The Masons of Maryland will be so busy Saturday they'll probably have to take a break from plotting world domination. Surely they'll already have found somewhere to temporarily hide their collection of human skulls and satanic pentagrams.
That's because the Freemasons, or Masons for short, are preparing to unlock the doors of their lodges on Saturday for a rare, statewide open house — in part to dispel some of the mythology that has risen around the group in novels, movies and conspiracy theories.
"I always joke we have to send those skulls out to be burnished," Stephen J. Ponzillo, head of Maryland's Masons, said as his members spruced up and readied some 80 buildings for the open house. "We'll show you our part of the national treasure."
These days, Masonic leaders such as Ponzillo need a sense of humor and a fairly thick skin. They're regularly fictionalized in movies such as "National Treasure," in which Nicolas Cage seeks a secret stash supposedly hidden for years by Freemasons, and in novels such as "The Lost Symbol," in which Dan Brown gives the organization the full "Da Vinci Code" treatment, beginning with an opening scene in which an initiate drinks wine from a skull.
The Masons also have been subject to the dark mutterings of conspiracy theorists, who believe that the group, along with the likes of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, is part of a shadow global government working toward the so-called New World Order.
Saturday's open houses, in which lodges will welcome visitors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., are part of a recent effort by Masons to take back control of their image, and to attract new and younger members to an organization whose membership has declined over the years as part of the same "Bowling Alone" phenomenon that has seen other social clubs and civic associations shrink. From a high of more than 4 million Masons in North America 50 years ago, there are now about 1.5 million.
But if Masons have experienced the same drop-off in membership as other fraternal organizations, they remain unique in the lore and suspicions that still surround their group. When, after all, was the last time you heard of anyone seeing the Elks or Moose behind a global conspiracy?
Freemasonry, by contrast, carries the whiff of a mass-market Skull and Bones, the secret society at Yale whose members' tendency to rise to positions of power also draws attention from the conspiratorially minded.
Much of the misconception about Masons, of course, stems from the Masons themselves, what with their secret handshake and their mysterious symbols and rituals. The group, which traces its origins to a guild of stonemasons in the Middle Ages, says the secrecy is merely an allusion to that history, when workers traveling from town to town in search of building jobs needed a way to identify who was a member with the proper knowledge and skills.
"It's a mystique that they largely encourage," said Worcester Polytechnic Institute historian Steven C. Bullock, who has written about the role of Masons in the American Revolution. "But it's a double-edged sword."
As Masons rose to power — members have included George Washington, both Roosevelts and 11 other presidents, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, auto magnate Henry Ford and showman Cecil B. DeMille — their secrecy raised suspicions that they were a cabal of puppetmasters in control of politics, business and, well, everything else.
Some began seeing Masonic symbols everywhere — in corporate logos, the Great Seal of the United States or even the "all-seeing" eye on the back of a dollar bill — and taking them as evidence of the group's power and influence.
"People started saying, 'What's going on here?'" Bullock said. "People look at the Freemasons, and they're trying to figure out how the world works. … The Freemasons are powerful, and they're everywhere, but they're also local. So it seems scary."
But even as Masons seek to present a more open face to the rest of the world, they risk losing too much of what distinguishes them from Rotarians, Jaycees and other civic groups.
"People are intrigued by the intrigue," acknowledges W. Scott Hannon, a Baltimore lawyer and a member of the city's last remaining Masonic lodge, No. 184 in Highlandtown.
Hannon, a former Marine intelligence officer, was drawn in himself by the secrets but has stayed for the sense of community he felt with members from different generations. At 46, he is considered "new blood" in a "very geriatric" membership, he said, and is in line to become his lodge's leader in a couple of years.
He became interested in the Masons after his military career took him to such conflict zones as Kuwait and Bosnia. In those places, Hannon says, he saw how organized religion can get drawn into political conflict, which made the Masons' nondenominational bent — it requires members to believe in a supreme being but doesn't specify which — an attractive option.