I have been reading up on the life of Benjamin Franklin, in the perceptive biography by Walter Isaacson; though I was saddened at how he abbreviated things which I knew to be true treasures – it makes me wonder how much other good material he leaves out of his work. One such example is the story of Titan Leeds, Ben Franklin’s main competitor in the composition of a yearly almanac. When I read the name Titan Leeds again I almost died laughing, just thinking of Franklin’s hoax against him. Franklin in his first almanac predicted the death of Leeds as one of the astronomical events of the year; and he followed up the joke, publishing an obituary of Leeds in his paper and continuing the joke in the next two years’ prefaces. Since I could not find them gathered anyplace else on the internet, I put them together here myself:
Poor Richard, 1733.
I might in this place attempt to gain thy Favour, by declaring that I write Almanacks with no other View than that of the publick Good; but in this I should not be sincere; and Men are now a-days too wise to be deceiv’d by Pretences how specious soever. The plain Truth of the Matter is, I am excessive poor, and my Wife, good Woman, is, I tell her, excessive proud; she cannot bear, she says, to sit spinning in her Shift of Tow, while I do nothing but gaze at the Stars; and has threatned more than once to burn all my Books and Rattling-Traps (as she calls my Instruments) if I do not make some profitable Use of them for the good of my Family. The Printer has offer’d me some considerable share of the Profits, and I have thus begun to comply with my Dame’s desire.
Indeed this Motive would have had Force enough to have made me publish an Almanack many Years since, had it not been overpower’d by my Regard for my good Friend and Fellow-Student, Mr. Titan Leeds, whose Interest I was extreamly 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 ho. 29 m. 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; 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 publick 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
Friend and Servant
Poor Richard, 1734
Your kind and charitable Assistance last Year, in purchasing so large an Impression of my Almanacks, has made my Circumstances much more easy in the World, and requires my grateful Acknowledgment. My Wife has been enabled to get a Pot of her own, and is no longer oblig’d to borrow one from a Neighbour; nor have we ever since been without something of our own to put in it. She has also got a pair of Shoes, two new Shifts, and a new warm Petticoat; and for my part, I have bought a second-hand Coat, so good, that I am now not asham’d to go to Town or be seen there. These Things have render’d her Temper so much more pacifick than it us’d to be, that I may say, I have slept more, and more quietly within this last Year, than in the three foregoing Years put together. Accept my hearty Thanks therefor, and my sincere Wishes for your Health and Prosperity.
In the Preface to my last Almanack, I foretold the Death of my dear old Friend and Fellow-Student, the learned and ingenious Mr.Titan Leeds, which was to be on the 17th of October, 1733, 3 h. 29 m. P.M. at the very Instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury. By his own Calculation he was to survive till the 26th of the same Month, and expire in the Time of the Eclipse, near 11 a clock, A.M. At which of these Times he died, or whether he be really yet dead, I cannot at this present Writing positively assure my Readers; forasmuch as a Disorder in my own Family demanded my Presence, and would not permit me as I had intended, to be with him in his last Moments, to receive his last Embrace, to close his Eyes, and do the Duty of a Friend in performing the last Offices to the Departed. Therefore it is that I cannot positively affirm whether he be dead or not; for the Stars only show to the Skilful, what will happen in the natural and universal Chain of Causes and Effects; but ’tis well known, that the Events which would otherwise certainly happen at certain Times in the Course of Nature, are sometimes set aside or postpon’d for wise and good Reasons, by the immediate particular Dispositions of Providence; which particular Dispositions the Stars can by no Means discover or foreshow. There is however, (and I cannot speak it without Sorrow) there is the strongest Probability that my dear Friend is no more; for there appears in his Name, as I am assured, an Almanack for the Year 1734, in which I am treated in a very gross and unhandsome Manner; in which I am called a false Predicter, an Ignorant, a conceited Scribler, a Fool, and a Lyar. 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: So that it is to be feared, that Pamphlet may be only a Contrivance of somebody or other, who hopes perhaps to sell two or three Year’s Almanacks still, by the sole Force and Virtue of Mr. Leeds’s Name; but certainly, to put Words into the Mouth of a Gentleman and a Man of Letters, against his Friend, which the meanest and most scandalous of the People might be asham’d to utter even in a drunken Quarrel, is an unpardonable Injury to his Memory, and an Imposition upon the Publick.
Mr. Leeds was not only profoundly skilful in the useful Science he profess’d, but he was a Man of exemplary Sobriety, a most sincere Friend, and an exact Performer of his Word. These valuable Qualifications, with many others, so much endear’d him to me, that although it should be so, that, contrary to all Probability, contrary to my Prediction and his own, he might possibly be yet alive, yet my Loss of Honour as a Prognosticator, cannot afford me so much Mortification, as his Life, Health and Safety would give me Joy and Satisfaction. I am,
Courteous and kind Reader,
Your poor Friend and Servant,
Octob. 30. 1733 .R. SAUNDERS.
Poor Richard, 1735
This is the third Time of my appearing in print, hitherto very much to my own Satisfaction, and, I have reason to hope, to the Satisfaction of the Publick also; for the Publick is generous, and has been very charitable and good to me. I should be ungrateful then, if I did not take every Opportunity of expressing my Gratitude; for ingratum si dixeris, omnia dixeris: I therefore return the Publick my most humble and hearty Thanks.
Whatever may be the Musick of the Spheres, how great soever the Harmony of the Stars, ’tis certain there is no Harmony among the Stargazers; but they are perpetually growling and snarling at one another like strange Curs, or like some Men at their Wives: I had resolved to keep the Peace on my own part, and affront none of them; and I shall persist in that Resolution: But having receiv’d much Abuse from Titan Leeds deceas’d, (Titan Leeds when living would not have us’d me so!) I say, having receiv’d much Abuse from the Ghost of Titan Leeds, who pretends to be still living, and to write Almanacks in spight of me and my Predictions, I cannot help saying, that tho’ I take it patiently, I take it very unkindly. And whatever he may pretend, ’tis undoubtedly true that he is really defunct and dead. First because the Stars are seldom disappointed, never but in the Case of wise Men, Sapiens dominabitur astris, and they foreshow’d his Death at the Time I predicted it. Secondly, ‘Twas requisite and necessary he should die punctually at that Time, for the Honour of Astrology, the Art professed both by him and his Father before him. Thirdly, ‘Tis plain to every one that reads his two last Almanacks (for 1734 and 35) that they are not written with that Life his Performances use to be written with; the Wit is low and flat, the little Hints dull and spiritless, nothing smart in them but Hudibras’s Verses against Astrology at the Heads of the Months in the last, which no Astrologer but a dead one would have inserted, and no Man living would or could write such Stuff as the rest. But lastly, I shall convince him from his own Words, that he is dead, (ex ore suo condemnatus est) for in his Preface to his Almanack for 1734, he says, “Saunders adds another Gross Falshood in his Almanack, viz. that by my own Calculation I shall survive until the 26th of the said Month October 1733, which is as untrue as the former.” Now if it be, as Leeds says, untrue and a gross Falshood that he surviv’d till the 26th of October 1733, then it is certainly true that he died before that Time: And if he died before that Time, he is dead now, to all Intents and Purposes, any thing he may say to the contrary notwithstanding. And at what Time before the 26th is it so likely he should die, as at the Time by me predicted, viz. the 17th of October aforesaid? But if some People will walk and be troublesome after Death, it may perhaps be born with a little, because it cannot well be avoided unless one would be at the Pains and Expence of laying them in the Red Sea; however, they should not presume too much upon the Liberty allow’d them; I know Confinement must needs be mighty irksome to the free Spirit of an Astronomer, and I am too compassionate to proceed suddenly to Extremities with it; nevertheless, tho’ I resolve with Reluctance, I shall not long defer, if it does not speedily learn to treat its living Friends with better Manners. I am,
Your obliged Friend and Servant,
Octob. 30. 1734.