Great Franklin's Ghost

I’ve been reading about Ben Franklin again—what else is new? But this time it’s actually related to a project, something I’m tinkering at with Bill Turkel and the clever, clever elves at the Center for History and New Media. About that project, more later. In the meantime, when you dine with Franklin, a side order of old weird America is always on the menu. Things come up that don’t fit even Bill or the CHNM’s generous definitions of serious history. Lucky for you, I have a blog…

Great Franklin's Ghost
Great Franklin’s Ghost!

Benjamin Franklin was not, as he is often remembered, a statesman who happened to dabble in science—that sounds more like Thomas Jefferson—but a scientist who happened to dabble in statecraft. (This according to Joyce Chaplin’s terrific The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius. And if you enjoy that, definitely see James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America.) But as Franklin’s star rose in the century after his death, it was Poor Richard’s Yankee practicality that people remembered. Doctor Franklin the Enlightenment magus faded from popular memory. (On this, see also Pamela Laird’s Pull: Networking and Success Since Benjamin Franklin. Yeah, there are a lot of books about Franklin.) Washington was the soldier’s hero, and Jefferson remained beloved by democrats and other bearded yokels, but for industrializing America, Franklin the penny-counting businessman was the great archetype and inspiration: Early to bed and a penny earned, the Horatio Alger hero before there was Horatio Alger. Franklin’s science mostly dropped out of the picture: He invented bifocals, didn’t he? And something about a kite?

But there was one segment of American society which kept the memory of Franklin as scientist alive. In the middle to late nineteenth century, millions of Americans dabbled in spiritualism, visiting seances, decoding table rappings, pushing Ouija-style planchettes, and watching mediums emit ectoplasmic goo. And no spirit from the Other Side—no Puritan preacher, no messiah, no rich dead uncle—communicated with American spiritualists more frequently than the ghost of Benjamin Franklin. (And on this, see Werner Sollors’ 1983 article, “Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Celestial Telegraph, Or Indian Blessings to Gas-Lit American Drawing Rooms.” OK, I’ll stop doing that now.)

A chat with Franklin was to spiritualism what “My Way” is to karaoke. From beyond the grave, Franklin transmitted messages to and from dead loved ones, spoke out for women’s suffrage and against slavery (as did the shades of Washington and Jefferson, claiming posthumous conversion to the cause), and lectured on magnetism and balloons. Dead Franklin apparently kept himself busy in the afterlife—he often provided his living correspondents with descriptions of new inventions: a machine for weaving nets, another for riving shingles, or a self-adjusting, inside-fastening window blind. Makes you wonder what slackers like Dead Isaac Newton and Dead Leonardo da Vinci had been up to all those centuries.

Andrew Jackson Davis, the famous “Poughkeepsie Seer,” came up with what I think is an ingenious explanation as to why Franklin appeared so frequently in spiritualist seances and why spirits in general only became so talkative after the 1840s. It was Franklin’s spirit, Davis said, that posthumously invented the “Celestial Telegraph” by which the departed could communicate with our world.

Which makes wonderful dotty sense, when you put your head in the spiritualists’ place. First, Franklin would have loved to cheat time and death. “I begin to be almost sorry I was born so soon, since I cannot have the happiness of knowing what will be known 100 years hence,” he wrote at the age of seventy-seven. He joked with friends about seeking eternal life from the Philosopher’s Stone, or failing that, being pickled “with some friends in hogsheads of Madeira wine,” later to be “restored to life by the heat of the sun.” And I’ve talked before, though it’s certainly not my insight, about the technological nature of spiritualism. The rappings of the celestial telegraph, the ghostly double exposures of spirit photography, even the newly invented graphite pencils favored for spirit writing—these were all used to, in Werner Sollors’ words, “sacralize, or find transcendent meaning in” the revolutionary technologies of the day, and at the same time claim the authority of modern science and technology for spiritualism and its claims. Franklin was for this purpose the perfect technological saint, the very embodiment of American practicality and ingenuity.

Sollors’ article quotes the vision of a spiritualist named Josiah Brigham, who dreamed of a heavenly machine, used by the angels to “impart their tide of inspiring intelligence to the less unfolded and enlightened.” It resembled a “galvanic battery,” Brigham said, set in a revolving wheel:

On it were inscribed the following two words,–which explained to my entire satisfaction its sublime use,–
“DEFECATED ELECTRICITY;”
And on the floating zephyrs of heaven was wafted the well-known earthly name of its immortal operator,
“BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.”

(I’m not sure that explains the machine’s sublime use to my entire satisfaction, but Sollors does helpfully note that “defecated” once meant “purified or unmixed.”)

Not known for modesty in life, Franklin’s ghost even claimed credit for the actual terrestrial telegraph, speaking in 1872 through an English medium named Mrs. Manley:

On arriving in spirit-life, having while on earth thought much upon the subject of electricity, I saw that the magnetic telegraph could be made a success to transmit news all over the earth and under the seas. At once I commenced looking for a human organism which I could impress to carry out what I so plainly saw could be done. … I watched my opportunity and when Prof. Morse’s father and mother came together in coition I was there and projected my thought into the brain of the embryo child, so S.F.B. Morse was really my son, more than the son of his earthly father.

Samuel Morse [inventor of the telegraph, sort of] was born just about a year after Franklin death, so I guess the story checks out!

To Be Continued: Franklin gets freaky, the Soul-Blending Telegraph, Woodhull-Douglass ’72.

9 Comments

  1. This rocks. I especially love the idea that Ben Franklin watches us copulate. He is the (old) new Ceiling Cat!

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  3. Being who I am, of course, the line “later to be ‘restored to life by the heat of the sun’ ” of course sends my brain spinning into shamefully geeky places and then you cap it off with the bit about Morse being Franklin’s only begotten son, sent to us in our greatest hour of need, and now I’m nearly overcome with, well I’m not sure what but no good can possibly come of it!

  4. You’ll no doubt appreciate the works in progress talks I just heard from two members of my department–one a synopsis of his book on Rt. 20 and one from a manuscript on modernism in the sticks, so to speak, this a chapter on the Israelite House of David. When I have time, I’ll put you three in touch.

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