Hoaxes of Benjamin Franklin


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

Throughout his long and illustrious career he was many different things: a printer, philosopher, man of science, man of letters, and statesman. He was also a hoaxer. Like other eighteenth-century literary figures such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, he used hoaxes for satirical ends, to expose what he perceived as foolishness and vice to the light of public censure.

The efforts of Franklin and other Enlightenment hoaxers to address public opinion through hoaxes reveals the increasing importance placed upon public opinion (and the idea of democracy) throughout this period. Franklin was a master of the art of public relations before that concept had even been dreamed up. The very image of himself which he presented to the world, as a simple but wise American rustic dressed in a raccoon-skin hat, was a carefully crafted public persona which belied the reality that he was one of the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan men of his era.

His most famous hoaxes are listed below.

Between April and October 1722 a series of letters appeared in the New England Courant 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. Silence Dogood's 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... More…
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." More…
Benjamin Franklin published a highly successful, yearly almanac from 1732 to 1758. He called it Poor Richard’s Almanac, adopting 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 joke. Nevertheless, Leeds took offense at it and chastised Saunders (Franklin) for it in his own almanac. Franklin responded by turning the death of... More…
Poor Richard's Almanac was a yearly almanac that Benjamin Franklin began publishing in 1732. In 1737, five years into the life of the almanac, 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 musketers 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 a... More…
On April 15, 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 scot free? According to the article, Polly's argument so moved the judges that one of them asked her hand in marriage the next day. Polly Baker's speech became a popular sensation, and it... More…
On October 19, 1752, the Pennsylvania Gazette published a brief description of an experiment recently conducted by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, the article said, 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... More…
In 1782 a shocking letter was printed in the Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle. It alleged 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. Soon the letter had crossed the Atlantic and began to circulate throughout Europe, where it shocked European public opinion. But in fact, the British had not received scalps from any Indians. The Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle was a fake newspaper which Benjamin Franklin had printed and distributed to his friends. Franklin intended... More…

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