Poor Richard’s Almanack, which Franklin began publishing at the end of 1732, espoused his greatest life goals: the making of money and the promotion of virtue. It became, in the course of its twenty-five-year run, America’s first great humor classic. The fictional Poor Richard Saunders and his nagging wife, Bridget, helped to define what would become a dominant tradition in American folk humor: the naively wicked wit and homespun wisdom of down-home characters who seem to be charmingly innocent but are sharply pointed about the pretensions of the elite and the follies of everyday life.
Almanacs were a reliable and significant source of annual revenue for any printer. Six were being published in Philadelphia in the 1730’s, two of which were printed by Franklin: Thomas Godfrey’s and John Jerman’s. But after falling out with Godfrey over his failed matchmaking and losing Jerman to his rival Andrew Bradford, Franklin found himself in the fall of 1732 with no almanac to help make his press profitable. So, he hastily assembled his own. In format and style, it was like other almanacs, most notably that of Titan Leeds, who was publishing, as his father had before him, Philadelphia’s most popular version. The name Poor Richard, a slight oxymoron pun, echoed that of Poor Robin’s Almanack, which had been published by Franklin’s brother James. Franklin, however, added his own distinctive flair. He used his pseudonym to permit himself some ironic distance, and he ginned up a running feud with his rival Titan Leeds by predicting and later fabricating his death. As his ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette immodestly promised:
“Just published for 1733: Poor Richard: An Almanack containing the lunations, eclipses, planets motions and aspects, weather, sun and moon’s rising and setting, highwater, etc. besides many pleasant and witty verses, jests and sayings, author’s motive of writing, prediction of the death of his friend Mr. Titan Leeds … By Richard Saunders, philomath, printed and sold by B. Franklin, price 3s. 6d per dozen.”
Poor Richard went on to predict ‘the inexorable death’ of his rival Titan Leeds, giving the exact day and hour. It was a prank borrowed from Jonathan Swift. Leeds fell into the trap, and in his own almanac for 1734 called Franklin a ‘conceited scribbler’ who had ‘manifested himself a fool and a liar.’ Franklin, with his own printing press, had the luxury of reading Leeds before he published his own 1734 edition. In it, Poor Richard responded that all of these defamatory protestations indicate that the real Leeds must indeed be dead and his new almanac a hoax by someone else. ‘Mr. Leeds was too well bred to use any man so indecently and scurrilously, and moreover his esteem and affection for me was extraordinary.’
Even after Leeds in fact did die in 1738, Franklin did not relent. He printed a letter from Leeds’s ghost admitting ‘that I did actually die at that time, precisely at the hour you mentioned, with a variation only of 5 minutes, 53 seconds.‘
Franklin enjoyed the veil of Poor Richard, occasionally enjoyed poking fun at himself. In 1736 he had Poor Richard deny rumors that he was just a fiction. He would not, he said, ‘have taken any notice of so idle a report if it had not been for the sake of my printer, to whom my enemies are pleased to ascribe my productions, and who it seems is as unwilling to father my offspring as I am to lose credit of it.‘ The following year, Poor Richard blamed his printer (Franklin) for causing some mistakes in the weather forecasts by moving them around to fit in holidays. And in 1739, he lamented that his printer was pocketing his profits, but added, ‘I do not grudge it him; he is a man I have great regard for.’