Thomas Wildey’s Life and Love of Odd Fellowship

Today, January 15th, is “Thomas Wildey Day” in honor of his birthday. In celebration, we are sharing a reprint of his biography from the 1878 “History of American Odd Fellowship : The First Decade by James L. Ridgely. One of the original quorum of five in Baltimore, and co-author of the Degrees and Ritual that set the IOOF on a different path from the Manchester Unity. This is considered the most in-depth character portrait of IOOF founder, Thomas Wildey.


Within the oyster’s shell uncouth
The purest pearl may hide:
Trust me, you’ll find a heart of truth
Within that rough outside.
-Mrs. Osgood.

Of all tasks, that is the most difficult which proposes the reproduction of an individual who has left the world.  Supposing such a feat possible, it is after all not the man himself, but only the image he made in the mind of the producer. Art may copy his features and his form; eyewitnesses may testify to his words and actions; even the interior may be indicated by the sentiments and motives which he professed, or the manifest tendency of his actions; his “works that follow him” would seem to be the surest test, but these may be fallacious, unless one could know why he did them.

Pride, vanity, prejudice, envy, bigotry, or the half insanity of eccentricity, may have been the producing causes. Man is an enigma when seated at our firesides and eating at our tables: how much more so when he is absent and only presents himself at second hand! Besides, there are but few artists who, like Boswell, devote a life to the subject and thus produce a masterpiece.  It follows that of all productions, biographies are the worst. They are mostly written by friends who are naturally partial; and a blind preference is sometimes more injurious than an open enmity.

Eulogy is often so recklessly applied as to form a mask which any person might wear, and is nowise indicative of the individual beneath it. Such things have been, and will be ad nauseam. But readers now require some attempt at literary photography, and critical exposition is the demand of the age.  It insists upon knowing, who and what was the man; his gifts, whether natural or acquired; his dispositions, habits, forms of thought and motives, and all those things that go to exhibit the living person. The time is passing when one can dress up a human being as an allegory, and present him as a mere collection of physical and moral attributes.

Flesh and blood are now necessary to form a man, even in the pages of biography. It will not do to say he was wise, without a specimen of his wisdom; that he was good, without the visible tokens of goodness; that he was great, unless his claim to the title is made good by actions worthy of the name. Readers expect to be told why such things are asserted, and especially to be informed of that in which his eminence consisted, as distinguished from his weaknesses or his vices; for they no longer look for perfect character, but expect to see, when the veil is lifted, where the clay in the image is joined to the superior material.

In the central figure of the Trio in our picture we hope to be successful in presenting a living man, of mixed and curious workmanship indeed, but in his lineaments a man of character and capacity, who required but the place and the motive to develop qualities which have always made leaders of mankind.


The subject of this memoir was a personage of such a character as to require peculiar treatment.  Curiosity has been busy with him, and cannot be said to be in any manner even tolerably gratified.  His station was so little elevated, and his private life so uneventful, as to leave him much in shadow.  True, he was known to many now living; but even they were not admitted to the knowledge of his private walks, or to witness those home scenes which more than any other indicate the man.  He was at all times reticent, or entirely silent, about himself, and his solitary life gave no glimpse into the obscurity of his domestic secrets. He was manifestly of humble extraction, and might be ranked one remove above a common laborer.  He signed himself “Coach-Spring Maker”, but his fellow-craftsmen knew him better by name of “Blacksmith”.

His early years were passed in England and at his maturity we find him in Baltimore. His appearance was striking as a specimen of a true John Bull, with the bluffness, sincerity, and pluck of that nation.  With a mellow voice and a hearty grip, he never failed to win all comers in a jovial company. The man was restless and full of vitality, and nothing could repress the animal vivacity which was always breaking out in frolic and humor. At times, indeed, he was serious, and that was always when was always when he saw human suffering, and he ran eagerly to relieve it.  It is said, when the yellow fever raged in Baltimore, Thomas Wildey was constant in his efforts to assist the sufferers. He gave medicines and money, and nursed and watched the victims when many fled from the contagion.

His friendship was rarely given, but when granted, became a sacred thing to which he bowed with lowly reverence.  Of education he had little or none, save what came to him by social intercourse; his knowledge of books was scanty, but no one in his station had better discernment of men.  His judgment was quick and excellent, and his ready mind grasped a good suggestion and never failed to make it his own. In his sphere be was always the arbiter, holding sway over his equals by his will and humor, and even among his superiors passing for a man of vigor and capacity.  Such was Thomas Wildey when he had just attained his 37th year, in the early part of 1819.

Thomas Wildey was born in the city of London, on the 15th day of January, 1782, in the reign of George III, at the close of our Revolutionary War.  At five years be went to a parish school, and left it at the age of fourteen, to learn a trade.  Judging from his attainments, the school must have been inferior or the scholar dull and negligent.  His indentures called for the trade of a “coachspring maker”, at which he served his time, and came forth a skilled workman.  He pursued it as a journeyman for a number of years, in many of the towns of England. In the year 1817 he married, and soon after embarked at Liverpool for the United States, and arrived at Baltimore early in the month of September. But before leaving home he had been prominent among mechanics, not only as a workman, but in their class enjoyments.

Coach Springs

Among these, perhaps, none ranked higher than those which were pursued by the so called Odd Fellows. On his coming of age he became an initiate of Lodge No. 17 of that Order, in the city of London, and served in every capacity, from the humblest to the highest office; at an early day he was presented by his brethren with a silver medal, as a token of regard for valuable services.  After three years devoted to No. 17, his zeal led him to enlarge the sphere of the Order. He found a distant suburban locality, and in a short period caused the institution of Morning Star Lodge, No. 38. He was unanimously chosen its first presiding officer, and during his membership of ten years, was called upon twice afterwards to fill the same chair. It will thus be seen that the first thirteen of the years of his majority were spent in the active work of Odd Fellowship.

The Manchester Unity was not formed until 1809, and Wildey became an Odd Fellow in 1804; so he, must then have been connected with some one of the independent organizations which afterwards formed the Unity.  The particulars of his labors in England have never been given, beyond what we have detailed.

On the 30th day of July, 1817, he bade adieu to his native land and embarked for America; he reached the city of Baltimore on the 2nd of September following, and sought and obtained employment.  Business was stagnant and money scarce; the war just over, had crippled all kinds of trade, but he was master of his craft, and found work when many others were neglected.  Subsequently he is found on Harrison Street, Baltimore, with a partner, as coach-spring makers; afterwards he was on one of the wharves, a coal dealer; off and on he kept an eating-house, to which his love of company disposed him; and latterly he was a market gardener, and last of all a farmer with a capital.  In 1818 he made the acquaintance of John Welch, a house and ship painter, an Englishman, who had preceded him to this country. These two were naturally much together as fellow-countrymen, and never tired in recurring to men and scenes in the old world. A year had cemented this intimacy, when a new feature was added to it.  They discovered that each of them had been an Odd Fellow, and the mutual surprise was quite agreeable.

Early ribbon reads “Thomas Wildey PGS (Past Grand Sire) of the United States”


The story is told by Wildey in a fragment of three written pages, which is too rude in structure for general perusal.  We did intend to insert it exactly as he set it down, but on reflection have concluded to improve it by the necessary revision.  Speaking of himself, he says: “In the year 1818 he made many acquaintances; among these he was familiar with a Mr. John Welch, with whom he was afterwards intimate until his death.  Wildey often spoke to his new friend on the subject of beneficial societies, and was surprised to learn from him that no such association existed in Baltimore. In reply, Wildey suggested that he knew of a society which would suit this country, and mentioned the name of the Odd Fellows.  Welch carelessly remarked that he had been a member of that Order, but had never met with one, or heard of such a society since his emigration. By mutual admissions, it was found that Welch had been a P. V. G. in Birmingham, England, and Wildey had been initiated in that country in the year 1804.  Wildey often thought on the subject, and finally concluded to publish a notice for a meeting of such Odd Fellows as might be residing in the city. For this purpose he sought Welch and induced him to join in the call.”

He then details the subsequent proceedings and the incidents of the first informal meeting.  He says: “Pursuant to notice, the preliminary meeting took place on the 13th of April, 1819.  Four gentlemen were present, with Thomas Wildey, making five in all.  He examined them, and was satisfied that they had been regularly initiated into the Order.  Wildey then informed them of his intention to establish the society of Odd Fellowship, and craved their assistance for that purpose.  He also stated that no such society was known in the city, and of course there was no organized arrangement to relieve the distressed, or to care for the widow and orphan.  And further, that the citizens to whom he had presented the subject did not wish any such society. That the name of the lodge should be Washington. This was consented to, and it was agreed that the lodge should be opened on Monday, the 26th of April, 1819.

The 26th of April arrived, and at 7 o’clock P. M., Thomas Wildey proceeded to open the lodge.  He, first of all, took his obligation in the presence of the other four, and then obligated them; calling the society the Washington Lodge, No. 1, of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in the United States, the Father of our country, God bless him! A day which will long be held in grateful remembrance by every Odd Fellow.

Seven Stars Tavern, Baltimore, MD

We have given the substance of the paper, including its general arrangement and statements, but the original indicates an entire want of literary cultivation.  Yet, as good-natured critics, we have found much to praise in the strong common sense which pervades the article. We particularly notice his use of the English aspirate of the middle and lower classes.  But we have inserted these memoranda for a special purpose. We wish to do equal justice to all. Wildey spent ten years in making addresses and writing letters, many of which are of acknowledged excellence.  We wish to give honor to the authors of these productions; to award their due share of merit to those without whom the matchless force of Wildey would have been exerted in vain. For they fixed the principles and gave color to the movement, and; sowed the seeds of the modern era, with its lofty purposes; purposes then daringly uttered, but now the current annals of history.

Wildey’s anxiety to be known to posterity by a separate and distinct narrative, was undoubtedly great.  Such a memoir would have gratified him above measure. With his usual decision he began the task, with the assistance of a certain John Starr, who is elsewhere mentioned.  He did not seek better help, which might have had; but with a timidity unusual with him, sought to have it done without consulting his ordinary advisers. This attempt is engrossed in a bound blank-book, whose back bears the printed title, “History, &c., of the I.O.O.F. in U. States, from 1819-1834.”  The contents are in a clerkly hand, and in good English, but the matter is condensed, and in form without special interest; with an addendum of copies of letters, rough sketches of his medals, &c. But he was not satisfied; hence he began a sort of autobiography, by his own hand, a rude fragment of which, only remains.  Before writing a single chapter he desisted.


The enterprise made little progress for several years.  Like all such efforts by humble and obscure beginners, it had to struggle against disfavor, apathy, and a want of confidence.  Wildey, the leader, could bring to its aid no friends in high places, no collateral influence or patronage. It was self-dependent and alone, and had to rely upon its intrinsic excellence.  But its success was to be found in the daring energy of the unlettered blacksmith. When he met with associates to form a lodge of Odd Fellows, it was his opportunity. It appealed to an irresistible passion of his nature.  He saw his favorite pursuit about to be reduced to the regularity of a duty; his select comrades secured to him, his irregular rambles replaced by a fixed habitation for his pleasures, his strange landlords for a responsible and responsive Host; and above all, the petty headship of an accidental meeting, by the chair and leadership of a permanent society.  He loved excitement, and was easily warmed into a glow of feeling; no ordinary misfortune could affect his spirits, which were always hopeful. He lived in constant motion, and was never quiet, unless when sick or asleep; his appearance was the signal for activity, and dullness and stupidity never could exist in his presence. It was always bustlebustleand a kind of perpetual motion wherever he went, and yet it was in form orderly.  His sense of a certain kind of decorum was very keen; order was the rule of his life, but it was the order of precedence rather than of manners. He had the English idea of class and degree engrafted on his character so firmly that it was a passion; thus his devotion to lodge rank and degree, which could never brook either question or censure.

Folk-Art Prop Wildey headstone used during the Initiatory Degree

He had another incentive; an instinct, yet undeveloped, led him to enjoy mystery.  The Order had given him a grip and password, and these affected his imagination as giving dignity to, the proceeding.  At bottom he was a devotee of secrecy; it had a charm that led him on, as will be shown, step by step, until it overcame in that strong nature the inferior appetite itself.  As, the society slowly advanced, he rose with it, and always as the leader. As it took on solemn form and affecting ceremony, no man was more captivated by their charms than the bluff chairman.  His rugged nature was large, and found ready room for new impressions.

His worship of mystery made him a fit priest to preside at the decorated altars. No boy was more bewildered and delighted with fancy’s story than this man, who was as natural as a boy in his love of the marvelous.  To him the crowns and miters of the officers were real, and the gavel and title of Noble Grand and Grand Master gave full assurance of splendid rank and supreme authority. The legends of the ceremonies were to him veritable history, and thus a kind of supernatural importance was attached to the doctrines and duties they enjoined.  He came to believe in them with the simplicity of a child, but with the will of a giant; and here we may find the secret of that devotion which made him great. Thus he was sincere; he never doubted the enterprise, or that it was worthy to succeed.

Those who saw him in the lodges were always impressed by his earnestness and enthusiasm.  He was every inch a presiding officer; full of courtesy, but commanding implicit deference. In the performance of his duties he was full of dignity; his face was lighted up with intelligence, and he was deft and precise in every arrangement. All who met him in public were satisfied that he was in love with his work, and had undying faith in his mission.

That mission in his mind was twofold. First, to become the founder of a great Order; secondly, by that Order to spread fraternity over all the world: the former was fully born, the latter beyond mere assertion was but nascent. Yet as supplementary of the former he gave it every endeavor, but we are assured that the result was astounding even to him. Yet not so of the initial idea, for in fancy he was in 1822 a famous man.  His own importance he never underrated, but from the first day was the father and the founder.

This idea possessed him to the exclusion of ordinary motives:  for this he re-crossed the ocean, and strove for and obtained a separation from the Unity; for this he painfully traveled by slow coaches and over bad roads, a visitor to states and cities, seeking for proselytes; for this he spent laborious days and sleepless nights devising plans, and wasting his small property for means to sustain the enterprise.  Subjugated by that idea, even his strong will could become supple, and allow him to use the arts of diplomacy.

He often felt himself unequal to the, intellectual wants of the rising institution; and new demands came in the need of additional mental aliment in the system. Around him were men his superiors in that direction, but he did not hesitate; his haughty spirit bent to ask assistance, and be sat at their feet for the lessons he should impart to others.  And in this he was fortunate, for his fellows were workmen unknown indeed in literary circles, but more than able for the task.

Again the same idea bowed his iron will, and stayed his despotic energy at every stage where change and strategy were required by the changing times and events of the period.  In all critical junctures his sure eye found the counselor for his purpose, and once found, all his imperial faculties were united to drive on in the new direction.  He was never wasteful of his money, but when he saw the Order in want, it stirred his very bowels and made him sick at heart.  At such times he came forward with his all, and his credit in the bargain. If the Order lacked a place of meeting, he turned out his household to give it shelter.  If it wanted a messenger, his response was, “Here am I”. On all sides he spread around it his protection and affection as the child of his very soul. This was the more intensified, because he gave himself to no other fixed employment.

This was his business—all else but temporary expedients. No wonder his associates gazed on him with astonishment and gave him the pre-eminence. He had purchased it with his money, deserved it by his labors, conquered it by his zeal, held it by his prudence, and indeed owned it as such men are the natural owners and chieftains among others; for in him was that native force that defies and subdues all competition.

We have not detailed the personal affronts put upon him by press and people, which were numerous, and often full of vindictive malice.

One notable instance will serve as a sample. The whole matter is set forth in the report of the committee of which G. Secretary Ridgely was the chairman, and may be found in the Journal 127-8.  This action overwhelmed the slanderer; he inserted in his paper a full retraction and ample apology, and the matter was dropped. But we shall not proceed further in the relation of that which sheds no light upon Wildey’s character.  Further details are unnecessary; his name was beyond the reach of calumny, and all such efforts recoiled upon his persecutors.

When he retired from office in 1833, he saw that success was certain.  At that period he had instituted four lodges in Maryland, organized the “Grand Lodge of Maryland and of the United States”, and originated the Patriarchal Order; he had extended the institution to Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, Ohio, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Delaware, and saw them all united under the present Grand Lodge of the United States.  The Order was no longer in the hands of one man, or of a few men; but the vigorous offspring, obeying the law of nature, was escaping from paternal control, and entering upon a life of self-reliance and independence.

The dominion he had gained and the power he had exercised, in the very nature of things, were slipping from his grasp. The hour of his official abdication had arrived when he should resign the scepter, and place the crown on the brow of a successor, in the line of those great Odd Fellows who were to spread the fame of the Order over the whole earth.  There was no decay of his faculties, and no diminution of his activity or zeal; but the day of personal government and single efforts had passed away, to give place to an era of organization and associated effort, far beyond the capacity of any single individual, no matter how greatly assisted by personal magnetism or upheld by sympathizing confederates.

This point in his history he could not foresee; but when he realized it he bowed to the necessity, and with a dignity worthy of the occasion, and a solemnity which truly reflected the emotions of his soul uttered a “Farewell Address”, and descended from the chair of Grand Sire to mingle in the ranks of the brotherhood at large.  This scene rises before us as a great event in the life of Wildey, then but fifty-one years of age, and in the prime of a manhood which but few could match.

Of all his pioneers of 1819, not one was at his side: Entwisle had died early, Welch had sought other associations, and of his later helpers, Williams had deceived him, and the rest were scattered and gone.  Two alone were present who sat in the early councils: Scotchburn, of his own nationality, who entered the G. Lodge of Md. and of the U. S., November 22, 1822, and Mathiot, who was initiated early in 1823, and who was now G. Secretary. All the others were new men to him, and of far other sort than his first companions. These were the organizers who had come in to take up the work where he should lay it down, and gratefully writing his name upon it as upon a precious cornerstone, build thereon a World’s Temple to Fraternity, which would alike perpetuate his labor and his fame.

In that celebrated assembly there were in all ten persons, including the G. Sire, viz.: Thomas Wildey, M. W. G. Sire; Thomas Scotchburn, R. W. D. G. Sire; Augustus Mathiot, R. W. G. Secretary; Thomas Morse, W. G. G.; George Keyser, Rep. of Maryland; John Pearce, Proxy of New York; Howell Hopkins, Rep. of Pennsylvania; James L. Ridgely, Proxy of Ohio; Samuel Lucas, Proxy of Louisiana, and Simon Robinson, Rep. of Delaware.

We may imagine the effect of an adieu delivered by such a man to such an audience, and even at this distance of time, be sensible of a feeling that he was speaking to us also in that touching perforation:  “Farewell, my brethren, and permit me to tender to you, individually, my most affectionate regard and best wishes for your continued health, happiness, and prosperity.” Of all who heard that farewell of the Founder, but one, the youngest of the group, survives, and he alone can say how deeply it stirs his soul when he looks first at that and then at this — the men of 1833 and the men of 1878— the trust committed to the former by Wildey, and the grand result of today in the splendid spectacle of American Odd Fellowship.


It will appear elsewhere in this history that Wildey did not confine himself to Maryland.  We have already told of his first travels in 1823, when in a few months he planted the Order successively in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.  With the charter for Massachusetts in his hands, he passed through Philadelphia and New York, and having instituted Massachusetts Lodge, No. 1, and the G. Lodge of Massachusetts, he returned to put the same machinery in motion in New York and Pennsylvania.  For his expenses he received but a trifling sum, and paid into the treasury seventy-five dollars as the charter fees of the new Grand bodies. The expenses could not have been less than three times the amount awarded him, the balance coming out of his own pocket.

From that hour he assiduously labored until he saw those bodies united with that of Maryland, in a separate G. Lodge of the United States in 1825. But this did not satisfy him so long as his Order was only in name independent. He was present as G. Sire at the session of April, 1826, and presided over the body with his usual capacity, in which but one elected Representative had, as yet, found his way.  To this meeting came a message from the parent body in England, with the present of the Patriarchal Degree.  It was thankfully received, and the G. Lodge adjourned. Wildey was no doubt reminded by this incident of the relations of the American to the English brotherhood, and an idea big with consequences flashed into his mind.  With him, to see an advantage was at once to improve it. Suddenly, he, who never missed a meeting, was absent, rumors were afloat that he was doing something for his brethren at some distant place. But July came, and with it came the G. Sire, fresh from a trip to the mother country.

It seems that he reached Manchester on the 17th June, 1826, having had a passage of twenty-one days from Baltimore to Liverpool.  With his usual good fortune he obtained all that he wished, and was the subject of astonishment at his daring by the English brethren.  They hailed him with enthusiasm as the father of Trans-Atlantic Odd Fellowship. He again embarked, and, after many hardships, landed in his adopted country.  As soon as he could recover from his fatigue and pass around among the lodges, inspecting the work and cheering the brethren with his presence, he assembled his associates and told them the story of his visit.  He had in the interim effected the diplomatic success of his life. He produced and read to them the new charter, which gave them independence, character and power. He alone had made the venture, and he had succeeded.

With no credentials but the reputation which preceded him, and no endorsement from his Order, or petition from his Grand Lodge, he grasped the prize, and laid at the feet of the G. Lodge of the United States, not yet twenty months old, the crown by whose authority the whole of America was rendered independent.  It was a free gift from the Manchester Unity to Wildey, and it was a free gift from Wildey to his brethren; he did not insult their poverty by speaking of expenses, but paid out of his own purse every dollar of the outlay.

When G. Sire he bad also improvised the annual movable committee, and although but one report of its labors was made and it utterly failed of its purpose, yet it no less called out his personal exertions, which again led him to Massachusetts and New York, where he did all that man could do to prop up those falling jurisdictions.  We find him afterwards in 1832 making a pilgrimage to the Mississippi valley and planting the Order in New Orleans. He stops by the way to cheer his brethren in Pittsburgh and in a few days is found in Cincinnati, visiting and instructing the lodges, and providing for opening an Encampment. He stops also at Louisville, and arranges here to open a lodgeon his return.  After ten days’ passage from Louisville he reaches the Crescent City, and in that far distant locality accomplishes the object of his journey.  He forms a G. Lodge and opens an Encampment on the 15th of January, 1833, for Louisiana.  He then turns back and opens the first lodge of Odd Fellows in Kentucky; still returning, he institutes the G. Lodge of Ohio on the 7th of February; and having left behind him as a fiery train the burning enthusiasm he had borne to the brethren, he returns with happy alacrity to Baltimore.

Again, in 1833, be visited New York, and left no effort untried to rouse that jurisdiction from its apathy.  On the 4th of July he visited New Jersey, and having reconciled every difference in that State, he located its G. Lodge and opened an Encampment.  Still yearning for Massachusetts, he again treads her soil and invokes all his energies. to overcome her apathy. Returning, he finds the Order in Rhode Island disbanded, but zealously infuses new life into the brethren and brings them together.  Having granted a charter to New Jersey, he is again among them, and on the 31st of August opens the G. Lodge of that State.  These were his missionary labors when he held the office of G. Sire; we are here confined to the outlines, the particulars would fill a volume.

In 1835, by the request of his successor, he again visited Boston, to revive, if possible, in that noble city, the expiring embers of the Order.  There, with P. Grand Wood, afterwards, the heroic pioneer of Rhode Island, he again called together the Spartan band yet in the field to retrieve the fortunes of the day. But the hour of that splendid jurisdiction was not yet, and it was not until 1842 that Massachusetts began her present career of greatness. Having visited and labored at all the intermediate points, including New York, he returns again to work in his subordinate lodge and in the G. Lodge of Maryland.  In 1837 he was sent to Richmond, and on the 16th of August he opened an Encampment in that city, having on the 20th instituted the G. Lodge of Virginia and installed the officers.

On the 3rd of October of the same year, on motion of Rep. Ridgely, he was made Travelling Agent of the G. Lodge of the United States, and accepted the appointment.  In March, 1837, we find him again at Pittsburgh; he passes thence to Wheeling, and through the interior of Ohio, and again makes his way to Cincinnati. Accompanied by the G. Lodge of Ohio, with a band of music, he embarks and makes a triumphant entry into Louisville.  In his progress he reaches Natchez on the 25th of April, establishes a lodge and forms an Encampment.  Before leaving he also institutes the G. Lodge of Mississippi.  He again enters New Orleans and imparts instruction to the lodges.  Afterwards, entering Alabama, he opened an Encampment in Mobile, and provided for the institution of Mobile Lodge, No. 2.  When at New Orleans he granted a charter for a lodge to be located in Houston, in the republic of Texas; the first lodge opened in a foreign land by authority of the Grand Lodge of the United States.  On his return he institutes a lodge and an Encampment at St. Louis, and opened the G. Lodge of’ the State of Missouri. From St. Louis he goes to Alton, opens there a lodge and Encampment, and in a few days institutes the G. Lodge of Illinois.  Still moving on, he visited Mineral Point in Wisconsin, and added to the Order a subordinate lodge and an Encampment. But why particularize? He multiplied himself in every direction as a very apostle of fraternity, building up the cause, and imparting new life to every aspiration of the new-born organizations.

All his acts in the premises were duly confirmed by his principals, as marked by a wise discretion and in every way for the good of the Order.  By this time the Order had spread so widely and had grown so rapidly, that it was no longer necessary to travel into the States; application followed application and lodge followed lodge in so many directions, rising up to crown his labors, that even he was satisfied to sit down and witness the grand uprising.

Although he had now attained to and passed all the honors and distinctions which the Order could confer, and was no longer invested with the robes and prerogatives of office, he did not, as men generally do, throw off as a worn garment his interest and regard for his early love, although, in so far as the continued prosperity of the Order was concerned, he might thus have done.  There still remained a few of his early co-laborers in the vineyard, and he had raised up spirits kindred to his own, whose character, talents, and devotion to the institution offered the amplest security for its safety. But no ephemeral ambition for monetary fame, or popular applause had supplied incentive to his love for the Order; self had no agency in giving impulse to his generous heart:  on the contrary, all his efforts, all his offices and toil, were self-sacrificing from first to last.

Throughout his whole career as an Odd Fellow, private interests, health, comfort, and worldly advantage in all its forms were surrendered freely and nobly upon the altar of the Order he loved and cherished with a devotion that never wavered, and which, as age advanced upon him and infirmities crept on, became more and more intense.  By virtue of his honors, as P. G. Sire, he was under the constitution a member of the Grand Lodge of the United States, but, representing no particular constituency, he enjoyed no vote. He was nevertheless ever at his post, performing active service upon committees, and during a period of thirty-six years was never absent from his seat in that body, however distant its place of meeting from his home, except on three occasions, on each of which he was confined by severe illness.

In 1840 the Grand Lodge of the United States ordered the full length portrait of Bro. Wildey, which now graces the walls of the Egyptian saloon in Baltimore, and in 1841 again deputed him upon official business to the East and North. From this period the Grand Lodge of the United States, which had hitherto been for the most part composed of proxy representation, began to consider plans for assembling the State jurisdictions by proper personal representatives. In 1842 the measure was set on foot, and consummated in 1843.  The effect of this wise act of legislation upon the prosperity of the Order it is almost impossible to value. It assembled Representatives in 1843 from twenty States, and in September, 1860, assembled Representatives from every State in the Union, not excepting Oregon, and from the District of Columbia and the Territory of Nebraska.

This body, thus constituted, has since 1843 been the soul of Odd Fellowship, and under its auspices the Order has covered this continent.  Stretching on the north from the British Possessions, it reaches to the Gulf, and from the Gulf to the Pacific shore; sweeping beyond the Continent, it rests upon the Hawaiian Isles, and thence careers still onward, making its abode among the teeming hills and golden sands of distant Australia.  Notwithstanding the affairs of the Order were now committed to competent and zealous hands, and Odd Fellowship under their direction was everywhere expanding and prospering, Bro. Wildey did not cease to cherish the liveliest interest in its administration, and continued to be present at each Annual Communication of the Grand Body, no matter where convened.


His crowning good fortune lay in this, that when the work was done, he knew and accepted the issue.  For such a man to cease to lead was almost to cease to live.  He recognized it, but was satisfied; his fame was secure, and he foresaw that new leaders were the necessary program of the future.

Thus we have drawn one after another the subtle threads comprising the character of this eccentric man.  Many of them are of little worth, but others that give color to the fabric will be found to be of gold. He rose above the level of early associations, to teach wholesome truths, to confer a great boon upon his fellow-men.  How sweet his lessens, how like the cheerful sunshine! how superior that philosophy which makes life a blessing and death a victory, whose origin is benevolence and its end philanthropy!

Wildey did not rise with the modern progress of the Order; the most that can be said of him is, that he did not seem to descend.  His work had not added grace to his manner, or led him to improve his education. The frank, almost abrupt, address that was native to him, always remained, and to the very last his habits were peculiar.  Those who knew him in later years, wondered at his prominence, and saw nothing in the man to explain it. Measured by the standard of his work when expanded, he seemed feeble and insignificant.

His appearance and conduct were not calculated to impress the observer with the opinion that he was in the presence of more than a very ordinary man.  In fact, some natural emotions of concern would at times arise, as to whether indeed it was proper to look to him as the source of so much that gratified the pride and taste of so great a number of cultivated persons. The emotion was natural, and all the appearances of the object warranted its existence.

He became, to a great extent, a solitary man, and lived much in the past.  Of social life outside of the Order, he had but little or none; although successful in business, that business was not of a kind to give him much credit with his fellow-citizens. At the last he was left behind by the master-minds who had become the guardians of the Order. If he had improved himself to meet the demand upon him, it might have been different; but he never inclined that way.

His mind was unconsciously always recurring to the old scenes and his first companions.  His heart was with the modern era, but his memories, made sacred by a thousand recollections, were most faithful to the older times.  The new names that had sprung up, and the new men who were leading, the enterprise, seemed to confuse him, and inspire a sort of wonder that such things should be.  The difficulty of reconciling his apparent circumstances with his real place in the Order, was as great to him as it was to others. Inaction had come upon him, to relax big energies and blunt his sensibilities.

He was the ancestor among his heirs already in possession—the magician whose arts had been improved upon, and himself supplanted by those more skilful. His day’s work was done and the night came on apace, and he had nothing to fill up the interval.  Strange multitudes came to look upon him, and spoke kind words of greeting; but they were not his familiars, and in many cases he saw that they were rather surprised than satisfied. His work, indeed, was done, but it was well done, and the hardest taskmaster could exact no more.

Age also with its train of evils was upon him a cheerless old age for one so fond of physical enjoyment.  His early companions had fallen away, and later associates could not answer to his yearnings, or fill again the vacant seats. The old landmarks were disappearing one after another, until he felt strange and uncomfortable even in his favorite haunts. He might well weep that no such world as he had contended in, remained for further conquest.

His native force, almost without parallel, had led him to a life of boundless activity: all this was spent, and he had to wrestle with the inclination when the power to execute had departed. It was only left to him to leave a world in which he could no longer work his will as a potent force in the affairs of men.  There were times indeed when the old flame burnt brightly in the socket, and at some festival his gaiety returned.

Then, age forgotten, he rehearsed the story of’ of the early days, and made his auditors the confidants of the hopes and fears of the pioneers. He was young again, and for a moment the lapse of years vanished from his memory.  On such occasions he sat, a noble wreck of enjoyment laughing with true philosophy at ills be could not avoid.

True to his old instincts he sought out new mysteries, and gave his approbation to the rising secret societies of the later time. Everywhere he was respected; his locks had fallen away and his brow was wrinkled, but his heart was young. Youth gathered around him as a relic of the happy past, and joined with glee in his ancient minstrelsy; while age and experience could scarce repress, a sigh of envy that time was so tender of him. But this was not often, and he slowly yielded to the days that sapped his strength and hurried him to meet his conqueror. It might have been otherwise; if he could have kept pace with his advancing reputation he might have presided among his successors as a patriarch, blessed and honored by his children.

No man in America had such an opportunity as he to wear the hard-earned laurel in his lifetime and win fresh plaudits on his final passage. But this by nature as well as by circumstances was denied him, and he did not enjoy the double triumph. Yet after all, his shade may well rest satisfied with the continuous reputation and glory which every year adds to his renown.


The great Odd Fellow was now out of office, and to all appearances was henceforth free from its cares and anxieties, and might joyfully hasten to the “otium cum dignitate” of private life.  But in laying down his official rank he merely disrobed himself of regalia, of formal apparel; the real life of the man illuminated him with a halo which no arbitrary distinction or blaze of reputation could bestow.  In his lodge and encampment, and in his State Grand Lodge, he was again the brother of 1819 and 1821, and in the Grand Lodge of the United States had eagerly served as proxy, representative, or filled as actively as ever positions of special trust by the appointment of his successors.

The retrospect rose before him in bold and vivid outline: the London boy had crossed the ocean, and for himself and others had founded a reputation which was hailed with delight in England. We may imagine his reflections when he traveled in memory over the scenes of his life in America:  first, a stranger, poor and neglected; then a well-to-do but obscure mechanic; then the beginner of a club, with a grip and a sign to keep intruders away. He looks -again: the club has become a society, and the motto, “mutual relief”, indicates the progress of his labors.

Now his path is more defined, as written law shapes the rude elements into harmony, and drills into compact form the band which has chosen him its commander.  The scene shifts: he is in many States and among great populations; strangers seek him and enlist under his banners; and those ensigns, fresh from the battles of Humanity, have other and prouder mottoes, honorably won: Friendship, Love, Truth.

The curtain again rises upon his leaguers in council and their now distinguished chief; he is presiding over counselors fit for senate chambers, and with potent sway rules a rising empire of benevolence and charity.  All this was history, and the curtain might have, and indeed did, reveal more than we can describe; and having so much more to disclose to him and to us, with God’s blessing it will never fall; for the panorama of such a life will pass and continue, and freshly enter, to fill us with astonishment and joy, until the influence of that life shall fail, or the legacy he left to posterity shall perish.

Thomas Wildey Monument

The Grand Representatives who were present have doubtless a vivid memory of his unexpected appearance in his seat at the annual session held at Nashville in 1860, pressed beneath the weight of years and disease, with infirm and tottering step, but his heart still true to its youthful instincts; and again at the session in 1861, at Baltimore, when they looked upon him in the Grand Lodge chamber for the last time, receiving the congratulations and greetings of his grateful brethren, with a countenance, although furrowed and stricken, yet radiant with joy at the consciousness that his mission had not been in vain.

In a few weeks after the adjournment, his body sunk to its final rest, ere perhaps some of them had reached their distant homes. In the Wildey eulogy at Front Street Theatre, Grand Secretary Ridgely told the story, which even now unseals the fountain of his tears. He said: “It was my fortune to witness his last few days of life, to have received, as it were from his own lips, his parting words for his brethren. Amid the sufferings of the body and general prostration his mind never wandered; it was clear and unclouded, and dwelt almost exclusively upon that subject which had engrossed it for more than forty years.

His worldly affairs gave him no concern, and he declined all notice of them. The great effort of his soul was now to bid adieu in some formal way to us all, to assemble us in his mind before him, and to pronounce a blessing upon our labors. Looking him earnestly in the face as it mirrored this noble sentiment, I expressed a readiness to commit his thoughts to writing. ‘To-morrow!’ he feebly uttered, ‘to-morrow!’  Alas! that morrow never came to him; the gorgeous sun, which was then pouring his golden flood of light upon his pillow, his eyes never again beheld.

Dedication of the Wildey Monument in Baltimore

As I left him I grasped his hand, overwhelmed by the gushing memories of the past: we had been long companions; when but a boy comparatively, he admitted me to his confidence and to his counsels; he had honored me with his friendship, which had never been interrupted during a period of more than thirty years; I had been his contemporary in the Order, and a witness of his labors and their splendid reward: these thoughts came fresh and unbidden as I looked upon his familiar and still serene countenance; I felt that I should not see him here below again.  I was right; I never did, and never shall.”

“To-morrow!” he feebly whispered –“tomorrow!” but to him that morrow never came.

That night be crossed the gulf and sailed out upon the boundless and unknown. Did he mean to fix the day of final parting and of his last farewell to his brethren?  It may be so; but if it is given to the dying to have the gift of prophecy, this may have been a prediction.

Tomorrow! yes, a long and glorious to-morrow.

Did he see that grave assembly of the magnates of the Order, listening to the panegyric that was the first loud echo of his fame?  Did he read the inscription on the marble to be reared by his lodges in Maryland? Did he witness the splendid procession that with waving banners thronged the streets of Baltimore to do homage to his memory? Did he see them — the uncovered representatives of a nation of brethren unveiling his monument with paeans?  Did he see Templar Lodge of California sending a Morse to plant his Order among the millions of Germany? Did he see this history written to record his deeds and ensure his full meed of reputation to the latest generation?  And did there in that dread hour burst upon his vision the triumph of fraternity throughout the world?

“To-morrow!” yes, hero of humanity, that is the legacy thou hast left thy children!  He died in the very arms of his Order: they were pleasant in their lives, and in his death they were not divided.

Thus fell the last and greatest of the Trio — he who was “primus inter pares”; and the roll of public benefactors had one more added to its illustrious catalogue.  The land was full of his successors, for, having no offspring, mankind was his adopted family.  His last utterances should become household words with orphans and widows, the sick and the suffering, for they were spoken by the tongue of a philanthropist and patriarch whose life was a boon to the poor and sorrowing.  With all the pomp and ceremony that befitted the occasion of “funeral honors”, and a mourning train that filled the thoroughfares of his adopted city, he was laid in Greenmount Cemetery, where his early disciples, Mathiot and Marley and Boyd, afterwards lay down beside him; three marked men in our history, illustrating the three cardinal virtues of Friendship, Love and Truth.

The Founder had outlived two generations, and was in his eightieth year when he passed away, on the 19th day of October, 1861, leaving 42 jurisdictions and 200,000 Odd Fellows as his pyramid: a prouder tribute than ever rose to Egyptian greatness by the sacred waters of the Nile.

Be sure to like Heart in Hand on Facebook!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Wildey’s Life and Love of Odd Fellowship

  1. I have a large framed picture similar to one in this article. Wildeys picture is at the bottom. How can I research this picture and the scenes depicted ?


  2. I am looking for additional information of value for a framed self portrait in excellent condition of Thomas Wildey founder of the Odd Fellows. Please email me with any information that you may have. Thank you!


    1. I’m sorry but we can’t give appraisals for our antiquities. But if you want to post it to “Odd Fellows Marketplace” on Facebook then a member may be able to purchase it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s