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View Trial of Polly Baker

Type: Literary Hoax.
Summary: The story of a woman tried for giving birth to five children out of wedlock provoked widespread popular outrage during the eighteenth century.

In 1747 the text of a speech delivered by a woman, Polly Baker, accused by British magistrates in a court in Colonial America of having sexual intercourse out of wedlock attracted a great deal of attention in Europe and America. The evidence that she had committed the crime was fairly compelling. She had just given birth to her fifth child, and she was unmarried.

The speech was a transcript of Polly Baker’s statement to the trial judges. It opened with Polly declaring her hope that she would be spared a fine, as she had already paid a fine four times for this supposed crime.

Polly then argued that while she was obviously guilty of the crime, the law itself was unreasonable. She said, “I have brought five fine children into the world at the risk of my life… I have maintained them well by my own industry, without burdening the township, and would have done it better if it had not been for the heavy charges and fines I have paid.”

Moreover, she argued, she was being punished, while the men who had committed the crime with her were let off scot free. She would have preferred to marry, she insisted, but none of her partners had been honorable enough to ask her. So why was she being punished for what was really their crime? Her only real crime, she declared, was that she was too trusting and naive.

Finally, Polly argued, hers was a religious offense, not a secular one. “You believe I have offended heaven and must suffer eternal fire. Will not that be sufficient? What need is there, then, of your additional fines and whipping?”

Polly ended the speech by declaring that instead of fining her, the judges should erect a statue in her honor. The story had a happy ending, because not only did the court declare her innocent, but one of the judges asked her hand in marriage the next day.

The case of Polly Baker attracted widespread popular sympathy and provoked outrage at the injustice of the penal system.

Dissemination of the Story

Polly Baker’s speech was first printed in a London paper, the General Advertiser, on April 15, 1747. Within days the Gentleman’s Magazine had republished it, embellishing it with the detail that Polly subsequently bore fifteen children to the magistrate who married her at the conclusion of the trial. By July the text of the speech had made its way to America, where it appeared in newspapers such as the Boston Weekly Post-Boy, the New York Gazette, and the Annapolis Maryland Gazette.

The story of Polly Baker was still circulating by the 1770s, during which decade it became quite popular in France. The Abbe Raynal incorporated it into his Histoire Philosophique. In addition, both Diderot and Brissot de Warville used the tale to propagandize against the Ancien Regime.

Authorship of Polly Baker

Throughout most of the eighteenth century the trial of Polly Baker was accepted by most readers as a true story. However, late in the century, Benjamin Franklin confessed that he was its true author.

The tale goes that in 1777, when Franklin was ambassador to France, he and Silas Deane were discussing errors they had found in the Abbe Raynal’s Historie Philosophique, when the Abbe Raynal himself happened to walk in. When informed of the subject of their conversation, Raynal denied there being any errors. However, Franklin called his attention to the story of Polly Baker. The Abbe insisted it was a true story, which caused Franklin to laugh. Franklin said, “I will tell you, Abbe, the origin of that story. When I was a printer and editor of a newspaper we were sometimes slack of news, and to amuse our customers I used to fill up our vacant columns with anecdotes and fables and fancies of my own, and this tale of Polly Baker is one of my making.”

Despite Franklin’s confession, the tale of Polly Baker continued to be often retold as a true story. As late as 1917 a major sociological study described it as real.

Franklin’s Authorship

One aspect of Franklin’s confession is difficult to account for. The story of Polly Baker first appeared in 1747 in London’s General Advertiser, and yet at that time Franklin was in America, working as the editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette. It is assumed he must have crafted the hoax in collusion with the editor of the General Advertiser.

Franklin’s confession has been accepted as true by scholars such as Jefferson, Voltaire, and Carl Van Doren. The historian Max Hall compiled a large amount of evidence in support of Franklin’s authorship. And the editors of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, published by the American Philosophical Society and Yale University, have also accepted Franklin as the author of the tale of Polly Baker.

Assuming that Franklin did write the speech, his intention appears to have been to draw attention to the unfairness of the law which punished mothers, but not fathers, for having children out of wedlock. Franklin himself fathered a son out of wedlock. The hoax represents Franklin’s first criticism of the penal system, a subject which he devoted much attention to in later decades.

References

  • Fedler, Fred. (1989). Media Hoaxes. Iowa State University Press. Pgs. 7-10.
  • Hall, Max. (1972). “An Amateur Detective on the Trail of B. Franklin, Hoaxer.” Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings. 84: 26-43.
  • Hall, Max. (1960). Benjamin Franklin & Polly Baker: The History of a Literary Deception. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC.
  • Marcello Maestro. (1975). “Benjamin Franklin and the Penal Laws.” Journal of the History of Ideas. 36(3): 551-562.

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