Ghostly Encounter of the Celebrity Kind: Benjamin Franklin and his Animated Statue
Updated: Nov 14
Celebrity spirits have been a part of modern spiritualism since its origin in the late 1840s. As a classic example, there was one evening in the late Victorian period where the spirit of Cleopatra was said to be present at several different séances around London at roughly the same time.
Spiritualists provided all sorts of reasons for how it was possible for Cleopatra to be present at all these sittings simultaneously. Namely, spirits were not physically bound to spaces in the same way as humans. Therefore, it was easy for Cleopatra to make an appearance at so many soirées within moments of each other.
Caption: Portrait of Cleopatra from the 1st Century AD
One of the most famous supernormal images ever produced is William H. Mumler’s photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln and the supposed spirit of her deceased husband Abraham Lincoln, which was produced in February 1872.
Caption: Portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln and the spirit of her deceased husband Abraham Lincoln from 1872
Celebrity encounters with the spirit world, however, are not just a nineteenth-century phenomenon.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, all sorts of events have been organized for people to try and communicate with deceased stars. In 2006, for example, there was the famous pay-per-view event of John Lennon's séance that aired on TV.
Viewers could tune in and see if a medium could make contact with the famed musician from beyond the veil. Yoko Ono famously boycotted this shameless publicity stunt.
Both Lennon and Ono were allegedly quite receptive to the possibility of a spiritual existence after death. In fact, Ono hosted at séance at her home in 1980.
Caption: Portrait of the Musician John Lennon in 1964
There are also many famous haunted locations around the world where the alleged ghosts are the so-called spiritual remnants of well-known historical figures.
One haunted location, where a celebrity ghost has been sighted numerous times, is at the American Philosophical Library in Philadelphia, USA.
Caption: Photograph of the American Philosophical Library in Philadelphia, USA.
According to reports, the library is said to be haunted by the spirit of Benjamin Franklin.
Of all the celebrity ghost stories that I have heard over the years, this one is definitely a favourite.
Caption: Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis from 1778
The first ghost sighting at the library occurred in 1884 when a clerk was supposedly knocked over by a rude spirit rushing towards the stacks.
When the clerk provided a description of the ghost it apparently matched the appearance of Franklin.
And yet, as amazing as this story sounds, something even more incredible has allegedly occurred in the city of Philadelphia.
Multiple accounts have claimed over the years that the statue of Benjamin Franklin located at the Franklin Institute has risen from its seat and moved around the building. In some instances the statue has also walked outside and danced in the street. There are even reports that the statue has visited local pubs on occasion.
Caption: Photograph of Benjamin Franklin’s Monument at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, USA.
With so many eyewitness reports of a statue wondering around Philadelphia, it is surprising that no one has had the good sense of photographing it over the years. So far no photographic evidence of Franklin’s animated statue has publicly surfaced.
Remarking on this incredible series of extraordinary circumstances the caretaker for Franklin’s burial ground stated that ‘if Ben Franklin haunts the city and the streets of Philadelphia, he haunts it with his personality and his invention.'
I think we can all agree that if Franklin’s ghost is haunting the stacks at the American Philosophical Library, and animating his statue at the Franklin Institute, he is one heck of a showman. Like the caretaker stated, the creativeness of this supposed haunting is truly spectacular.
For a man famous for his electrical experiments in life, his supposed experiments animating statues in death are even more impressive.
Davies, Owen. The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Kaplan, Louis. The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Natale, Simone. Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.
Oordt, Darcy, Haunted Philadelphia: Famous Phantoms, Sinister Sites, and Lingering Legends, Guildford: Globe Pequot, 2015.
Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. London: Virago Press, 1989.
Geoff Boucher, ‘Imagine a Lennon Séance,’ Los Angeles Times, 23 March 2006, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2006-mar-23-wk-lennon23-story.html