Jody Baker: Sherlock Holmes And Freemasonry

Saturday, August 9, 2014 - by Jody Baker

Mrs. Baynes pushed her spectacles high up over her forehead onto her head where they nested comfortably in her luxuriant hair. She put aside the book that she had been reading, but she let it remain open as she placed it upon the table within easy reach. She knew that she might need to refer to it. 

With a coquettish smile she turned to me and said, "I have just determined, Inspector, that your friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, was not very well acquainted with Freemasonry and the emblems of that organization."

"I'm not sure that I can agree with you on that," I replied. "You know, of course that the Literary Agent is listed among `The World-Famous Freemasons' in Pick & Knight's The Pocket History of Freemasonry.  I rather suspect, Mrs. Baynes, that Mr. Holmes was very familiar with Freemasonry and its symbology." 

"Well," she continued, "in the tale that I have just read, 'The Red-Headed League,' he certainly missed the mark when he was attempting to describe the emblem worn by Jabez Wilson. Look right here where Mr. Holmes infers that Mr. Wilson is a Freemason, and he then tells him how he knew that fact: '... rather against the strict rules of your order you use an arc-and-compass breastpin.'"

Mrs. Baynes continued with emphasis, "Even I know, from the mention that you have made of it, that the emblem for the Masonic fraternity is the square-and-compass; not the arc-and-compass."

I responded and sought to point out, "You are correct, Mrs. Baynes, as far as you go, but perhaps you have not gone far enough. The emblem for the Master Mason - and in fact for the Symbolic Lodge - is indeed the combined square-and- compass (or compasses as some prefer to say). And as you may read in Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry a part of the meaning and purpose of that symbolism is to serve as a continuing reminder that as Masons we must square our actions and always keep them within due bounds." 

"You make my point, do you not, Inspector. Mr. Sherlock Holmes, if he knew masonry at all, would not have referred to Mr. Wilson's emblem as the arc-and-compass. He would have said, instead, the square-and-compass. "

"But there is more," I continued. "While the square-and-compass is well known and often seen, there is no strict rule of the order prohibiting the wearing of it on a ring, or a lapel button or even as a breastpin, if one cares to do so. In fact, the identification of one with the fraternal body is encouraged by the Blue Lodge. It may be worn or displayed in any decent, honourable and appropriate manner." 

"Holmes was wrong there too, wasn't he?" she pressed.

"No. He was not wrong on that point, either." I then explained, "The arc-and-compass is not the emblem of the Master Mason (or third) Degree. It is the emblem, or jewel, of the  Knight Rose Croix, which at one time constituted the 18th degree of the Rite of Heredom and is now most familiarly associated with the 18th Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry." 

Looking once more to Mackey's Encyclopedia, I pointed Mrs. Baynes to page 873 and explained: "Here we see depicted the English Jewell of Rose Croix Knight which is, in fact, a compass-and-arc.”

You may note, Mrs. Baynes, that it does, in fact, hang from a breastpin and ribbon in much the same fashion as some of the medals and decorations of our are military worn." 

I then read aloud from Volume 2 of Mackey's monumental work:  "Although there are as many as six well-known Rose Croix Degrees in as many systems, the jewel has invariably remained the same, while the interpretation has somewhat differed."

I continued, "No, Mrs. Baynes, Mr. Holmes was not in error when he referred to the arc-and-compass as a Masonic emblem and when he deduced from it that Mr. Jabez Wilson was a Freemason. His remark and his deduction show not ignorance of the order but, rather, they show an intimate knowledge of some of the more refined aspects of the fraternity." 

Mrs. Baynes seemed pleased to have added this item to her storehouse of knowledge. There was a bit of pride in her voice as she said, "Then what we may deduce from this is that Mr. Holmes not only knew about Freemasonry, he knew much more about it than many of his followers suspect."

"Let there be no doubt about that."

"But,” she added, “what about the `strict rules of the order' that Mr. Holmes referred to when he said that it was against the strict rules of the order for Mr. Jabez Wilson to be wearing the jewel as a breastpin?" 

I smiled and told her that there were some aspects of Freemasonry that I was not permitted to discuss outside of a Lodge meeting.  Frankly, I was glad to have that secrecy as a shield, because I didn’t have the foggiest as to how to answer her question.

Inspector Baynes

(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at

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