In an era when, it seems, Americans in the thrall of a pop-spiritualism vogue routinely contacted celebrity ghosts, who was the most common seance guest? Benjamin Franklin. And in a nice bit of irony, it was the 19th century seance crowd that did the most to pay tribute to Franklin’s legacy as a scientist and inventor. Historian Rob MacDougall explains:
A chat with Franklin was to spiritualism what “My Way” is to karaoke. From beyond the grave, Franklin transmitted messages to and from dead loved ones, spoke out for women’s suffrage and against slavery (as did the shades of Washington and Jefferson, claiming posthumous conversion to the cause), and lectured on magnetism and balloons. Dead Franklin apparently kept himself busy in the afterlife—he often provided his living correspondents with descriptions of new inventions: a machine for weaving nets, another for riving shingles, or a self-adjusting, inside-fastening window blind. Makes you wonder what slackers like Dead Isaac Newton and Dead Leonardo da Vinci had been up to all those centuries.
Andrew Jackson Davis, the famous “Poughkeepsie Seer,” came up with what I think is an ingenious explanation as to why Franklin appeared so frequently in spiritualist seances and why spirits in general only became so talkative after the 1840s. It was Franklin’s spirit, Davis said, that posthumously invented the “Celestial Telegraph” by which the departed could communicate with our world.
As MacDougall points out, there’s something wonderful in the notion that Franklin’s famed knack for invention was used to justify his prowess for afterlife communication. I’m trying to read Michael Warner’s “Letters of the Republic,” which explores the self-publishing practices of the American Revolutionary era, so I have a bit of Ben Franklin on the brain. MacDougall’s post sorta made my day. (He’s my favorite contributor to the the always interesting Cliopatria group blog, and his personal blog “Old Is the New New” never disappoints .)