London -- The secrets of Freemasonry used to be exposed in little blue books published by obsessive authors writing from obscure corners of Kansas.
The brethren once guarded the mysteries so closely that the penalty for revealing a secret was to have one's tongue "torn out by the root and buried in the sand of the sea at low water mark." Whether any tongues ever vanished beneath the surf is problematic, but the secrets prevailed.
The Freemasons here are more relaxed these days. They invite you into the inner chamber of their Grand Lodge, where they're likely to show you the worn brocade work on the arms of the throne of Grand and Worshipful Masters. Freemasonry more or less began right here.
"Because of the buckles of their aprons and, of course, they wear the gauntlets and it doesn't do the arms [of the throne] a lot of good. It scuffs them quite a lot," says Ernie Tyler, a past Provincial Assistant Grand Sword Bearer and a genial guide through the intricacies at the heart of Freemasonry.
"But, I suppose it's stood the test of time, really, since 1933," Mr. Tyler says, in a London accent not quite Cockney.
Freemasons have now become so public-relations conscious, they've even allowed London Weekend Television to film here in Freemasons' Hall for a TV series based on Agatha Christie's foppish Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. It was shown in the United States on PBS.
Freemasons' Hall, a huge, dour edifice that looks as if it was cribbed from the design for an ancient mausoleum, houses the United Grand Lodge. Built in 1933 to honor about 3,600 Masons killed in World War I, it squats heavily on Great Queen Street, roughly midway between Covent Garden and Lincoln Fields. It's the English headquarters of the Masonic "craft."
The hall is full of gilded ceilings and marbled passages, stained glass and rare woods, bronze doors and mosaic murals and enough signs and symbols to confound Umberto Eco.
"Freemasonry has been built up on symbolism," Mr. Tyler says. He's in the great cruciform Grand Temple where the symbolism starts on the floor and rises in thickening layers to the gilded sun, moon and stars cast on the blue of the ceiling.
"That symbolizes the fact that Masonry is universal," he says.
L Masonic ritual and symbolism have even entered the language.
" 'On the square' is being on the square carpet," Mr. Tyler explains, standing on the checkerboard rug, "which symbolizes light and darkness, joy and sadness, life and beauty and last, but by no means least, man's checkered history."
Freemasonry evolved from guilds of medieval masons who worked in stone and built cathedrals. Freemasons tend to suggest their craft started with Adam, or at least the builders of King Solomon's temple.
But Freemasons' Hall stands not far from where the history of Freemasonry as a secret society began when brethren got together at the Apple Tree Tavern at Covent Garden to plan the first Grand Lodge. Four lodges then met at the Goose and Griddle Alehouse in St. Paul's churchyard in 1717 and elected a grand master by show of hands: one Anthony Sayer, "gentleman."
Freemasonry spread quickly and widely even though (or perhaps because) it was condemned by the pope in the 18th century and by the commissars of communism in the 20th.
Mussolini and Hitler both persecuted Masons. Many more sane writers, commentators and historians have warned of the secret influence of Masons in business and government. Freemasonry has been accused of everything from suppressing evidence in the Jack the Ripper murders to subverting the government in Italy a few years ago.
Freemasonry, nevertheless, has had royal patronage in Britain at least since George III's brother was installed as Grand Master in 1782. The current Grand Master is the Duke of Kent.
The craft spread to America with the earliest British colonists and became independent with the United States. George Washington was initiated in 1752 in Fredericksburg, Va. There now are about 500,000 British Masons and more than 4 million in the United States.
A far bigger than life-size portrait of Washington in his Masonic regalia hangs in the Refreshment Room of Freemasons' Hall. Fourteen presidents were Masons. Ben Franklin was an enthusiastic Mason. In Paris, he even helped initiate Voltaire into the Masonic mysteries.
In the Processional Hall on the way to the Masonic Museum, Mr. Tyler says: "All this paneling here is Tasmanian blackwood -- cleaned, polished and dusted every day with great reverence by the cleaners."
The museum is a treasure trove of mysterious Masonic artifacts: Masonic crystal, Masonic porcelain, Masonic cuff links, Masonic watches, Masonic snuff boxes, Masonic cigarette cases, Masonic mugs and Masonic tankards, and an eight-gallon Masonic punch bowl from the Calcutta lodge in India.
Mr. Tyler leaves us in the midst of memorabilia of famous Masons: Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn, Buffalo Bill, Winston Churchill, Clark Gable, Duke Ellington, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin, Sam Houston, Gen. John J. Pershing, Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and Jimmy Rodgers, "the father of country music," who was a member of the John L. Spinks Lodge in Meridian, Miss.
So many articulate, talkative, songwriting, speechifying Masons, in fact, you wonder how they ever kept a secret.