Shows US Founding Father may have contributed to a forgotten shipwreck narrative

New research from the University of Birmingham suggests Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, could have contributed to a forgotten shipwreck narrative.

Based on studies of Franklin’s early life as a printer, Dr Hazel Wilkinson claims there are clues which provide information about Benjamin Franklin’s activities during his first visit to London as an eighteen-year-old printer. Her research suggests a previously unobserved connection between the young Franklin and Richard Castelman, an English theatre manager with an intriguing past.

Richard Castelman was an English trader who survived a shipwreck in 1705, on a voyage from Bermuda to America. His ship ran aground on the North Carolina shore, where he was rescued. He travelled to Philadelphia and stayed there for four months before returning to England. He gave up the seafaring life, and became the treasurer of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Twenty years later, in 1725, Benjamin Franklin moved to London from Philadelphia, finding work at the printing house of John Watts, on Wild Court. Franklin’s lodgings on Duke Street were only 150 yards from where Richard Castelman lived and worked.

Franklin had been a printer since the age of 12, when he was apprenticed to his brother in Boston. He illegally absconded from his apprenticeship in 1723, and moved to Philadelphia, which became his adopted hometown. He sailed to London to buy a printing press, but his financial backer let him down, and he spent eighteen months in London working as a journeyman printer.

Hazel Wilkinson is the first person to have investigated what Franklin actually printed during his London residence. On a visiting fellowship at the Library Company of Philadelphia, she identified 40 books that Franklin may have helped to print in London. One of the books printed at Franklin’s workplace was The Voyage of Richard Castelman, which was published in 1726. The book was an account of Castelman’s shipwreck and residence in Philadelphia over 20 years earlier.

In 1943 a research article on Castleman claimed “Richard Castelman” was a fictional persona who never existed.

Hazel Wilkinson was sceptical about the claim Castleman did not exist. She gathered a significant amount of evidence relating to Castelman’s life and work. Her article proving the authenticity of Castelman’s shipwreck was published in the Review of English Studies earlier this year. The article verifies much of the information of Castleman’s narrative, which is now known to be the earliest known source for some key pieces of information about early colonial Philadelphia, including the city’s first dancing school, and brewery.

But the story was not finished, as Hazel Wilkinson was struck by the coincidence of how this printing house in London produced a new account of Philadelphia only a few months after Franklin, already on the path to becoming that city’s most famous resident, started working there. Furthermore, Hazel Wilkinson’s research had pointed out inconsistencies in the narrative which suggest that the section describing Philadelphia was re-written or expanded, possibly by or with the help of a third party who may have known Philadelphia. Even without knowing that Castelman’s printer was probably Franklin, previous commentators have spotted the similarity between Castelman’s views and Franklin’s on Philadelphia. Hazel Wilkinson joins the dots between the two for the first time.

Hazel Wilkinson said: “My research has told us a lot more about Benjamin Franklin’s early visit to London, a fascinating period in his life. I used bibliographical analysis and archival research to work out exactly what was printed at the presses he worked for. We know that he liked to read what he printed, so this gives us new insight into his intellectual development at a formative age. All the circumstantial evidence suggests that Franklin had a hand in telling Richard Castelman’s story. Whether he discussed it with Castelman, printed it for him, or helped him write it, the connection offers us a rare glimpse at the early activities of a key figure in American history.”

Was Benjamin Franklin Richard Castelman’s encouraging printer? His amanuensis’ Or even his co-author? Hazel Wilkinson says it does open up more questions:

“I hope Benjamin Franklin scholars will puzzle over this mystery. I think the evidence is compelling, but so far it is circumstantial: perhaps the work of future scholars will tell us even more about Richard Castelman, and Franklin’s involvement in his story.”

Benjamin Franklin was a signatory to both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, and is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. His influence in the early history of the United States has led to his being jocularly called "the only President of the United States who was never President of the United States."

A full article on the connection between Benjamin Franklin and Richard Castleman is published in the Times Literacy Supplement online.