Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was born the son of a candle and soap maker, but 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, a philosopher, a man of science, a man of letters, and a 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 foolishness and vice to the light of public censure. The efforts of Franklin and other Enlightenment hoaxes to address the public through hoaxes reveals the increasing importance placed upon public opinion 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 that he presented to the world, as a simple but wise American rustically dressed in a raccoon-skin hat, was actually a carefully crafted public persona that belied the reality that he was one of the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan men of his era.

Silence Dogood

In 1722 a series of letters appeared in the New-England Courant written by a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood. The letters poked fun at various aspects of life in colonial America, such as the drunkenness of locals and the fashion of hoop petticoats. Silence was particularly fond of ridiculing Harvard, complaining that it had been ruined by corruption and elitism, and that most of its students learned nothing there except how to be conceited. The readers of the paper thought she was a charming woman. So charming, in fact, that a few of the male readers wrote in offering to marry her. She coyly hinted that she might be willing to entertain such offers. But unfortunately, Silence Dogood didn’t really exist. She was the invention of sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin, whose older brother, James, was a Boston printer. It is not known whether James was privy to the true identity of Silence Dogood, or whether, like the rest of Boston, he was fooled by his younger brother. This was the first of Franklin’s many hoaxes.

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

The Death of Titan Leeds

Poor Richard’s Almanac was a yearly publication supposedly written by a henpecked, poverty-stricken scholar named Richard Saunders. It first appeared in 1733, offering a collection of wit, poetry, and prophecies. In its first year it included the prediction that the rival almanac-writer Titan Leeds would die on “October 17, 1733, 3:29 PM, at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury.” Titan Leeds failed to die. In fact, he lived to chastise Sanders for his falsehood and stubbornly continued to publish his almanac. Saunders responded to Leeds’s impertinent refusal to die by theorizing that Leeds actually had died, but that someone had usurped his name and was using it to falsely publish the almanac. For the next five years Saunders continued to insist that Leeds was dead until finally, in 1738, Leeds did actually die. This prompted Saunders to congratulate the men who had usurped Leeds’s name on their decision to end the pretense. Saunders was, of course, the pseudonym of Franklin. The hoax (adapted from Jonathan Swift’s similar Bickerstaff hoax of 1708) represented his method of mocking the popular art of prophecy.

Polly Baker

Eighteenth-century laws made it illegal for women to have sexual relations with men out of wedlock. In 1747 the text of a speech delivered in a court by a woman accused of this crime began to circulate around Europe. The evidence that she had committed the crime was fairly compelling: she had just given birth and was unmarried. Therefore, she didn’t contest her guilt. Instead, she contested the justice of the law itself. She pointed out that she had already been fined four times for the same crime, while her accomplices (the men who had fathered her children) had never been fined at all. In fact, she argued, she would have been willing to marry any one of these men, but all of them had abandoned her. For this reason, she maintained, she was really being punished for their crime. After hearing this speech of the judges supposedly not only declared her innocent, but one of them married her the next day. The text of Polly Baker’s speech was reprinted in many papers throughout Europe and America and caused a great sensation. Everyone accepted it as a true account of an actual event. But thirty years later Franklin confessed that he had written the speech himself and that there was no Polly Baker. His intention had been to draw attention to the unfairness of the law that punished mothers, but not fathers, for having children out of wedlock.

A Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle

In 1782 a shocking letter was printed in the Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle and soon began to circulate throughout Europe. It alleged that Indian warriors were sending hundreds of American scalps as war trophies across the Atlantic to British royalty and members of Parliament. The scalps included those of women, as well as young girls and boys. The allegation shocked European public opinion. But in fact, the British had not received scalps from any Indians. The Supplemental to the Boston Independent Chronicle was a fake newspaper that Franklin himself had printed up and distributed to his friends. Franklin saw his hoax as aiding the American war effort by turning European opinion against the British.



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