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Saint Vincent professor's tale of colorful London family, Freemasonry proves truth is stranger than fiction

Mary Pickels
| Thursday, June 21, 2018, 8:35 p.m.
Susan Mitchell Sommers, Saint Vincent College history professor, dove deep into history, secret sect lore and a family who aspired beyond their working-class London roots for her new book, 'The Siblys of London.'
Mary Pickels
Susan Mitchell Sommers, Saint Vincent College history professor, dove deep into history, secret sect lore and a family who aspired beyond their working-class London roots for her new book, 'The Siblys of London.'
Saint Vincent College history professor Susan Mitchell Sommers' newest book is 'The Siblys of London,' described as a microhistory of a family of nonconformist shoemakers.
Mary Pickels
Saint Vincent College history professor Susan Mitchell Sommers' newest book is 'The Siblys of London,' described as a microhistory of a family of nonconformist shoemakers.
Ebenezer Sibly's trade card, describing his services including his 'great accuracy in demonstrating future contingencies.'
Mary Pickels
Ebenezer Sibly's trade card, describing his services including his 'great accuracy in demonstrating future contingencies.'

More than 30 years ago, while working on her doctorate, Saint Vincent College history professor Susan Mitchell Sommers came across an interesting tale involving Freemasonry and, particularly, the Sibly family.

Her new book, "The Siblys of London," published by Oxford University Press, is testament that truth really is stranger than fiction.

"It's straight up actual historical biography," says Sommers of New Stanton.

"Born into a family of nonconformist shoemakers, Ebenezer Sibly became a leading Freemason, involved in the development of the Royal Ark Mariner and Knights Templar degrees," she says.

Sibly also was a "quack purveyor of Dr. Sibly's Re-Animating Solar Tincture, a medicine that would supposedly bring the newly dead back to life," Sommers writes.

His brother, Manoah Sibly, becomes a pastor who is scandalized by his brother's "serial bigamy" and other, well, colorful antics/criminal behaviors, readers will learn.

Deceitful and deviant

"One of the things that I found, it was just so fascinating that I squirreled it away, was that in 1790, in the town of Ipswich (England), they were holding a parliamentary election. And (Ebenezer Sibly) came into town and set up a fake Masonic lodge and got as many voters to join as he possibly could," Sommers says.

After enjoying some of the perks of membership, the new recruits learn they are expected to vote for their "brother," who is running for parliament.

"And it worked. ... I knew it was fake, because I knew that wasn't really what Masons did," she says.

"In order to prove that this was not how it worked, that this was fraudulent, I had to learn a lot about Freemasonry. And so the more I read the more I was able to put his life together. Ebenezer Sibly was a very strange man, a very interesting man," she says.

His interests included alchemy and astrology and magic, she learns.

Her decades-long research gave the self-described "secular" Sommers enough material to write a book.

Sommers reached out to other scholars with specific specializations for their expertise.

"I got to meet all kinds of fascinating people all over the world who have spent their lives becoming the expert on really obscure, esoteric things. I was just so thrilled, because that meant I could write a good book, but I didn't also have to become an expert," she says.

Family aspirations

In his pursuit of social stature, Ebenezer bought a medical degree, not uncommon or illegal at that time, Sommers says.

As Ebenezer Sibly is "stealing elections," she says, Manoah Sibly becomes one of the first Swedenborgian ministers.

Although they appear to be opposites, the men published works on astrology together, before an apparent falling out, likely over Manoah's involvement with his church.

"It was just a fascinating story, to find this sort of working class family sensing the winds of change and taking advantage of it," she says.

The Industrial Revolution was coming. Shoes no longer would be made by hand.

Yet Ebenezer and Manoah both make names for themselves, and both become men of some stature, she says.

Making a case

"Ebenezer actually was a Freemason. And there were actual Freemasons in Ipswich. What I argue in the book is that (what he created) was a trial run for a new degree, a new order within Freemasonry," she says.

Not much later, genuine Masonic lodges are found in England, and Sibly wrote their earliest manuscript rituals.

She later learns that after Ebenezer leaves Ipswich, his followers burn him in effigy.

"He took the lodge funds and left town. He's such a crazy character," Sommers says.

Freemasonry did not necessarily suffer negatively from Sibly's actions, nor from Freemason Thomas Dunckerley's — Sommers also is author of "Thomas Dunckerley and English Freemasony," published in 2012 — who falsely claimed royal blood but was well-respected among Freemasons.

And members of the royal family were Freemasons, adding to its respectability.

"I have to throw in here: Masons say, and they are telling the truth, that Freemasonry is not a secret society," she says.

Technology and opening up

As Freemasons realized they had a "public relations problem," Sommers says, information in archives and libraries became more available.

She conducted much of her research in person while traveling abroad professionally.

She also acknowledges — cautiously — the benefit of technology in acquiring information.

Sommers advises her students, she says, that as a source, the "internet can be dangerous."

Academic audience and beyond

"These last two books, I think they're a fun read," Sommers says. She believes they will appeal to both academics and to those interested in history, biography and Freemasonry.

Sommers recently delivered the first international annual lecture of the Philotecton Society with the support of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of Greece and its lodges in Athens.

She is a Royal Historical Society Fellow and chairs the Westmoreland County Historical Society board of directors.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.

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