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Franklin scholar uses America’s Historical Newspapers to trace an ingenious hoax

Posted on 02/16/2012

Carla Mulford, Dept. of English, Penn State University

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...

Source: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association (Dec. 2008)

concerns the printing, distribution, rhetorical strategy, and impact of Franklin's bogus Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle, no. 705, dated 12 March 1782.  In its distributed second impression, this single-leaf extra contained two principal texts by Franklin that purport to be by others.  On the front is a report by an American Captain, Samuel Gerrish, on his capturing a cargo of human scalps taken in recent years “by the Senneka Indians from the Inhabitants of the Frontiers,” with incriminating documentation transcribed within the article (including an Indian’s note asking that the scalps be sent “over the Water to the great King” with the starving Indians’ request for better treatment). The second item, not present in the undistributed first printing of the hoax as a single-sided broadside, was a purported letter by John Paul Jones to the British administrator Sir Joseph Yorke, who had previously failed to honor a prisoner exchange agreement with Jones and had written disparaging testimonies regarding Jones and the related events. To fill out the pages of the paper, the hoax also contains advertisements typical of the Boston Independent Chronicle

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.

Prof. Mulford is preparing an article about her use of the Archive of Americana, including Early American Imprints and Early American Newspapers.  Look for it in a future issue of The Readex Report.

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