidation, turned up for the demanded appointment at the county’s district attorney’s office, they found the deputy district attorney had flaked out on them. The Schmitts were told the deputy district attorney was “in court on an important case.”

“We called again today and the operator said that the case would not be closed before Saturday of this week, which means that we might be able to see him the early part of next week,” Marcella Schmitt wrote to Cook on 23 September, 1943.

The Brothers of Amen-Ra also received a veiled threat from “one of the investigators” to hold no more meetings because “it would be best not to aggravate the situation just at this time.”[9]

The County Deputy District Attorney, Kersten, didn’t become available to meet with the Schmitts until 29 September, almost two weeks after the date he’s originally demanded, and even that meeting was “for a very short time,” Marcella Schmitt said in her letter to Cook the same day. Kersten for the first time made formal what Milwaukee Co-Masons had been scrambling to find out on their own, that a complaint had been made against them by the Weiler as Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin and Potter, its Grand Master.

Schmitt noted that Kersten said he wasn’t a Freemason, “was not well-informed on the Masonic Order” and observed that he had trouble remembering the Wisconsin Grand Master’s name.

It was at this point that it was revealed Kersten had been present back in August when Detective Shalla had hauled the Schmitts and the Amen-Ra’s charter to the police department and that Kersten had examined the charter at that time.

That seems to have been all that came out of the 29 September meeting with Kersten as Kersten decided then he would rather “the grand officers”  be present. Perhaps it occurred to him, as it seemed to not be occurring to others, that the Schmitts were not qualified to speak for all of North  American Co-Freemasonry, but it also seems that no one from the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin was at the meeting either. So, he pointedly instructed the Schmitts to contact Cook to see when he could be available for a meeting, which is odd because Cook still wasn’t a high ranking grand officer. Armour, again, was ignored.

Kersten also declined a copy of Armour’s letter to Weiler.

Though he wasn’t present, Cook might have noticed something in Kersten’s realization about the Schmitts. There might be something to gain should Kersten observe the male-only Masons were acting like bullies in their treatment of the Schmitts.

Or, perhaps, Cook just wanted little as possible to do with “the Wisconsin Situation.”

For whatever reason, Cook suddenly was more interested in the Schmitts taking the lead on behalf of their Lodge and the Order. In his 1 October letter to Marcella Schmitt, Cook said he would be too busy to make an appointment with Kersten. Cook wrote:

I suggest, therefore, that you proceed, having no fear whatever of the outcome. One suggestion that I would make to you is that you make for yourself another copy of the Ills. Bro. Armour’s[10] letter to Mr. Weiler, so that if you hand one to Mr. Kersten you will still have one to use in the  discussion.

Miss Armour’s letter answers very satisfactorily the suggestion of ‘borrowed insignia, titles, etc.’ – borrowed from whom and when? All of these  were regularly conferred at the inception of the Order, handed down from the same sources as those from which Mr. Weiler’s organization claims descent and authority.

It’s easy to imagine what the timid and stressed Schmitts thought of that. Probably Cook imagined it, too, which might be why he sent instructions to Wycherley to help steel Amen-Ra’s Secretary and Senior Warden. He also signaled to Wycherley that it was time to be far less passive.

“I was willing that we should temporarily delay our activities to give an opportunity for inquiry, but Mr. Weiler has not seen fit to reply to the letter [from  Armour] of full information given to him, and a good deal of time has passed,” Cook wrote. “I therefore recommend that we proceed with our work and let the inquiry take its course.”

In other words, the October meeting of Amen-Ra should go ahead as planned.

Meanwhile, Armour apparently had a chance to speak with real legal counsel on the matter, which made her even more confident that the Order would prevail in this case as they had in all others previous. “It would seem they do not have a leg to stand on in the matter of Masonic emblems and no legal-minded committee of enquiry could uphold their claim to the exclusive right to such emblems,” Armour said in her 5 October letter to Cook.[11]

The follow-up meeting with Kersten occurred on 6 October lasted about two hours and followed a one-hour meeting between the Schmitts and Weiler. Potter did not attend, which means Kersten didn’t get the grand officers he’d asked for. Both meetings apparently took place in Kersten’s office, which suggests he was interested in the three Freemasons coming to some sort of amicable, not to mention Masonic, agreement.

Kersten challenged the Schmitts to prove that the origins of Co-Freemasonry are the same as those claimed by the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin. The Schmitts, naturally, had no trouble documenting that and again offered up a copy of Armour’s long, detailed letter.

In her letter to Cook a few days later, Marcella Schmitt reported that Kersten seemed to at times to favor the male-only Masons of Wisconsin’s and, at times, the Co-Masons. She also said that Weiler claimed that Co-Freemasonry was being “thoroughly investigated” by the Northern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. Marcella recalled:

He said that the literature he had received proved nothing to him as to our validity and constantly he insisted that we were not entitled to use terminology. When we pointed out that any further questions should rightly be directed to the Very Ills.·.·. Bro.·. Armour, Mr. Weiler said that he would have the courtesy to answer her letter of September 5.

That sudden willingness on Weiler’s part to at least acknowledge a communication from the Grand Commander of North American Co-Freemasonry was an important concession and indicates he realized his position was crumbling. His next move was aimed at getting, likewise, at least one concession from the Co-Masons. Marcella Schmitt recalled in the same letter to Cook:

After we dispersed, Mr. Weiler walked out of the building with us. Although previously he spoke of the many attorneys in his Order, he said that he did not want to prosecute us, that it would be bad if Masonry were to be tried in the courts for too much about it would have to be revealed, that if we proved ourselves regular that would be a deciding factor, but we could not do so because of irregularity at its very inception – admitting women.

The Schmitts certainly had heard that canard before. Timid though they were, they could not have been impressed.

Weiler then hopped on a suggestion he and Kersten apparently made during the meeting, “that we retain the principles of our Order but  change the titles, insignia, etc. – this was their solution,” Marcella Schmitt wrote.

That was not going to happen anymore than the Grand Lodge was going to retain the principles of their Order but change the titles, insignia, etc. It was grasping for straws that Co-Masons were never going to offer.

The Schmitts walked away from the meeting with a dubious victory: “permission” from Kersten that the meetings of Amen-Ra could continue. Kersten also, finally, accepted that extra copy of Armour’s letter that Cook had the Schmitts take with them.

Neither side got everything that they wanted but the rights Co-Masons in Milwaukee had been recognized and preserved. In his letter to Armour on 18 October, Cook said the entire storm might blow over if “the Masons will just quite down.”

Amen-Ra met in October and November without issue and almost another month passed with no update from anyone, including Kersten. Marcella Schmitt wrote to the Deputy District Attorney on 13 December seeking his “assurances that we will encounter no further difficulties.”

The Schmitts received no reply from Kersten and, with Cook’s nod, decided to try again to rent the Odd Fellows Hall for future meetings. However, the rental agent for the hall informed the Schmitts that “the case has not been dropped” and the hall, for which the Co-Masons had already paid still would be denied them.[12]

That didn’t last. There is a gap in the remaining record, we can’t be sure what happened but the Milwaukee Co-Masons were eventually allowed to rent the Odd Fellows Hall for their meeting, starting in February of 1944[13].

Part of Cook’s remarks to the Brothers of Amen-Ra at their January meeting, which he attended, remain. Cook said in his 2 February 1944 letter to Armour:

I reminded them that in a sense they had run up against opposition and resentment not unlike that confronting the founders of the Order who sought to promote the interests and place of women in the affairs of Masonry and the  world. That is was in fact the same intolerance and sex discrimination that was rooted in the attitude of opposition that had temporarily stood in their way in their efforts to establish themselves in a lodge hall. That they were to be  congratulated upon having overcome the difficulty thus far, but that they should continue a vigorous fight for their rights as citizens and as Masons, if such were necessary, for they must continue to emulate the pioneers who sought to establish human freedom without distinction

As for Lodge Amen-Ra No. 584, it continues to labor in Milwaukee.

[1] See Cook’s 2 February letter to Edith Armour, then Grand Commander of North American Co-Freemasonry. Unless otherwise noted, all documents cited in this paper are preserved in the archives of the Honorable Order of Universal Freemasonry, the American Federation of Human Rights

[2] See Annette Schmitt’s 20 August 1943 letter to Cook.

[3] For Weiler’s Masonic credentials, see page 138 of “Official Proceedings of the Grand Lodge Free and Accepted Masons of Wisconsin, 2008”, available online here.

[4] Chicago Daily Tribune 10 December 1918 page 14 and his record with Milwaukee County Chaper of War Mothers of America, available online here.

[5] See editorial page of 9 September 1952 Waukesha Daily Freeman.

[6] He was raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason 12 December, 1921 in Henry L. Palmer Lodge No. 301, according to the October 2010 edition of Templegram, a publication of the Northwest Masonic Center in Wauwotosa, Wisconsin, available online here. In the remaining record, his name sometimes is spelled “Kluchevsky” but Kluchesky appears to be the correct spelling.

[7] The comment is referred to in Wycherley’s 8 September letter to Cook, which does not specify which police officer made the remark.

[8] Annette Schmitt’s letter to Ann Werth 23 August 1943.

[9] Armour’s 26 September 1943 letter to Cook.

[10] “The Very Illustrious Bro” would have been correct, which proves that even the most experienced  Freemason doesn’t always bother with minutia.

[11] This letter seems to no longer exist or at least it has not yet turned up in the archives in Larkspur. The archive does include an excerpt from that letter, which includes this reference.

[12] See 10 January 1944 letter of Odd Fellows Temple Renting Agent to Annette Schmitt.

[13] See cook’s 2 February 1944 letter to Armour.

 

 

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