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William “Billy” Florence, Cofounder of Shriners International 

Image of William "Billy" Florence

William “Billy” Florence


William Jermyn Conlin – better known by his stage name, William J. “Billy” Florence – is credited as the co-founder of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, along with Walter M. Fleming, M.D. 

Florence left school at age 15 to help support his family after his father’s death. His early jobs included working for a newspaper in Albany, New York, and as a bookkeeper in New York City. He began his stage career as a member of the Murdoch Dramatic Association where he attracted the attention of several noted producers. He made his professional debut in Richmond, Virginia, in 1849, and his New York debut in 1850.  

Considered a handsome fellow especially popular in light comedy roles, Florence became a well-known actor, producer and playwright. In 1853, he married Malvina Pray, who, at the time, was recognized as one of New York’s leading female ballet dancers. The couple was one of the most famous teams in theatre, both in the United States and in Europe. 

Florence is said to have come up with the idea for the Near Eastern theme of the fraternity after attending a party hosted by an Arabian diplomat in Marseilles, France. Florence died on November 19, 1891. He was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery, 500 25th St., Brooklyn, New York.