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Lauren Spinelli
Lauren Spinelli

The Race to Save Benjamin Franklin's Cracked Gravestone

Lauren Spinelli
Lauren Spinelli

The Pennsylvania Gazette published the morning of April 21, 1790, was rimmed in black. Flags across the city, and on the ships in the harbor, fluttered at half mast, and some 20,000 people crowded the streets.

“On Saturday night last departed this life ... Dr. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, of this City,” the paper read. “His Remains will be interred THIS AFTERNOON, at four o'clock, on Christ-Church burial ground.”

It was the largest funeral the city had ever seen; nearly half of Philadelphia’s population had come out to view the beloved Founding Father’s funeral procession.

It began at the State House (now called Independence Hall), where Franklin had served as Pennsylvania’s delegate to the Constitutional Convention three years earlier, just as his health was beginning to weaken. Clergy of all faiths came first, followed by Franklin’s casket, which was carried by some of Pennsylvania’s most important men—the president of Pennsylvania, the former mayor of the city, and the president of the Bank of North America among them. Next was Franklin’s family, and finally, there were printers, members of the fire company and the Philosophical Society, judges and state assemblymen, and politicians.

Church bells were muffled and tolled as the procession wound its way from the State House to Christ Church Burial Ground at the intersection of 5th and Arch Streets. As Franklin was lowered into the ground, the militia fired their guns. The grave was filled with dirt. Some time later, a blue marble ledger tablet, weighing over 1000 pounds, was laid on top.

Benjamin and Deborah Franklin's grave marker sometime before 1858.
Benjamin and Deborah Franklin's grave marker sometime before 1858.
Library Company of Philadelphia

It was exactly what Franklin had wanted. Though he had written an elaborate mock epitaph as a 22-year-old (which began, “The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; Like the Cover of an Old Book, Its Contents Torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms”), he outlined something much simpler when he updated his will in 1788. Franklin wrote that he wanted to be buried next to his wife, Deborah, in the family plot. He asked that “a marble stone,” made by mason David Chambers, “6 feet long, 4 feet wide, plain, with only a small moulding round the upper edge,” reading “Benjamin And Deborah Franklin 178-” be “placed over us both.”

For the next 70 years, the Franklin family plot was hidden from view by the brick wall that enclosed Christ Church Burial Ground (which, at that time, was closed to the public). Then, in the 1850s, an article lamenting the condition of Franklin’s gravesite, and its lack of access, ran in newspapers across the country. “A dilapidated dark slab of stone … marks ... the spot where rest the remains of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin,” it read. “So well hidden is THIS grave, and so little frequented, that we have known many native Philadelphians … who could not direct one to the locality where it may be found.”

In response to pleas from the public, Christ Church eventually replaced a section of the wall next to the grave with a wrought-iron fence in 1858. This may have been when the Franklins’ marble marker—which some felt was too simple a memorial for such a great American—was placed in an elevated granite platform to give the site more of a monument feel.

Little boys look over Franklin's grave circa 1900.
Library of Congress

Making Franklin’s grave visible from the sidewalk was great for the public, but not so great for the condition of the Founding Father’s ledger tablet. As decades passed, thousands of visitors stopped by, and when his name became attached to an idiom he never actually said—“a penny saved is a penny earned”—people began tossing pennies on the grave. In the 1950s, the Church made repairs to the tablet and covered the grass surrounding the graves with red bricks. All the while, the public continued to toss coins and mementos onto the grave, creating pockmarks and pitting in the tablet’s surface, while moisture gathered beneath it in the granite base.

And then, one day—no one is quite sure when—a crack appeared, running right through the K in Franklin.

The staff at Christ Church Burial Ground monitored the crack for decades until, in 2016, they knew they had no choice but to act. Growth of the fissure was still accelerating, putting one of the most important gravesites in the United States at risk of being lost forever. Keeping the crack from getting worse would require the expert work of conservationists, funds from the public—and a little help from a rock star.

 


 

There are more than 4000 people interred at Christ Church’s 2-acre burial ground, which is located in Philly’s Old City neighborhood not far from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. There are five signers of the Declaration of Independence and two signers of the Constitution interred there, but Franklin is by far its most popular resident: Hundreds of thousands of people file by the fence next to his grave each year, and 60,000 pay an entry fee to come into the burial ground itself to pay their respects.

Also watching over Franklin is John Hopkins, who has served as caretaker of the Christ Church Burial Ground for 15 years. In addition to maintaining the stones and deciding which will be fixed, Hopkins manages a staff of tour guides, runs the tourism program, deals with upkeep of the grounds, and handles interactions with descendants of the people interred there. By his estimation, he’s spent more time with Franklin than the people who knew the Founding Father when he was alive. He’s a bit of a Franklin obsessive, able to drop idioms and facts at random. There’s an incredibly detailed Franklin action figure, which holds a hawk feather, on his desk. (It’s joined by photos of Edgar Allan Poe, a banner bearing the names of burial ground residents, and a red fedora adorned with the Phillies logo.)

Hopkins has had his eye on the crack from the moment he became caretaker. “Every year, I’d get a ruler and measure it,” he says. For most of his tenure, growth of the crack was slight but steady, “enough to cause concern.” The Franklin marker had long been on his list of stones to fix, but because it wasn’t a safety issue—“repairing any stones that may fall and hurt a visitor” is the number one priority, he says—Hopkins had to put it off.

John Hopkins examines a grave in Christ Church Burial Ground.
John Hopkins in Christ Church Burial Ground.
Lauren Spinelli

Materials Conservation, a Philadelphia-based company that specializes in restoring architecture, art, and gravestones, works its magic on about 20 Christ Church markers chosen by Hopkins each year. Marco Federico, senior conservator at the company, became concerned about the fissure in Franklin’s tablet around five years ago. Based on what he and his team knew about historic materials, he says, they explained to the Christ Church Preservation Trust that the combination of marble ledger tablet and granite base was a very bad one. “Marble is calcium carbonite, a metamorphic [rock], and it needs to breathe. When it’s wet, it needs to dry out,” Federico says. “Granite, which is an igneous rock, does not readily allow moisture to pass through it.”

Marble, he explains, expands when it’s wet and contracts when it’s dry. When the stone can fully dry out, it’s not a problem—but when the top of the marble dries and the bottom half is still wet, it causes the stone to warp. “If only half the stone is drying out while the bottom continually remains saturated,” Federico says, “fatigue failure will eventually occur and it will shear in half.”

Which is precisely what happened with Franklin’s marker: Much like a bathtub, the granite base the tablet sat in was holding water, and with no way to drain, that water sat until it dried up on its own—which could take weeks or months. The water kept the marble from drying out completely until the stone was so warped and stressed that it cracked. With repeated wet/dry cycles, Federico says, “we knew that crack would start to get bigger and bigger.”

And get bigger it did. In the past couple of years, growth of the crack accelerated—and it became clear to Hopkins and Federico that the time had come to deal with it, or risk the damage becoming too great to save the stone.

The Christ Church Preservation Fund secured $70,000 worth of grants to repair the tablet, but it wasn’t enough to cover the full costs; they’d need an additional $10,000 to get the job done. That’s a lot of pennies, but Hopkins had an idea about how to get the funds.

In the early 1750s, Franklin managed a lottery to fund the construction of the building’s steeple, selling tickets to Philadelphia’s citizens until the church had enough money. “Some of us jokingly believe he probably had some ulterior motives, to do some experimenting with the electricity and the height of the building,” Hopkins says. “There were a lot of people involved in the lottery, but Franklin was the big loud guy that could talk you into buying the tickets.”

Franklin, Hopkins reasoned, had been the ultimate community guy, one who was "kickstarting" long before Kickstarter—so why not follow his example and start a GoFundMe to raise money for the restoration of his grave?

The campaign went live in November 2016, and the public stepped up right away, leaving messages along with their donations. “The embodiment of freedom and enlightenment. Thank you Ben Franklin for inspiring the ages!” wrote one supporter. “A true Philadelphia landmark that should be preserved!” wrote another. (Our personal favorite: “Fart proudly, neighbor!” Franklin loved a good fart joke.) Even the Philadelphia Eagles got in on the action, donating $1000—which delighted Hopkins, an enthusiastic Philly sports fan.

But the single biggest donation came from a seemingly unlikely source: New Jersey-born musician Jon Bon Jovi and his wife Dorothea. “I didn’t realize he was a big history buff,” Hopkins says. “He gives a lot of money to different organizations in Philadelphia. The fact that he was interested in our project was really cool and brought more attention to it.”

The GoFundMe reached its goal in just a day, eventually raising more than $14,000. The restoration was a go—which meant that Federico and his team had to get to work.

 


 

Before they could get started, the Materials Conservation and Christ Church teams had to come up with a plan of attack. They decided that, after lifting the marker, they’d sand down the edge of the granite base and add weep holes for water to drain; raised granite plinths would be placed on the base, and the tablet set back on those—leaving a small gap between the underside of the marker and the granite base. Water would drip off the tablet or drain through the weep holes, allowing the marker to fully dry out.

“We want to do as little as possible, basically,” Federico says. “We don’t want to do 100 percent restoration and have a brand-new-looking stone—we want to conserve the object as it is, and allow this historic resource to have a vastly increased lifespan.” Without the restoration, Federico estimates that the tablet would have cracked completely in three to five years. The restoration could allow the stone to remain on view for another 100 years.

Federico wasn’t sure how bad the crack was—there was no way of knowing until they had lifted the tablet—but he knew there was a chance the tablet would break as they were removing it from the base. He believed he could get under the stone via two broken corners, which provided the most access, and bridge the crack with a piece of stainless steel, then block the tablet up on wood a little bit at a time: a sixteenth of an inch at a time and then a quarter-inch at a time.

That’s exactly what Federico’s team tried—until the stone, still saturated, began to bend at the crack.

The team changed their approach. They fabricated stainless steel s-hooks and used compressed air to blow out debris (mud and “dirty little pennies”) from the area under the stone. They slid the tiny steel levers between the gap of the ledger tablet and the granite base. And then, they began to lift.

Federico kept his eye on the crack as two assistants used levers and a fulcrum to lift from the side. They proceeded carefully, lifting in small increments. Finally, after a tense hour, they had hoisted the ledger tablet high enough to slip a 2-by-4 piece of wood under each end, which allowed them to lift while spreading the load over the crack. “Once we were able to do that, it just became standard procedure,” Federico says. They lifted again, added a piece of wood, lifted again, added a piece of wood, until the tablet was raised around 8 inches off the granite base, supported on either end by a stack of wood.

But they still weren’t finished. The next step was to bolt two longer pieces of wood to the lateral pieces on either end, creating a frame—which is what they’d lift when they moved the tablet for real. With that task finished, they took off for the weekend, leaving the tablet sitting on foam-wrapped wood. The final piece of heavy lifting would happen on Monday.

Federico has conserved many gravestones during his 10 years as a conservator, but none are quite like this one. “If you’re looking for, like, the most iconic figure in American history, it’s hard to top Franklin,” he says. “There is only one Ben Franklin, and there’s only one Ben Franklin marker, and the way that Philadelphians and tourists interact with that marker—there's a very public connection. I wouldn’t say there was extra pressure, because we’re used to working on objects and materials of tremendous historical and cultural significance. But it’s not like the run of the mill thing, either.”

Finally, the day came to really lift the tablet: April 17, the anniversary of Franklin’s death. A green tarp had been secured over the wrought iron fence that faced the street, but Federico and his team still had an audience—the Bon Jovis. “I hate having an audience when I think that there's a chance for catastrophic failure, because no matter how many precautions you take, things break,” he says. “Catastrophic failure can happen at any time for any number of reasons.”

Redundancy is your friend when you’re dealing with a very heavy priceless object, so all of the equipment used to lift Franklin’s marker was built to handle as much of a load as possible. “Usually when you’re lifting a load, you want to be sure that all your straps, chains, and clevises, are rated for twice the load you’re lifting,” Federico says. “It’s better to be at triple knowing you have an audience and your mistakes could easily turn you into an eternal meme for failure!”

The goal was to lift the frame holding Franklin’s marker off the wood blocking and place both frame and tablet safely on a nearby metal frame table. Using a chain hoist on an I-beam, they slowly lifted the tablet and swung the stone 3 feet to the side. Federico was “hyper-aware, with every sense of my being focused on the slightest movement.” Then they carefully lifted it 3 feet off the ground.

The crew at Materials Conservation carefully lifts Franklin's grave marker.
John Carr, Materials Conservation

Success. They wheeled the table underneath the marker and safely set it down. The whole process took about six hours. “When Benjamin Franklin’s grave marker is dangling by a chain and you acknowledge that chain’s performance will define your life’s work, yeah, it feels good to know it’s safe and sound on a table,” Federico says.

Plus, it was pretty cool to have Bon Jovi there. Not only did it give Federico’s team an excuse to really take their time, but “Mr. Bon Jovi was really as low-profile about it as he could have been,” Federico says. “He was very interested in how the tablet was made, and what the conditions were, and how we were going to repair it and what it would look like when it was repaired. His interest is really sincere and genuine, and so we appreciated that.”

 


 

It’s a gray day in late April, and the tarp is still up over the fence at Christ Church Burial Ground. The barrier gives the Materials Conservation team privacy to get their work done. “The most common question we get when we’re working in the graveyard,” Federico says, “is ‘Are you digging them up?’” (For the record, the answer is always no.) A worker uses a wet saw with a diamond blade on a track to precisely cut down the edges of the granite base, one-sixteenth of an inch at a time; at one end of the base—where the top of Franklin’s tablet used to sit—is wet granite dust and three-quarters of an inch of milky water from yesterday’s rain.

The granite base where Franklin's tablet sat for decades.
Lauren Spinelli

The site where Franklin's tablet is being restored.
Lauren Spinelli

A few feet away, under a tent, Franklin’s tablet sits on a 4-by-4 wood frame. Federico has spread sample pucks full of composite repair mortars in various shades of gray on top, which he’ll eventually use to fill in the crack. “We’re going to match the composite mortar to the lighter color of the tablet,” he says, “and then we’ll use a mineral stain to go over the lighter area to continue these dark striations.”

The conservator has his work cut out for him. When they lifted the tablet out of its granite base, the team realized that the slab was cracked all the way through up until the bottom third of the stone. In addition to stabilizing the crack, Federico will also need to repair the two corners that had broken off, and treat the stone with a consolidant. “We look at stone as a monolithic thing, but it’s actually sort of like grains within a matrix,” he says. “The stone consolidant works its way into the matrix and strengthens these intergranular bonds.”

Federico began the restoration by treating the underside of the tablet with composite repair mortar, a cementitious material that he applied using a brush while lying on his back under the tablet, “like painting the Sistine Chapel.” Then he carefully drilled into the tablet on either side of the crack—“on the underside,” he jokes, because “it’s Franklin, not Frankenstein”—to make holes for seven stainless steel sutures that will sit flush with the tablet and bridge the crack to keep it from getting wider.

Franklin's tablet had cracked all the way through.
Lauren Spinelli

Marco Federico points out the sutures that will be used to stabilize the crack.
Lauren Spinelli

A piece of marble loose in the crack.
Lauren Spinelli

Next, he’ll need to clean the fissure. “You can see all the dirt in there—this has been open for a long time,” he says. “Not just water, not just dirt—little things crawl in there and make their homes. I don’t know who’s going to fall out of there when we open that up.” He also needs to remove and reset a big chunk of marble that’s currently sitting loose in the crack.

Then, using a syringe, he’ll fill the voids beneath the surface of the stone with a lime-based injection grout. The bottom “is so small that I can’t fill it,” Federico says, “but the top part of the crack will get filled. The underside has already been prepared, so whatever we inject will just flow down to that side and sit in there.” Finally, he’ll apply composite repair mortar on top of the grout with a micro spatulum and use the mineral stain to make it match. “The crack will still read as a crack, if you know where to look,” Federico says, “but it’s going to be greatly reduced in visibility.”

The crack runs directly through the K in Franklin, and Federico will fix that letter, too—but he’ll have Franklin’s final wishes in his mind as he does it. “I want to mess with this inscription as little as possible,” he says, “because as far as we know, this has not been recarved, this has not been touched up. The spacing of the lettering, all those marks are from when they were cut back in 1790.” After he’s filled the crack there slightly, he’ll go back during aesthetic integration and use mineral stain to do what he calls in-painting. “Once we treat it with mineral stain,” he says, “it’ll look and shade just the way the K initially had.”

But even once the crack is stabilized, and the tablet is back in place, it won’t be out of danger entirely. “The pennies!” Federico says. “God help us, the pennies.”

 


 

Those who pay their respects to Franklin by throwing pennies on his grave are doing it in honor of a phrase he didn’t even coin. (Sorry not sorry for those puns.) Variations on “a penny saved is a penny earned” date back to the 1600s; Thomas Fuller, for example, wrote “a penny saved is a penny gained” in 1662. Franklin put his spin on it, “a penny saved is a penny got,” in his 1758 issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack, and by the late 1830s, was erroneously credited as the originator of the quote “a penny saved is a penny earned.” (Nevermind that, as Blaine McCormick and Burton Folsom point out at Forbes, Franklin—an experienced businessman—“knew that a penny unspent in the competitive marketplace could never be equivalent to a penny earned in revenue.”) Two decades later, Christ Church opened up the wall beside Franklin’s grave, and, at some point, the penny throwing tradition began—and now, that tradition is having disastrous consequences for the tablet.

Marble, though it’s stone, is actually pretty soft. “That’s why [artists] carve things out of it,” Federico says. Get him started on the pennies, and he quickly becomes heated. “If you were to walk into the Philadelphia Museum of Art and just start throwing pennies at things, it would be completely unacceptable,” he says. “For us, it would also be completely unacceptable to be throwing any object at a historic monument like a grave marker.”

Marco Federico points out pitting in Franklin's stone caused by the penny-tossing tradition.
Lauren Spinelli

It might be hard to tell from afar, but up close, it’s easy to see, and to feel: The surface of Franklin’s tablet, especially the side closest to the street, is pockmarked and pitted from years of impacts—not just from pennies, but from nickels and quarters, souvenirs and mementos. “We can’t really protect the stone at night,” Hopkins says. “People use sticks to try to steal the pennies off the tablet.”

The tablet didn’t crack because of the pennies, but they do damage nonetheless. A close inspection of the stone reveals bright white flecks, evidence that the surface is degrading. Sadly, there’s nothing that can be done about that damage. “There's no good way to treat all of the pitting on the stone,” Federico says. “You just hope it weathers well and that it doesn’t continue to happen with such intensity that you cause areas where the water pools up on the stone, because as people continue to throw pennies on this, eventually that’s what's going to happen.”

Hopkins says that he removes between $3000 and $4000 worth of pennies from Franklin’s grave annually, funds that go right back into the preservation of the graves in the burial ground. But the benefits of the tradition don’t outweigh the cost. “As the caretaker of this burial ground, I take it very personally,” he says. “None of these other stones we even let people touch, let alone throw something on.” Tour guides who aren't affiliated with the Church stand by the fence and encourage people to throw pennies. “This is one of the greatest Americans of all time, and that’s all you can say about him?” Hopkins says. “And you don’t even mention his wife? I take it personally.”

So Hopkins is trying to educate the public in the hopes that they’ll quit throwing pennies. And if they don’t, the situation will one day reach a point of no return: “Once water starts pooling on top of it, with that crack, it’s really going to shorten the lifespan of the marker,” Federico says. “That’s when we may have to say, ‘Time to take it out of public view.’ And nobody wants that to happen.”

 


 

When he died at the age of 84 in 1790, Philadelphia’s Federal Gazette called Franklin a “FRIEND OF MANKIND” who possessed “singular abilities and virtues,” writing, “it is impossible for a newspaper to increase his fame, or to convey his name to a part of the civilized globe where it is not already known and admired.”

That was not exaggeration: Across the ocean, Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau proclaimed to the French National Assembly that Franklin was “a mighty genius” who “was able to restrain alike thunderbolts and tyrants.” The Frenchmen wore black armbands; at home, members of the House of Representatives wore mourning colors for a month.

From the devices he invented to the republic he helped create, it’s impossible to quantify all that Franklin has given us. With this conservation, the team at Christ Church and Materials Conservation have done their part to keep the Founding Father’s legacy alive, and his ledger tablet around for generations to come. “I can rest easily in the grounds knowing that [his tablet] is going to be preserved beyond my years,” Hopkins says.

But how the tablet fares after this is up to the public. So the next time you're walking down Arch Street and pass Franklin's grave, stop to honor the man, admire the hard work that went into preserving his final resting place—and keep those pennies in your pocket.

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Animals
15 Reasons You Should Appreciate Squirrels
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Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. THEY CAN JUMP REALLY, REALLY FAR.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
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In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].

2. THEY'RE VERY ORGANIZED …

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
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In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A recent study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. … BUT THEIR FORGETFULNESS HELPS TREES GROW.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
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Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. THEY HELP TRUFFLES THRIVE.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
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The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. THEY'RE ONE OF THE FEW MAMMALS THAT CAN SPRINT DOWN A TREE HEAD-FIRST.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
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You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. SEVERAL TOWNS COMPETE FOR THE TITLE OF 'HOME OF THE WHITE SQUIRREL.'

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
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Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. THEY CAN AID STROKE RESEARCH.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
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Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. THEIR FUR MAY HAVE SPREAD LEPROSY IN THE MIDDLE AGES.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
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If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. THEY'RE MORE POWERFUL THAN HACKERS.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. THEY CAN HEAT UP THEIR TAILS TO WARD OFF PREDATORS.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. THEY HELP SCIENTISTS KNOW WHETHER A FOREST IS HEALTHY.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
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Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. THEY CAN LIE.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
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Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. THEY WERE ONCE AMERICA'S MOST POPULAR PET.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. THE MERE SIGHT OF JUST ONE COULD ONCE ATTRACT A CROWD.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. IN THE 19TH CENTURY, THEY WERE TASKED WITH TEACHING COMPASSION.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

BONUS: THEY USED TO HATE TAX SEASON TOO.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
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Retrobituaries
Leon Ray Livingston, America's Most Famous Hobo
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

With no more troops or supplies to move after the end of the Civil War, the country's railroads became home to another army—that of the hobos. The ever-increasing web of rails nationwide would go from 45,000 miles before 1871 to nearly 200,000 by 1900, making it easier for the poorest of working-class folk, many of whom were veterans, to hitch a ride on a train and travel from state to state looking for employment. These hobos were soon a familiar sight coast to coast.

The journeys of these destitute travelers quickly caught on in the popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, creating a romanticized view of this unique lifestyle. It was a time when writers like W. H. Davies and Jack London parlayed their hoboing experiences into literary notoriety, while Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" would become one of the most recognizable movie characters of the 20th century. Among these wandering folk figures was a man with a sense of showmanship and a keen eye for branding: Leon Ray Livingston—a writer, lecturer, and transient who would go on to dub himself "King of the Hobos."

What we know about Livingston's early life comes solely from the books he wrote, which often read like tall tales designed to help build his mystique. According to Livingston, he was born in August 1872 into a family from San Francisco that he described as "well-to-do," but at age 11, misbehavior at school led him down a different path in life. On the day after his 11th birthday, his teacher sent him home with a note detailing his bad behavior, which was to be signed by Livingston's father. The boy didn't show his father the note that night, and when he spotted his teacher heading toward his house the next morning, Livingston snuck out of the house and kept moving. He wouldn't fully stop for decades.

Livingston says he left his house that day armed with a .22-caliber rifle and a pocket full of money—some stolen from his mother, some a birthday gift from his uncle. From there, his life became an odyssey of riding the rails, hopping on steamers, and taking on odd jobs as he traversed a country in the midst of an industrial revolution. Years later, Livingston would famously brag that he traveled 500,000 miles while only spending $7.61 on fares.

In his decades on the road, he took to writing about his experiences, eventually self-publishing around a dozen books about his adventures; the most comprehensive was Life and Adventures of A-No. 1: America's Most Celebrated Tramp. Published in 1910—nearly 30 years after he left home—this book includes tales of his early life as a hobo, including one globe-trotting adventure in his first year that found him working aboard a British trade ship that set off from New Orleans for Belize, where he jumped ship and began working for a mahogany camp.

Book cover for The Trail of the Tramp
The book cover to Livingston's The Trail of the Tramp
Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

Livingston's Central American exploits include anecdotes about the working conditions in the British mahogany camps, his repeated (but failed) attempts to desert his employers and head home on their dime, feasting on "roasted baboon," and his near-fatal run-in with something he called Black Swamp Fever (which could be a reference to malaria). The writing is colorful and no doubt romanticized, making it hard to separate facts from the legend Livingston aimed to enhance.

It was after his return trip to America that Livingston was christened with the nickname that would help him become something bigger than a lowly transient: A-No. 1. In his book, Livingston said the moniker was given to him by an older companion named Frenchy, who said:

"Every tramp gives his kid a nickname, a name that will distinguish him from all other members of the craft. You have been a good lad while you have been with me, in fact been always 'A-No. 1' in everything you had to do, and, Kid, take my advice, if you have to be anything in life, even if a tramp, try to be 'A-No. 1' all the time and in everything you undertake."

He also told Livingston to carve this new nickname into each mile post he passed on his journey, letting the world know who'd traveled here before them. This piece of advice gave the legend of Livingston more longevity than he could ever imagine: In the 21st century, people are still finding "A-No. 1" scribbled under bridges.

In addition to signing their nickname, the wandering tramps would also draw up symbols to alert others of possible danger or hospitality ahead. In his 1911 book Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales, Livingston provides drawings of 32 of these symbols and what they all mean—including signs for "This town has saloons," "The police in this place are 'Strictly Hostile,'" and "Hostile police judge in this town. Look out!" It's not completely clear if Livingston played a role in creating this hobo code, but he is credited with preserving these symbols and bringing them to the attention of a curious American public.

As Livingston became more of a cultural figure, he seemingly took an interest in leading people away from the tramp life. His books would often begin with a warning, telling readers, "Wandering, once it becomes a habit, is almost incurable, so NEVER RUN AWAY, but STAY AT HOME, as a roving lad usually ends in becoming a confirmed tramp." He then finished, saying this "pitiful existence" would likely end with any would-be tramp in a "pauper's grave." These warnings could be a well-meaning public service announcement, although scholars say they can also be read as Livingston's attempt to enhance the danger of the lifestyle to create even more intrigue about his exploits (and sell more books).

Always a showman, Livingston understood publicity as well as any celebrity at the time; in his travels he would often seek out local reporters, becoming the subject of numerous newspaper articles and magazine interviews around the country. Taking pride in his exploits, he carried a scrapbook of his journeys around with him, which included personalized letters and autographs from notable figures such as Thomas Edison, George Dewey, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.

His influence among the community was far-reaching, even capturing the imagination of a young Jack London, author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild, during his formative years. London had reached out to Livingston about his lifestyle in the late 19th century, and the two adventured together, as chronicled in Livingston's book From Coast to Coast with Jack London, which was published in 1917, a year after London's death.

Despite the freight-hopping and steamer trips and odd jobs, Livingston wasn't hurting for money; for him, hoboing was a spiritual necessity, not a financial one. When he would seek some stability during his travels, he could often be found staying at Mrs. Cunningham's Boarding House in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, where he would write many of his books. In The Ways of the Hobo, he claimed the house became "a veritable Mecca to chronic hoboes," including old friends like "Hobo Mike" and "Denver Johnny," who sought out his counsel and companionship.

In 1914, Livingston married a woman named Mary Trohoske (sometimes spelled Trohoski), and he settled down—as best a tramp could—in a house in Erie, Pennsylvania. His later years were spent working various jobs—including at electric and steel companies around Erie, though one source places him in real estate. While he stayed relatively put in his later years, Livingston did travel the lecture circuit to speak out against the lifestyle that defined him. With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, the warnings Livingston wrote about the hobo lifestyle in each of his books had transformed into full-on speeches against tramping. (Sadly, his lectures don't seem to have survived.)

Rumors persist about Livingston's final days. Some claim that he continued his traveling ways toward the end, dying in a train wreck in Houston, Texas, in 1944, but this is likely confusion with a 1912 wreck that killed one of his impersonators. According to most accounts, Livingston passed away due to heart failure in his home on April 5, 1944 around age 71, with his wife by his side. But for a man who lived to mythologize his own story, a little ambiguity about his end is only fitting.

Livingston's fame has waned significantly since the first quarter of the 20th century. He's only re-emerged in the mainstream a few times, most notably when Lee Marvin played A-No. 1 in the 1973 movie Emperor of the North, based on Livingston's travels with Jack London and on London's own book The Road. Though little-remembered now, Livingston was part of a fleeting moment in American history—a time when the country was getting the first real glimpse of itself as an interconnected nation, and when someone who lived by wandering could be the stuff of folklore.

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