SALT LAKE CITY — When Holly T. Hansen needed information on Matthew McBlain Thomson — a colorful Scottish ancestor who actually started up his own Masonic Lodge and went to prison for mail fraud as a result — she tentatively approached the historian at the Salt Lake Historic Masonic Temple.
She was delighted to find a wealth of information on her great-great-grandfather (including a bound volume written entirely about the "Thomson Masonic Fraud") and resources that could help many a genealogist with roots in Freemasonry in Utah.
She also found a helpful friend in Aaron Saathoff, a dedicated Mason and volunteer who is a considerable resource himself.
As Hansen researched Thomson's story, she found a man who was married six times — widowed five times and left by his sixth wife — and who spoke Gaelic, was raised by his grandparents, became the sheriff in Paris, Idaho (later burned in effigy and run out of town) and founded the American Masonic Federation in 1907. After he was tried and convicted of mail fraud for setting up the clandestine lodge and selling Masonic degrees, he became the prison librarian at Leavenworth.
Because of the help she got at the Masonic Temple, Hansen was able to piece together a story of an extraordinary individual full of detail and adventure.
"They have a fascinating library here," Hansen told the audience gathered at the temple in March 2010, for an Immigrant Family History Expo. "Plan on coming and spending some time."
"We like to help," Saathoff said as he showed off the library, the various meeting and lounge rooms, beautiful artwork and antique furnishings in the 1927 building on 650 E. South Temple that is home to nine lodges and organizations including the Wasatch, Mt. Moriah, Argenta, Acacia, Progress and Kaibab lodges and the El Kalah Shrine along with the Scottish Rite of Utah and the York Rite of Utah. "We don't have a lot, but if your ancestor was a Mason in Utah we have something on him."
Saathoff has organized much of the material available. He has a big binder with histories and photos of all of the Grand Masters and books about lodge meetings and historic events. He's categorized who they were by occupation and trade (most were attorneys, one was a Pony Express rider.)
Information on Utah Masons has been collected in a card index since 1872.
Marianne Ausseresses, the office manager, can open the book vault where the 60-plus boxes of cards with thousands of names are stored.
"We have records in here of all the Masons in Utah," she said "These records are inactive; they're either dead or no longer active members. (Others) are current."
Today, the current information is on a computer database.
If people bring in their ancestor's name, Ausseresses will help them search the index for information that may include birth dates and places, death dates and occupations as well as their rank in a specific lodge or chapter.
That includes African-American Masons and women.
The most complete information was kept on the Grand Masters, who changed every year.
Lodge and Rite histories often have group photos that can include a long-lost ancestor.
"We don't keep family histories or genealogy," Saathoff said, "Except on the Grand Masters. We have pictures, journals and histories of Grand Masters from all over the world. We just need to know the name."
If a Mason is from another state, a request can be made to that lodge for information, he said. Ausseresses said protocol demands that a request to another lodge be made through her.
"We get a fair number of requests for help," Ausseresses said.
The temple is open year-round by appointment. People interested in tours, booking rooms in the temple or in visiting the library should call Ausseresses at 801-363-2936. She's available Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The building is also available for rent for conventions, receptions, social gatherings, movie backdrops and theatrical productions. Income from such rentals help pay expenses.