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Ben Franklin

Franklin's Arrival in Philadelphia

By Edgar Williams

Inquirer staff writer

August 27, 1980

Even if you are not a history buff, you must know the charming little tale of Benjamin Franklin's arrival in Philadelphia.

It was, as Franklin wrote in his autobiography many years later, a Sunday morning in 1723. Up Market Street he came, an awkward 17-year-old runaway from Boston, munching on a roll and looking like an unmade bed. And there, in a doorway, vastly amused by the spectacle of the clod, was one Deborah Read, 18.

It was a day that Franklin would not forget. And certainly it remained bright in the memory of Deborah Read, for years later, the twain became man and wife.

But there was a curious thing about that unforgettable day. Nobody knew for certain its date. It has been generally surmised by succeeding generations of historians that it was a Sunday in October, but there has been no evidence that Franklin ever gave its date.

Until now.

Now it would appear that Benjamin Franklin first arrived in Philadelphia on Sunday, Oct. 6, 1723.

In evidence whereof there is a sort of memory-game-in-writing memo, in Franklin's own hand, written about 60 years after that first day in Philadelphia. It was written in Paris in November 1783 in what Claude-Anne Lopez believes was a moment of deep reverie.

"Nothing much was happening in Franklin's life," Mrs. Lopez, a Franklin scholar who turned up the revelatory document, was saying Monday at the American Philosophical Society, Fifth and Chestnut Streets. "The peace treaty with England had been hammered out. Everything was relatively quiet in Paris. So here was a man alone with his memories.

"As I envision it, somewhere along the line Franklin reconstructed his trip from Boston to Philadelphia day by day."

Mrs. Lopez, an editor of the Yale edition of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, an ongoing project at Yale University, stumbled upon the document about two months ago.

Examining some photocopies of Franklin papers that are housed at the American Philosophical Society (which was founded by Franklin), she came across a letter written to Franklin by a Paris bank, informing him of certain changes in banking regulation. Directly beneath the text of the letter was a series of consecutive dates, beginning with Monday, Sept 23.

Not until the first day of October, however, was there anything more than day and date. The first entry for the new month read

    "Bay Tuesd. 1 Oct."

After that the sequence ran:

    "Amboy, Wed. 2 Water"
    "Pines Thrsd. 3 Amb"
    "Brown's Friday 4"
    "River D. Sat 5"
    "Phila. Sund. 6."

That sent Mrs. Lopez to her copy of Franklin's autobiography, where she was able to match the memo with Franklin's itinerary: New York Bay the first day, the Amboys in New Jersey, where, Franklin wrote, he downed great quantities of water to fight off a fever on the second day; an overnight stay at an inn run by a Dr. John Brown on the fourth day; proceeding down the Delaware on the fifth day, and reaching Philadelphia on Oct. 6.

American Philosophical Society

Mrs. Lopez checked her find with Professor William B. Willcox, director of the Yale project. Then she hurried to Philadelphia to examine the original document and consult with Dr. Whitfield Bell Jr., executive officer of the American Philosophical Society and himself a Franklin scholar.

"I am convinced that the find is authentic and that Mrs. Lopez's interpretation is correct," Bell said. "This is one of those pleasant little bonuses scholars receive now and then. Dozens of historians have seen this letter and Franklin's notation through the years, but until now no one had realized the import."

Mrs. Lopez thinks it would be nice if Philadelphia were to celebrate a "Benjamin Franklin Day" on Oct 6.

"It would be much better, in terms of weather, than the present custom of honoring him on the anniversary of his birth in Boson on a frigid Jan. 17," she said.

"Let me tell you about Franklin and Boston," Bell said. "In 1887 Oliver Wendell Holmes came here and delivered a speech in which he referred to Franklin as a true Bostonian who happened to have dwelt periodically in Philadelphia.

"Whereupon Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the great Philadelphia physician, arose and informed Holmes that 'on the contrary, Franklin was born in Philadelphia at the age of 17.'"

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