By T.S. Akers
Henry S. Johnston
Throughout the history of Freemasonry, the rolls of the Fraternity have often included men who have held public office. Numerous Presidents of the United States were Freemasons, such as George Washington, William McKinley, and Harry Truman. During the height of fraternalism, many men belonged to a great many fraternal societies and the landscape in Oklahoma was no different. In more recent history, one notable Oklahoman who held membership in the Masonic Fraternity was Carl Albert, the 46th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. There have also been some rather interesting men who held public office in Oklahoma who were also Freemasons.
Only two Oklahoma Governors have ever been impeached and convicted, resulting in their removal from office. The first was Jack C. Walton, the fifth Governor of Oklahoma.[i] The second was Henry S. Johnston, the seventh Governor of Oklahoma.[ii] While Walton’s impeachment is a well-known period in Oklahoma history, owing to his placing Tulsa and Okmulgee Counties under martial law in 1923, Johnston’s alleged indiscretions were much less serious.[iii]
Henry S. Johnston was born in Evansville, Indiana, on 30 December 1867. He graduated from Baker University of Baldwin City, Kansas, and was ultimately admitted to the Colorado bar in 1891. Johnston made his way to the Oklahoma Territory in 1893, to participate in the Cherokee Outlet opening, setting up a law practice in Perry.[iv]
The best way to describe Johnston is that he was an esoterist. He is said to have counted Theosophy, New Thought, Unity, and Christian Science among his philosophical affinities. Johnston also had an interest in numerology and astrology. He would in time join the Rosicrucian Order.[v] While residing in Perry, Johnston took the degrees of Freemasonry in 1901 at Perry Lodge No. 78 AF&AM. He would serve that lodge as Worshipful Master in 1916.[vi]
Johnston became active in political circles shortly after arriving in the Oklahoma Territory and was elected to the Oklahoma Territorial Council in 1896. He was then elected to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention in 1906, where he served as the presiding officer. Johnston would ultimately be elected to the first Oklahoma State Senate, serving as president pro tempore.[vii]
While making two unsuccessful bids for Congress, Johnston was also active in Freemasonry. He would come to be a Royal Arch Mason and Knight Templar. Johnston took the degrees of the Scottish Rite in 1913, receiving the Knight Commander of the Court of Honor designation in 1919, and was coroneted a Thirty-Third Degree Mason in 1923. He was made Grand Orator of the Grand Lodge of the State of Oklahoma in 1921. Having been elected Senior Grand Warden in 1922, Johnston rose to the office of Most Worshipful Grand Master in 1924.[viii]
Johnston would ultimately claim the Governor’s office in 1926, overcoming allegations that he supported the Ku Klux Klan. His inauguration, which was the first to be broadcast over the radio, was also the first to be opened with a prayer. Johnston’s record as governor shows that he was able to increase education spending and establish a hospital for crippled children.[ix] His legislative success was short lived though, and scandal soon came to overshadow his administration.
Johnston had become acquainted with a Mrs. Oliver “Mamie” Hammonds and she became part of Johnston’s gubernatorial campaign. After winning election, Johnston made Hammonds his personal secretary. In this role, it began to appear that Hammonds controlled access to Johnston. When Johnston made the decision to pave Oklahoma’s highways with asphalt rather than concrete, it was discovered that Hammonds’ uncle, Judge James Armstrong, had a financial interest in an asphalt company.[x] It was at this point that the seeds of discontent were sown with the Oklahoma legislature, but the charges against Johnston would only grow stranger.
Johnston was a Freemason, as was Hammonds’ husband, and Armstrong was a Rosicrucian, as was Johnston. Another movement that was sweeping the United States at the time was the practice of yoga, then referred to as “yogi philosophy.” Many believed yoga to include hypnotism, with the terms being used interchangeably. For some, the control that Hammonds’ seemed to exercise over Johnston was thought to be the result of hypnotism. Johnston only exacerbated the issue with his beliefs in astrology, stating that he would only sign bills at specific times of the day when the zodiac would be more favorable.[xi]
Armstrong, Hammonds’ uncle, became acquainted with a Punjabi Sikh immigrant who traveled to Oklahoma City in 1926 to teach yoga. Yogi Wassan, as he styled himself, became Armstrong’s yoga instructor; it was then that rumors began to swirl that a “mystic pope” was exerting influence over Armstrong, and Johnston by association. The peculiarities to which Johnston adhered had finally become too much for the Oklahoma legislature and a failed impeachment attempt was made in 1927. Johnston, rather than curbing his esoteric pursuits, chose to attend a lecture series titled “Divine Yoga” in 1928.[xii]
The elections of 1928 would see numerous political opponents of Johnston gain office at all levels of government. As the legislature set to work in 1929, they quickly took up the call to impeach Johnston. The charges brought against Johnston included using the National Guard to prevent the 1927 impeachment, pardoning a murderer, and mismanagement of the Highway Commission. Johnston’s esoteric pursuits were also questioned, as it was alleged he was hosting séances, visiting an astrologer, and that both a swami and a yogi were on call by the governor.[xiii] Testimony in the impeachment hearings would eventually fill over five thousand pages, but of the eleven charges, Johnston was only convicted of the charge of general incompetence.[xiv]
Johnston would continue in public service, even after being removed from the governor’s office. He served in the State Senate again from 1933 to 1937, spending the rest of his days practicing law. Johnston died on 7 January 1965, one day after a proposal was introduced in the State House to lessen his impeachment.[xv] He was laid to rest in Grace Hill Cemetery of Perry.[xvi]
[i] Larry O’Dell, “Walton, John Calloway,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, accessed March 28, 2017, http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=WA014.
[ii] Bob Burke, “Johnston, Henry Simpson,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, accessed March 28, 2017, http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=JO015.
[v] Philip Deslippe, "The American Yoga Scare of 1927: How Traveling Yogis Toppled the Oklahoma State Government," South Asian American Digital Archive, last modified September 10, 2015, https://www.saada.org/tides/article/20150910-4457.
[vi] J. Fred Latham, The Story of Oklahoma Masonry (Guthrie, Oklahoma: Masonic Print Shop, 1978), 354.
[viii] Grand Masters of Oklahoma (Oklahoma: Oklahoma Lodge of Research, 1975), 83.
[xvi] “Henry Simpson Johnston,” Find A Grave, accessed March 28, 2017, https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=9672378.