Freemasonry is surrounded by intrigue. On the surface, it appears a respectable gentleman’s club: a fraternity of rituals and rites that draw their inspiration from both stonemasonry, and ancient Christian and Jewish history and texts. However, due to the secrecy, the organization has maintained, a wealth of conspiracies has been popularised.
In the modern-day, the stories of Dan Brown combine the mysteries of freemasonry with the history of the Catholic Church, in a compelling blend of action and deduction. However, the story of these two great institutions was once the subject of one of history’s great practical jokes.
Leo Taxil was unrepentantly anti-Catholic. Born in 1854 in Marseille, France, he spent his youth in a Jesuit seminary. There he learned the ins and outs of Catholicism, before deciding the faith wasn’t merely wrong but harmful to society at large.
In a series of lewd and lampooning books, Taxil satirically noted the inconsistencies and errors of the Bible, as well as denouncing Church leaders through exposes describing them as hedonistic gluttons, brimming with sexual fetishes.
Then, in 1885 Leo Taxil, a lifelong enemy of the Church, denounced the entirety of his work and converted to Catholicism. The Church welcomed him with open arms.
Five short years later, he was once again received favorably, upon publishing a series of pamphlets and books declaring Freemasonry devil worship. He reported that he had the confessions of Diana Vaughan, who had witnessed the Satanic ‘Palladist’ cult.
Diana claimed to have encountered incarnate demons, which appeared with tails or as crocodiles playing the piano. Practitioners of this cult conversed with both Lucifer and his demon hoards.
For her part, Diana had seen the light when she spoke the name of Joan of Arc, which banished the demons in terror. Despite the grand proclamations, Diana was never seen in public, but irrespective of her absence, Taxil’s books were a roaring success. Such was the belief in his story, that Taxil was invited in 1887 to an audience with Pope Leo XIII.
However, in time many came to doubt the veracity of the story. Where was the proof, went the question? Where was Diana?
To assuage the concerns, Taxil stated Diana would join him during a lecture on April 19, 1897. When the day arrived, the hall was packed, many priests in attendance. However, much to their dismay, Diana was not there. In fact, revealed Taxil to the astonishment of the room, he’d made her up. Her name he’d had taken from an amused secretary in his employ, but the rest was a fabrication.
In devastating detail, Taxil laid out the hoax. The Palladist cult, the satanic rituals, and the crocodilian demons were all part of the fun. The devil was in the details. The room was a riot of laughter and a sea of scowls. Catholics, understandably, took the news badly. Most, however, thought Taxil a genius. He closed:
You were told that Palladism would be knocked down today. Better still, it is annihilated, it is no more… Palladism is now dead for good. Its father just murdered it.
Out of the hall streamed the crowds, soaking in what they had heard. Catholics ranted, anti-Clerics chortled, some sang comedic anti-Catholic songs. Taxil would live a further decade, ever happy to discuss his devious antics, with a devilish grin. The rest, as they say, is history.