Benjamin Franklin Papers
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The Lighthouse Tragedy, 1718

The Lighthouse Tragedy

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As a lad of twelve or thirteen Franklin “took a Fancy to Poetry, and made some little Pieces.” One of these was a ballad he remembered as “the Light House Tragedy,” inspired by the drowning on November 3, 1718, of George Worthylake, keeper of the light on Beacon Island, with his wife and daughter. (In the autobiography he remembered it incorrectly as Worthylake and his two daughters.) Though “wretched Stuff, in the Grubstreet Ballad Stile,” the verses “sold wonderfully”; but no authenticated copy is known to survive. On August 7, 1940, however, the Boston Post reported that some verses entitled “The Lighthouse Tragedy,” printed in “old style English characters” on a tattered and yellowed sheet, had been discovered “in a tumbledown closet in the ruins of [an] old house” on Middle Brewster Island in Boston harbor. These verses began:

Oh! George, This wild November

We must not pass with you

For Ruth, our fragile daughter,

It’s chilly gales will rue.

The manuscript proved on examination to be in a nineteenth-century hand.6

Without citing an authority, Worthington C. Ford declared in his edition of Cotton Mather’s diary, II (7 Mass. Hist. Soc., Colls., VIII), 566n, that the ballad was translated into French as “La Tragédie du Phare” and retranslated into English as “The Tragedy of Pharaoh.” Neither of these versions has been found.7

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

6Zoltán Haraszti in Publishers’ Weekly, CXXXVIII (Oct. 5, 1940), 1620–1.

7A possible source of Ford’s statement has been suggested by Donald H. Mugridge and Allen G. Anderson of the Library of Congress. The Buisson translation of BF’s autobiography, 1791 (Par. Text edit., p. 33), correctly renders BF’s recollection of the ballad’s title as “la Tragédie du Phare” This translation of the autobiography was retranslated into English—very badly—and published in London by J. Parsons in 1793 as The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D...., where, p. 17, the ballad is called “the Tragedy of Pharoah” [sic].

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