The Trial of Polly Baker

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 quickly "went viral" (to use a modern phrase). Within days, the text of it had been reprinted by other British newspapers, and it was then reproduced by monthly magazines, such as the Gentleman's Magazine. The text subsequently circulated widely throughout Europe and America.

The title page of the Gentleman's Magazine with Polly Baker's speech listed in the table of contents (middle of the left column)

The story of the trial of Polly Baker was widely believed to be true. But it was not. There was no such woman or trial. Thirty years later, Benjamin Franklin admitted he had written the speech. It's not clear how he managed to insert the article into the General Advertiser. But almost all scholars accept that he wrote 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 later decades.

Max Hall's book length study (published 1960) of the Polly Baker case.
Available from Amazon.


There are no comments for this article.