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Brief van Franklin is hoax

Onlangs vonden 2 studenten in de Universiteitsbibliotheek een brief van William Franklin, de zoon van de beroemde Amerikaanse wetenschapper Benjamin Franklin. Nu blijft deze brief een vervalsing te zijn, opgezet door tien eerstejaars studenten van Leiden University College. Lees hieronder hun verklaring:

The past few weeks the Internet has been buzzing with news about the 18th century letter that was recently discovered in Leiden University Library’s Special Collections. This letter, from Benjamin Franklin’s son William to Leiden scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek, appears to prove that Benjamin Franklin’s famous Electric Kite Experiment was not, as most scholars and scientists now believe, a hoax and really did take place.

However, the letter found at the library was a forgery, created by ten first-year students at Leiden University College. The hoax was part of a research project connected to the library’s new exhibition ‘Books, Crooks and Readers: The Seduction of Forgery (1600-1800)’ and carried out under the supervision of cultural historian Jacqueline Hylkema, the exhibition’s curator. During the opening of this exhibition on 5 June, the students gave a presentation in which they revealed the hoax and introduced their research project.

The key to this research project is an aspect of Benjamin Franklin’s work that will be less familiar to the general public: Benjamin Franklin was an accomplished forger who committed many hoaxes during his life, including – most likely – the Electric Kite Experiment. The common feature of these hoaxes is that they were benign in nature (one of Franklin’s famous virtues was to use ‘no hurtful deceit’) and intended to improve the lives of 18th century men and, especially, women. Another characteristic is that they all appeared in the fastest and most advanced medium of Franklin’s time: the newspaper.

In their research project ‘The Franklinian Hoax in the Age of the Internet’, the students forged William Franklin’s letter, a process that already took much research, and then introduced it on the Internet by applying Benjamin Franklin’s methods and strategies to the social media. The project was intended to find out whether these strategies and methods, devised for 18th century newspapers, would still work on the Internet and whether they would meet with the same responses as Franklin's hoaxes.

In the final week before the opening, the students published, in true Franklinian style, an article in the LUC student paper PAX. This proved to be a very successful move: the article convinced a large group of people and in the past few days the PAX article has gone viral. The discovery of the Franklin letter was also featured in the Dutch media and the ‘finders’ of the letter were interviewed several times about their find.

We are the ten student-crooks behind this scholarly hoax and we are delighted with its success. However, we would like to emphasize that ours was, to use Franklin’s words, ‘no hurtful deceit’, and part of a valid research project. Our research report will be published in September 2014 and we hope that our project has succeeded in highlighting a largely unknown but hugely important side of Benjamin Franklin. His forgeries were kind, enlightened and intended to do good and we hope that our hoax will make people curious to find out more about Franklin and this aspect of his life and works.

Finally, we would like to thank Leiden University Libraries for giving us the opportunity to take part in this project and for being part of the conspiracy. We offer our sincere apologies to everyone we managed to fool and wish to assure them that our report will not cause them any embarrassment. Most people who fell for our hoax did so because they too love Benjamin Franklin and wanted to believe that the Electric Kite Experiment really happened. It probably did not, but the continued belief in the experiment is a tribute to Benjamin Franklin’s talent for forgery as well as his ability to inspire people, even today.

Henry Abbink, Steven van der Have, Koen van Lieshout, Jack Lindsay, Gabrielle Smith, Simon van der Staaij, Camille Steens, Robin Vroom, Martijn de Zeeuw, Silke Zwijsen

For more information about the hoax and the research project, please contact:
Jacqueline Hylkema at j.j.hylkema@hum.leidenuniv.nl 
Silke Zwijsen at silkezwijsen@hotmail.com

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