Searching for Ben Franklin’s Dancing Ghost
Putting Old Philadelphia lore to the test on Independence Day
Ben Franklin invented lightning, French women, and pennies. He loved printers and was a “renowned polymath” — OK, sure. But did you know that his ghost periodically reanimates a statue in Philadelphia and causes it to dance in the street? It’s true.
…Or is it?
In Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, cobblestone streets and horse manure-scented air delight the senses as parents drag children to various historically significant buildings in which they might learn about America, boringly. Right in the heart of all of the “old” things, next to Independence Hall and down the street from the Liberty Bell, is another old thing: the American Philosophical Society building.
According to Philadelphia lore, various websites, and at least two books available for free on Google Books, Ben Franklin’s spirit haunts the Philosophical Society’s Library Hall. It also — with a frequency that is never stated explicitly — causes the toga-clad Ben Franklin statue on the building’s exterior to climb down and move around as if it were made of flesh and blood rather than statue material and ghost.
Don’t believe me that this is a story people tell? Well, fine. Maybe you’ll believe Darcy Oordt in her book Haunted Philadelphia: Famous Phantoms, Sinister Sites, and Lingering Legends:
“What makes this statue of Franklin especially unique are the reports of it leaving its pedestal. Shortly after Franklin died, people reported seeing the statue walking the streets of Philadelphia. Some report seeing the statue making its way toward Franklin’s house, as the real Franklin did on so many occasions. Others report seeing the statue dancing or skipping along Philadelphia streets. There are even claims that it visits local pubs, like City Tavern.”
Don’t believe Darcy Oordt? Well, fine. Maybe you’ll believe this person named “Debs” who is quoted in Matt Lake’s Weird Pennsylvania:
“I heard that Ben Franklin’s ghost knocked over a cleaning woman in the Philosophical Society library in Philadelphia. This was back in the 1880s, and apparently he was making a dash for the bookshelves there. He founded the Philosophical Society, so there’s some connection, I guess. Some other folks say that they’ve seen his statue from outside the Philosophical Society dancing along city streets.”
It seemed to me that if Ben Franklin were going to animate a statue of Ben Franklin, he would do it during Independence Day weekend. What better time? Dust off your stone body; climb down from your thing. Ben Franklin, my man, it’s time to celebrate a day that is relevant to your life.
On July 3rd, I signed up to take Philadelphia’s ghost-themed “Spirits of ‘76” Old City walking tour (“One Part History, Two Parts Haunt!™”), which makes a stop at the Philosophical Society. The tour went like this: You see that window there? Well, someone once saw something in it, though the room was empty at the time. And this graveyard? Someone once saw something in it, though the graveyard was empty at the time. And this street? M. Night Shyamalan filmed a movie on this street, and a scene in National Treasure was filmed in that graveyard!
My favorite story on the tour was about how a horse killed a mean merchant, because I love to see a merchant get what’s coming to him, though I forget what the ghost element was. The scariest moment was when — right as our tour guide, Sam, was in the middle of pointing out a building that is not the building from Ghostbusters but looks like the building from Ghostbusters — a man on the street behind us fell off of his bike and onto his head. Oh no! Multiple tour guests ran to his aid, which was nice but they were useless. He was dead. Just kidding. He seemed, uh, fine. “That’s how my girlfriend broke her leg,” Sam said, eager to brag about the fact that he has a girlfriend. OK, Sam. Eventually, the likely concussed bike man got back on his bike and rode away, wobbly.
A good lesson is: Don’t ride a bike.
Anyway, near the end of the tour we finally got to the Ben Franklin dancing ghost part, and this is what Sam said:
“There’s actually a legend here in Philadelphia that on Easter Sunday, Benjamin Franklin’s spirit — toga and all — descends down from that statue and will dance around happily outside of the building. So maybe we’ll all convene back here, or the people who live a block away [Ed. Note: There were people who lived a block away] can tell us if it’s true. But, that’s the legend that’s out there, and it’s a pretty cool one. So. If you’re ever here on Easter Sunday, maybe this is the place to be.”
Well, fuck. I was there then, not then. God damnit, Sam. Maintaining the belief that if Ben Franklin were going to make a Ben Franklin statue dance he would do it on Independence Day weekend rather than Easter Sunday (??? Sam??), I headed back to the American Philosophical Society building after the tour concluded, to see if maybe he was dancing.
He wasn’t. I downloaded a ghost app and ran some tests. Seated on the stairs, the electromagnetic field (EMF) meter detected very little EMF. The electronic voice phenomena (EVP) part of the app detected two words: “towel” and “love.” OK. I switched locations and stood directly under the statue, and, guess what? The EMF meter went crazy. EMF off the charts under the statue. Excitedly, I took another EVP reading. What will Ben Franklin have to say to me now that I found his special little spot? Something about a key? Something about Philadelphia? Something about not wasting time, or whatever he was always talking about? I waited and waited until finally, a word:
Ugh. Paul like what? Paul Giamatti? John Adams? Paul, like my friend Paul? A mystery. After sitting across the street and staring at the statue like a lunatic for a little while longer, I left and went to sleep, no doubt leaving Ben Franklin’s statue to dance all night without me.
The next day, July 4th, I fought my way through crowds of Independence Day parade viewers to return to the statue. He was still not dancing, even though it was essentially just me and him there and he could have danced and I would have been fine with it. The EMF meter, again, displayed a high reading under the statue, and the EVP showed one word: “haunted.” The EVP element of my ghost app was clearly patronizing me at this point and I did not appreciate it.
After attempting unsuccessfully to get into the building and then staring at the statue for a period of time any onlooker would describe as “suspiciously long,” I decided to seek out Ben Franklin’s ghost elsewhere. My first stop was the Liberty Bell, where I cried in line after reading a Barack Obama quote.
“Never heard that story,” a Liberty Bell security guard said after I asked if he’d ever heard the legend of the dancing Ben Franklin statue. “Nope, that’s not something I’m familiar with,” another security guard said after I asked if he’d ever heard the legend of the dancing Ben Franklin statue. Damn. I admitted to the second guard that it’s a very silly story, and he replied, “Yeah, I don’t know why that one would come to life anyway.” Fuck. Me neither.
I didn’t see Ben Franklin’s ghost at the Liberty Bell.
At the National Constitution Center, I followed a guy dressed as an old-timey guy into the gift shop and cornered him in the Ben Franklin section. He told me he was a re-enactor and “a big Ben Franklin fan.” He told me he had heard the dancing ghost story before, but that was the only Founding Father-related ghost story he could recall. He did know a horse ghost story, however:
“The only thing I’ve ever heard of was at a battlefield one time — apparently there’s a ghost of a horse. I think it was the battle of Gettysburg, which was a different era, but. People said at night during the battle, or like every year, you’d hear the horse hooves galloping.”
Still quietly enraged about Sam’s “Easter Sunday” curveball, I asked my new friend whose name I did not get whether he thought Ben Franklin would be more likely to animate a statue on Easter Sunday or on the Fourth of July. Well, well, well. Look at what he said:
“The thing with Easter Sunday is it’s a different day every year. With the fourth of July, it would be more like — boom, on this night every year. Also Benjamin Franklin was not very religious. Like, at all.”
Mmhm. Sam? Sorry, Sam — just making sure you saw this.
After he told me about how he saw Ben Franklin’s house in London and about how Ben Franklin took air baths and about how nobody knows who Robert Morris is, I asked my new friend to pose for a picture holding up a photo of Ben Franklin, which he did.
I wandered around the Constitution exhibit upstairs, took some fruitless ghost readings with my phone, was grateful I was not a child and could leave whenever I wanted, and left.
I did not see Ben Franklin’s ghost at the National Constitution Center.
Next stop on my quest for genuinely I don’t even know what at this point, I went to Franklin Square, which is a park. Want to know what the EVP told me? It told me these words:
- Pencil [I was using a pen, which is close]
- Tired [What I was]
- Indicate [Indicate what?]
- Pop [Soda]
- Sheet [Ghost costume]
- Reflection [?]
Whatever. I asked the man who worked at the gift shop whether he’d heard the damn statue story and he told me he hadn’t. Dejected and warm, I left, only to hear the gift store man call after me, “I would think his gravesite is where he’d show up most. Right at the corner of 5th and Arch.” Damn. I felt like I was on Law & Order!
I did not see Ben Franklin’s ghost at Franklin Square.
It costs two dollars to visit Ben Franklin’s gravesite at Christ Church Burial Ground. Two dollars and one cent if you count the penny you throw onto the grave for good luck. (You throw a penny because Ben Franklin said “a penny saved is a penny earned” and this is a clever way to say fuck you, we’ll do whatever we want with our pennies.) The women at the entrance told me they’d heard the dancing statue story, but that’s the only Ben Franklin ghost story they know. “I don’t know where I read it, but I have heard it.” Fair enough.
After tossing my penny, I started walking through the rest of the graveyard, because it was where I belonged, until a man approached me. Oh my god. A ghost? No. A man named John Hopkins, “the crypt keeper, as it were.” Ah! “I’m the caretaker for the burial ground,” he clarified. Ah! If there is one man in Philadelphia who is definitely going to know all about Ben Franklin’s ghost, it is certainly Ben Franklin’s crypt keeper, John Hopkins, whose name is very similar to another thing. Take it away, John!
“My official word on this is that there are no ghosts. And I spend more time with Ben Franklin than probably anyone else, at his grave here, and I’ve never seen or heard anyone say anything about that.”
Oh god damnit, John!
“I’ve heard those dancing around stories, but it seems like it’s just a funny story for people to tell. … If he came back to this plane the last thing I think he would do is make a statue dance. I think he’d have a lot more better, interesting things to do, like he did in his life.”
“Yeah, like I said, we’re here all the time, we work for the church so we don’t portray those types of stories, or do ghost tours in or around the burial ground. But, as an artist, I do believe in energy and inspiration from energy.”
“Not necessarily ghosts, as it were, but — ”
“You know, the pure energy that exists in here. It’s very positive. I’ve never heard of anyone coming in here and saying there was a negative energy, it’s always been a positive energy. Nothing like a haunted, or scary, or upsetting energy in here. It’s always positive.”
Positive like…a dancing statue?
“What I would say is, if anything, if Ben Franklin haunts the city and the street of Philadelphia, he haunts it with his personality and his invention and his creating the Philadelphia character. I also believe — You know, people come by and they see his gravestone over there and it’s very plain looking, and very simple, and that is what he wanted exactly. I think Ben Franklin knew that the city of Philadelphia would be his epitaph and his stone, because you can’t walk down the street in Philadelphia — I was just watching the fourth of July parade and just about every other float had something to do with Ben Franklin, either something he created or something he was involved in, or there were the masons, and the fire department, or someone portraying him. Like, he — Philadelphia is his epitaph. There are all kinds of restaurants and beer distributors, and things named after him. He is Philadelphia. Like I said, you can’t walk anywhere without feeling his spirit in that sense, which is not in a ghostly sense, but in a spiritual sense of him being the spirit of Philadelphia.”
I did not see Ben Franklin’s ghost at his gravesite.
My final stop was the Ben Franklin Museum, because I wanted to do one more thing and it came up first when I typed “Ben Franklin” into Google Maps, or maybe because I planned it — you don’t know.
I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes when I threw that penny on to Ben Franklin’s grave, but the good luck results were nearly instant. As I walked into the courtyard outside of the Ben Franklin Museum I ran into the man himself: Ben Franklin. Incredible! What luck!
As I approached Ben, a father attempted to force his son and daughter to take a photo with him. The girl was already hiding, the boy shouted “NOOOOOO!!!” and ran to hide with his sister. It made sense — they were in the presence of a ghost. Later a much braver family took a selfie with a selfie stick.
When it was my turn, I asked Ben Franklin, “Do you think Ben Franklin would haunt Philadelphia?” which he hated. The rest of the conversation transpired as follows:
BEN FRANKLIN: Apparently rumors of my death are premature.
KELLY: Would you haunt Philadelphia?
BEN FRANKLIN: No.
KELLY: Why not?
BEN FRANKLIN: Hm?
KELLY: Why not?
BEN FRANKLIN: Philadelphia was too good to me.
KELLY: You wouldn’t wanna stick around?
BEN FRANKLIN: That’s if I was deceased.
KELLY: Right, if you were dead.
BEN FRANKLIN: I’m waiting to see what’s on the other side. Once I see that I may not want to come back.
KELLY: There’s a theory that you would reanimate the statue outside of the American Philosophical Society and make it dance in the street. Is that…something that you would be interested in?
BEN FRANKLIN: I never danced in the street. I don’t know why I’d do that to a statue.
KELLY: I don’t know why either.
BEN FRANKLIN: You said there’s a rumor going around? Where did you hear said rumor?
KELLY: Uh, a, uhh…Philadelphia historical tour.
BEN FRANKLIN: [Upset face.]
KELLY: So that’s not something that you would do?
BEN FRANKLIN: [Shakes head no with upset face.]
Well. I guess we were both wrong, Sam.