Throughout history, Western society has been thrown into confusion, disarray, and laughter by the work of hucksters and con artists. Pranksters (New York University Press, 2014) reveals how these mischief makers have left an educational and entertaining mark on our modern social and political life. Writer and filmmaker Kembrow, a prankster himself, argues that these actions underscore larger, pointed truths by disrupting the daily flow of approved information and news. This excerpt from the introduction showcases a founder of American wit and satire, Benjamin Franklin.
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American wit and wisdom began with some mass-mediated mischief. In the December 19, 1732 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin penned the following advertisement: “Just published for 1733: Poor Richard: An Almanack containing the lunations, eclipses, planets motions and aspects, weather, …[and the] prediction of the death of his friend Mr. Titan Leeds.” Writing under the name Richard Saunders, he not only narrowed down Leeds’s time of death to the date and time—October 17, 1733 at 3:29 p.m.—but also the exact moment when two worldly bodies aligned: “at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury.” Franklin was a rationalist product of the Enlightenment. He was a cynic who valued science over superstition, and heaped scorn on astrologers such as Titan Leeds. More crucially, Leeds was a business rival, and the printer’s way up the ladder of wealth was often achieved by stepping on his competitors. Franklin claimed that the two friends frequently debated when the cosmos had scheduled Leeds’s appointment with the grim reaper: “But at length he is inclinable to agree with my judgment. Which of us is most exact, a little time will now determine.”
When Titan Leeds did not die on that date, phase two of Operation: Ridicule Astrologer kicked into gear. In the next Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin/Saunders bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t attend to his best friend during his final moments on earth. Oh, how he wished to give Leeds a farewell embrace, close his eyes, and say good-bye one last time! This infuriated the astrologer, who ranted in his not-quite-posthumous 1734 almanac about this “false Predictor,” “conceited Scribbler,” “Fool,” and—last but not least—“Lyar.” Poor Richard was shocked by these rude utterances. With a wearied tone, he wrote, “Having received much Abuse from the Ghost of Titan Leeds, who pretends to still be living, and to write Almanacks in spight of me and my Predictions, I cannot help saying, that tho’ I take it patiently, I take it very unkindly.” He added that there was absolutely no doubt Leeds had died, for it was “plain to everyone that reads his last two almanacks, no man living would or could write such stuff.” Franklin wasn’t the first to mock astrology, which by the early eighteenth century had become a time-honored tradition. Two centuries before, François Rabelais published at least two such lampoons: Almanac for 1532 and Pantagrueline Prognostification (signed “Maistre Alcofribas Nasier,” an anagram of his name). The satirist wrote vague forecasts such as “This year the blind will see very little, and the deaf will hear poorly” and “In winter wise men will not sell their fur coats to buy firewood.”
Rabelais’s lighthearted jabs, however, were nothing compared to what Leeds endured. Benjamin Franklin owned and operated the printing house that churned out his competitor’s almanac, giving him a crucial advantage in this war of words. This inside knowledge allowed Franklin to read his attacks and respond to them in Poor Richards’ Almanack before Leeds’s publication even went to press. “Mr. Leeds was too well bred to use any Man so indecently and scurrilously,” Franklin wrote, further egging him on, “and moreover his Esteem and Affection for me was extraordinary.” The astrologer’s protests continued to pour fuel on the fire, which by now had captivated much of the colonies’ reading public. Franklin kept this up for several years, even after the astrologer really did die in 1738. The 1740 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack described a late-night visit from the Ghost of Titan Leeds, who entered Richard Saunders’s brain via his left nostril and penned the following message: “I did actually die at that moment,” he confessed, “precisely at the hour you mentioned, with a variation of 5 minutes, 53 sec.” After this belated apology, the spirit issued one more prediction: John Jerman, another almanac maker who used Franklin as a printer, would convert to Catholicism. This was an outrageous claim to make during those antipapist times, and the author was not amused. Because of Franklin’s “witty performance,” Jerman huffed, he would be taking his business elsewhere.
Reprinted with permission from Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World by Kembrew McLeod and published by New York University Press, 2014.