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Episode 32: Ben Franklin & Corporate Espionage

Join Emily, Frank, and Meredith as they explore the sneaky secret Ben Franklin, the Oracle at Delphi, and Hollywood share: they all manipulated the public through corporate espionage, strategically leaked stories, and misinformation. They also discuss recent political scandals, and that time Ben Franklin pretended he’d been possessed by a ghost to discredit a competitor.


Links & Additional Resources:

The Death of Titan Leeds via Hoaxipedia

The Predictions of Isaac Bickerstaff via

Delphic Oracle’s Lips May Have Been Loosened by Gas Vapoors via National Geographic. From the article:

Now, a four-year study of the area in the vicinity of the shrine is causing archaeologists and other authorities to revisit the notion that intoxicating fumes loosened the lips of the Pythia.

The study, reported in the August issue of Geology, reveals that two faults intersect directly below the Delphic temple. The study also found evidence of hallucinogenic gases rising from a nearby spring and preserved within the temple rock…

…De Boer conducted an analysis of these hydrocarbon gases in spring water near the site of the Delphi temple. He found that one is ethylene, which has a sweet smell and produces a narcotic effect described as a floating or disembodied euphoria.

“Ethylene inhalation is a serious contender for explaining the trance and behavior of the Pythia,” said Diane Harris-Cline, a classics professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“Combined with social expectations, a woman in a confined space could be induced to spout off oracles,” she said.

According to traditional explanations, the Pythia derived her prophecies in a small, enclosed chamber in the basement of the temple. De Boer said that if the Pythia went to the chamber once a month, as tradition says, she could have been exposed to concentrations of the narcotic gas that were strong enough to induce a trance-like state.

There is No Such Man as Isaak Bickerstaff: Partridge, Pittis, and Jonathan Swift  – Abstract of a paper by John McTague via John Hopkins University. From the article:

John Partridge was the most prominent almanac maker of the early eighteenth century. He was also the victim of Swift’s Bickerstaff hoax. The pamphlet initiating the joke, Predictions for the Year 1708, announced itself as the work of one Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., and on the front page declared its purpose: “to prevent People from being further Impos’d on by Vulgar Almanack Makers.” Bickerstaff appears as a disgruntled but gentlemanly practitioner of astrology, proposing to reform the profession by way of polite example. Thus he embarks upon a series of prognostications for the remainder of the year, the rather serious implications of which belie his aloof and casual tone. The coup de grâce, however, is his first prediction, declaring itself to be “but a trifle”: “It relates to Partridge the Almanac-maker; I have consulted the Star of his Nativity by my own Rules, and find he will infallibly dye upon the 29th of March next, about Eleven at Night, of a raging fever” (4). To put Partridge into his misery, Swift published on the appointed day a pamphlet, entitled The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions (1708), in which an independent observer confirmed the astrologer’s death. A broadside elegy ensued, concluding with the now infamous epitaph that brands the astrologer-physician as “a cobler, star-monger and quack.” When Partridge insisted in his almanac for 1709 that he was actually alive, Swift retorted with A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff (1709), containing a series of logical proofs to the contrary. The literary success of the hoax was such, as is well known, that Addison and Steele adopted the Bickerstaff persona for The Tatler in 1709. Bickerstaff’s extended life in The Tatler obscures some of the ways in which the hoax was conceived and read by contemporaries as a political escapade.


Text of the original Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1733

Courteous Reader,

I might in this place attempt to gain thy Favor, by declaring that I write Almanacks with no other View than that of the public Good; but in this I should not be sincere; and Men are now a-days too wise to be deceived by Pretenses how specious so ever. 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 threatened 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 offered 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 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; 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

Friend and Servant

Titan Leeds’s response from his almanack, 1734

Kind Reader,

Perhaps it may be expected that I should say something concerning an Almanack printed for the Year 1733. Said to be writ by Poor Richard or Richard Saunders, who for want of other matter was pleased to tell his Readers, that he had calculated my Nativity, and from thence predicts my Death to be the 17th of October, 1733. At 22 min. past 3 o’clock in the Afternoon, and that these Provinces may not expect to see any more of his (Titan Leeds) Performances, and this precise Predicter, who predicts to a Minute, proposes to succeed me in Writing of Almanacks; but notwithstanding his false Prediction, I have by the Mercy of God lived to write a Diary for the Year 1734, and to publish the Folly and Ignorance of this presumptuous Author. Nay, he adds another gross Falsehood in his said Almanack, viz That by my own Calculation, I shall survive until the 26th of the said Month, (October) which is as untrue as the former, for I do not pretend to that knowledge, although he has usurpt the knowledge of the Almighty herein and manifested himself a Fool and a Lyar. And by the Mercy of God I have lived to survive this conceited Scriblers Day and Minute whereon he has predicted my Death; and as I have supplied my Country with Almanacks for three seven Years by past, to general Satisfaction, so perhaps I live to write when his Performances are Dead.

Thus much from your annual Friend, Titan Leeds.

October 18. 1733. 3 ho. 33 min. P.M.

Read more at: Ben Franklin’s First Almanac and the Hoax that Launched It. This page includes direct quotes and a a great timeline of the Titan Leeds hoax.


Recording: State Rep Asked Aide to Hide Their Relationship – News article about Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat in Michigan.