I came across this bit of trivia as the result of an idle question that came floating through my brain today. For reasons unknown even to me, I suddenly thought of the cover for the Saturday Evening Post, specifically, the text at the bottom of the masthead reading “Founded A.D. 1728 by Benjamin Franklin.” It occurred to me that I had never seen or heard any reference to this in any biography of Mr. Franklin, so I began digging. The answer turned out to be on my bookshelf, in a wonderfully entertaining volume titled Hoaxes and Scams – A Compendium of Deceptions, Ruses, and Swindles by Carl Sifakis (published by Facts on File, 1993). Here’s an excerpt:
. . . In fact, Benjamin Franklin was never head of the Saturday Evening Post, having died 31 years before its first issue. Furthermore, Franklin never published any magazine that could in any way be connected to the Post. It is true that in 1729 (rather than 1728), Franklin took over a struggling newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and turned it into a money maker. The Gazette survived Franklin’s death and continued publication until 1815 . . . The Franklin connection was invented in 1899 by the famed editor of the Post, George Horace Lorimer. According to some speculation, this was a desperate way to attract readers and advertisers during the yellow-journal news wars. Whatever the reason, the Post has lived with the Franklin lie ever since, leading Tom Burnam to mourn in The Dictionary of Misinformation, “A magazine so sternly dedicated for so many years to the old-fashioned American virtues should not have been, one cannot help feeling, so cavalier with the truth.”
To be sure, this is petty deception compared to some of the grand scams that have gone down over the years – many of which are detailed in the book mentioned above – but there’s something about the psychology of inventing and perpetuating this sort of hoax that I find fascinating.