Benjamin Franklin and the Grimoires

For more insight into the possible use of books of magic in New England, one possible source of evidence is one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, who lived in Philadelphia at the time.

We can read more about this in his article “The Busy-Body, No. 8”, from The American Weekly Mercury for March 27, 1729 (e-text here).  Therein we find a letter written by “Titan Pleiades” (one of Franklin’s friends under a pseudonym) in which a desperate treasure hunter is caricatured.  A few lines will suffice:

… I have read over Scot, Albertus Magnus, and Cornelius Agrippa above 300 Times… But alas, Sir, Notwithstanding I have used all the Means laid down in the immortal Authors before-mentioned, and when they fail’d, the ingenious Mr. P — d — l with his Mercurial Wand and Magnet, I have still fail’d in my Purpose.  This therefore I send to Propose and desire an Acquaintance with you, and I do not doubt, notwithstanding my repeated Ill-Fortune, but we may be exceedingly serviceable to each other in our Discoveries…

What books are mentioned here?  Albertus Magnus, is the famous author of the Liber Aggregationis, better known today as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus.  (I doubt this was either the Petit Albert – that was mainly of influence in French-speaking areas – or the Egyptian Secrets – that was a German work that has a low possibility of even being present in the Colonies at this time.)

The other two were most likely Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft and pseudo-Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy (perhaps more accessible than his Three Books).  To aid with the latter identifications, Scot’s book and a work “Teaching negromancy” [sic] by Agrippa were noted among the possessions of a man prosecuted by the Quakers of Chester County in 1695, so we know both works were likely in the New World at this time.

Franklin goes on from this letter – likely written by one of his friends – to make the following statement:

Many are the idle Stories told of the private Success of some People, by which others are encouraged to proceed; and the Astrologers, with whom the Country swarms at this Time, are either in the Belief of these things themselves, or find their Advantage in persuading others to believe them; for they are often consulted about the critical Times for Digging, the Methods of laying the Spirit, and the like Whimseys, which renders them very necessary to and very much caress’d by the poor deluded Money-hunters.

According to Franklin’s statement, many of the astrologers in the area also served in the role of magicians, discussing not only the stars but exorcistic techniques.

It’s uncertain how much of this applies to the stricter atmosphere of Massachusetts as opposed to more liberal attitudes in Pennsylvania, but it does suggest that some of the traditional grimoires were indeed known, if only by reputation, in the Colonies in the mid-eighteenth century.

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Published in: on February 1, 2009 at 11:32 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Is this why he shows up in Charles Dexter Ward?


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