At the end of last academic year, a historically important letter found by Robin Vroom and Camille Steens caused quite a bit of commotion. The letter about Benjamin Franklin’s electric kite experiment, allegedly written by Franklin’s son, turned out to be a forgery made by ten LUC students, including the two finders. Many thought the hoax was a good prank but it actually was much more than that. It was part of a large research project supported by Leiden University Libraries, focusing on the media dynamics of Benjamin Franklin’s own forgeries and how these would compare to the Internet.
By Gabriëlle Smith
“You will be writing a short essay about a forgery,” Jacqueline Hylkema told her students when asking them if they were interested in getting involved in a project related to her exhibition Books, Crooks, and Readers: The Seduction of Forgery (1600-1800) at Leiden University Library. The students were part of Hylkema’s academic writing class about political forgery in the modern early period, a subject very much in line with that of the exhibition. Ten first-year students, Camille Steens, Robin Vroom, Silke Zwijsen, Martijn de Zeeuw, Simon van der Staaij, Henry Abbink, Jack Lindsay, Steven van der Have, Koen van Lieshout and Gabriëlle Smith, were eager to learn more about early modern forgery and turned up for the preliminary meeting. There they found out that the research project involved more than a simple essay: they would actually forge a letter themselves.
Franklin the forger
Most people know Benjamin Franklin as one of the founding fathers (not president!) of the United States. What they often don’t know is that Franklin was an excellent forger and printed many hoaxes in newspapers, the fastest mass medium of his time. Our goal was to make a Franklinian forgery and present it on our age’s mass medium, the Internet. As Simon said; “Since Benjamin Franklin’s age, the world and the media have changed dramatically. In his time it would take months to carry a message from Europe to America, nowadays it only takes one mouse click”. We would investigate whether this would affect the way in which a forgery is spread and whether the different dynamics offered by social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook would result in a different kind of reception.
We chose to relate our forgery to the electric kite experiment, which is still a controversial subject in the U.S. Allegedly, Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm with a key tied to the end of the rope. The kite was struck by lightning, and when Franklin touched the key, he felt an electric shock. This experiment, if it actually happened, proved that lightning was a form of electricity. We wanted to connect this experiment to Pieter van Musschenbroek, a famous Leiden scientist who is mostly known for inventing the Leyden Jar, a device that could store electricity. He knew Franklin and the two corresponded about scientific matters. Involving Franklin as well as Van Musschenbroek would make the letter more credible and enable us to spark interest both in the U.S. and in the Netherlands.
From the very first meeting we were given a number of very strict rules and boundaries, to make sure that the project was set up responsibly, met with all the requirements of academic research and would not get out of hand in any way. For instance, Franklin forged to accomplish certain political and social goals and his motto was to use ‘no hurtful deceit’. The forgery was not to be harmful to anyone in any way and we had to stick to a number of rules to make sure of this. Also, Franklin’s forgeries were subtle and never revealed the whole story. Instead, he made his readers’ imagination and wishful thinking do most of the work. We had to do the same and were not allowed to claim that the letter was authentic or involve the University Library’s authority. The library’s policy in the project was one of ‘neither help nor hinder’ – when contacted about the letter, the Library would merely state that a document had been found and was currently being investigated and refuse any further comments until it had been authenticated. Finally, the hoax was always intended to be revealed at the opening of the exhibition on 5 June and never to go beyond that. This meant that we only had three weeks for our experiment and agreed that we would stop it immediately if it were to generate too much attention.
Forging our letter
Forging a letter from the modern early period and making it look like it was written by Benjamin’s son William Franklin is no easy task. The team that produced the forgery consisted of Jack, Henry, Silke and Steven. They wrote the text of the forged letter, checking that every word used had once been written by Benjamin or William in order to avoid anachronisms and making sure that the historical facts were correct. They also thought about the rhetoric of the letter very carefully: it does not simply state that they executed the kite experiment. Instead, it starts with the news that a mutual friend called Mr. Hales has passed away. Then, William writes about a visit that his father and him will be paying to Van Musschenbroek when they are going to visit Europe.
Only after this seemingly useless information William mentions the electric kite experiment in passing: “the use of the Electric Bottle and your recommendation of the Material for the Kite has been greatly useful in this particular Experiment”. This subtle reference to the experiment comes across as much more believable to someone reading the letter than if the entire letter had been about the experiment. If someone were to do some research on the topic, he would find out that Mr. Hales actually was a friend of both Franklin and Van Musschenbroek, and that he indeed died in 1761. Furthermore, Benjamin and William did really travel to Holland and Flanders in that year. All of these elements were included to make the letter more credible. Benjamin Franklin never produced any manuscript versions of his forgeries: they only existed in print. We were to do the same with digital text but a friend of Jacqueline Hylkema’s helped to produce a paper version that we could use in staging the discovery of the letter.
Plan of action
The six other members of the forgery crew, Robin, Camille, Martijn, Simon, Koen and Gabriëlle, formed the presentation team. Camille and Robin were our actresses and their task was to find the letter in an old book about Pieter van Musschenbroek. Their cover story was that they were doing research for a PAX article about the history of electricity. Because it would be too suspicious if they found such a letter on their first visit to Leiden University Library, they went several times in advance. “Truth is, the other readers at the Special Collections thought we were just another duo of dedicated LUC students and no one questioned our motives,” Camille says, with some disappointment. The other four team members did research into the mechanics of disseminating news on the Internet and determining the plan of action we would follow after the ‘discovery’ of the letter.
On 13 May, Robin and Camille went to the Leiden University Library for the fifth time to supposedly do research for their PAX article on the history of electricity. While reading a book on Pieter van Musschenbroek’s experiments, they found a small loose piece of paper folded between the pages. It turned out to be a letter written by William Franklin to Pieter van Musschenbroek, which mentioned the electric kite experiment. This actually happened, as was described in the PAX article I wrote last year on the find. I left out one little detail: Robin, Camille and I all knew the letter was a forgery.
Spreading the news
From that day on, the most exciting part of the research project started: trying to spread the news. We contacted newspapers to inform them of the discovery, posted on a variety of history-related Facebook groups and revived old Twitter accounts. Unfortunately, our efforts were to no avail. This changed on the 3 June when the official Leiden University Facebook page picked up the news and PAX published an article about the letter, all of which generated interest and attention. The day after, Omroep West, Omroep Zeeland, Drimble and News Locker all published short articles on their websites. On the 5 June Radio West interviewed Camille and Robin live on their morning show, and the Leids Universitair Weekblad de Mare published an interview with them as well,– only a couple of pages away from their article on the exhibition.
That same afternoon, on 5 June, Jacqueline Hylkema’s exhibition at Leiden University opened with a number of presentations on early modern forgery. We also gave a presentation, which started as a discussion of how a find like ours always needs to go through an authentication process but then turned into an exposure. The moment we revealed the word “GOTCHA!” on the presentation was a memorable one: laughter, murmurs of excitement and surprise, followed by a massive applause. The day after, we contacted every media outlet and every person with whom we had communicated about the letter to apologize and explain the forgery and our research project. Luckily, almost everyone responded very positively towards the forgery. However, there were one or two exceptions, most notably a small group of American amateur historians who were furious to find out that they had been hoaxed by ten Dutch students.
At the moment, we are busy writing a report of our findings that will be published later this year. The report will contain the historical background of Franklinian forgeries as well a description of the entire process of creating, disseminating and exposing our forgery and a number of conclusions about the difference between hoaxing in 18th-century newspapers and the internet, especially in terms of the relationship between the media and authority.
As you might have noticed, the news started to spread quickly as soon as a ‘conventional’ source of media (PAX) had published an article and Leiden University had endorsed it on Facebook. This illustrates one of the main findings of our project: in order to spread news, one needs a reliable medium with authority that picks it up. Social media are not considered as trustworthy as conventional media such as newspapers: this means that people tend to be much more cautious and sceptical on social media and as a result it is more difficult to disseminate forgeries this way.
Finally, we want to thank everyone for having been such good sports, and those who were in on the hoax, including PAX, for helping us to carry out the experiment.