If you think your commute through the District is hellish, well, at least one fringe conspiracy theory says there’s a reason for that.
While Washington is no stranger to legends and lore, one particular crackpot hypothesis posits that D.C.’s streets were designed to include cult symbols — and provide Satan with a gateway to the White House.
Yeah, it’s high-octane wackadoo stuff. Basically, the idea is (and let’s ignore any potential political leanings here, since they’re irrelevant) that the nation’s capital was created to allow agents of evil to control and govern the U.S. from the start.
And also because, if you squint, Massachusetts Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, Vermont Avenue and K Street NW form a sort of broken inverted pentagram that points to the White House. That, in turn, gives Satan a gateway to the Oval Office.
Observe, using WTOP’s handy-dandy spook map:
(Scroll or click to zoom in.)
And here’s a Google Maps image with the lines painted in.
Creepy! But we have good news for you: It’s all hogwash.
“Haven’t heard that one before!” quipped Jason Van Dyke, director of communications for the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, when asked about the crackpot idea.
“False, in almost every way, except for: there are streets in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
(“Of course they’d say that!” the conspiracy theorists (probably) squeal.)
A broader reading includes the conspiracy theory that secret millennia-old symbols of Freemasonry are baked into D.C.’s map. People have been peddling this idea, and profiting from it, for decades and longer.
“Now, I have heard about the streets being designed to have Masonic Symbols in them, but that’s simply not true, either,” Van Dyke said.
“The boring truth is” that the streets were first designed by Pierre L’Enfant — often claimed as a Freemason, but there is zero evidence he was one. “[L’Enfant] was, from all accounts, a difficult man to work with, and was fired by Washington after working on the project for less than a year.”
Washington actually was a Freemason.
L’Enfant was not good at compromise. The Smithsonian notes that L’Enfant resigned at the urging of then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. And he annoyed the District’s wealthy landowners, especially one whose house L’Enfant demolished to create an avenue. City commissioners had no love for him either after he delayed producing a map so they could sell city lots — that map was created by city surveyor Andrew Ellicott, and L’Enfant’s name was stripped from it, which enraged L’Enfant.
Regardless, it’s well known that Jefferson (also not a Freemason) wanted the District to be a simple grid before Pierre L’Enfant was given the job, which followed Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker’s survey of the future Federal City.
- Boundary Stones: The quest to save DC’s 1st federal monuments
- Haunted DC: Lafayette Square’s ghosts
- Haunted DC: Georgetown’s phantoms
Ellicott finished up designing the District after L’Enfant got canned.
So, while George Washington certainly had some influence, not a single person who designed D.C.’s streets was a Mason.
Historical Society of Washington‘s Chief Historian Jane Levey explained to WTOP that D.C.’s design is based around practical factors: creating a modern seat of government, creating a city that had room to grow, creating a city that was sensitive to the topography of the land and one that took advantage of vistas and views. That’s what really dictated the city’s layout.
“L’Enfant walked around all these acres and said, ‘This would be a great place to put a square or a circle so we can enjoy this great view,” Levey said. “These things are all pretty simple to understand — if you don’t get carried away.”
But, hey, you can’t keep a good conspiracy down, and people of a certain mindset are really into the whole “inverted pentagram = Satan” thing. (The pentagram itself is a Catholic symbol. And, heads-up to any budding Satanists, teenage rebels and apparently the writers of this 1993 Justice Department report: the upside down cross is a symbol of Saint Peter. Source: Catholic school.)
“We get these theories from time to time,” Levey said. “But not as often as we would like because we would like to have the opportunity to straighten them out.”
One such “alternative fact” — a phrase, we should note, which did not exist before 2017 — presented to the Historical Society of Washington was that there was some sort of hidden slave prison in Georgetown. Turns out, it was an old ice house.
“But they were absolutely convinced it was a slave prison. So that kind of thing happens where somebody looks at a structure, it’s unusual, it’s got very thick stone walls, with very small windows, and, ‘Oh my gosh, that must be a prison,'” Levey said. “No. It’s actually built that way because that’s how you keep ice from melting.”
According to Levey, One of the reasons this goofy nonsense is gobbled up so readily and is so widespread is due to pop culture and authors like Dan Brown, whose 2009 book “The Lost Symbol” is all about the “secrets” of the Freemasons in D.C. It sold 30 million copies.
Levey specifically mentioned Brown.
“The idea of Dan Brown’s book about Washington, and what it contained, was so offensive to me as a historian that I didn’t actually read it,” she said. “However, I heard from others that his imagination went wild on the question of the design of the city, the influence of the Masons and other things like that.”
Levey said “theories” like the D.C. road pentagram are the product of “fevered imaginations looking for conspiracies.”
“And sadly today there’s more of that going on than ever.”
Van Dyke echoed that sentiment.
“I think all the conspiracy theories come from the ease of ‘connecting the dots’ to make a design in the street plan,” Van Dyke said. “The design, as you know, features several diagonal avenues that intersect at traffic circles, laid on top of a simple grid pattern.”
The consequence of that plan is that there are streets intersecting at interesting angles which can result in people “seeing” images or patterns that aren’t there.
“From squares and compasses and pentagrams to Star Trek symbols and maybe a dog,” Van Dyke said of patterns people have seen in the District’s layout.
As for why the Freemasons aren’t more vocal about all the crazy conspiracy theories attributed to them, Van Dyke says the answer is simple: Nobody bothers to ask them.
“It’s as simple as that,” he said. “Literally, people just didn’t ask us, so we didn’t have anything to say. And for a long time, Freemasons didn’t even care to acknowledge the ridiculousness that a lot of these theories are, so sometimes we wouldn’t say anything, because why dignify it?”
“We would have been fine with telling people that it’s ridiculous. But a lot of times, like I said, we weren’t asked.”
Still, there are sure to be some out there who will proclaim: Of course they deny it!
The Freemasons are the world’s first and oldest fraternity. Van Dyke says it was probably started in Scotland, or a nearby area. The first grand lodge dates back to 1717, in London.
Don Alexander Hawkins, a Historical Society of Washington board member and architect, thoroughly dunked on six books and websites (among many others) that claim there are Masonic symbols in the L’Enfant Plan in a 2009 Washington History piece.
Hawkins provides a non-spooky summary of the Freemason’s impact on America’s birth in his piece:
It is certainly true, as each of the sources under consideration points out, that George Washington, the city’s founding spirit, was one among the many leaders of Americas revolutionary generation, including one-third of the Constitution’s signers, who were Freemasons. Although an international brotherhood, Freemasonry was entirely in harmony with the ideals of the new American republic; Washington believed implicitly in its ethical standards and independence from political affairs. At a time of revolution and upheaval in every sphere of human activity, Freemasonry’s metaphorical organization of the universe through symbols and rituals helped the citizens of the new republic to imagine forms for the many new social, political, and commercial relation ships necessary for their common prosperity. Freemasonry accomplished this largely because it bound no one to any ideology: political, social, or religious. That allowed its ethical standards to become a common bond among men whose different circumstances and backgrounds might otherwise have fostered suspicion and mistrust. It was this affinity that resulted in the mingling of Masonic symbols with those of the fledgling federal government, as, for example, on our currency. Freemasonry contributed substantially to the creation of imagery for a nation newly rid of a traditional ruling class and many of its accustomed symbols.
Given how old the organization is, there’s a whole lot of cuckoo conspiracy theories attributed to them.
“Most of them are absolutely bananas and make no sense,” Van Dyke said. “So it’s hard to pin them all down.”
Van Dyke says those conspiracy theories are “an attempt to simplify or to explain why people don’t have control over certain things in their lives.”
“Conspiracy theories make you feel better that there’s this big, grand scheme and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Levey says it’s got a lot to do with the feds.
“Being the seat of government, there are plenty of people who are suspicious of everything that happens here,” she said.
“So, it’s not about the local city, it’s about the federal presence here. And I also think, frankly, it’s ignorance. When people don’t understand something, they’re apt to make something up that makes sense for whatever their political or religious outlooks would suggest.”
Reached for comment on the “D.C. streets = Satan” conspiracy theory, the DC Office of Planning said, “Unfortunately, we do not have any insight to offer on this topic.”
The Archdiocese of Washington, The Satanic Temple and The Church of Satan did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Hail satin pic.twitter.com/xCrX3kGgpn
— Satan (@s8n) August 30, 2015