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A FEMALE FREEMASON
THE MASONIC REVIEW - 1858
It is generally known to the Craft that Masonry has had the honor of numbering among its members one woman; but few, however, especially among the younger brethren, are acquainted with the facts of this unique and anomalous case. We have been requested to publish what is known in regard to it, that the curious may be gratified and the facts placed within the reach of all. We comply with the request with great pleasure; merely remarking, however, that this case gives no countenance to the system of female Masonry, alias, side degrees, unfortunately so prevalent and popular in some localities at the present day. The lady who became a freemason was a genuine one; her Masonry was legitimate and ancient, and such as would be recognized in any part of the world by a legitimate Mason, "But have you not told us heretofore that no woman can be made a Freemason?" We have, and now repeat it. Yet the case before us is sui generis; it has no parallel; it stands alone in the history of the Order from the remotest antiquity. It grew out of necessity, and that, it is said, "knows no law:" rather, it rises above all law and bends it imperiously to its purpose. The Lodge was compelled to initiate the lady, or submit to consequences fatal to the interests, possibly to the existence - of Masonry in that region. But let the facts speak for themselves. Unfortunately the documents as within our reach do not furnish the exact dates of the events referred to, but they occurred during the last century.
Eliza St. Leger was the daughter of Arthur St. Leger, Lord V. Doneraile, and Baron Kilmeaden. Her father was descended from an ancient Irish family of distinction, and the virtues of a noble ancestry seem to have been transmitted to his daughter, for she is represented as eminent for the goodness and purity of her heart, as she was for the solid and brilliant powers of her mind. She was married to Richard Aldworth, Esq., of Newmarket, in the county of Cork, a highly respectable and ancient family, long celebrated for their hospitality and other virtues, and now deriving additional honor from this lady's having been the only female who was ever initiated into the Ancient and Honorable mystery of Freemasonry. How she attained this honor, we shall now lay before our readers.
"Lord Doneraile, Mrs. Aldworth's father, who was a very zealous Mason, held a warrant in his own hands, and occasionally opened a Lodge at Doneraile House, his sons and some intimate friends in the neighborhood assisting; and it is said that never were the masonic duties more rigidly performed, or the business of the Craft more sincerely pursued, than by the brethren of the Lodge in which she was initiated.
"It appears that previous to the initiation of a gentleman to the first steps of Masonry, Mrs. Aldworth, who was then a young girl, happened to be in an apartment adjoining the room, usually used as a Lodge room; this room at the time undergoing some repair and alteration - among other things the wall was considerably reduced in one part, for the purpose of making a saloon. The young woman having distinctly heard the voices, and prompted by the curiosity natural to all to see somewhat of this mystery, so long and so secretly locked up from the public view, she had the courage with scissors to pick a brick from the wall, and actually witnessed the awful and mysterious ceremony through the two first steps. Curiosity gratified, fear at once took possession of her mind; and those who understand this passage, well know what the feelings must be of any person who could have the same opportunity of unlawfully beholding that ceremony, let them then judge what must be the feelings of a young girl! She saw no mode of escape but through the very room where the concluding part of the second step was still performing; and that being at the far end, and the room a very large one, she had again resolution sufficient to attempt her escape that way, and with light but trembling steps, and almost suspended breath, she glided along unobserved by the Lodge, laid her hand on the handle, and softly opening the door, before her stood the Tyler with his drawn sword! Her shriek alarmed the Lodge, who all rushing to the door, were informed by the Tyler that she had been in the room during the ceremony. It was then immediately proposed that she should be regularly initiated; this she agreed to, and they conducted the beautiful and terrified young creature through those trials which are sometimes more than enough for Masculine resolution, little thinking they were taking into the bosom of the Craft a member that would afterwards reflect a lustre on the annals of Masonry.
"Mrs. Aldworth is said to have possessed that construction of countenance which may not claim the appellation of beautiful; but a remain air of dignity, to which the benevolence of her hear and sweetness of her disposition gave a character irresistibly attractive, more than compensated the deficiency. It was a countenance that gave encouragement to the unfortunate to put in their petitions, and assurance that their distresses would be alleviated; having however obtained the foregoing particulars from persons who only knew this lady in the last years of her life, what she might have been in her youth, we can only collect from her portrait which, though taken at an advanced period, still retains, if not the resemblance of beauty, the traits and lineaments of, a fine countenance, only a little shaken and defaced by time.
"Though the memory of Mrs. Aldworth's beauty may have passed away, which in a long life of eighty years is no improbable conjecture, though the bloom and charms of the young St. Leger may be sought for in vain in the countenance of our benevolent sister, the almost divine character which it pleased heaven to stamp upon her uncommon mind, has left so many memorials behind, that to doubt this part of her history must indeed be blind incredulity.
"The truth is, her heart and hand, ever open to the sufferings and to the claims of sorrow and distress, almost prevented supplication by their promptitude to relieve, nor let it be supposed that this spirit of beneficence circumscribed a circle round its action, or confined its influence - no; for though her brethren in distress had the first claims on her liberality, it was not the less open or the less bountiful to the unenlightened. Best of women, mother to the motherless, friend to the friendless, benignant and generous soul who from the bosom of affluence didst hear the wretch's cry, and fly from the table of luxury to bear comfort to the hovel of wretchedness and wipe the unobtrusive tear from the eye of retired misery. In the active gratification of her hospitable and benevolent heart, she did not neglect the other duties of the Craft; she was, as far as she went, a most exemplary Mason, and has presided as Master of her Lodge, which she headed frequently in masonic order of procession, and it was her custom on those occasions to precede the Lodge in an open phaeton. Her liberality to Masons it is unnecessary to dwell upon, one of whom in distress never turned his back upon her magnificent and hospitable dwelling unrelieved. One circumstance, before we conclude, deserves notice, as it is a handsome lesson to those who boast the superiority of manly discretion and understanding, yet err in this particular. Mrs. A. had such a veneration for Masonry, that she would never suffer it to be spoken lightly of in her hearing, nor would she touch on the subject but with the greatest caution, in company even with her most intimate friends, whom she did not know to be Masons; and when she did, it was under evident embarrassment, and a trembling apprehension lest she should, in a moment of inadvertence, commit a breach of masonic duty. Thus lived this pattern of female excellence, we had almost said of human perfection, dispensing, like a principle of good, comfort and happiness to all around her, till He who gave, thought proper to call her to participate in the joys of His eternal kingdom. Her death, it is said, was occasioned by the imprudent administration of laudanum in a slight indisposition."
A print of the day in noticing her death, says:
"On Monday last, died at Newmarket in this county, the Hon. Mrs. Aldworth, the wife of Richard Aldworth, Esq., M.P. She lived to the age of eighty, and such were the effects of her early education, and her own happy disposition, that from her infancy perhaps there passed not a day which might not have been distinguished by some one act of her benevolence or charity. She lived for the most part of her time in the country, in the midst of tenants to whom her house afforded the most cheerful hospitality; the meanest of them, when their wants required it, had access to her, and when the indigent or sick called on her, she never failed to dispense her favors with bounty and humanity, which a large fortune enabled her, and a still larger soul induced her, to bestow. Indeed, Heaven seemed to have appointed her guardian of the poor, whom she relieved without ostentation. She possessed the fairest sentiments of religion, and spent her last hours without the least pain; her mind being quite disengaged from a world in which she did her own duty, whilst the tears and lamentations of thousands about her expressed their feelings for their kind benefactress."
We hinted above, that it was impossible to give the exact dates of Mrs. A's initiation. Her father died in July, 1727, and his eldest son succeeded to the title and estates. Mrs. A. was the youngest child of her father, and was born about the year 1713. It is settled on very substantial testimony that she was initiated in Lodge No. 44, under the Grand Lodge of Ireland. The Warrant for that Lodge was issued in 1735, and the best authorities among our English brethren agree that her initiation took place about the year 1739. Her brother, Lord Doneraile, was present - the Lodge being held in his house in the country on that occasion, as it was sometimes by right - although its permanent location was in the town.
As she had, unknown to the members, and in the way already described, witnessed the ceremonies of the first two degrees, it is not probable that she ever passed beyond the degree of Fellow Craft. The masonic jewel which she wore is still extant, an engraved likeness of which we have examined. The face of it is covered with masonic emblems: in the centre is the Holy Bible, open, with Square and Compasses resting on it, and the eye of a Craftsman will at once discover the insignia of the F. C. From this fact, and the additional one that the third degree was then rarely given except at Grand Lodge, or after long service, it is presumed she never passed beyond that point in masonic progress.
We have now given all that is known concerning this singular case. The necessity for her initiation rose above all masonic law, and cannot therefore be pleaded in justification for the initiation of others of the sex.
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