April 2, 1722

Benjamin Franklin Introduces "Silence Dogood"

On this day in 1722, the Boston paper The Courant first published a letter from a widow with a keen wit and a gift for satire. Every few weeks, another letter from "Silence Dogood" appeared. The city was captivated by the lady's willingness to poke fun at institutions as illustrious as Harvard. After six months, "Silence Dogood" fell silent. Even James Franklin, The Courant's publisher, did not know who she was or what had become of her. When her identity was revealed, Boston was amused but James Franklin was not. "Silence Dogood" was his 16-year-old brother Benjamin, an apprentice in his print shop. The brothers parted ways, and Benjamin Franklin left his native city for Philadelphia, which now claims him as its own.

The Courant's publisher, did not know who Mrs. Silence Dogood was or what had become of her. 

Ask most Americans and they will tell you that Philadelphia was Benjamin Franklin's hometown. But the famous printer, writer, statesmen, and inventor was actually a Boston boy. By the time he was sixteen, he was already well-known as the young man who had introduced Boston readers to an entertaining middle-aged widow, "Mrs. Silence Dogood."

Franklin was born in 1706 in a little house on Milk Street just across from the Old South Church. He was the fifteenth child of Josiah Franklin, a candle and soap maker, and his wife Abiah. When Ben was six, the family moved to a slightly larger dwelling at the corner of Union and Hanover Streets. Young Ben Franklin explored the streets, mill ponds, and wharves of the colonial city, getting into various forms of mischief and picking up an education along the way.

He was eight when his father decided that, as the tenth son, Ben should be a tithe to the church and enrolled the boy in a grammar school to begin preparation for the ministry. Ben was a quick study and soon moved to the head of his class. But after a year, his father reconsidered, deciding that it was too expensive to educate a minister given the small salary clergymen earned. He withdrew his son from school and put him to work in his shop. From then on, Ben Franklin educated himself, whenever he could find time, from books that he bought, borrowed, or came across in his work.

"Being still a Boy, and suspecting that my Brother would object to printing any Thing of mine in his Paper if he knew it to be mine, I contriv'd to disguise my Hand, & writing an anonymous Paper I put it in at Night under the Door of the Printing House."

After several years in his father's shop, he was restless and "Hankering for the Sea." Fearing the boy would run away and recognizing how much his son loved books, the elder Franklin apprenticed Benjamin to one of his older sons, the printer James Franklin. The 12-year-old boy went to work setting type for books — and reading them. He would often "borrow" a bookseller's book, stay up much of the night reading it, and then return it "early in the Morning lest it should be miss'd or wanted."

When Benjamin was about fourteen, his brother began publishing The New England Courant, "only the second newspaper to appear in America." After composing the Types & printing the Sheets, [Ben Franklin] was employed to carry the Papers thro' the Streets to the Customers," as he wrote in his Autobiography.

James Franklin often printed pieces written by his friends, and Ben desperately wanted to see his own work in the paper. When he was sixteen, he devised a plan. "Being still a Boy, and suspecting that my Brother would object to printing any Thing of mine in his Paper if he knew it to be mine, I contriv'd to disguise my Hand, & writing an anonymous Paper I put it in at Night under the Door of the Printing House. It was found in the Morning & communicated to his Writing Friends when they call'd." The men read it, and Ben Franklin had "the exquisite Pleasure" of listening as they praised it.

In her own dignified way, "Silence Dogood" managed to mock Boston manners and mores.

James's friends were not likely to have guessed the identity of the author, for that piece and fifteen more "letters" that followed over the next six months were written in the voice of a woman — a widow with a charming, witty, and satirical style and the name "Mrs. Silence Dogood."

The letters were a delight. In her own dignified way, "Silence Dogood" managed to mock Boston manners and mores. She lampooned Harvard College, suggesting that the only thing its students really learned was how to be conceited. She commented on Boston's drinking habits, the absurdity of certain fashions — and, with delicious irony — Bostonians' tendency to reserve judgment on an opinion until they knew who had expressed it. She was free with her advice, particularly on the way women should be treated.

"Silence Dogood" completely charmed Boston. In a city where the old-school Puritan elite rarely sanctioned public criticism of one's betters, the letters were acceptable as social satire. When the widow coyly suggested that she would welcome suitors, several men wrote to the paper with offers of marriage.

"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."

After six months, "Silence Dogood's" letters stopped; readers were distraught. One wrote to The Courant that the paper had "lost a very valuable Correspondent, and the Public been depriv'd of many profitable Amusements."

On December 3, 1722, James Franklin ran an ad in his paper: "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." Only then did Benjamin Franklin reveal the widow's identity to his brother and to Boston.

James Franklin was one of the few townspeople who was not amused. Ill feeling and rivalry between the brothers caused Benjamin to break the terms of his apprenticeship and leave Boston for Philadelphia. Within a few years, he had set up his own press and was publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette. It would be in Philadelphia, not his native Boston, that Benjamin Franklin would become the most famous American of his time.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, by H.W. Brands (Doubelday, 2000).

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster, 2003).

The Benjamin Franklin Papers, ed. by Frank Donovan (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1962).

The Autobiography and Other Writings, by Benjamin Franklin (Vintage Books, 1990).

Themes

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