Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Elkanah Watson, Jr., 19 April 1783

From Elkanah Watson, Jr.5

AL: American Philosophical Society

London. 19th. Apl. 1783

Mr. Watson presents his respectfull compliments to His Excellency Doctr. Franklin & makes free to Send him a few papers.6

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

5Watson’s business in Nantes was ruined by the French government suspending payment on American bills of exchange (for which see JW’s letter of March 5 and Joly de Fleury’s letter of March 15). He left the city on March 30 and relocated to England: Winslow C. Watson, ed., Men and Times of the Revolution; or, Memoirs of Elkanah Watson … (2nd ed., New York and London, 1857), pp. 212–13.

6The same day, Watson also wrote to WTF and explained his idea for animating the lifesize figure of BF he had fashioned out of the wax head sculpted by Patience Wright and the suit of BF’s clothes that WTF had sent him; see XXXVIII, 501–2. “I intend with the assistance of some ingenious mechanic, to contrive some kind of Clock machinery in the body, so as to give it a movement, & at the Same time, with the right hand, grind out electricity upon an electrical machine I am in possession off”: Watson to WTF, April 19, 1783, APS. The eventual mechanism was more modest, but the hoax was a success. Watson set the dummy by an open window with its head leaning out, until passersby had taken notice; the following morning, the doctor’s arrival was reported in the London papers. Three men from Boston, who intended to visit BF when they continued on to Paris, begged to be presented and were told to come the following evening with their letters of introduction. When they arrived, Watson warned them that BF was “deeply engaged in examining maps and papers” and might not be very responsive. He brought them halfway across the room and introduced them to “Franklin,” whereupon a hidden friend manipulated wires that raised and lowered the head, causing the figure to nod. Watson then led one of the awestruck guests, a certain “Mr. B——,” to approach the figure and offer his letter of introduction from Samuel Cooper. When “Franklin” ignored the gesture, Watson berated the figure for being rude, and horrified the guests by striking it a blow. “They were all petrified with astonishment,” Watson later wrote, “but B. never forgave me the joke.” Winslow C. Watson, ed., Men and Times of the Revolution …, pp. 142–3. “B” was likely Oliver Brewster, who traveled to England in July, 1783, in the company of Benjamin Austin, Jr.; both young men carried introductions to BF from Cooper dated July 19, 1783, which they eventually presented in person (APS).

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