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6 of Ben Franklin's Greatest Hoaxes and Pranks

getty images (franklin) / istock (props)
getty images (franklin) / istock (props)

As the story goes, the Continental Congress tasked Thomas Jefferson with writing the first draft of the Declaration of Independence… because they feared Ben Franklin would sneak in jokes. And with a history of pranks like these, who can blame them?      

1. Silence Dogood 

Ben Franklin knew all about faking it 'til you make it. At the age of 16, he apprenticed at his older brother's Boston print shop, publisher of The New-England Courant. Alas, James Franklin wasn't supportive of Ben's writing ambitions and rejected every piece he submitted. Desperate to get published—and to prove his brother wrong—the younger Franklin wrote a letter to the editor under the pseudonym Silence Dogood and slipped it under the shop's door at night. James Franklin found the middle-aged widow's social commentary humorous and, in 1722, printed 14 Dogood letters. 

The letters really resonated with the community—a few eligible bachelors even mailed marriage proposals to the fictitious woman! When Ben came clean as the real Silence Dogood, James wasn't amused. But we all know who got the last laugh: Ben Franklin moved to Philadelphia and founded Poor Richard's Almanack 10 years later, while the Courant folded in 1726. 

2. Titan Leeds's Death 

The first edition of Poor Richard's Almanack, published in 1733, established an ongoing prank on Titan Leeds, an astrologer, competing almanac publisher, and frenemy of Ben Franklin. Under the pseudonym Poor Richard Saunders, Franklin predicted Leeds's death and encouraged readers to stick around to see if his prognostication was right. The feud that followed sold a lot of pamphlets, benefiting both publishers. 

The next year, the Almanack printed an obituary for the still living Leeds and reported that the man claiming to be him was an identity thief. When Leeds actually died in 1738, Saunders commended the imposter for ending the prank once and for all. But Franklin doesn't get all the credit for this one. The hoax was inspired by Jonathan Swift, who used the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff to pull an enduring April Fool's Day joke on astrologer John Partridge in 1708. 

3. The Speech of Miss Polly Baker

Franklin clearly enjoyed using pseudonyms, but one of his more progressive "pranks" was done completely anonymously. In 1747, he published "The Speech of Miss Polly Baker" in The General Advertiser. In it, a woman goes on trial for having an illegitimate child—a crime she's committed four other times—and wonders why the men involved were never punished. Franklin perfectly balanced humor, sex, and sympathy to both entertain readers and challenge the double standard. While many people believed Miss Baker’s was a true story, it was in fact only partially inspired by true events: Franklin himself had a son out of wedlock. Allegedly, the founding father didn't come clean as the story's author until 1777, at which time he was ambassador to France. 

4. Faking the Boston Independent Chronicle 

Long before The Onion, in 1782, Ben Franklin published a fake supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle. It wasn't all in good fun—he hoped to arouse the sympathies of British citizens for the Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War in time for peace negotiations. To do so, he needed content that would get reprinted in British newspapers, and, well, sensationalism sells. The most affecting bogus story was a grisly letter detailing how the British employed Native Americans to scalp colonists. When Franklin sent the letter to correspondents, he admitted the supplement's questionable veracity, but maintained that the scalping issue was very real and warranted reporting. No one knew it was a hoax until more than 70 years later! 

5. Daylight Saving Time 

Satire is rooted in truth. In the essay "An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light," published in the Journal de Paris in April 1784, Ben Franklin suggested that the French could conserve 64 million pounds of candle wax if they woke up with the sun in springtime. He hilariously proposed firing cannons and ringing church bells as a sort of unavoidable alarm clock. It was a preposterous idea… until it became a reality (minus the cannons). 

Today, the joke's on us. A New Zealand entomologist named George Vernon Hudson proposed the daylight savings time we temporarily loathe today in 1895. European countries adopted it in 1916, and the U.S. followed suit two years later.

6. Historicus

Franklin's last hurrah, just 25 days before his death in 1790, was to challenge slavery. In a letter to The Federal Gazette written under the name Historicus, Franklin related the fictional tale of Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, an Algerian potentate who fought for the enslavement of Christians by Muslims in the late 1680s. The tyrant's inhumane pro-slavery arguments just so happened to echo those made by anti-abolitionist Congressman James Jackson of Georgia. Touché! Franklin didn't live to see slavery abolished, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we said he had nothing to do with it.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

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iStock
5 Strange News Stories From This Week
iStock
iStock

Welcome to The Weird Week in Review, where we bring you odd news stories from all over.

1. CALF GETS LASSOED FROM THE HOOD OF A POLICE CAR

When authorities got a call about a calf that was loose on Tennessee's Highway 79N, David Bevill of Paris, Tennessee, volunteered to help local police capture it. Henry County Sheriff Monte Belew drove down the highway with Bevill on the hood, ready to rope in the calf. According to a Facebook post,

Belew said the calf became loose when a man was driving through town and his cattle trailer door broke. “There were actually two that got loose, but Dr. Lyons at Mineral Wells Animal Clinic and his crew were able to get the other one,” Belew said.

“So everybody is happy—we roped one calf, Dr. Lyons got the other one and the guy who was hauling them through town is happy, too,” Belew said.

It's always handy to know a cowboy when you've got a job to do.

2. CAT STUCK IN SUPPORTS OF DOUBLE-DECKER HIGHWAY FOR NINE DAYS

Erin McCutcheon's cat Juno escaped a zippered cat carrier and jumped out of a moving car on the upper deck of I-93 in Boston on Christmas Day. McCutcheon couldn't find her cat, and so distributed posters and put out a call for help on Facebook. On Tuesday, a Local 103 crew of electricians doing maintenance work spotted Juno high above the lower deck, perched on the support girders under the upper deck. Juno had been stuck 80 feet above the highway for nine days! The crew couldn't catch the frightened feline, but eventually lured her out with cans of cat food. Juno, hungry and thirsty, went home with electrician Jay Frazier, and was later reunited with the McCutcheons.

3. MAN CARRIES SCISSORS IN BODY FOR 18 YEARS

Ma Van Nhat underwent surgery at Bac Kan Hospital in Vietnam in 1998 after suffering injuries in a traffic accident. Recently, he complained of pain in his abdomen, which doctors dismissed as a stomachache. But on December 27, during a routine checkup, a doctor determined there was a foreign object there. Last Saturday, surgeons removed a pair of surgical scissors, which had apparently been inside Nhat for 18 years. The scissors had broken and adhered to Nhat's abdominal organs. According to The Huffington Post,

The hospital’s director, Trinh Thi Luong, is now taking great pains to find out who may have left the scissors inside Nhat.

“Even if they are already retired, we will still inform them,” Luong said, according to Reuters. “This is a lesson to all doctors.”

4. MAN OPENS DOOR TO BRICK WALL

An unnamed man in Mainhausen, Germany, woke up Monday morning and got ready for work as usual—but when he opened his front door, he couldn't leave: Someone had built a brick wall over the door opening. The perpetrators had built the wall quickly and quietly during the night. He had to tear out the bricks to leave his house. Police don't know whether the wall was a prank or an act of revenge.

5. NEW SHERIFF GETS ARRESTED

The citizens of Roane County, West Virginia, elected a new sheriff in November. Bo Williams began his new job last Sunday, but on Tuesday, according to the New York Daily News, he was was arrested on charges of grand larceny for stealing meth from an evidence locker at his previous job with the Spencer, West Virginia, police department. Bags of meth with evidence numbers were found in his desk and in his car. Williams had resigned from that job after admitting to drug addiction in December. The Roane County commission removed Williams from office that same day, and asked a former sheriff to step in to run the department. Williams is out of jail on bond and may face up to 10 years in prison.

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Game Show Network
Test Your Wits with 8 Brainteasers from Idiotest: Round 2
Game Show Network
Game Show Network

We bet you think you’re pretty smart (and if you’ve found your way to mental_floss, you probably are!). But common sense questions and brain-teasing puzzles can challenge even those with the highest IQs. You may be an egghead—but are you an idiot?

Test your brainpower with eight more puzzles from Game Show Network’s Idiotest (you can find the first eight here). The rules are easy: Read the question in each picture puzzle, and select the image you think best answers the question. Limit yourself to just 30 seconds for each picture—speed is part of the challenge! Click the link at the bottom of the page for the solutions and explanations.

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Click here to see how you did!

Look sharp! Feed your brain every Wednesday by watching Idiotest’s all-new season at 8/7c on Game Show Network.

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