On June 19, 2020, in Washington, D.C., Black Lives Matter protesters performed a by-now-familiar ritual, destroying a monument to a Confederate general—indeed, the only Confederate general so honored in the nation’s capital: Albert Pike.

“Who?” many asked. Pike was no Robert E. Lee. He ignominiously lost a minor battle in 1862 and spent the rest of the Civil War in an Arkansas log cabin. Pike had been commemorated, it soon emerged, because he was a leading Freemason. Yet some of the reaction on Twitter also revealed that the Pike statue had a very strange alliance of enemies. A “GOP Senate foreign policy adviser” tweeted that he was an “occult, Luciferian Freemason.” A self-proclaimed anarchist called him both a “luciferian Freemason” and a “co-founder” of the K.K.K.

White supremacist, Freemason, and Satanist: Albert Pike, as both myth and reality, is one of the more unusual characters populating my new history of Freemasonry, The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World.

Degrees of Initiation

Freemasonry, which counts among its ranks fourteen American presidents, Benjamin Franklin, Buffalo Bill, and Buzz Aldrin, has rites of initiation, known as Degrees, at its heart. With their secrecy, blindfolds, and rolled-up trouser legs, the Degree rites can seem very suspicious to outsiders. But, in essence, they are miniature allegorical dramas with a moral message. Freemasons draw a galvanizing sense of collective identity from performing and undergoing their rituals. Indeed, they are so enthusiastic about them that, over the centuries, they have invented hundreds. The Scottish Rite is the most complex and prestigious system of Degrees; it culminates, as readers of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol know, in the revered 33rd Degree. Despite its name, the Scottish Rite began its history in 18th-century France and was elaborated in the United States.

The Brooklyn Royal Arch Masons, Chapter 138, re-enact the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, 1956.

Albert Pike became a legend for Freemasons by performing the immense labor of codifying these rituals. Much of the secret of his success lay in the flamboyant costumes he designed. For example, for the 30th Degree, which bestows the status of Knight Kadosh, the initiate wears a white tunic, a cape in scarlet-lined black velvet, a broad-brimmed hat with a red ostrich plume, and yellow Moroccan boots decorated with gold lace.

Even in the arcane world of the Freemasons, however, Pike is a divisive figure. Indeed, many Freemasons were glad to see his statue destroyed.

White supremacist, Freemason, and Satanist: Albert Pike, as both myth and reality.

Freemasonry was founded in Enlightenment London. Among its key values is tolerance between different races and faiths. Uniquely, however, in the United States the brotherhood has been divided along racial lines since 1775. On the one side, there is a white tradition; on the other, the Black “Prince Hall” tradition, named for its founder.

Albert Pike was a white supremacist: “The negro in his best condition is still in his appetites and instincts a wild beast,” he wrote in 1859. After the Civil War, he remained determined to keep his Scottish Rite “uncontaminated” by “the leprosy of negro association.” There is no evidence to suggest that Pike was a K.K.K. leader, but he was certainly a fellow traveler. He envisioned a “more efficient” white-supremacist secret society than the Klan, an Order of Southern Brotherhood that would work in the shadows to exclude Blacks from the legal system.

Yet Pike’s notoriety does not end there. In Europe, the Catholic Church saw him as a satanic anti-Pope. In Paris in 1885, the journalist Léo Taxil created a sensation by claiming to be a penitent Freemason who would reveal the evil secrets lurking in the Masonic lodges. Over 12 years, he published exposés of such shenanigans as séances where crocodiles played the piano while Masons’ heads revolved and the goat-headed devil Baphomet materialized. The worldwide Masonic conspiracy was coordinated from Charleston, South Carolina, by Pike using a black-magic telephone called the Arcula Mystica. Leo XIII assured Taxil that he had read every word of his books, and urged him to carry on his sacred mission. Unfortunately for the Church hierarchy, Taxil eventually announced it was all a hoax. But the Pike-as-Satanist myth was just too captivating to die.

When Masons erected the Pike statue, in 1901, they said they were honoring him as a brother and not as a Confederate. It was a disingenuous claim, at best, and a provocative gesture of white dominance at worst. Today’s Scottish Rite has a lot of thinking to do about its cult of Albert Pike. The Scottish Rite’s HQ, the House of the Temple, is a shrine to the man’s memory—his ashes are buried in the walls.

Pike’s story contains many of the ingredients that make the global history of the world’s most famous secret society so curious and compelling. It testifies to the extraordinary power that secrecy and rituals have to bind men in brotherhood, and to generate suspicion. It is also a poignant example of what happens when some of our most sacred ideals, such as tolerance, run up against the reality of prejudice. Finally, it demonstrates our irresistible hunger for conspiracy theories.

John Dickie’s The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World is out now from PublicAffairs