Shaved corpses, polygamy/polyandry, alleged mobs with possible torches, Masonic secrets, and nineteenth-century politics: this story may not have everything, but it contains enough weird elements that it really ought to amount to a conspiracy. Instead, it reads more like an historical shaggy dog story.
William Morgan was born in Virginia in 1774; at some point in his life, he became involved with freemasonry. In 1819, he marrried 16-year old Lucinda Pendleton; they would later have a son and a daughter. Morgan operated a distillery in Canada for the next four years; a fire destroyed that business in 1823, and the family returned to the United States. In 1825, Morgan apparently received the York Rite Royal Arch Degree. However, when he tried to join a new chapter in Batavia, New York, they disputed his credentials and refused to admit him.
At this point, he began to work on an exposé of the Masons, supported by David C. Miller, publisher of the Batavia Republican Advocate. The Masonic rites and secrets had been published years earlier in Europe, but his Illustrations of Freemasonry may have been the first such exposé to appear in North America.
In 1826, he experienced legal troubles-- trumped up, some claim, by high-ranking Masons. He was arrested for the theft of a shirt and a tie, and acquitted, and then re-arrested over a small debt. He would be held for one night at the Canandaigua Jail, and then disappear.
According to some accounts, people affiliated with the Masons kidnapped him from the jail and took him to Fort Niagara. Some give the kidnappers torches; it's a nice touch. He was held for several days; some claim he was tortured and murdered. Others say he left the country, with financial encouragement from the Masons. Still other professed witnesses claim he simply drove away from the jail, by himself, in a horse and buggy. Several Masons would eventually be charged in connection with his death. All would be acquitted. Some people felt that a number of legal officials in the region who had ties to the Masons brought about the acquittals. Whether or not this is true, the Anti-Masonic Party and other opponents of freemasonry certainly used the man's disappearance and the acquittal of his alleged murderers to great effect in their propaganda.
In October of 1827, a body washed ashore at Lake Ontario's Oak Orchard Harbor. Lucinda and others eventually identified the body as Morgan's, though she did not recognize the clothes and the corpse itself must have been badly decomposed. Shortly thereafter, a Canadian woman, Sarah Munro, identified the body as belonging to her own missing husband, Timothy. Later still, witnesses claimed that an anti-Masonic politician, Thurlow Weed, had shaved the corpse to more closely resemble the cleanly-shaven Morgan. Like the overwelming majority of information connected with this case, the last claim cannot be confirmed. It does seem a little far-fetched.
Lucinda, in any case, maintained that her husband would not have left her, and she became involved in the anti-Masonic movement. In 1830, she married George Washington Harris (born 1780: Lucinda obviously had a thing for older men), a silversmith who also had identified the 1827 corpse as Morgan's. The newlywed Harrises moved to Terre Haute, Indiana sometime later, where they became Mormons and close friends of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. While still married to Harris and long before the Mormons announced the doctrine of polygamy, Lucinda allegedly became the prophet's second wife. All of this would seem to have little to do with Morgan himself, but conspiracy buffs frequently see some connection.
In 1932, a Masonic historian named Thomas Knight claimed that Morgan in fact fled Fort Niagara for Boston, and later died in Smyrna, Turkey. Yet another Mason, Cameron Ashby, claims on the basis of correspondence to the husband of Morgan's great-granddaughter that our man settled in the Honduras. Others place his afterlife closer to New York, in Montreal, Quebec or Port Hope, Ontario.
Whether or not Freemasons murdered William Morgan cannot now be determined. Certainly, he is at this point long deceased.
A monument to William Morgan stands in a graveyard near Batavia, New York.
Other William Morgans of note include William Morgan (1545-1604), Welsh translator of the Bible, William G. Morgan (1870-1942), inventor of volleyball, and William H. Morgan (1834-1878), officer under Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War.
Cameron Ashby. The William Morgan Incident. http://www.nellislodge46.org/william_morgan_incident.htm
William Morgan. Illustrations of Freemasonry. (1827). http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/captmorgansfreemasonrycontents.htm
James J. Theriault. The Morgan Affair. http://www.kinghiramslodge.org/morgan.html
John. E. Thompson. "The Mormon Baptism of William Morgan, Anti-Mason." http://www.lds-mormon.com/morgan2.shtml
D.T. Zangara. "The Morgan Incident." Mastermason.com. http://www.mastermason.com/cny-masonry/morgan.htm
"The Morgan Affair." http://www.masonicinfo.com/morgan.htm