Devil in a Red Fez

The lie about the Freemasons lives on.

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When the ribald French journalist Gabriel Jogand-Pages walked into a Paris church in April 1885 and told a priest he'd been divinely moved to rediscover the Catholicism of his birth, you'd think he would have been laughed out of town. Jogand-Pages--better known by his pseudonym, Leo Taxil--was founder of France's Anti-Clerical League and Freethinkers Society. He'd edited popular church-bashing magazines like Down With the Clergy! and authored pornographic books such as The Pope's Mistresses. And Taxil had a personal ax to grind with Rome: He'd been successfully prosecuted by the church for libel, though he managed to avert a prison sentence. "Taxil had so many enemies," says William Harman, a religion professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, "that I'm amazed he was able to walk around freely."

All of which makes the church's decision to welcome him back into the fold look pretty imprudent. But there he was, in 1887, gushing to Pope Leo XIII that his bliss was so complete upon their meeting that his dearest wish was to die then and there. Just a few years earlier, he'd accused the pope of poisoning people. But the church had practical reasons to forgive Taxil. Post-revelation, he aimed his bogus exposes--this time with the church's endorsement--at another institution: the Freemasons, a fraternal order dating to the Middle Ages. Europe's growing circuit of Masonic lodges posed a threat to Catholicism; Masons promoted individual rights and, at least in theory, accepted non-Christian members. To Taxil, a secret brotherhood begged for "illumination."

Beginning in 1884, Taxil turned out roughly a dozen books--some longer than 1,000 pages--that painted the Freemasons as Satanists. His invented accounts of Masonic rituals included a "Mistress of the Temple" who worshiped "holy Lucifer" as the "only true God." The pulp fictions sold in the hundreds of thousands and spurred translations in English, German, Italian, and Spanish.

Afraid of targeting nearby lodges, Taxil fabricated an entire cast of far-flung Masons. His most popular creation was Diana Vaughan, a member of a fictitious group of American Freemasons called the Palladian Order, whose inner workings she described in her autobiography. "Her Luciferian origin and principles," Taxil wrote, "were shown . . . by the devils who attended her and through whose aid she made excursions to Mars." Such accusations were eagerly imbibed by a public wary of the secretive and politically progressive Masons.

Taxil's spawn. His writings didn't affect Freemason membership numbers--many French freethinkers publicly denounced Taxil as a fraud. But he did inspire others to craft ever more sensational accounts of the Mason-Satan connection. Antisemitic contemporaries recalibrated his rhetoric for their own use. "It's obvious that whoever wrote the first version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was directly influenced by Taxil," says Bill Ellis, author of Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media.

Taxil's work informs today's extremist Christian literature as well. Chick Publications, which distributes Christian tracts, offers a short comic strip that calls Masonry witchcraft and fezzes (worn by the Shriners, a subset of Masonry) "idols dedicated to a false god." It even refers to Albert Pike, a real South Carolina Mason who was caricatured into a Satanist by Taxil. In his 1991 bestseller New World Order, evangelist Pat Robertson implicated Freemason "occultism" in a supposed international financial conspiracy. And a Mississippi group called Ex-Masons for Jesus brands the order a "pagan religion."

Taxil himself had no intention of aiding any Christian cause: He wanted to embarrass Rome. After promising to present Diana Vaughan to the public in April 1897, he instead used the occasion to reveal himself as a fake and to thank the church for its gullibility. "Palladism, my most beautiful creation, never existed except on paper and in thousands of minds," he told a crowd of 300. They were incensed, but Taxil had once more outwitted his audience: He had requested that all umbrellas and canes be checked at the door.