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Benjamin Franklin’s Newspaper with European and Colonial News, Warns Against Con Man Tom Bell, Mentions “a Jew, astronomer” Who May Have Solved Problem of Longitude
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This issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette, edited by Benjamin Franklin with his new partner David Hall, includes a brief story on a Jewish astronomer with a new method for determining longitude, a warning against confidence man Tom Bell, and a minor eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

[BENJAMIN FRANKLIN]. Newspaper. The Pennsylvania Gazette, September 14, 1749. Philadelphia, PA: Benjamin Franklin and David Hall. 4 pp., 8½ x 13¼ in.

Inventory #30028.01       Price: $850


We hear that Joseph Pollack, a Jew, astronomer, is to be examined before the right honourable the lords of the admiralty, about finding out the longitude, in an exact and easy manner, and it is very likely that he will have the reward promised.” (p2/c1)

New-York, September 11. We hear the noted vagrant Tom Bell is still lurking near this city, peradventure to have the better opportunity to deceive those he intends next to visit; tho’ we are told, tis only with a design to have an answer to some matchless bombast he has been pleas’d to propogate with respect to the printer hereof:--This fellow has had a large swing over this continent, as well as in some of the West-India islands, for these several years; and had it not been for some of Gay’s monkeys,[1] who flock round him in every place, grinning applause to his redundant chattering, and thereby supporting him in his unparallell’d impudence; ’tis more than probable he had long ago took the swing his merits deserve:--’Tis needless to say more, than that the whole design of publishing him in News-papers, is only to put honest people on their guard, and prevent their being imposed on by the wiles of a man, chiefly protected by qualities of craft obnoxious to christian society.[2] (p2/c3)

Naples, May 20. Mount Vesuvius has begun again to throw out its flames in a very extraordinary manner, and with a terrible noise; and all the neighbouring villages are covered with ashes and stones for many miles, which has done considerable damage to the owners of lands round about it; and it is very much feared it will yet increase, since the element has been darkened for some days with the ashes, and in the night the flames make a dreadful appearance.” (p1/c3)

Historical Background

The need for British ships to accurately calculate longitude was so important that in 1714 Sir Isaac Newton convinced Parliament to offer rewards up to £20,000 for the discoverer. “Joseph Pollack” was actually Raphael Levi of Hannover (1685-1779), a German Jewish mathematician and astronomer. He was a pupil of mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). Levi wrote astronomical tables for the Jewish calendar. He presented his method for finding longitude to the Royal Society in London in April 1748. On September 27, 1749, Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler wrote to Johann Kaspar Wettstein, a Swiss chaplain to the British royal family, “I have not seen any ideas of the Jew, Raphael Levi to find the longitudes. However, shortly you will have the pleasure to welcome Mr. Bruckner, our old friend from Saint Petersburg also suggests that he has made this discovery, however I fear that he will receive the same answer as the Jew.”[3] Another inventor, John Harrison (1693-1776) had demonstrated his first sea clock in 1736, and the Board of Longitude awarded him £500 for further development. He received an additional £500 for a second version in 1741. Harrison present his third version nine years after Levi’s hearing, but it still wasn’t solved. In 1759, Harrison presented the world’s first successful marine timekeeper. Expecting the £20,000 prize, he was outraged when the Board required further tests. Harrison appealed to Parliament, and eventually received £10,000 in 1765 and an additional £8,750 from Parliament in 1773. The Board of Longitude never awarded the full £20,000 prize.

Tom Bell (b. 1713), a colonial huckster, began his career in the late 1730s and disappeared around 1755. He was educated at the Boston Latin School and Harvard College, from which he was expelled in 1733. Appearing in more than one hundred newspaper articles, he was one of the most famous men in colonial America. He assumed the name of a prominent family from another colony, approach a wealthy resident with a tale of woe, borrowed money, and left. He first appeared in the Virginia Gazette in 1738, when he escaped from a constable on the way to jail. Bullock raises the intriguing possibility that Franklin may have been taken in by Tom Bell in 1739, when Franklin met a former “school-master” going by the name William Lloyd, who claimed to understand Latin and Greek. He took advantage of Franklin’s hospitality to steal some of his clothing including a ruffled shirt and monogramed handkerchief. In Barbados, he fueled latent anti-Semitism, and was caught and whipped for his frauds. Bell returned to the mainland colonies by 1743. He impersonated a member of the New York Livingston family in Philadelphia. Bell impersonated a preacher, an attorney, a physician, a soldier, and a schoolmaster, using at least nineteen aliases. He spent time in jails in Barbados, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. By 1752, he announced that he had reformed and planned to publish a history of his experiences. Two years later, he was still soliciting subscriptions in South Carolina. The next year, Bell was in Antigua, hoping to recover his health before writing his memoirs. Nothing is known of him after that.[4]

Mount Vesuvius, after its famous eruption in 79, witnessed and recorded by Roman poet Pliny the Younger, that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum, erupted many more times. In the eighteenth century, Vesuvius had relatively severe eruptions in 1707, 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779, and 1794. It is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted in the past century, with its last major eruption in 1944.

Additional Content

This issue also includes the latest European news from Copenhagen, Paris, Stockholm, Milan, Rome, Genoa (p1/c1-p2/c2); colonial news from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia (p2/c2-3); and a variety of advertisements and notices, including runaway servants Bridget Gallcher, Abraham Magee, Cornelius Sullivan, James Boucher, and Thomas Winey (p3/c1-3, p4/c3) and one by Franklin himself: “All Persons indebted to B. Franklin, for a year’s Gazette, or more, are desired to pay” (p4/c3).

Amsterdam June 27 puzzling news that the navy of the Russian Empire was kept on alert, “ready to be embark’d in case of necessity.” A report from Madrid on June 19 notes the Spanish king’s resolution to fight the Barbary powers “to put an effectual stop to their mischeifs” by attacking Algiers. (p2/c2).

The Pennsylvania Gazette (1728-1800) was first published in 1728. Benjamin Franklin and Hugh Meredith purchased it in October 1729. Franklin became sole owner by 1732 and not only printed the newspaper but often contributed articles to it under pseudonyms. Franklin’s newspaper became the most successful in Pennsylvania. In 1748, Franklin entered into partnership with David Hall, who managed the Pennsylvania Gazette. It printed the first political cartoon in America, “Join or Die,” authored by Franklin, in 1754. The Franklin and Hall partnership expired in 1766, and Franklin sold his entire printing business, including the Pennsylvania Gazette, to Hall, who made William Sellers a partner in the business.



[1] John Gay (1685-1732) was an English poet and dramatist who wrote a series of fables, including “The Monkey who had seen the World.” Captured from the wild, the monkey is sold to a lady and travels the world with her, observing men’s behavior. He later escapes and returns to his fellow monkeys to encourage them to become like him. In response, they “grinned applause.” The final stanza newspaper editors like Franklin likely found applicable to Tom Bell: “Thus the dull lad, too tall for school, / With travel finishes the fool; / Studious of every coxcomb’s airs, / He drinks, games, dresses, whores, and swears; / O’erlooks with scorn all virtuous arts, / For vice is fitted to his parts.”

[2] This notice first appeared in the New York Gazette, September 11, 1749.

[3] Leonhard Euler to Johann Kaspar Wettstein, September 27, 1749, Euler Archive. See also Steven S. Schwarzschild, “Raphaël Levi de Hanovre et la Frühaufklärung Juive,” Le dix-huitième siècle 13 (April 1981), 27-36.

[4] Brooks E. Kleber, “Notorious Tom Bell,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 75 (October 1951): 416-23; Carl Bridenbaugh, “‘The Famous Infamous Vagrant’ Tom Bell,” in Carle Bridenbaugh, ed., Early Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 121-49; Stephen C. Bullock, “A Mumper among the Gentle: Tom Bell, Colonial Confidence Man,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser.55 (April 1998), 231-58. Bullock, “Mumper among the Gentle,” 245-46.

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