August 27, 1955 Guinness Book of World Records

The free reference book once intended to inform barroom squabbles has spawned a franchise including museums and television programs, becoming the leading  international authority for the certification of every world record you can think of, from the longest fingernail (2 feet, 11 inches), to the longest mustache (14 feet), to slam dunking basketball bunnies.

Hugh Campbell Beaver was a British engineer and industrialist and, at the time of this story, Managing Director of the brewery founded by Arthur Guinness, about two hundred years earlier. Beaver was on a hunting trip in County Rexford in Ireland, when a friendly argument broke out among the group. Which is the fastest game bird in Europe, the golden plover, or the grouse?

StjamesgateThe information was surprisingly difficult to find, and no reference book was available to settle the matter.

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Julia Gnuse, Guinness World Record most tatooed woman H/T IrishCentral.com

At that time, there were some 81,400 pubs in Great Britain and Ireland. What if they all had a reference book to settle such weighty matters, while enjoying a Guinness Draught, of course.

Beaver turned out to be more correct, than he realized.

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H/T Today.com

At that time, Norris and Ross McWhirter were running a fact-finding agency in London “to supply facts and figures to newspapers, yearbooks, encyclopedias and advertisers” and working as sports reporters, on the side. One of the athletes they covered was the middle and long-distance runner Christopher Chataway, who just happened to work for the Guinness Brewery.

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“Chandra Bahadur Dangi, from Nepal, left, the shortest adult to have ever been verified by Guinness World Records, poses for pictures with the world’s tallest man Sultan Kosen from Turkey, in London on November 13, 2014, to mark Guinness World Records Day.” H/T Today.com

Chattaway introduced the pair to Beaver in 1954. Guinness’ directors were impressed with the encyclopedic knowledge possessed by the McWhirter twins, when it came to facts and figures. The brothers agreed to take up work and, on this day in 1955, the 198-page Guinness Book of Records was first published in Great Britain.

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“Guinness World Records Day: The world’s shortest married couple”  H/T Express.co.uk

The book was intended to be given out for free, but proved to be far more popular than anyone had expected. The company began selling it that fall. Within four months, the book was non-fiction best-seller, in all the United Kingdom.

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“Norris McWhirter holding a copy of the largest diamond in the world (1977)” HWikipedia

Soon, the McWhirter brothers were traveling the world over, to research and verify records. The first American edition was published in 1956, followed by editions in other countries.

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Largest human image, of a camera. H/T Nikon

In the early 1960s, the McWhirter twins became involved in British Conservative party politics, bringing the pair into conflict with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Ross was hunted down and murdered in front of his home in 1975, by IRA gunmen. His brother Norris continued to serve as the book’s editor until retiring, in 1986.

Guinness-World-Records-2017-stars-main_tcm55-443157The free reference book once intended to inform barroom squabbles has spawned a franchise including museums and television programs, becoming the leading  international authority for the certification of every world record you can think of, from the longest fingernail (2 feet, 11 inches), to the longest mustache (14 feet), to slam dunking basketball bunnies.

As of this year the book is in its 63rd year of publication, published in 100 countries and 23 languages and itself holding a world record, as the best-selling copyrighted book of all time.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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May 3, 1915 The Poppy Red

No free citizen of a self-governing Republic, should ever forget where we come from. Or the prices paid by our forebears, to get us here.

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Dr. John McCrae with Bonneau

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of WWI, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41.

Dr. McCrae had the option of joining the medical corps based on his training and his age, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer. McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This would be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

McCrae fought in one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched one of the first chemical attacks in history, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed, in near-constant fighting that lasted for over two weeks.

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Alexis Helmer

Dr. McCrae later wrote to his mother, describing the nightmare. “For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

On May 3, Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of his friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. He performed the burial service himself, when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. He composed this poem the next day, while sitting in the back of an ambulance.war-poppies

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Moina Michael

Moina Michael was browsing through the Ladies Home Journal when she came across McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918. Two days before the armistice.

She was so moved that she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response on the back of a used envelope, calling her poem “We Shall Keep the Faith”.

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The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life in the “Great War”. Since then, the red poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance of the lives lost in all wars.

I keep a red poppy pinned to my laptop bag, and another on the visor of my car. Both serve as reminders that no free citizen of a self-governing Republic should ever forget where we come from. Or the prices paid by our forebears, to get us here.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

April 29, 1915  The Wipers Times

My favorite among the classified ads has to be the “Flammenwerfer” (Flame Thrower). “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

As chief of the Imperial German general staff from 1891-1905, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen devised the strategic roadmap by which Germany prosecuted the first world war. The “Schlieffen Plan” could be likened to a bar fight, where a fighter (Germany) had to take out one guy fast (France), before turning and facing his larger and somewhat slower buddy (Imperial Russia).

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Of infinite importance to Schlieffen’s plan was the westward sweep through France, rolling that nation’s ground forces into a ball on a timetable before his armies could turn east to face the “Russian Steamroller”. “When you march into France”, Schlieffen had said, “let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”

Ypres SalientField Marshall Helmuth von Moltke once said “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”.  So it was in the tiny Belgian city where German plans met with ruin, on the road to Dunkirk. Native Dutch speakers called the place Leper.  Today we know it as Ypres (Ee-pres), since battle maps of the time were drawn up in French. To the Tommys of the British Expeditionary Force, the place was “Wipers”.

What had hitherto been a war of movement ground to a halt in the apocalyptic fighting around Ypres, in October-November, 1914. The scale of the casualties are hard to get your head around.  Over four years, several hundred thousand sons of Germany, Great Britain and France were killed in the battles for the Ypres Salient – a battlefield only 24 kilometers, square.  100 military burial grounds or more, contain their mortal remains.

YpresThe second Battle for Ypres began with a new and terrifying weapon on April 22, 1915. German troops placed 5,730 gas cylinders weighing 90 pounds apiece, along a four-mile front. Allied troops must have looked on in wonder, as that vast yellow-green carpet crept toward their lines.

Chlorine gas forms hypochlorous acid when combined with water, destroying the moist tissues of the lungs and eyes. Heavier than air, the stuff slithered along the ground and poured into trenches, forcing troops out into heavy German fire. 6,000 casualties were sustained in the gas attack alone, opening a four mile gap in the allied line. Thousands retched and coughed out their last breath, as others tossed their equipment and ran in terror.

After the war, German losses were estimated at 34,933 between April 21 and May 30.  BEF casualties numbered 59,275. The French recorded about 18,000 on April 22 alone, and another 3,973 by April 29. All told, 2nd Ypres cost allied forces 87,223 killed, wounded or missing.

The third Battle of Ypres would begin in July of 1917, lasting almost until the end of the war. 3rd Ypres would result in 570,000 losses on all sides, but in early 1916, that was all part of some unknown and terrible future.

It’s hard to imagine anything remotely humorous coming out of the horrors of this place, but such became possible in the early months of 1916.

Optimism advert

First established in 1881, the “Sherwood Foresters” were line infantry Regiments (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiments) of the British Army, at this time stationed at the front lines of the Ypres salient.  The unit came across a printing press.  Corporal George Turner, who’d been a printer in civil life, got the thing going. The Forresters began a trench magazine, a PDF of which may be downloaded HERE.  The first edition of the Wipers Times published on February 12, 1916.  The paper included poems and reflections, news, “adverts” and the blackest of humor.

Written for fellow soldiers, some of the in-jokes are so obscure that their meaning is lost to the modern reader. Others are clearly understandable, even 102 years later.

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Richly typeset advertisements for “Music Hall Extravaganzas” included “Tickling Fritz” by the P.B.I. (Poor Bloody Infantry) Film Co. of the United Kingdom and Canada, advising the enthusiast to “Book Early”. There were Real Estate ads for property in no-man’s land. “BUILD THAT HOUSE ON HILL 60. BRIGHT-BREEZY-&-INVIGORATING. COMMANDS AN EXCELLENT VIEW OF HISTORIC TOWN OF YPRES”. Another one read “FOR SALE, THE SALIENT ESTATE – COMPLETE IN EVERY DETAIL! UNDERGROUND RESIDENCES READY FOR HABITATION. Splendid Motoring Estate! Shooting Perfect !! Fishing Good!!!”

Old Masters

There were advertisements for barbed wire cutters with built-in umbrellas, for the most discerning of gentlemen.

There were news features, this one of a bungled trench raid: “”…They climbed into the trench and surprised the sentry, but unfortunately the revolver which was held to his head missed fire. Attempts were made to throttle him quietly, but he succeeded in raising the alarm, and had to be killed.” editor’s note, “This we consider real bad luck for the sentry after the previous heroic efforts to keep him alive””.

There were weather reports, laying odds on the forecast. “5 to 1 Mist, 11 to 2 East Wind or Frost, 8 to 1 Chlorine”. My favorite among the classifieds has got to be the “Flammenwerfer” (Flame Thrower). “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

Miss Minnie WerferUnits of all sizes, from individual companies to army corps, lightened the load of the “War to end all Wars”, with some kind of unit journal.

Some officers were not amused by the underground paper, and thought its publication should be banned. Others believed that it kept some semblance of morale in the trenches. One pointed out that “humour is what distinguishes us from barbarism.”

The Wipers Times ran through the end of the war, with the exception of the “Operation Michael” period, the last gasp German Western Front offensive of 1918. The final edition, titled “The Better Times”, was published in December 1918, just short of two months after the armistice.   The banner headline on that final edition read “Xmas, Peace and Final Number.”

Better Times Headline

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 29, 1895 If

The younger Kipling would not survive his father. He entered the First World War, and disappeared in the Battle of Loos, in 1915. His body was never found. The elder Kipling’s gift would live on, the words of fatherly advice to an only son, in a poem he called “If”.

It was the 9th of February, 1853, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Robert William Jameson went for a walk, while his wife and mother of his 11 children, a woman with the unlikely name of Christian Pringle, labored to deliver their 12th child. Jameson slipped on a grassy embankment and into a frigid canal, where he would have drowned if not for the kindly stranger who fished him out. The man said he was an American, named Leander Starr.  Before the day was over, Starr was godfather to a newborn Scottish baby boy.  Leander Starr Jameson.

ec213-afrForty years later and half a world away, what would one day become South Africa was divided into four entities: the two British possessions of Cape Colony and Natal, and the two Boer (Dutch) Republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic, better known as Transvaal. Of the four states, Natal and the two Boer Republics were mainly agricultural, populated by subsistence farmers. The Cape Colony was by far the largest, dominating the other three economically, culturally, and socially.

There was considerable friction between Dutch and English settlers, stemming largely from differing attitudes toward slavery. British authorities passed legislation back in 1828, promising equal treatment for all under the law, regardless of race. Boer farmers argued that they needed forced labor to make their farms work, and that slaveholders were too little compensated upon emancipation.

Cetshwayo,_King_of_the_Zulus_(d._1884),_Carl_Rudolph_Sohn,_1882
Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus (d.1884), by Carl Rudolph Sohn

The situation was exacerbated in 1867, with the discovery of vast diamond deposits near modern day Kimberly, in Orange Free State territory. The Cape soon annexed the territory as its own, which I think is a fancy term for “stole”.  The Boers found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place, pressed by the British from the south and west, and by the Zulu “Impi” (army) of King Cetshwayo kaMpande to the north. War broke out between the two sides in 1880-81, called the “First Anglo-Boer War” by one side; the “First Freedom War” by the other.

Gold was discovered near Johannesburg in 1886, massive amounts of it, drawing tens of thousands of “Uitlanders”:  English, American and Australian foreigners, in search of employment and fortune.

Governor of the Cape Colony Cecil Rhodes wanted to incorporate the Transvaal and the Orange Free State into a single federation under British control, while the Transvaal government of Paul Kruger feared just that. Soon outnumbered by Uitlanders two to one, Transvaal limited the right to vote to those having many years’ residency, and imposing heavy taxes on gold mining profits.

By mid-1895, Rhodes had concocted a plan. In a scheme which could only be described as hare-brained, he would send an armed raid into Johannesburg, inciting an uprising of Uitlanders, with the aim of stepping in to take control. Back in London, the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, thought that was a swell idea, and did everything he could to encourage it.

On December 29, 1895, 400 Matabeleland Mounted Police and 200 assorted volunteers crossed from Rhodesia into Transvaal, with Leander Starr Jameson at their head.

Leander_Starr_Jameson

The raid was a humiliating failure.  They cut a wire fence, thinking it was a telegraph wire.  Transvaal authorities were tracking them from the moment they crossed the border. Meanwhile, Chamberlain got cold feet, saying that “if this succeeds it will ruin me. I’m going up to London to crush it”. Chamberlain ordered Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor-General of the Cape Colony, to repudiate the raid, threatening Rhodes and calling on British settlers in the Transvaal not to lend any aid to the raiders.

After several sharp encounters with dug in and well-prepared defenders, what remained of the raiders entered Pretoria on January 2, in chains. The Transvaal government received almost £1 million compensation from the British South Africa Company, turning their prisoners over to be tried by the British government. Jameson was convicted of leading the raid and sentenced to 15 months in prison.

During the whole ordeal, he never revealed the degree to which British politicians supported the raid, or the way they had betrayed him in the end.

Chamberlain Tries to Avert the Jameson Raid
Boer cartoon: Chamberlain Tries to Avert the Jameson Raid

So impressed was the poet, Rudyard Kipling, with Jameson’s display of stoicism under adversity, that he wrote a poem about it in 1895, later giving it to his son, Lieutenant John Kipling.

The younger Kipling would not survive his father. He entered the First World War, and disappeared in the Battle of Loos, in 1915. His body was never found.

The elder Kipling’s gift would live on, the words of fatherly advice to an only son, in a poem he called “If”.

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December 19, 1843  A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 174 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

It’s hard not to love the traditions of the Christmas season.  Getting together with loved ones, good food, the exchange of gifts, and our favorite Christmas specials on TV.  I always liked a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and of course there’s the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, set against the vast brick factory buildings of Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River.

That wasn’t what you thought I’d say, was it.

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Charles Dickens’ 1842 travelogue

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842.

“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; were all behind the young author at the time of his trip to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.

Dickens traveled to Watertown, Massachusetts, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan had educated each other, a half-century later.

He visited a school for neglected boys in Boylston.  Dickens must have thought the charitable institutions in his native England suffered by comparison, for he later wrote “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”

LowellMillGirlsIn February, Dickens took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked there.  Once again, he seemed to believe that his native England suffered in the comparison.  Dickens spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked in them, no doubt comparing them with the teeming slums and degraded conditions in London.

Lowell OfferingDickens left with a copy of “The Lowell Offering”, a literary magazine written by those same mill girls, which he later described as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”

Over a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and dean at Boston University, read the same 400 pages that Dickens read.  She couldn’t help but notice similarities between the work of the mill girls, and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half after Dickens’ visit.  Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time.  Professor McKnight asked her to read those same pages.

7ba33a5b1a569dd293edd9eff5d8eb80--christmas-carol-vintage-christmasThe research which followed was published in the form of a thesis, later fleshed out to a full-length book:

“Dickens and Massachusetts
The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits
How Massachusetts shaped Dickens’s view of America”
Edited by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin
Published May 1, 2015.

The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell.

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 174 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles. Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 21, 1937 The Hobbit

Tolkein discovered Christ II by Cynewulf in the course of his studies, one of only four surviving works by the 9th century Old English poet.  One couplet captured his imagination. “Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast, Ofer middangeard monnum sended” – Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men.

Opportunities for promotion led Arthur Reuel Tolkien to South Africa sometime around 1890, where the bank clerk became manager of the Bloemfontein branch of the Bank of Africa.  Tolkein’s fiancée Mabel joined him in the Orange Free State in 1891, and the couple was married that April.  The first of two boys arrived the following year.  They called him John Ronald Reuel.

Mabel returned to England shortly after the birth of their second son, believing the climate to be healthier. She may have been right.  Arthur died unexpectedly in South Africa, never rejoining his family.  The older boy was four that year, the family’s departure leaving him with “slight but vivid” memories of Africa.  One of them involved an encounter with an enormous, hairy, spider.

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The family lived for a time next to a rail line, south of Birmingham.  John always had an interest in languages, even before he began to invent words.   It must have fired the young boy’s linguistic imagination to see the Welsh coal trucks go by, with names like “Nantyglo“, “Penrhiwceiber” and “Senghenydd” painted on their sides.

Finances were difficult for the family, becoming worse when Mabel succumbed to diabetes when John was only 12.

A Father Francis looked after the boys’ spiritual and educational development at King Edward’s school, where J.R.R. mastered Latin and Greek, becoming competent in a number of other languages, as well. He would make up entire languages for fun, while he and several buddies met regularly after school as the “TCBS” (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), exchanging and criticizing each other’s literary work.

Tolkein discovered Christ II by Cynewulf in the course of these studies, one of only four surviving works by the 9th century Old English poet.  One couplet captured his imagination. “Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast, Ofer middangeard monnum sended” – Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men.

Tolkien served briefly on the Western Front in WWI, before contracting a typhus-like infection called “trench fever”.  He convalesced back in England, serving out the rest of the war in Home Duty. Most of his TCBS friends had been killed in action by this time, and he wrote of his experiences in their memory. “…in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire“.

It’s easy to see these early experiences in his first works, the notes he called his “Legendarium”:  the Deep Elves, the wars against Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond.

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Tolkien took a professorship at Oxford after the war, where one day he found himself correcting papers. He found that one of his students had left a page blank. Who knows what possessed him, but he wrote on the page “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit“. In typical Tolkien fashion, he then had to find out what a “Hobbit” was, why it lived in a hole, and on, and on.

Tolkien’s musings grew into a tale he told his kids.  It grew from there when the publishing firm George, Allen and Unwin got hands on an incomplete typescript, and encouraged the professor to finish his work.  J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale was published on this day in 1937, under the title “The Hobbit“.

The Hobbit was so successful that the publisher asked if Tolkein had similar material available for publication. By this time, Tolkien’s Legendarium had taken a more complete form which he was calling his “Qenya Silmarillion”.  Tolkien submitted the work to mixed reviews. the prevailing sense being that the work was not commercially viable.

The author was disappointed by the setback, but agreed to take up the challenge of writing “The New Hobbit”. It took 16 years of coaxing and prodding to accelerate the snail’s pace of this unhurried writer, by the now-grown son of one of the publishers, Rayner Unwin. Tolkien even offered the work to a rival publisher at one point, but they backed off the project on realizing the scope and size of the work.

Hobbit Cover

J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale developed into far more than a children’s story, published in three parts in 1954-1955 under the title “Lord of the Rings“.  Early misgivings that the project would be a financial loss, soon evaporated.

Author and publisher alike had greatly underestimated the public appeal of Tolkien’s work.  To date, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit have sold well over 300 million copies. But for exchange issues related to a rising dollar and plunging foreign currencies, the Peter Jackson Hobbit film trilogy of 2012 would have grossed $1 billion at the world-wide box office.

April 2, 1722 Silence Dogood

On December 3, James Franklin ran an ad. “If any Person . . . will give a true Account of Mrs. Silence Dogood, whether Dead or alive, Married or unmarried, in Town or Country, . . . they shall have Thanks for their Pains.”

Franklin BirthplaceThe fifteenth child of Josiah and Abiah Franklin was born in a little house on Milk Street, across from the Old South Church, in Boston.

The family moved to a larger house at Union & Hanover Street, when little Ben was six. As the tenth son, Benjamin Franklin was destined to be “tithed” to the church, but Josiah changed his mind after the boy’s first year in Boston Latin School. In light of the small salary, it was too expensive to educate a minister of the church.

He was sent to George Brownell’s English school for writing and arithmetic where he stayed until age ten, when he went to work in his father’s shop making tallow candles and boiling soap. After 1714, “Dr.” Benjamin Franklin’s education came exclusively from the books he picked up along the way.

By twelve the boy was “Hankering to go to sea”, and his father was concerned about his running away. Knowing of the boy’s love of books, the elder Franklin apprenticed his son to the print shop of James Franklin, one of his older sons, where he went to work setting type for books. And reading them.  He would often “borrow” a book at night, returning it “early in the Morning lest it should be miss’d or wanted.”Benjamin Franklin, printer

By 1720, James Franklin began to publish The New England Courant, only the second newspaper to appear in the American colony.

Franklin often published essays and articles written by his friends, a group described as “The Hell-Fire Club”. Benjamin desperately wanted to be one of them, but James seemed to feel that sixteen-year-old little brothers should be seen, and not heard..

Sometime in March 1722, a letter appeared beneath the print shop door. “Sir, It may not be improper in the first Place to inform your Readers, that I intend once a Fortnight to present them, by the Help of this Paper, with a short Epistle, which I presume will add somewhat to their Entertainment”. The letter went on in some detail to describe the life of its author, Mrs. Silence Dogood.

That first letter was published on April 2.  True to her word, Silence Dogood wrote again in two weeks.  And then again, and again.  Once every two weeks, for 28 weeks.  Her letters were delightful, cleverly mocking the manners of Boston “Society”, and freely giving advice, particularly on the way that women should be treated. Nothing was sacred.  One letter suggested that the only thing students learned at Harvard College, was conceit.

dogood_illustrationJames Franklin and his literary friends loved the letters, and published every one. All of Boston was charmed with Silence Dogood’s subtle mockery of the city’s Old School Puritan elite. Proposals of marriage came into the print shop, when the widow Dogood coyly suggested that she would welcome suitors.

James was jailed at one point, for printing “scandalous libel” about Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley.  The younger Franklin ran the shop in his absence, when Mrs. Dogood came to his defense.  Quoting Cato, she proclaimed:  “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”

And then the letters stopped, much to the dismay of the Courant and its readership. One wrote to the editor, saying the paper had “lost a very valuable Correspondent, and the Public been depriv’d of many profitable Amusements.”

On December 3, James Franklin ran an ad. “If any Person . . . will give a true Account of Mrs. Silence Dogood, whether Dead or alive, Married or unmarried, in Town or Country, . . . they shall have Thanks for their Pains.” It was only then that his sixteen-year-old brother fessed up.  Benjamin Franklin was the author of the Silence Dogood letters.

benjamin--james-franklin-grangerAll of Boston was amused by the hoax, but not James. He was furious with his little brother, who soon broke the terms of his apprenticeship and fled to Pennsylvania.

And so it was that a future Founding Father of the Republic, the inventor, scientist, writer and philosopher, the statesmen who appears on our $100 bill, came to Philadelphia.  Within a few years Franklin had set up his own print shop, publishing the Philadelphia Gazette as well as his own book bindery, in addition to buying and selling books.

Benjamin Franklin’s efforts are in no small part a reason why literacy standards were higher in Colonial America, than among the landed gentry of 18th century England. Higher even, I believe, than today.

FranklinFranklin’s diplomacy to the Court of Versailles was every bit as important to the success of the Revolution, as the Generalship of the Father of the Republic, George Washington. Signatory to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it is arguably Ben Franklin who broke the impasse of the Convention of 1787, paving the way for ratification of the United States Constitution.

By then too old and frail to deliver his own speech, Franklin had someone else read his words to the deadlocked convention.

“On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument”.

As I witness the aftermath of this election year 2016, easily the most divisive of my two-score and eighteen years, I can’t deny the wish that I and my countrymen, too, might doubt a little of our own infallibility.