How Ben Franklin Killed the Competition

In 1728, a printer named Samuel Keimer founded the Pennsylvania Gazette, the second newspaper ever printed in the colony. It did not do well, and Keimer quickly fell into debt and fled the nation. Before he left, though, he sold the paper to a young man interested in the business of printing and journalism named Ben Franklin  A year later, Franklin — who, as you already know, would become a famous American statesman — purchased the Gazette and took a hands-on role in writing the news of the day and, of course, opinion columns as well. The paper quickly became perhaps the most prominent one published in the British colonies in North America. Franklin became very influential as a result.

Wanting to expand his publishing empire, in 1732, Franklin concocted a new idea. On December 28th of that year, he published an announcement in the Gazette about a new publication he had acquired (or so he claimed; in fact, he was the publisher and lead author). Titled “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” the new periodical would not focus on the news, but rather, on other key information — a calendar, weather predictions, probably some stuff about astrology, some poetry, etc. Written by “Richard Saunders,” a pseudonym Franklin adopted, it was a smorgasbord of readables and something for everyone. But it wasn’t a particularly novel idea. In fact, there was already a Philadephia-based almanac in circulation: The American Almanack, published by a man named Titan Leeds.

And Ben Franklin wasn’t about to take that competition lightly.

The American Almanack was founded in 1687 by a devout Quaker named Daniel Leeds. The publication proved popular and earned the disdain of the Quakers in the area; Daniel Leeds responded by leaving them behind and, instead, satirizing them in his publication, making it even more popular in the process. When Daniel decided to retire in 1716, he turned the reins over to his son, Titan. By the time Ben Franklin/Richard Saunders got into the nix, Titan Leeds was a well-known leader in the almanac space, and one Franklin wanted to kill off. So he did, minus the murder part.

In the initial edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack, published in 1733, “Richard Saunders” penned a letter to his readers explaining why he was entering the almanac business, particularly in light of the fact that an already good one was being published by Titan Leeds. Saunders explains that his motivation isn’t solely for the public good — he’s poor and needs an income, Ben Franklin offered to partner with him in the endeavor. Saunders’ only remaining concern was his friendship with Titan Leeds — he didn’t want to compete with his compatriot. But, Saunders continued, that wouldn’t be an issue for very long (via):

Indeed this Motive would have had Force enough to have made me publish an Almanack many Years since, had it not been overpowered by my Regard for my good Friend and Fellow-Student, Mr. Titan Leeds, whose Interest I was extremely unwilling to hurt: But this Obstacle (I am far from speaking it with Pleasure) is soon to be removed, since inexorable Death, who was never known to respect Merit, has already prepared the mortal Dart, the fatal Sister has already extended her destroying Shears, and that ingenious Man must soon be taken from us. He dies, by my Calculation made at his Request, on Oct. 17, 1733, 3:29 P.M., at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury: By his own Calculation he will survive till the 26th of the same Month. This small difference between us we have disputed whenever we have met these 9 Years past; but at length he is inclinable to agree with my Judgment.

The writing style of the day may make that hard to understand, so, to summarize: Saunders wrote that Titan Leeds was going to die in 1733 — and that both he and Leeds predicted it. They did have some disagreement, however; Saunders predicted that Leeds would die on October 17th, but Leeds predicted his own demise would occur on October 26th. Either way, Leeds was on the way out, and therefore, the world needed someone to write an almanac for 1734.

This was, of course, total fiction. Neither Leeds nor Saunders/Franklin had any way of predicting the former’s death. Franklin was, rather, just hoping to drum up some business. In fact, his letter from Saunders continued by using the prediction as an explicit reason to buy the 1734 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack:

Which of us is most exact, a little Time will now determine. As therefore these Provinces may not longer expect to see any of his Performances after this Year, I think my self free to take up the Task, and request a share of the public Encouragement; which I am the more apt to hope for on this Account, that the Buyer of my Almanack may consider himself, not only as purchasing an useful Utensil, but as performing an Act of Charity, to his poor.

Leeds didn’t die in 1734, and he used his own almanac that year to assure his readers that he was very much alive — and, for good measure, wrote that Saunders “has usurpt the knowledge of the Almighty herein and manifested himself a Fool and a Lyar.” Franklin, who hadn’t yet published his almanack when Leeds’ hit, replied in kind (as Saunders), writing that while he could not be sure when Leeds died, it was likely that he had. His proof? The real Titan Leeds would never use such coarse language to describe a friend, to wit: “Mr. Leeds was too well bred to use any Man so indecently and so scurrilously, and moreover his Esteem and Affection for me was extraordinary.” Saunders mourned the loss of his friend and argued that the 1734 edition of the American Almanack was being written by a scoundrel who was using the good name of the now-deceased Titan Leeds to sell copies of the publication. 

Franklin carried the ruse forward for the next few years, only calling it quits in 1740. Titan Leeds actually died in 1738, and the 1739 version of his Almanack carried an obituary to their now-former published. The next year, Franklin shared the news; as the Museum of Hoaxes notes, he “congratulated the men who had usurped Leeds’s name for finally deciding to end their pretense.”

Bonus fact: Daniel Leeds’ impact on history continues to this day in another way — you’ll find it if you go to a hockey game in New Jersey. Daniel Leeds’ descriptions of the Quakers didn’t set well with his former brethren, and as reports, “accusations of Quaker misdeeds so outraged them that they also called Leeds ‘Satan’s Harbinger.’ To make matters worse, Leeds supported the first royal governor of New Jersey, the infamous Lord Cornbury, a man accused of being loose with the colony’s taxes and a cross-dresser (both, we now know, slanders by anti-government pundits).” Over time, the idea of the Leeds being “Satan’s Harbinger” took on a perceived physical manifestation known as the “Devil of Leeds,” which later became simply the “Jersey Devil.” Today, that devil is the mascot of the state’s National Hockey League team.

From the Archives: Proto-TP: Why the Farmers’ Almanac had a hole through it.