This photo is of my third Great Grandfather, John F. McKinley, born 25 December 1840 in Cincinnati. He was a Civil War veteran who served with Co. C., 51st Indiana Infantry. At the time of his death in 1934, he was the newly elected Commander of the Indiana GAR.
Before I started researching John’s life, I had never heard of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans started in Illinois in 1866. By the end of that year, the organization had spread to ten states and the District of Columbia. Membership peaked in 1890 with over 400,000 members.
In these first two photographs, you can clearly see John’s GAR medal.
Because of his involvement with the GAR, I assumed the photograph below was of him in GAR uniform. But when I really inspected the photo, I realized that he is not wearing a GAR badge, and parts of the uniform do not match photos of other GAR uniforms I have found.
After researching similar badges worn at that time, I thought his badge matched another Civil War veteran’s group I had never heard of: The Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). MOLLUS was founded in Philadelphia in 1865 by a group of Union Army officers shortly after Lincoln’s assassination to serve as an honor guard at the president’s funeral and to protect the United States from potential future threats. The MOLLUS website provides an index of nearly 12,000 original members – so check it out if you think one of your ancestors might be listed.
But John F. McKinley was never an officer, and his name is not listed in the MOLLUS index. Also, I had become increasingly confused by the crosses on the arm and hat, which I started to think indicated that he was a chaplain.
I felt like I had reached a dead end, so I asked for some help by emailing the current MOLLUS Commander-in-Chief, Keith Graham Harrison, requesting confirmation that this is in fact a MOLLUS uniform.
Keith kindly responded with this surprising information:
“The uniform is that of Knights of Columbus, I believe. The MOLLUS never has had a prescribed uniform. Although similar looking from this photograph, the badge is not a MOLLUS medal. The cross in this case, I do not believe, means a chaplain, but rather is a part of the general uniform of the Order at that time.”
This was surprising not only because it means the uniform has nothing to do with John being a veteran, but also because the K of C is a Catholic fraternal organization, and John was a Baptist. Looking back through all the McKinley obituaries I have collected, I discovered a wide variety of church affiliations mentioned, including Baptist, Evangelical United Brethren, and Pilgrim Holiness. However, not a single mention of any affiliation with the Catholic Church whatsoever.
After some more searching, I finally found the clue that unlocked the mystery: a Wikipedia photo of a 19th century Masonic Knights Templar beaver fur chapeaux hat! Another clue led me to the Los Angeles Fraternal Supply Company. Since so many elements of the uniform in the photo match the photos on this website, I think I can now confirm that John’s uniform is not related to his military service at all, but is instead a Masonic Knights Templar uniform.
As with most research endeavors, each mystery leads to another mystery, and every day my family history gets more interesting.