The following is an excerpt from chapter nine of Gregory Dowd's latest book, Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier.
Late in the Revolutionary War, in Passy, France, [Benjamin] Franklin lifted his pen in a most extraordinary effort at what today’s intelligence community would call “disinformation.” He sought to encourage support for the American position in the treaty negotiations. Between April 18 and April 22, 1782, he printed a broadsheet, a phony “Supplement” to the Boston Independent Chronicle, complete with advertisements, and he provided for its circulation around Europe, partly by enclosing the broadsheet with his correspondence. The “Supplement’s” main “item” was a purportedly intercepted message, sent, the item alleged, by an agent among the Seneca Indians and intended for the British governor of Canada. This message and the strange freight that accompanied it had been captured by a New England captain while raiding the Indians, or so Franklin fabricated the events. A portion of the message read:
At the request of the Senneka Chiefs, I send herewith to your Excellency, under the care of James Boyd, eight packs of Scalps, cured, dried, hooped and painted . . .
1. Containing 43 Scalps of Congress soldiers, killed in different skirmishes; these are Stretched on black Hoops, 4 inches diameter; the inside of the Skins painted red with a small black spot to note their being killed with Bullets. Also 62 of Farmers killed in their Houses; the Hoops red, the Skin painted brown and marked with a hoe; a black Circle all around to denote their being surprised in the Night, and a black Hatchet in the Middle, signifying their being killed with that weapon.
Franklin conjured up another 88 scalps torn from women, 193 from boys, 211 from girls, and 29 from infants “ripped out of their mothers’ bellies.” In his monumental biography of Franklin, Carl Van Doren long ago called the hoax “gruesome propaganda.” No doubt, as Franklin explained to John Adams, Indian men had been known to scalp noncombatants, even children. Each of these particular hairpieces, however, was beyond false: all of them were nonexistent….
It is hard to know whether Franklin’s disinformation ever became a pure rumor, circulating widely, rapidly, and by word of mouth without attribution to a reliable source. The rumors and legends of his childhood and the tall tales of mass scalpings that had already crossed the Atlantic gave shape to his diplomatic deception, a deliberate and carefully planned lie. Modern scholars tend to define rumors as having sprung from the collective conscience rather than from a single author; some insist that a lack of known authorship is a key ingredient to a rumor; a few refuse to admit deliberate lies and falsifications into the category. But such a definition of rumor is too confined. A powerful example of governmental disinformation becoming potent rumor is the famous anti- Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, likely concocted by Russia’s secret police around 1900. Like Franklin’s own forgery, the Protocols, according to a recent scholar, “incorporates many of the most vicious myths” that circulated along well- established lines. Although forged, it “crystallized the qualitatively different opponents” of the regime “into a single enemy responsible” for all manner of “ills.” The Protocols capitalized on rumor, becoming rumor in turn…. In this case, Franklin passed on no rumor, but he hoped to make one.
Franklin endeavored to persuade those to whom he sent copies of the bogus “Supplement” that he had chanced upon the news sheets. He feigned suspicion of the text itself, though he expressed confidence in its general truth. He raised questions about its authorship, adding force to its character as unfounded rumor. He understood that, as one rumor scholar has put it, “when state representatives spawn rumors, they cannot officially claim to be their source. This is because rumors qua rumors are impervious to verification, for once verified, rumors cease to be so.” There at the founding, Franklin knew the workings of unfounded news.
The hoax certainly is not the kind of “improvised news” that characterizes collective rumoring, in which people caught in worrisome circumstances seek understanding— accepting, refining, and passing on ambiguously grounded information as they struggle for the knowledge they desperately need. It is not a fine example of groups, bereft of information, seeking solutions during emergencies. Franklin sought to capitalize on such circumstances, and he built on such desires, but he did not rumor. He lied. And it was war….
But the hoax, rumor-like, did spread. In its entirety or in healthy extract, it appeared at least twice in England and more frequently in America, and it circulated as if true from mid-1782 to early 1783. One could read it in London, Philadelphia, Hartford, Providence, New York, Worcester, Burlington (New Jersey), and even Boston….
Franklin’s hoax gained new life in the run-up to and during the War of 1812, where it appeared in some twenty- seven papers, as truth. With such frequent printings, the hoax obviously rang true to many, and with good reason, for it resonated strongly with American interpretations of their war time experiences. In spite of at least more than 160 years of writings marking the piece as his, Franklin’s hoax spreads as truth in our own time…. The late Allan W. Eckert’s widely available “narrative biography,” A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, takes the document at face value. Eckert, whose popular writings on Ohio Valley and Great Lakes frontier history have stirred a love of history in many a young Ohioan’s breast, has a British agent, sitting comfortably at a desk, an oil lamp warming the night, penning a letter to Governor Frederick Haldimand of Canada. The agent had just finished placing marks on large packages, wrapped in oilskin. They are stacked about him, and they contain 1,062 scalps. Eckert not only swallows the hoax, hook, line, and sinker, but dangles it out to young readers, as fact.
Gregory Evans Dowd is a professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815, War under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire, and, most recently, Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier.