The Further Adventures of Ben Franklin's Ghost

The other day, I posted about Ben Franklin’s posthumous popularity as the go to ghost for American spiritualists. Probably Franklin’s most frequent and energetic earthly correspondent was an abolitionist minister turned spiritualist named John Murray Spear. In 1851 or 1852, Spear and his daughter Sophronia began seeking messages from the spirit world. In 1853, they announced that Spear had become the mouthpiece for the General Assembly of Spirits, a benevolent association of departed worthies like Franklin, Jefferson, and Emmanuel Swedenborg. The Assembly of Spirits was divided into a number of committees and subcommittees: the “Educationizers,” the “Governmentizers,” the “Healthfulizers,” the “Agriculturalizers,” and so on, but it was the “Electricizers,” headed of course by Franklin, who had immediate plans for Spear.

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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.)

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Dungeon Master Zero

Tags: Timothy Burke and I, Napoleonic miniatures on acid, the first Dungeon Master, God versus the Metric System, the Lost Tribe.

Timothy Burke and I at the AHA in January:*

Me: It seems like 2006 was the year that a lot of academic bloggers came out of the closet as online gamers.

Tim: Definitely. There used to be a real social stigma attached to gaming in academia, but now with World of Warcraft and Second Life and so on, it really can’t be denied that online roleplaying games are a social phenomenon worthy of serious critical study.

Me: I’m just waiting for the same thing to happen to tabletop roleplaying games.

Tim: You mean like Dungeons & Dragons?

Me: More or less.**

Tim: Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen… loser.

It’s not much of a secret, if you’ve read my LiveJournal or just triangulated from my other interests, but from 1980-1990 and then again from 2001-2005, I played a lot of roleplaying games. Which today are called tabletop roleplaying games or pen-and-paper games, in the sort of prefix addition (think dial telephone, snail mail, liberal Democrat) that generally implies the object in question, while once the norm, is well on its way to the boneyard.

I’m writing something on the history and pre-history of tabletop RPGs for Jonathan Walton and his excellent journal Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying. You can see my original sketch of the article at the top secret Push forum, but it keeps getting longer and weirder than I’d planned. And although I just emailed Jonathan to tell him I’m going to miss his already generous deadline, what follows is something I’m not sure I can fit into the article and that I wanted to share right away. Read more