How Franklin’s Grave Became A Monument And Philadelphians Were Persuaded To Like It

April 19, 2017 | by Mark Dixon


A mother and her sons view stop by for a visit with Ben Franklin, circa 1890. | Source: Archives.org

Early press on the new Museum of the American Revolution suggests a business trying very hard to be popular. The museum, which opens April 19, will use all the tools of modern retail: high-tech video that puts visitors face-to-face with charging Redcoats, a judicious use of old stuff (artifacts) to balance the glitz and a new social justice-driven emphasis on women and minorities that makes it all seem fresh.

But the imperative to be popular (read: sales) has always meant that such institutions can offer only a version of the truth, not infrequently facilitated with hokum and misdirection.

One example of repackaging Colonial history to accommodate public appeal is the tomb of Benjamin Franklin, adored like a saint’s relic through a hole in the wall at Christ Church Burial Ground at 5th and Arch Streets. It is a view that has existed since 1858, when officials at Christ Church announced that they would “yield” to public demand and a direct request from the Franklin family, allowing metal bars to be substituted for a section of the wall.

The hole in the wall created a public monument that has been a hot spot on the Philadelphia tourist circuit ever since. During the Centennial of 1876, it was included in publications listing must-see sites for visitors. Today, 250,000 people who annually visit Christ Church at least walk past the site with 60,000 visitors paying to enter the burial ground. 

But who, exactly, requested the opening in the wall, and who paid for it? And why, almost 70 years after Franklin’s death, were Philadelphians suddenly so interested in his grave?

The project didn’t originate with Franklin’s family at all, and whatever public clamor did exist was ginned up by cunning design. It is a familiar Philadelphia story of influential people working behind the scenes and spending other people’s money to sell the public a version of the truth to satisfy the goals of all involved.

The Fight Over Franklin

Robert C. Winthrop, year unknown. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

The long, untold story starts in Boston, Massachusetts where, in November 1853, Robert C. Winthrop, descendant of a founder of the uptight Puritan colony that Franklin fled in 1723, publicly trashed Philadelphia for neglecting Franklin’s grave.

Why this bothered Winthrop, a former Whig congressman, is anyone’s guess. Franklin had been buried precisely as he had instructed, “by the side of my wife, if it may be, and that a marble stone, to be made by Chambers, 6 feet long, 4 feet wide, plain, with only a small moulding around the upper edge and this inscription: Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”

But Boston had been attempting to posthumously repossess Franklin for years. Most notably, in 1827, prominent Bostonians had replaced the weathered tombstones of Franklin’s parents in the Granary Burying Ground with a tall granite obelisk labeled “FRANKLIN” in large bronze letters. The monument also included a small plaque to inform readers that it was Josiah and Abiah Franklin laying there, not their son, Ben. As the Boston Post conceded in 1840, however, the citizens who erected the monument had done so because of “their most profound veneration for the memory of the illustrious Benjamin Franklin, and desirous of reminding succeeding generations that he was born in Boston.”

Speaking to the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, the group which successfully completed the Bunker Hill Monument after a 20-year effort, Winthrop quoted an anonymous newspaper article which, given his subsequent devotion to the subject, he may very well have written himself.

“A dilapidated dark slab of stone, at the southwest (sic) corner of 5th and Arch streets, Philadelphia, marks (or did mark a few years ago) the spot where rest the remains of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin,” read Winthrop. “So well hidden is this grave, and so little frequented, that we have known many native Philadelphians…who could not direct one to the locality where it may be found.”

First published the New York Evangelist, the article was reprinted nationally. In Maine, the editor of the Bangor Daily Mercury added his own experience during an 1844 visit. Unable to enter the locked burial ground, wrote Charles Phelps Roberts, he borrowed a stool from a nearby shop “and leaning over a high wall–in violation of the law–beheld the slab under which the remains of Franklin repose.”

Winthrop compared the obscurity of Franklin’s grave to that of Greek mathematician Archimedes. A century after Archimedes’ death in 212 B.C., the Roman philosopher Cicero went looking for his tomb on the island of Syracuse. Informed that it didn’t exist, Cicero nevertheless persisted and, armed with a memory of its inscription, eventually found it lost in undergrowth. The story became a classic example of how the world undervalues knowledge.

Winthrop’s point: It took the ancient pagans 137 years to forget Archimedes, but the Christians of Philadelphia had lost track of Benjamin Franklin in only 63.

For Victorians, this was a double whammy intended to prod both a desire to honor Franklin and a more generalized inferiority complex about America’s relative lack of public monuments and sculpture, which represented high culture to Winthrop’s social class. Such people generally believed that a Christian society should put up monuments to its great men, and that those monuments would instruct citizens, particularly children, in morality and patriotism.

Without Franklin’s grave to honor, Bostonians soon leaped on a proposal for a statue. Prominent citizens–Josiah Quincy, former mayor of Boston, Edward Everett, former governor and U.S. senator, Jared Sparks, the just-retired president of Harvard, and textile manufacturer Abbott Lawrence, among others–formed a committee and Winthrop was named chair. Donations quickly raised the $18,500 cost.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a similar effort turned out very differently. Soon after Winthrop’s speech, Philadelphia publisher George Rex Graham called a meeting of the city’s editors, writers, publishers, and printers to devise a plan to raise funds for a Franklin monument. But, unlike the diverse group of social leaders who came together in Boston, the Philadelphia effort was a project entirely led by its publishing community.

Portrait of George Rex Graham, editor of Graham’s Magazine, circa 1850. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Graham was a publishing entrepreneur on his way down. Twelve years earlier, he had founded Graham’s Magazine, which became popular for sentimental poetry, fiction by famous authors like Edgar Allen Poe (who also served as editor), fashion plates, book reviews, and illustrations. Graham’s fortune was estimated at $100,000 in 1845, but he lost it and the magazine due to bad investments in copper. In late 1853, he was editing magazines for another publisher, but had just been demoted. Down on his luck, Graham needed a comeback plan. Philadelphia printers, however, would have none of it.

Franklin was the printers’ patron saint. As a 10-year-old in Boston, Franklin had been a printer’s apprentice for his domineering older brother and it was that position from which he fled to Philadelphia. In 1786, he stayed true to his roots and supported Philadelphia printers in their strike against employers attempting to cut printers’ wages. The printers won that strike–the first successful labor action in the United States–and, subsequently, drank toasts to Franklin on his 81st birthday. Franklin also participated in the 1788 founding of an organization intended to support printers with credit and insurance.

Ever since, Franklin had been the face of the printers who, thanks to advances in literacy and printing technology, were skilled, numerous, and powerful. Printers unions formed chapters in major cities and celebrated his birthday with elaborate annual dinners.

Participation of the printers was important to any effort to erect a monument to Franklin. Winthrop and the Bostonians understood this and particularly requested the help of the Franklin Typographical Society and Boston Printers Union to enlist support from printers in other cities. But, rather than offer local printers a leading role, the Philadelphia committee–laden with men who, during the day, were the printers’ bosses–simply issued a public challenge demanding their support. The pressmen do not appear to have appreciated this. In February 1854, representatives of the Philadelphia Typographical Union assigned to investigate the project returned with a prediction that the project would fall through. The union refused to participate, dismissing the effort as self seeking and disingenuous.

Graham’s proposal also received a kiss of death from Philadelphia journalist George Lippard, editor of the weekly Quaker City newspaper. Lippard was an admirer of Franklin who publicly identified with his rise from printer’s apprentice to publisher, He was also a populist and a student of the Revolution. Franklin, Adams, Washington, and their ilk had received enough attention, he believed. Better to recognize lesser-known men, especially the common soldiers, who had worked harder for independence and suffered more.

“There are many kinds of heroes in this world,” wrote Lippard, “but neither the general who is made glorious by the accident of his position, nor the statesman who makes a trade of special legislation are heroes to my way of thinking.”

Boston Lays Its Claim

Benjamin Franklin statue at City Hall in Boston. | Photo: Mark Dixon

In September 1856, the year in which Franklin would have been 150 years old, Boston’s bronze statue was unveiled in a day-long celebration for which all businesses and schools were closed, and even workers in neighboring towns took the day off.

“The streets of the old city were never before so thronged and decorated,” reported the Boston Liberator, “and her citizens were never before so unanimous and emulous in doing honor to a man.”

The parade, “the largest and, in many respects, the most interesting display of the kind ever witnessed in Boston,” according to the paper, was led by city and state officials and by delegations from other cities. There were military units, marching Free Masons, and bands.

A highlight was a pair of floats staffed by Boston printers–one demonstrating modern printing methods, the other those of Franklin’s day. On the latter, which carried a press once used by Franklin, printers in period costume turned out copies of a 1723 issue of the Boston Courant as the float rolled along. These were tossed into the crowd.

The parade was estimated at five miles in length and took two and a half hours to pass. The day ended with fireworks and was documented in detail in a 434-page volume published by the Boston City Council. Winthrop delivered a lengthy oration.

Franklin’s eight-foot statue was sculpted in bronze by Boston-born Richard Saltonstall Greenough. Placed on its base–two blocks of Quincy granite and a marble pedestal with bronze bas reliefs on each of its four sides–the monument measured nearly 20 feet tall overall. It was erected in front of Boston City Hall and faced the original site of the Boston Latin School, which Franklin once attended. The statue still stands today.

Philadelphia Mayor Richards Vaux declined an invitation to the ceremony. His message of congratulations pleaded with Boston to remember that “Philadelphia claims a share in the renown of him who was identified with American liberty, learning, and lightning.”

Leading Philadelphians were embarrassed. “(Vaux’s) sentiment was a just and honorable one, but we wish we had something more tangible to substantiate the claim,” observed the Philadelphia Bulletin. “Boston, where Franklin was born, has erected her statue to him. But Philadelphia, where he resided and with whom he is completely identified, has no public memorial of him erected by her citizens. Who will move early in an effort to take away from us this reproach?”

The call had already been heard. In January 1855, a year after the Philadelphia printers predicted the collapse of Graham’s effort, the board of managers of the Franklin Institute had authorized a small committee to initiate plans with the Franklin Institute to alter the wall along 5th and Arch Streets at Christ Church to allow passersby a view of Franklin’s grave.

It was a transitional time for the Franklin Institute. Founded in 1824, ostensibly to educate young Franklins, it soon became an advocate for the interests of the business community. Early in its history, the Institute adopted plans for an experimental workshop and laboratory, and for the investigation of new inventions.

Early on, the Franklin Institute was the nation’s de facto scientific think tank. In 1829, it conducted a series of experiments to determine the merits of various designs of water wheels. In the 1830s, its investigation of steam boiler explosions attracted a grant from the U.S. Treasury Department, the first federal grant for scientific research.

The Franklin Institute at 15 N. 7th Street in 1895. | Source: Philadelphia City Archives

By the 1840s, however, the Institute’s role in scientific research was nearly spent. Increasingly, the federal government had established its own permanent boards and bureaus to manage ongoing scientific issues. As its model of privately conducted scientific research became outmoded, the Institute’s sense of its audience changed. Rather than reaching out primarily to leaders in business and government, it was reaching out to the public at large.

In 1847, the Franklin Institute scrapped its career-oriented lectures in physics, chemistry, and technology in favor of lighter fare. There were 10 lectures on the history of the Continental Congress, five on the internal improvements of Pennsylvania, and another five on Native American artifacts. Lectures were now scheduled for evening hours to attract the after-work crowd.

“Public expressions about the institute’s lectures always held out the prospect of a budding new Franklin who might be inspired by a popular talk on science,” observed Franklin Institute historian Bruce Sinclair in his book, Philadelphia’s Philosopher Mechanics: A History of the Franklin Institute 1824–1865. “But by the 1850s, the educational program was more significant as one of the cultural opportunities of a large city.”

Given the new focus on popular programming, did the Institute’s leaders conclude that burnishing Franklin’s fame would be good publicity for his namesake organization? The meeting minutes don’t say. But if that thought had crossed their minds, they subsequently changed course, even taking elaborate measures to conceal their role. 

Nor do the minutes indicate how the Institute came to focus on Franklin’s grave as Philadelphia’s riposte to Boston’s statue. The grave did, however, offer several advantages.

First, it was the only Philadelphia site that offered a personal connection to Franklin himself. Hard as it might be to imagine in a city that now boasts a bridge, a parkway, a football field, and myriad other tokens to Franklin’s memory, Philadelphia in the 1850s offered very little. His house had been demolished in 1812, and Franklin’s various contributions–the Library Company and Pennsylvania Hospital, for instance–had been created with the help of others. The same goes for the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.

Second, in the absence of leaders skilled in building community support for a monument, and willing to put out the effort, the grave offered the benefit of being ready-made. All that was required was knocking some bricks from the wall.

Third… well, it was a kick-ass way to say to Boston, “A statue? Nice. But we have Ben.”

The Institute’s committee included John Chapman Cresson and John Fries Frazer–both establishment Philadelphians to whom the organization turned again and again to get things done.

Cresson was superintendent and engineer of the Philadelphia Gas Works from 1836 to 1864, and, simultaneously, president of the Mine Hill and Schuylkill Haven Railroad. He was also the chief engineer responsible for laying out Fairmount Park. At the Franklin Institute, he had taught mechanics and physics for nearly 20 years and, in 1855, was the organization’s newly elected president.

Frazer, however, likely led the mission. As treasurer, he was responsible for daily operations, and the Institute’s only paid employee. Frazer had taught at Central High School and, since 1844, had been professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. He belonged to the First City Troop, a privately organized cavalry regiment organized during the Revolution and has since evolved into a private club for the city’s elite.

Frazer “was a confirmed Philadelphian,” observed Sinclair, “devoted to Philadelphia’s social life and its institutions. In a city celebrated for status distinctions, family wealth and position gave Frazer an assured place.”

Philadelphia Strikes Back For Ben

Wood engraving of Benjamin Franklin’s unkept grave at Christ Church Burial Ground, date unknown. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the Christ Church vestry, the state of Franklin’s grave was not a top concern. Recent repairs to the church building had run over budget; the vestry had sold investments and raised pew rents to fund expenses. Things would get worse during the next few years, when the Panic of 1857 reduced church income, forcing staff to cut the music budget and raise pew rents.

Christ Church had purchased the two-acre burial ground for purely utilitarian reasons in 1719. The site had been open to the street until about 1740, when a wooden fence was added to contain grazing animals used to control overgrowth. That fence was replaced with a seven-foot brick wall in 1772.

The burial ground was a church amenity, but probably not a pleasant one. Americans in the 18th century were widely indifferent to burial places.

“In Philadelphia until the 1820s,” wrote historian David E. Stannard in his book, Death in America, “sites for graveyards were simply temporarily vacant lots to serve the needs of the day which were soon obliterated by the expanding city as if they had never existed.”

In small towns and rural areas, such neglect wasn’t a major public concern. But in rapidly growing cities, wrote Stannard, “old graveyards became so crowded that they were frequently little more than stinking quagmires–chronically offensive and occasionally serious public health hazards.”

By the mid-19th century, Christ Church Burial Ground was passé. In 1840, the remains of Hugh Mercer, an American brigadier general killed at the 1777 Battle of Princeton, had been moved and reinterred at the new and more popular Laurel Hill. Expressing regret over the removal, the vestry offered the Mercer family any place of its choosing on the immediate church ground, a more prestigious location, to no avail.

By December 1855, the Franklin Institute was free to proceed altering the wall at Christ Church, but the committee would have to pay for the project itself. Six months later, the Institute’s board of managers gave its representatives power to act but, again, no money.

Acquiring the means was relatively easy. Someone on or close to the committee simply asked a favor of someone else who had a reason to provide it. Call it bribery, if you will, but persuading Philadelphians to welcome a public monument, something then almost unknown, required a bit more effort and pull.

The favor came in the course of trying to solve Franklin Institute’s space problems. By the mid-1850s, the Institute’s 7th Street headquarters was bursting at the seams. The organization was only 30 years old, but had an expanding library and a growing collection of machine models and specimens and was forced to rent space elsewhere for exhibitions.

More urgently, the wooden roof had several times caught fire. Those fires had been put out before irreversible damage was done, but left managers with a sense that the existing structure was not safe. In 1857, Cresson and Frazer formed the core of another committee, this one assigned to draft a plan to finance a new building.

In the end, it never happened. The Franklin Institute would remain on 7th Street until 1934, when it moved to its current home on Logan Square. The plans of 70 years earlier were dashed by the financial Panic of 1857. Only a few months after beginning active planning for a new building, the Institute would cancel that year’s exhibition, raise fees and cut expenses to stay afloat.

Expansion talk sputtered on until the Civil War, however. In 1859, the managers briefly considered a scheme proposed by board member Joseph Harrison Jr., an engineer who had acquired a fortune building Russia’s first railroad.

Harrison proposed that the Institute adopt the expansion strategy of the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts at Baltimore. Founded at about the same time as the Franklin Institute and with similar goals, the organization in 1851 had moved into a new three-story building. The Maryland Institute occupied the upper floors while the ground floor, “the largest clear floor in America,” according to Scientific American, was occupied by food vendors. In 1854, vendor rents accounted for approximately 20 percent of the organization’s revenue.

The Maryland Institute’s Great Hall could accommodate 6,000 people. In 1852, the national conventions of both the Democratic and Whig parties met there. A similar arrangement in Philadelphia might house the Franklin Institute and provide space for its exhibitions and generate revenue.

Harrison began speaking with contractor John Rice in 1858. In January 1859, he asked Cresson to appoint a committee to consider such a proposal. Rice attended a series of committee meetings to explain how his planned structure on Chestnut near 10th Street might be adapted for the Institute’s purposes.

Advertisement for Wood & Perrot’s iron railing factory at 12th Street and Ridge Avenue. The company manufactured the railing that filled in the opening of the brick wall at Franklin’s grave. | Source: Library Company of Philadelphia

Markets were a specialty for Rice, who had built others at Broad and Race, 19th and Market, 5th and Chestnut, and on 12th Street.

Born in Northern Liberties, Rice apprenticed as a carpenter, then made a name for himself building many of Philadelphia’s ubiquitous brick row homes. From that base, he expanded into public buildings. On Chestnut Street, he was responsible for the 1854 Farmers & Mechanics Bank, now part of the American Philosophical Society, the 1857 Philadelphia Bank, now offices and condominiums, and the 1865 First National Bank, now home to the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

In 1852, Rice won a contract to supply marble for the expansion of the U.S. Capitol. After the Civil War, his projects included financier Jay Cooke’s 53-room mansion “Ogontz” and Horticultural Hall, an immense confection of glass and iron intended for botanical displays at the 1876 Centennial.

As a successful builder, Rice surely understood the value of client relations. So, when he began talks with Harrison about the Chestnut Street project, offering to handle the work at Christ Church Burial Ground likely seemed an easy goodwill gesture. Cresson, like Rice, was a member of the Fairmount Park Commission and could easily have mentioned that his assistance would be well received. According to the Philadelphia Bulletin, the granite base used to dress the wall opening at Franklin’s grave was “furnished by Mr. John Rice at his own expense.” Given Rice’s connections and sources, it couldn’t have cost much.

Unfortunately for Rice, goodwill never turned into a contract. The soured economy made everyone skittish, and Harrison’s proposal for a mixed-use development didn’t appeal to Franklin Institute leaders unaccustomed to sharing space for purposes as mundane as food vending. In 1860, Harrison left town on a long European tour.

The metal railing at Franklin’s grave came from Wood & Perot, a manufacturer of decorative ironwork whose factory then occupied most of the block bounded by Ridge Avenue, 12th, Spring Garden, and Buttonwood Streets. The mid-1850s were the heyday of decorative cast iron, and Wood & Perot was a leader among the 22 manufacturers of iron fencing and railing listed in McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory.

In 1857, the foundry became Wood & Perot when founder Robert Wood took on a partner, Elliston Perot. The son of a brewer, Perot was described in city directories as a “merchant” with a shop on Church Alley as early as 1847. If Wood was the firm’s artistic master, Perot seems to have been its marketing strategist. During the partnership, Wood & Perot opened branch stores, including one in New Orleans where an inspection of that city’s “iron lace” today would reveal much that was made in Philadelphia.

How the firm became involved at Christ Church Burial Ground is unknown. Perhaps Rice invited its participation as one of his regular suppliers. Certainly participation would have been good publicity for Wood & Perot’s thriving business in cemetery fencing.

Last to be involved in the work was English-born architect John Skirving. Never an architect of the first rank, Skirving usually assisted other architects with details of their own projects. In that context, he built a reputation as a heating and ventilation expert. In Philadelphia, he worked with John Haviland on the Franklin Institute’s 7th Street building, Thomas U. Walter on Moyamensing Prison, and William Strickland on the Merchants Exchange building.

In 1839, when a recession dried up commercial projects, Skirving moved to Washington to work on the patent and post office buildings and the U.S. Treasury. In 1846, he was contracted to install furnaces in the U.S. Capitol.

Skirving is best known for the Gothic Revival cottage he designed in 1842 for banker George W. Riggs Jr. Standing on property later absorbed by the Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C., the “Lincoln Cottage” was Abraham Lincoln’s favored retreat during the Civil War.

Skirving’s work in Washington was curtailed by an extended illness that began in 1853. He traveled widely seeking relief, then returned to Philadelphia. The burial ground wall was a small project, but would have required an architect to confirm the wall’s stability and determine how it would be finished after the bricks were removed. As an old friend of the Institute, this public favor would have been an excellent way to notify past and future clients of his renewed availability.

Cooking Up Public Opinion

Onlookers gather at Benjamin Franklin’s grave in this souvenir postcard from the late 1800. | Source: Library Company Of Philadelphia

The committee decided that the role of the Franklin Institute, and all those supporting it in the burial ground project, would remain secret. Unlike the eminent men of Boston who had unveiled Franklin’s statue there two years earlier, the leaders of Philadelphia did not enjoy a similar level of respect. Instead, the city’s leadership class would be used as a foil in a slick public relations campaign that directed credit to the “real” hero: Philadelphia’s common man, who would shortly be persuaded to demand that Franklin be rescued from the insult of being hidden by a wall.

The stunt was the work of Joseph Reed Ingersoll, later identified by the Philadelphia Bulletin as leader of a group of “public-spirited gentlemen (who) agitated a measure which they designed to result in throwing down the wall.”

Ingersoll, a lawyer with a wide-ranging practice and former congressman, came from a family with experience influencing public opinion. His father, Jared Ingersoll, had been a delegate to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention and to the state’s 1787 constitutional convention. His brother, Charles Jared Ingersoll, had served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, on the state constitutional convention and for four terms in the U.S. House. Ingersoll himself had served four terms in the U.S. House in the 1830s and ‘40s, and as ambassador to Great Britain.

As an Ingersoll and a Whig, the party of the aristocracy, Ingersoll was instinctively supportive of social order and whatever he thought might foster the growth of a still-young nation. In 1842, he vigorously supported a tariff increase of almost 40 percent, arguing that it would strengthen the manufacturing sector, and indirectly benefit rural areas whose products were used by industry. (The South and West did not see it that way.)

Ingersoll was critical of abolitionists who exacerbated North-South tensions. In Congress, he opposed the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in any territory gained in the Mexican War. In 1859, five days after the hanging of John Brown, Ingersoll chaired a public meeting to rebuke Brown’s sympathizers and reassure southerners that Philadelphia would defend their rights.

On the other hand, Ingersoll also opposed secession and, in 1861, wrote a small book, Secession Resisted, which described Confederate leaders as self-interested criminals and traitors.

Ingersoll was a dependable supporter of Philadelphia charities. Many had begun operations with remarks by Ingersoll at opening ceremonies. In the 1850s, he supported the Institute’s ill-fated School of Design for Women and chaired the building fund for the Philadelphia Academy of Music. In 1858, he was also leading yet another attempt to resurrect a moribund, 1830s effort to erect an equestrian statue of George Washington in Washington Square. Opening the wall at Christ Church Burial Ground was the sort of project Ingersoll would have joined without hesitation.

In 1857, a media buzz began that could only have been orchestrated. In February, Philadelphia-based Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most widely read periodical of its day, printed a 14-line sonnet about Franklin’s grave. Author William Alexander loved “pathetic” subjects– suffering and fallen soldiers, murdered missionaries, and great men. His sonnet to Franklin,  which began “Aneath the sod, in yonder graveyard,” combined these themes. Alexander praised, but also seemed to lament, the simplicity of Franklin’s burial slab.

How Alexander came to the subject is not known. However, Godey’s editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, was a friend to monuments. In the 1840s, she had used her magazine to raise funds for Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument. She also campaigned to preserve Mount Vernon and was a leading advocate of making Thanksgiving a national holiday.

During a warm spell in January 1858, the Philadelphia Press reported that work crews had taken advantage of the weather to prune trees in the burial ground, and that a crowd had taken advantage of the open gates to visit Franklin’s grave.

“The humble slab that marks this hallowed spot…seemed to excite surprise in the minds of many; and well it might,” wrote the editor, John Weiss Forney, a former clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. “With how much…propriety may the American blush with self-condemnation at the thought of allowing 68 years to roll over the tomb of one of our countrymen who, even while living, wrote his epitaph on the clouds of heaven with a pen of lightning, and yet whose grave is not marked with a tributary monument?”

Stereoscopic photograph depicts the renewed (albeit manufactured) public interest in preserving Franklin’s grave, late 1800s. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

That Franklin was buried precisely as he had requested, added Forney, “forms but a feeble palliation for our neglect.” It was a theme that would be often repeated as the year progressed: Franklin was being insulted, and what would we do about it?

In February 1858, a new proposal came to the Christ Church vestry. “The family of the late Benjamin Franklin,” reported church warden Moses Kempton, had asked “permission to place an iron railing in the wall opposite his tomb.” The identity of these relatives was not stated, nor any reference made to the three years of talks between the Franklin Institute and Christ Church. The vestry, of course, had no objection.

In August, the Philadelphia Inquirer excitedly reported the discovery of a 1771 letter in which Franklin commented on the effect of manufacturing on economic growth that “the colonies that produce provisions grow very fast. But of the countries that take off those provisions, some do not increase at all.” Thus was Franklin portrayed as a proponent of protective tariffs, a founder that both Philadelphia workers and factory owners could love.

“Assuming its genuineness,” wrote an Inquirer editor, “we may remark that the frugal and independent notions of the great philosopher, his strong common sense and his practical views, all make it quite natural that he should favor the encouragement and protection of home industry.”

Also in 1858, the musical team of E.E. Hulfish and J.C. Beckel published a three-page piece of sheet music, “The Grave of Franklin,” for piano and voice. Its first stanza began, “Peaceful he lies in Death’s holy slumber, patriot and scholar whose name will ne’er die” and ended “Let youth deck the spot with fairest of roses, “which, of course, “youth” could not easily do with the grave locked behind a brick wall.

It was the heyday of parlor music. By the mid-19th century, the United States had a growing middle class with sufficient spare cash for musical instruments, in particular, pianos, with which to provide entertainment at home. This, in turn, created a steady appetite for new melodies which were sold as sheet music. Many were written locally.

In 1857, Philadelphia had 42 musical specialty stores, selling instruments, accessories, and sheet music. Patriotic and religious music was popular, but many songs were based on current events. In 1851, at the height of the “bloomers” craze of short dresses for women, Lee & Walker, Hulfish and Beckel’s publisher, produced “The New Costume Polka.” This sheet music was dedicated to Amelia Bloomer, for whom the costume’s was named and illustrated with a color lithograph of a Bloomer Girl standing in front of Lee & Walker’s Chestnut Street shop.

Hulfish and Beckel were both known for patriotic tunes. Beckel’s legacy includes Civil War compositions, including one about the Battle of Gettysburg published July 1863, the same month in which the battle ended.

Sheet music for Hulfish and Beckel’s parlor song, “The Grave of Franklin.” | Source: Archives.org

Hulfish and Beckel might have produced “The Grave of Franklin” independently. Given the confluence of events, however, it seems likely that they were solicited to do so by someone in Ingersoll’s network. As such, it represented a savvy recognition that music was a proven promotional technique. By providing a new tune for Philadelphians to sing in their parlors, they could be made receptive and sympathetic to what was about to happen at 5th and Arch Streets.

In late August 1858, the nation celebrated the successful completion of a transatlantic cable, which had transmitted its first message on August 16. There were celebrations in New York, Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco. On September 1, Philadelphia saw a military parade, fireworks, a ringing of bells, and a party in Independence Square. There, determined speakers used the event to make a direct tie to Franklin and his kite experiments.

Ellis Lewis, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, contrasted Franklin with Prometheus who, in Greek mythology, was condemned to eternal punishment for having given fire to man. “But our God, the God of the true religion, blesses every effort of his creatures to advance in knowledge and prosperity,” Lewis told the crowd. “When the American Prometheus brought the lightning from Heaven and made it subservient to the uses of man, instead of punishment he was rewarded with the blessing of God.”

William D. Kelley, a former judge, reviewed historic scientists whose work had contributed to the cable, but his conclusion was entirely parochial. Allessandro Volta, the Italian inventor of the battery, was barely born, he noted, when “Franklin drew from the clouds the electric spark…in the provincial town of Philadelphia.” E.W. Hutter, a Lutheran minister, hailed Franklin as first to answer God’s challenge, “Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?,” quoting Job 38:35. 

The evening concluded with a torchlight parade at which, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, it seemed that “the entire humanity of the city, old and young, rich and poor, gentle and simple, handsome and ugly, had turned out.” And if those who attended didn’t go home with warm thoughts of Franklin, it wasn’t for lack of trying by the organizers, among them Cresson and another Franklin Institute board member, Mathias Baldwin, manufacturer of locomotives.

Days later, the Christ Church vestry passed another resolution. The church would yield, it stated, to “public sentiment and a just and generous desire from every portion of the American people…to put an end to the misapprehensions that have continued to prevail with respect to the place of interment of Dr. Franklin, and at the same time to relieve the tombstone of the illustrious philosopher and patriot from the concealment which has not ceased to obscure it for nearly 70 years.” The resolution made no reference to the Franklin Institute, nor even to the authorization of the Franklin family in February. In this version of events, the “people” had won.

The story was embraced by the popular press. The vestry “have at last yielded,” trumpeted the Public Ledger. When the wall fell, observed the Philadelphia Bulletin, “not only our citizens, but the thousands of strangers who visit Philadelphia from time to time, will be able to gratify a laudable curiosity.” The New York Times praised the vestry for finally sparing visitors the trouble of searching for the grave.

Donations for the project, added the Bulletin, could be made at the Library Company of Philadelphia. The cost, however, was borne by Rice, Wood & Perot, and Skirving. The announcement seems to have been for show, to strengthen the impression that opening the burial ground wall was a response to popular demand. There is no record that the Library Company collected donations, nor do vestry or Franklin Institute minutes mention a request for them.

A mother and her sons view stop by for a visit with Ben Franklin, circa 1890. | Source: Historical Images of Philadelphia collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

But why all the subterfuge? Five terms in Congress had made Ingersoll cautious. A member of the old aristocracy and a Whig, he had experienced first hand the waning influence of both. The tariff the Whigs and he had fought for in 1842 had been repealed in 1846, and the Mexican War they opposed proceeded nevertheless.

As a party, Whigs supported banks, business, economic growth, and an activist government that would support education, scientific progress, and humanitarian reform. But Democrats dismissed the Whigs as a rich man’s party whose projects would benefit only a few, and the Democrats were ascendant.

Ingersoll had served one House term in the 1830s, then declined to run again. But after his replacement resigned and the Whigs begged, Ingersoll agreed to go back. He served four more terms but, by 1848, had had enough and again retired.

Perhaps Sidney George Fisher, husband of Ingersoll’s niece, with whom the widowed congressman was close, expressed his thoughts. “It has ceased to be an honor to be sent to Congress,” wrote Fisher when Ingersoll bowed out in 1841. “The body itself has become so low and coarse that a man of education and refinement finds himself out of place in it.”

If Ingersoll disliked the trend in politics, he could only have been wary of what happened in the streets. Philadelphia’s working class was famous for violent attacks on those it perceived as threats, namely recent immigrants, African Americans, and even those of the higher income brackets who took the wrong side. In 1844, an anti-Catholic riot had destroyed two Catholic churches, including St. Augustine at 4th & Race Streets, a block north of Christ Church Burial Ground. One block to the west, a pro-slavery mob had burned Pennsylvania Hall, an abolitionist meeting place, three days after it opened in 1838.

In that context, perhaps it just seemed safer to have the public think that this collective act of patriotism was their idea. If Franklin’s grave became identified with some organization or group, who knew what event might rouse another mob of ruffians, any one of whom might reach through the new railing at 5th and Arch and slam a rock on Franklin’s marble slab?

On September 21, 1858 the Inquirer reported that workmen had begun the business of demolishing the wall. Four days later, the Bulletin published a woodcut of the finished opening. Not everyone liked what had been done. At an October meeting of the Philadelphia Common Council, member George F. Gordon, discussing a belated proposal to contribute city funds to the project, offered his vision of an appropriate monument: white, polished marble with an ornate sarcophagus containing Franklin’s remains, topped by a life-sized statue.

“But such a plan and such thoughts,” he raged sarcastically, “sink into utter night before the blazing splendor and architectural beauty of the hole in the wall!”

Despite such criticism, Franklin’s grave has remained popular and profitable feature of the region’s 1776 tourism industry, thanks to a crafty marketing ploy and manipulating public perception. Whether Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution will fare as well remains to be seen.


About the Author

Mark Dixon Mark E. Dixon is a former newspaper reporter, trade magazine editor and public relations professional. A freelance writer since 2000, he writes Main Line Today magazine’s monthly Retrospect column, which focuses on the history of the western suburbs. His interest in the grave of Benjamin Franklin stems from a decade-ago visit to the site with a daughter, when he observed that a viewing window for 18th century graveyard, created in an era in which cemeteries were not thought beautiful, just looked odd.


  1. Apples and Oranges says:

    “to balance gaping holes in permanent gallery halls occupied by flexible event space”

    Clearly written by someone who has yet to tour the new building (and is only going off of the article written by Ms. Saffron) and someone who has no experience working in a museum, especially in the current climate.

    There are no “gaping holes” in permanent gallery space. There is flexible event space that is mostly centralized. That event space is also, unfortunately, a requirement for any new museum, as it produces revenue that is lacking from membership and visitation.

  2. Seebo says:

    Mr. Dixon, if you are going to lead with potshots at the new museum, then perhaps continue with a more detailed review of the museum?

    Otherwise, your abrupt shift of focus in the rest of the article amounts to a bait and switch. Isn’t Ben Franklin’s grave worthy of its own lede?

    1. Apples and Oranges says:

      He can’t give a more detailed review, because he is only going off of what Inga wrote. And Inga, who has been an outspoken critic of the museum from the design phase, is not going to suddenly become a fan. In fact, her article on the museum was as much of an “I was wrong to judge it so quickly and harshly” as you will get from her.

  3. Mark E. Dixon says:

    Actually, I care very little about the new museum, but the lede served a purpose. First, it tied the story of Ben’s grave to the news cycle, as did MAR’s planners by choosing to open on April 19, anniversary of the Battle of Lexington. Second, it created a parallel between two separate uses of “history” for contemporary purposes.

    Does anyone have a reaction to the story itself?

    1. Melissa Haddick says:

      Mr. Dixon,
      My reaction is wonderful, a well researched and written story with lots of interesting details. Specifically, the players (profiteers) who “repackage history” as a response to so-called “public demand,” the clever PR campaigns to sway public opinion from something previously undesirable (stinky repositories for the dead) to something of great value and civic pride! That’s rich.

      I devoured Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin Autobiography, and now Ben influences my travel adventures. I too, enjoy visiting sites of historical interest with my daughter. Sorry to hear that the house that Franklin built and lived in with daughter Sally and family was demolished. A missed opportunity for tourists and the city!

      To the naysayers who cast their gloom, pay them no nevermind. Cheers!

  4. Bradley Peniston says:

    What an amazing story. I love Hidden City.

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