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Cousin Billy and the Freemason Plot

By Lawrence Sullivan  

Copyright © 2003 by Lawrence Sullivan, All rights reserved


     You know you're pathetic when the most famous person in your family tree is no closer than a fourth-cousin, several times removed. 

     As near as I can figure, that's my kinship with William Jenkins Worth (1794-1849), hero of three wars and the man for whom they named both Fort Worth, Texas,  and Lake Worth, Florida. Not to mention Worth County, Georgia.

     Tourists strolling along Worth Square at Broadway and Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan can glance at Gen. Worth's grave and towering granite monument and ask themselves, "Who in the world was this guy?" 

     Well, for starters, he was a fourth-cousin of mine, three or four times removed (the family tree is missing a branch or two).

     Our lines split after a common grandfather, John Worth (c.1605-43), who died during an extended siege of the walled city of Plymouth in the English Civil War. 

     And, if my Cousin Billy's battle scars and military awards aren't enough to impress you, he was the guy who almost led an invasion on Cuba by a few thousand soldiers of fortune 110 years before the Central Intelligence Agency thought of doing it.

     He also belonged to a Masonic order. That's important, oddly enough.

     The story of international intrigue, final chapter in Worth's distinguished military career, is described by Antonio de la Cova, professor of Latin American studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, IN, in a treatise entitled "Filibusters and Freemasons: The Sworn Obligation." The article, quoted at length below with the author's permission, appeared in the spring 1997 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic, published by the Department of History at Purdue University.

     De la Cova writes that Worth, just home from winning the Mexican War, was approached by a group of disgruntled Cuban exiles who figured he had just what they needed - military expertise -- to help them oust the Spanish colonial rulers in their homeland.

     They had previously launched several "filibuster invasions" of the island, using mercenaries outfitted and paid with private funds, but all had failed. They felt a military commander who knew what he was doing might make a difference.

     Oddly, they viewed Gen. Worth not only as a comrade in arms, but also as a fraternity brother. Most of the filibuster leaders were Freemasons and relied extensively on ties to the international fraternity to accomplish their goals.

     De la Cova points out there were precedents for such a conspiracy. In 1810, Louisiana Freemasons led a revolt against Spain that proclaimed the Republic of West Florida, an area later annexed to their state. And most of the leaders of the 1836 uprising that drove the Mexicans out of Texas were Freemasons, including Stephen Austin, Samuel Houston and David Crockett.

     The professor says Freemasons also were behind failed attempts at Cuban insurrection in 1810 and '23, as well as a coup attempt in Spain in 1840. He describes the plot in which Gen. Worth was snagged:

     A group of Cuban Freemasons and former independence conspirators created the Havana Club in the spring of 1848. Its members were mainly aristocrats and sugar planters, some of whom partly feared that the abolitionist policies being pressured on Spain by England and France would ruin Cuba's sugar economy.

     The organization agreed to hire five thousand American Mexican War veterans to invade the island and overthrow the colonial regime.

     … [In August] the Havana Club sent Ambrosio José Gonzales, a 29-year-old college professor educated in New York City, to propose their invasion plan to …  Worth.

     Gonzales found Worth in Newport, RI, and used international ritualistic signs, code words and a secret-grip handshake to identify himself as a brother Freemason.

     On behalf of the Havana Club, Worth was offered three million dollars, of which $100,000 would be for himself, to invade Cuba with five thousand American volunteers.

     Gonzales claimed that Worth gave him "perfect credence at the outset," and accepted his proposition. …

     Before the plot hatched, however, the War Department transferred Worth to Texas, where he died of cholera shortly after his arrival.

     Continuing the plan without their fallen leader, the plotters assembled some 400 men later that summer on an island off Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. When word of the planned invasion reached President Zachary Taylor, however, he shot them out of the water with a few strokes of his pen.

     Calling the planned assault a "criminal invasion," Taylor ordered a naval blockade to pin the men on the island, then allowed them to disperse over the next two months without being arrested.

     The unhappy expatriates, with continued help from fellow Freemasons worldwide, hatched similar plots again in 1850 and '51, but Cuba would remain under colonial rule until the Spaniards were rousted nearly half a century later in the Spanish-American War.

     Ironically, among those who eventually got the job done was Worth's only son, William Scott Worth, also a career military officer. After being severely wounded in the renowned charge on San Juan Hill, he was promoted to brigadier-general and retired.

     Getting back to his father - my fourth-cousin, several times removed, you may recall - he was the son of Thomas Worth, a whaling ship captain of some renown, due mostly to his violent death. He was slain, nearly beheaded with an ax, during a bloody mutiny aboard his ship in the South Pacific. But that's another story.

     William Worth, born at Hudson, NY, lost his mother as a small child and was 18 when his father was killed. Having received what they called "a common school education," he was working as a clerk in a wholesale mercantile firm when the War of 1812 broke out. He applied for a commission, was made a first lieutenant off the bat, and eventually became an aide to Gen. Winfield Scott.

     Commendations for gallantry at the Battles of Chippewa and Niagara won him brevet (temporary) promotions to captain and major, respectively, in 1814.

     "Between wars," his most important post was as commandant of cadets at West Point from 1820-1828, though he himself had never attended the school. He was promoted to full major in 1832, about the time he helped roust the Cherokees from their native lands in the southeastern states and drive them to reservations in the West.

     He had risen to the rank of colonel by the time he was ordered to Florida in 1842 to bring an end to the Seminole Wars. He again distinguished himself, notably at Palaklaklah, where the Indians were decisively defeated. Worth's reward: promotion to brevet brigadier-general.

     At the outbreak of the Mexican War Worth was second in command to Gen. (and future President) Zachary Taylor. He conducted the negotiations for the capitulation of Matamoras and then was entrusted with the assault on the Bishop's Palace at Monterrey.

     Breveted major-general in the fall of 1846, he subsequently participated in, among other actions, the Siege of Vera Cruz, the Battles of Cerro Gordo, Contreras and Churubusco, the storming of Chapultepec Castle, and the assault and capture of Mexico City.

     Published accounts that Worth, on horseback, led his victorious troops into the capital and personally cut down the Mexican flag that waved from the National Palace sound too good to be true.

     Mexican annals, at any event, record that the formal surrender in the capital took place at about 1 o'clock in the morning and the Stars and Stripes was hoisted atop the National Palace for the first time at the break of dawn. 

     When the shooting and parading were done, Worth came home to take command of the Department of Texas, with headquarters at San Antonio, but died a few weeks later, a victim of the worldwide cholera epidemic of 1849.

     And that, as you might imagine, cut short his plan to raid the island of Cuba and pocket a cool $100,000 - worth in today's inflated dollars nearly $2 million.


     I recently received an e-mail from a gentleman named Lawrence Sullivan, calling attention to an error in my my article about General William Jenkins Worth.  As we swapped a couple of e-mails, I was delighted to learn that he is a self-described "fourth cousin, several times removed" of General Worth and that he had written an account of one of Worth's final ventures.  

     I asked to include his article as a very special feature of Rovin' and Ravin'.  He agreed, and since I had been casting about for some way to celebrate the fourth anniversary of these columns, I can think of nothing more festive than sharing Sullivan's quirky tale with you.  As you can see, he shares some very special party favors with us, a couple of period graphics: a  portrait of General Worth (above) and an illustration (left)  from a brochure on the dedication of the General's tomb in 1857. You can get an up-to-date view of the tomb elsewhere.  (Scroll down the page.)

      I hope you'll  extend a little southern hospitality to Lawrence Sullivan, a retired journalist in Glasgow, Kentucky, who writes,  "I am an Air Force veteran who edited the newspaper on a troop ship returning from the Korean War and so enjoyed the job that I went on to study journalism at Michigan State University. Spent 35 years as a reporter and editor on several newspapers, including The Washington Post, New York Newsday and The Detroit News, before retiring to a lakeside baby farm in southern Kentucky. When not tending a small zoo of pampered goats and donkeys, for the amusement of our granddaughters and neighboring children, I seek out genealogical and historical stories worth telling."

     He writes that he considers himself "extremely fortunate" to be able to write for his own pleasure.  You can click on his name in the copyright notice to send him an e-mail to let him know that we are extremely fortunate to have him writing for our pleasure as well. To get in touch with your resident rover and raver, just click on my name.   Keep your feet dry, as always, your heart full of noble thoughts, and (even if you have to stretch a branch or two) your family tree full of interesting folks.  Michael Segers    -   Back to top


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Note on the Masons

Michael Segers


     One could probably tell the  history of the United States, perhaps even of Western Civilization, in the history of the Masons.  Nowadays, they are esteemed as community leaders with a commitment to a variety of charitable and educational causes, but Freemasonry is hardly regarded as the political and intellectual force that it once was.  

     Many of the founders of the United States were Masons, and often one of the first signs of civilization in early communities in the United States, after the churches and schools, was the Masonic Hall (as shown in the Agrirama in nearby Tifton).  My grandfathers and my father were Masons, but my brothers and I have let that family tradition lapse.  As this article makes clear, Freemasonry had an international scope that made it, ironically, a mirror of the Roman Catholic Church, which opposed it.  

     At The Oldest Masonic Website in the World, you can find a virtual library of Masonic sources.  Elsewhere on the Internet, you can access a British magazine, Freemasonry Today.   -   Back to article

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