J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, May 08, 2022

“Thee, and Thy Indecencies, was the Subject of our Discourse”

Samuel Keimer was Philadelphia’s second printer, after Andrew Bradford. He opened his shop in 1723 and, on Bradford’s suggestion, hired a teenager recently arrived from Boston named Benjamin Franklin as his assistant.

Franklin is our main source on Keimer, and he wasn’t complimentary. He described the older man as owning worn-out type and an old press he needed help to get running properly. Still, working for Keimer was Franklin’s first paid job after he had released himself from his Boston apprenticeship.

In 1728 Keimer launched Philadelphia’s second newspaper (after Bradford’s American Weekly Mercury). He titled it The Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences: and Pennsylvania Gazette. Part of the business plan was to reprint all of Ephraim Chambers’s new Cyclopaedia in alphabetical installments.

That news annoyed Franklin, who had been planning to start a newspaper of his own. “I resented this,” he wrote later in his autobiography. Franklin responded to Keimer’s Pennsylvania Gazette like too many young men with ambition, brains, and a keen understanding of the media: he started trolling.

On 21 Jan 1729, Keimer reprinted the article on abortion from the Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, as quoted yesterday. Eight days later, two letters appeared in the American Weekly Mercury:
Having had several Letters from the Female Sex, Complaining of S.K. I have thought fit to Publish the Two following.

Mr. Andrew Bradford,
In behalf of my Self and many good modest Women in this City (who are almost out of Countenance) I Beg you will Publish this in your next Mercury, as a Warning to Samuel Keimer: That if he proceed farther to Expose the Secrets of our Sex, in That audacious manner, as he hath done in his Gazette, No. 5. under the Letters, A.B.O. To be read in all Taverns and Coffee-Houses, and by the Vulgar: I say if he Publish any more of that kind, which ought only to be in the Repositary of the Learned; my Sister Molly and my Self, with some others, are Resolved to run the Hazard of taking him by the Beard, at the next Place we meet him, and make an Example of him for his Immodesty. I Subscribe on the behalf of the rest of my Agrieved Sex. Yours
24 January, 1728.
Martha Careful

Friend Andrew Bradford,
I desire Thee to insert in thy next Mercury, the following Letter to Samuel Keimer, for by doing it, Thou may perhaps save Keimer his Ears, and very much Oblige our Sex in general, but in a more Particular manner. Thy modest Friend,
Caelia Shortface

Friend Samuel Keimer,
I did not Expect when thou puts forth Thy Advertisement concerning Thy Universal Instructor, (as Thou art pleas’d to call it,) That, Thou would have Printed such Things in it, as would make all the Modest and Virtuous Women in Pennsilvania ashamed.

I was last Night in Company with several of my Acquaintance, and Thee, and Thy Indecencies, was the Subject of our Discourse, but at last we Resolved, That if thou Continue to take such Scraps concerning Us, out of thy great Dictionary, and Publish it, as thou hath done in thy Gazette, No. 5, to make Thy Ears suffer for it: And I was desired by the rest, to inform Thee of Our Resolution, which is That if thou proceed any further in that Scandalous manner, we intend very soon to have thy right Ear for it; Therefore I advice Thee to take this timely Caution in good part; and if thou canst make no better Use of Thy Dictionary, Sell it at Thy next Luck in the Bag; and if Thou hath nothing else to put in Thy Gazette, lay it down, I am, Thy Troubled Friend,
27th of the 11th Mo. 1728.
Caelia Shortface
The editors of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin concluded that the author of these letters was actually Franklin, adopting female pseudonyms as he had earlier as “Silence Dogood” and later as “Polly Baker.”

Writing in the Mercury a week later as “The Busy-Body,” Franklin addressed the controversy: “let the Fair Sex be assur’d, that I shall always treat them and their Affairs with the utmost Decency and Respect.” Of course, he had also created the controversy.

It’s notable that the letters didn’t object to Keimer printing information about abortion as we understand it today. Indeed, except for one ambiguous phrase, the reprinted Cyclopaedia text was all about what we call miscarriages. But according to the letters, that article still exposed the “Secrets of our Sex” and amounted to “Indecencies.”

Franklin continued pick at Keimer and his newspaper as “the Busy-Body” for several more months. In October, crushed by debts, Keimer made plans to move to Barbados. Before doing so, he sold the Pennsylvania Gazette to Franklin and a partner. There were no “Busy-Body” letters in the Mercury, nor were “Martha Careful” and “Caelia Shortface” ever heard from again.

Samuel Keimer launched the Barbadoes Gazette in 1731, the first newspaper in the Caribbean. He kept it running until 1738 and died four years later.

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