Franklin scholar uses America’s Historical Newspapers to trace an ingenious hoax
In December 2008 an essay about one of Benjamin Franklin’s cleverest hoaxes was published in The Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. Written by distinguished Franklin scholar Carla Mulford, “Benjamin Franklin's Savage Eloquence: Hoaxes from the Press at Passy, 1782” was awarded the prestigious William L. Mitchell Prize from the Bibliographical Society of America on January 27, 2012. As explained in the Bibliographical Society's press release, Dr. Mulford’s article...
In her prize-winning essay, Mulford, Associate Professor of English at Penn State University and Founding President of the Society of Early Americanists, explains the “continued life of the first article (on the harvest of scalps),” which soon appeared in American newspapers and which was reprinted at least 34 times, “well into the nineteenth century, when it had the unintended effect of justifying hostilities to American Indians.” An appendix of “Nineteenth-Century Newspaper Re-Publications of the Supplement” concludes her study. Among the high praise from the judges was this comment:
Dr. Mulford "displays a remarkable knowledge and control of the vast Franklin materials, primary and secondary, along with an excellent, precise bibliographical approach. A rare combination."
Professor Mulford recently acknowledged the benefits of using Readex databases in her research for this article and her forthcoming book, Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire:
America’s Historical Newspapers enabled me to trace the different contemporary and then later uses of the ‘scalping’ hoax. By way of background, let me point out that Franklin was profoundly troubled that the British military was paying Native peoples to create devastation on British Americans’ homes and to kill the people. Franklin had spent much of his time while in Pennsylvania (decades earlier) figuring out how best to negotiate peacefully with Indians. So he was outraged when the Indians became (by necessity and in an effort to preserve their own sovereignty) involved in the fray between Britons in North America and those in England. The Readex database made it possible for me to discover the posthumous uses to which Franklin’s hoax had been put, and, with terrible irony, I discovered that it was used to promulgate a form of Indian-hating by Americans in North America. The original target, British peoples in England, was lost, and the Indians received the central, negative thrust of the hoax. I think Franklin would have found this appalling. So I traced the uses of the hoax and made a record of it, so that others might see how periodical circulation takes on a life of its own.