By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
A fraternal organization whose origins are purported to stretch back to ancient times, FREEMASONRY has a storied history of secrecy and is often accused of wielding influence over whole societies and governments.
The first recorded evidence of the Freemason initiation comes from the diary of Elias Ashmole. On October 16, 1646, Ashmole wrote of a ceremony held in Warrington, Lancashire, England (History). Since there were Masons to run Ashmole’s initiation, he was not the first English Freemason. The movement developed until, 87 years later in 1733, the first American lodge was founded in Boston (Feuerherd).
Once anchored in the colonial northeast, Freemasonry quickly expanded to all the colonies. Following their European brethren’s tradition of “plotting against royal governments”, American Freemasons “became known for promoting Republican virtues of self-government” (Feuerherd). Since these values, along with the Masons’ vitriolic opposition to the Roman Catholic Church complemented the contemporary American ethos, Masonic influence expanded in the fledgling American government. During the Revolutionary War, it is estimated that as many as 21 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as George Washington and 32 Continental Army generals were Freemasons (Rafael de la Cova, 11).
Shortly thereafter, this widespread permeation proved detrimental to the movement. Like many secret societies, the Freemasons have contended with countless rumors and salacious texts written to demonize their secretive practices, some of which have led to violent persecutions. Perhaps none so famous nor destructive as the Morgan Affair.
In 1826, William Morgan, an alleged drunkard and vagabond, was paid by David Cade Miller, a local Batavia newspaper publisher and fellow “disgruntled” Freemason, to write an expose on the traditions and rites of the Freemasons called The Craft.
In order to prevent the exposé from being published, local Freemasons arranged for Morgan’s arrest on trumped-up charges of “theft and the nonpayment of a loan” (Masonic). This situation enabled unknown conspirators to kidnap Morgan, who was never seen again. It is unknown if Morgan survived or was killed by his abductors.
Undeterred by this extra-judicial action, Miller published the exposé and whipped up a national anti-Masonic fervor. Tensions rose so high that the governor of New York offered a large reward for information on Morgan’s whereabouts.
One Masonic tradition revealed through the Morgan affair was the use of “Chapter” or “Mark” Pennies (Wright, 7). Freemasons used these tokens as a system of identification for their members. Custom-made for each Masonic lodge, these medallions were presented to new brothers at their initiation and represented their acceptance and participation in the Masonic brotherhood. The new brothers would then engrave their marks on the pennies.
Mark Pennies are somewhat uncommon since they are “sacred token of the rites of friendship and brotherly love” as espoused by the Freemasons and it is uncommon for brothers to “part with them in their lifetime” (Wright, 7).
A descendant of the tessera hospitalis used by ancient Romans (a physical mark of friendship and hospitality between a traveler and their host), Mark Pennies used symbols to secretly announce Masonic brothers to each other, similar to modern-day Challenge Coins used by various units in the United States military.
Struck in copper, bronze, and silver, these Masonic tokens are usually the approximate size of a large US penny; in fact, many of their designs include that denomination. Mark Penny designs range from simply including a keystone; the letters “HTWSSTKS”, which represent the “ancient Grand Master”; and identifying information of the local lodge (Wright, 7) – all the way up to more artistic and complicated variations. There are many permutations of the Mark Penny design, of which a standard example can be seen below.
The two “tools of action” portrayed on the reverse of this Mark Penny, a chisel and a mallet, are central to the Masonic order.
The chisel denotes discipline and education. Its metaphorical use enables the Mason to “precisely remove” excess material, whether it be on a sculpture or a building stone (Chisel). In doing so, the chisel “presents to view the latent beauties” each stone possesses, just as “education discovers hidden virtues and draws them forth” from people’s minds (Wright, 9). This tool symbolizes discipline and perseverance and is used to motivate each brother to “devote himself to the continual process of learning” (Chisel).
Mallets hold even more significance than the chisel for Freemasons. They primarily represent authority and executive power and are the symbols of the higher Masters, similar to the gavels used by judges. The second level of symbolism invested in the mallet is the strength needed to “correct the irregularities of temper” (Wright, 9). Masonic teaching states that by using the metaphorical mallet to remove any psychological “excrescences” in our minds, we are able to build a more perfect “temple of Nature” that will allow us to live a cleaner and simpler life (Wright, 9).
The most recognizable Masonic symbol, the square and compass, does not appear on many examples of Mark Pennies. Only one specimen that depicts the compass and square, below, is included in the first and second editions of Dr. B. P. Wright’s definitive catalogue of Masonic Chapter Pennies printed by The Numismatist in 1901 and 1903, respectively. This symbol is central to the self-reflection and moral character espoused by the Freemasons. A combination of two tools, the compass and square used to draw circles and right angles, is used to teach a Mason to “circumscribe his desires and keep his passions subdued” and to “square his actions by the square of virtue and live uprightly before god and man” (Wright, 9).
Some Mark Pennies reflect the mythological origins of the Masonic brotherhood more than others. The example below was produced as an imitation of a Jewish shekel. By reproducing this ancient coin, Masonic lodges were drawing on the emotional and mythological connections between the Freemasons and the ancient Temple of Solomon.
Another design choice is the irregularly shaped planchet. While purely an artistic choice, it does lend the Mark Penny a slightly more interesting quality.
While the main reason these Mark Pennies exist is to visually identify Masonic brothers to each other, they also serve to remind Masons of the fundamental ideals of Freemasonry. However, there are several examples that depart from this precedent that, while numismatically interesting, are a little nonsensical. Unlike the imitation shekel Mark Penny, which is a physical representation of the Masonic effort to connect with their ancient mythic past, several pieces draw on completely irrelevant numismatic history.
One such example has a crude imitation of a generic obverse from the ROMA type Roman Republican denarius, as seen below. While not the height of numismatic design, this Penny is a relatively faithful reproduction of the ancient design and hardly deserves a description as an “ugly head” (Wright, 45).
Another Mark Penny, shown below, has an even more peculiar obverse image.
The main field displays a Persian inscription taken from a 1789 Sicca Rupee from Shah Alam that reads “Struck in the seven climates by the shadow of God’s favor. Sha Alam, Mogul disciple in the faith of Mahomet”. One author derides the use of this numismatic design and claims that this idea must have been conceived in the “ungaugeable abyss of ignorance” (Wright, 44).
While a bit hyperbolic, the author does have a point, as this design holds no relevance to the Masonic order at all. Including the term “denarius” on the reverse is another numismatic mistake since the obverse image is of a silver rupee. Dr. Wright delves deeply into the symbolism of the letter “A”, which is used as part of the phrase “A Denarius”. His analysis traces the letter “A” from modern-day Latin to the Early Hebrew pictographic script, and in a twisted fashion proves that the letter belongs on the token – all despite the fact that the original designer was probably not thinking of the historiography of the letter and simply meant A denarius, as in a singular denarius.
Since these pieces of exonumia rarely feature mintage dates (the years included in the inscriptions are usually the incorporation dates for the local lodge), they are hard to pin down chronologically. One effect this has is to keep the values of such tokens relatively low. Worn examples can cost as little as $3, average circulated specimens can be had for $10, and fully uncirculated versions can be bought for $30. Rare, dated examples from the late 1700s and early 1800s, along with other special Pennies, can be worth $200 or more.
Due to the sheer number of Freemasons, there are many easily acquirable examples of Mark Pennies. But because each lodge strikes a very limited number it can be quite difficult, if not impossible, to locate specific examples.
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Feuerherd, P. “The Strange History of Masons in America“, Jstor Daily. August 3, 2017.
History of Freemasonry. United Grand Lodge of England.
Masonic Stories: The Morgan Affair. Universal Co-Masonry.
Rafael de la Cova, A. “Filibusters and Freemasons: The Sworn Obligation”, Journal of the Early Republic, 17(1), 95–120. (1997)
The Chisel (No. 1; Masonic Study Series, p. 3). (2016)
Wright, Dr. B. P. Masonic Chapter Pennies (Vols. 1 & 2). (1903)
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).