; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The American Hoaxer

OK folks...it's time for a little history lesson. Since the world is rife with hoaxes and fakes, I thought I'd research and present a bit of fact on one of our most famous hoaxers.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was born the son of a candle and soap maker, but by his own efforts and remarkable intellect he rose to become arguably the most admired man of the eighteenth century.

Franklin had many ventures throughout his career...as a printer, philosopher, man of science, man of letters, and statesman. He was also a hoaxer. Some may even say that he was a fraud. Some eighteenth-century literary figures such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, used hoaxes for sarcastic ends. Franklin was a master satirist...exposing what he perceived as foolishness and vice to the light of public censure. Addressing public opinion through hoaxes reveals the increasing importance placed upon public opinion (and the idea of democracy) throughout this period.

Franklin was skilled in the art of public relations before that concept had even been dreamed up. The image which he presented of himself to the world was that of a simple but wise American rustic dressed in a raccoon-skin hat. It was a carefully crafted public persona which belied reality...that he was one of the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan men of his era.

Franklin's most famous hoaxes are described below:

Silence Dogood (1722)

If you watched the film National Treasure then you are aware of the Silence Dogood letters.

Between April and October 1722 a series of letters appeared in the New England Courant supposedly written by a middle-aged widow who called herself Silence Dogood. In her correspondence she poked fun at various aspects of life in colonial America, such as the drunkenness of locals, religious hypocrisy, the persecution of women, the fashion for hoop petticoats, and particularly the pretensions of Harvard College.

The Silence Dogood letters became quite popular. Some of the male readers of the Courant were so taken with her that they offered to marry her. But unfortunately for these would-be suitors, Silence Dogood did not exist. She was the invention of sixteen year-old Benjamin Franklin, who was working at the time as an apprentice to his older brother, James, a Boston printer.

Franklin initially concealed his authorship of the letters from his brother. When he finally confessed to his brother that he was the author, his brother grew quite displeased, fearing that all the compliments paid to Silence Dogood would make young Benjamin grow vain. Soon after this, Franklin decided to run away and seek his fortune in Philadelphia.

This was the first of many hoaxes Franklin perpetrated throughout his life.

A Witch Trial at Mount Holly (1730)

On October 22, 1730 an article appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette describing a witch trial that had recently been held in Mount Holly near Burlington, New Jersey.

According to the article, over 300 people had gathered to witness the trial of two people, a man and a woman, who had been accused of witchcraft. The charges included "making their neighbours sheep dance in an uncommon manner, and with causing hogs to speak, and sing Psalms, &c. to the great terror and amazement of the King's good and peaceable subjects in this province." The full text of the article can be found at A Witch Trial at Mount Holly

The story would have been remarkable if it were true, because in 1730 a witch trial had not occurred in America for many decades. The famous Salem Witch Trials had occurred almost forty years earlier, in 1692.

In his book Benjamin Franklin as a Man of Letters John Bach McMaster suggested Franklin's authorship of this hoax. In 1730 Franklin was the owner and publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette. He commonly published articles and letters written by himself, but attributed to others, in order to make it appear that his paper received more correspondence than it actually did.

Assuming that Franklin did author the Witch Trial, it seems he intended it as a parody of Puritan beliefs. By 1730 it had become acceptable for the educated class in America to ridicule beliefs such as witchcraft, even though the majority of the population still clung to those beliefs.

The Death of Titan Leeds (1732)

Franklin published a highly successful, yearly almanac from 1732 to 1758 titled Poor Richard’s Almanac...assuming the literary persona of "Poor" Richard Saunders, who was supposedly a hen-pecked, poverty-stricken scholar.

In the first year of its publication, Franklin included a prediction stating that rival almanac-writer Titan Leeds would die on "Oct. 17, 1733, 3:29 P.M., at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury." The prediction was intended as a ruse, though Leeds took offense at it and chastised Saunders (Franklin) for it in his own almanac.

Franklin responded by turning the death of Leeds into a running joke. When the date and time of the prediction arrived, and Leeds did not die, Franklin declared that Leeds actually had died, but that someone had usurped his name and was now using it to falsely publish his almanac.

Franklin continued to insist Leeds was dead in the following years until finally, in 1738, Leeds actually did die. This prompted Franklin to congratulate the men who had annexed Leeds’s name for finally deciding to end their pretense.

Franklin adapted the Titan Leeds hoax from Jonathan Swift’s similar Isaac Bickerstaff hoax of 1708.

The Enigmatical Prophecies (1736)

The yearly almanac Poor Richard's Almanac began publishing in 1732. In 1737, five years into the life of the publication, Franklin included three "enigmatical prophecies" in the almanac. He predicted that:

A great storm would cause all the major cities of North America to be under water;

A "great number of vessels fully laden will be taken out of the ports… by a Power with which we are not now at war;"

and that an "army of 30,000 musketeers will land… and sorely annoy the inhabitants."

A year passed and none of the prophecies appeared to come true. But just when Franklin's readers were about to label him an incompetent soothsayer, he triumphantly declared that all three prophecies had actually come true. Rainstorms had placed every city under water, the power of wind ("a Power with which we are not now at war") had taken fully-laden vessels out of ports, and more than 30,000 musketeers (or mosquitoes) had definitely annoyed the inhabitants.

It was a stretch of the predictions' suggested intent but Franklin had a knack for double entendre of phrases.

The Trial of Polly Baker (1747)

In 1747 the London General Advertiser printed the text of a speech said to have been given by a woman, Polly Baker, at her trial. She had just given birth to her fifth child, was unmarried, and had been charged with having sexual intercourse out of wedlock.

Polly Baker readily admitted her guilt but argued that the law itself was unreasonable. Why was she being punished, she asked, while the men who committed the crime with her were let off without penalty? According to the article, Polly's argument so moved the judges that one of them asked for her hand in marriage the next day.

The text of Polly Baker's speech subsequently circulated widely throughout Europe and America, and it was believed to be real. However, thirty years later Franklin admitted he had written it. His intention appears to have been to draw attention to the unfairness of the law which punished mothers, but not fathers, for having children out of wedlock. Franklin himself had fathered a son out of wedlock. The hoax was also Franklin’s first criticism of the penal system, a subject which he devoted much attention to in his later years.

The Electric Kite Hoax (June 1752)

On October 19, 1752, the Pennsylvania Gazette published a brief description of an experiment recently conducted by Benjamin Franklin. The article stated that Franklin had flown a kite in a thunderstorm, causing electricity to be conducted down the line of the kite and electrifying a key tied to it. This demonstrated that lightning, as many had speculated, was a form of electricity.

Franklin's electric kite became the most famous experiment of the eighteenth century, helping to make Franklin famous throughout Europe and America. And yet, some historians argue that it probably never happened.

They point to a curious lack of details about the experiment. It is not known exactly when the experiment occurred. Sometime in June, 1752 was the closest Franklin ever came to an exact date. Nor did Franklin ever write a formal report about it. The only witness to the event was Franklin's son, who never said a word about it. Finally, such an experiment would have been extremely dangerous, possibly fatal, as Franklin knew.

It has been suggested that Franklin originally proposed the idea for the experiment as a joke. Frustrated because the British Royal Society had been ignoring his letters about his earlier electrical research, he might have proposed the deadly experiment as a subtle joke. But when his suggestion reached France, where people took it seriously, Franklin decided to play along and claimed he really had conducted the experiment.

The theory still remains controversial. Some historians argue that Franklin would never have risked being exposed as a liar by the scientific community. Nonetheless, we now know where the phrase 'go fly a kite' originated...it was Franklin's way of telling the British Royal Society to 'f**k off!'

Franklin instigated other hoaxes in order to make a point, including the The Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle in 1782 alleging that Indian warriors were sending hundreds of American scalps as war trophies to British royalty and Members of Parliament. The scalps included those of women, as well as young girls and boys. This deception was intended to aid the American war effort by turning European opinion against the British.

In Franklin's autobiography he listed his '13 Virtues' in which he sought to cultivate his character and continued to practice in some form for the rest of his life. Though, it seems that the use of a 'little white lie' on occasion couldn't hurt.

Satires And Hoaxes Of Doctor Benjamin Franklin
Bolt Of Fate: Benjamin Franklin And His Electric Kite Hoax

Suggested Reading:

Franklin's Autobiography (Classic Reprint)

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings (Library of America)

Benjamin Franklin: Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, and EarlyWritings (Library of America)

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