Decoding the Secret Freemason Symbolism of Dogs Playing Poker

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Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, Riding the Goat, (ca. 1900)

The Fourth of July is upon us, and what can be more wholesomely all-American than Dogs Playing Poker? The turn-of-the-(last)-century lithograph by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844–1934) has had an extremely long, ahem, tail: Wherever American men congregate in rec rooms and sports bars throughout the land, you will find their doggy doppelgangers. Playing poker.

Now, in a blockbuster scoop for Black Bag (Gawker’s conspiracy theory–focused affiliate), it is revealed that the lovable band of canine buds, best known for their card playing, is actually a secret club of Freemasons.

The evidence? An examination of Riding the Goat, a lesser-known work of the series, depicting the famed dogs engaged in a mysterious ritual involving masks, cone-shaped hats, blindfolds, and one dog perched atop a goat. The goat-riding ritual is, evidently, a well-known fraternal rite within Freemasonry.

In fact, to true Dogs Playing Poker aficionados, the Freemason connection is old hat. Coolidge’s involvment with the Masonic Lodge in his town of Antwerp, New York, is part of his official biography. As for the symbolism of the Riding the Goat, Black Bag points to a 2007 article in the Winterthur Journal, “Riding the Goat: Secrecy, Masculinity, and Fraternal High Jinks in the United States, 1845–1930s,” by Boston University art history prof William D. Moore, who breaks down the symbolism (and helpfully explains the complex humor of the work):

In Coolidge’s image entitled “Riding the Goat,” a variety of dogs have gathered within a fraternal lodge room to initiate what appears to be a St. Bernard by having him ride a goat while blindfolded. Three officers, denoted as such by their ceremonial collars and their location in monumental chairs behind a desk, look on while a spaniel holds a rope, which in Masonic argot is called a “cabletow,” secured around the candidate’s neck. Behind the main figures, the lodge secretary, another St. Bernard, is recording the fact that the candidate has joined the organization. Some of the canines sport circular hats, which are employed by the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry to denote elevated institutional status. Many of the dogs are smoking, consuming tobacco both through pipes and as cigars.

The humor in this composition is derived, as it is in many of Coolidge’s works, from the canine actors pursuing human activities. The dogs provide the punch line in this visual anecdote. The goat is simply a commonplace of the lodge room, comparable to the ceremonial paraphernalia or the monumental chairs. Significantly, the goat is fully under the control of the lodge members. Although the St. Bernard is blindfolded, he retains his composure.

The official website that ministers the Dogs Playing Poker legacy (DogsPlayingPoker.org) offers the following commentary on the image, from someone identified as an “Unknown Mason,” confirming that it lives on as a symbol among present-day Masons:

The Cassius Coolidge dog picture of “Riding the Goat” is Masonic in nature and yes it is sometimes used as a joke between members and potential members. It depicts one of the first three principal degrees of Freemasonry.

The dog riding the goat is wearing a blindfold. The blindfold is an important part of the first three degrees of Freemasonry and has a specific and symbolic meaning in each degree. The rope around his neck is called a “cable toe” and it too has a particular, significant and symbolic meaning in the particular degree this picture represents.

The three dogs sitting to the left at the desk indicate the three principal officers of any Masonic Lodge and on the necklace type collars they are wearing are the jewels of their office (each jewel being of a different shape and having it own significant meaning).

The dog to the right of the three at the desk is wearing a red cap. In Scottish Rite Masonry this cap is the emblem of a KCCH mason. A couple of the dogs are wearing blue caps. This too has a particular meaning in Scottish Rite Masonry. It is symbol that represents a fifty-year mason (meaning he was initiated fifty or more years ago).

So as you can see, there are things in the picture that any Mason can clearly see.

Too much for you? Well, look, then, on the more celebrated image of the series and forget about whatever sinister plot the dogs are cooking up. And happy Fourth!

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Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, A Bold Bluff (c. 1900)


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