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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Patience Wright and Doctor Franklin

By Elkanah Watson (1758–1842)

[From Men and Times of the Revolution; or Memoirs of Elkanah Watson. Edited by his Son, Winslow C. Watson. 1856.]

I CAME oddly in contact with the eccentric Mrs. Wright, on my arrival in Paris from Nantes. Giving orders from the balcony of the Hotel d’York, to my English servant, I was assailed by a powerful female voice, crying out from an upper story, “Who are you? An American, I hope!” “Yes, Madam,” I replied, “and who are you?” In two minutes she came blustering down stairs, with the familiarity of an old acquaintance. We were soon on the most excellent terms. I discovered that she was in the habit of daily intercourse with Franklin, and was visited and caressed by all the respectable Americans in Paris. She was a native of New Jersey, and by profession a moulder of wax figures. The wild flights of her powerful mind stamped originality on all her acts and language. She was a tall and athletic figure; walked with a firm, bold step, and erect as an Indian. Her complexion was somewhat sallow—her cheek-bones high—her face furrowed, and her olive eyes keen, piercing, and expressive. Her sharp glance was appalling; it had almost the wildness of the maniac.

The vigor and originality of her conversation corresponded with her manners and appearance. She would utter language in her incessant volubility, as if unconscious to whom directed, that would put her hearers to the blush. She apparently possessed the utmost simplicity of heart and character.

With the head of wax upon her lap, she would mould the most accurate likenesses, by the mere force of a retentive recollection of the traits and lines of the countenance; she would form her likenesses by the manipulation of the wax with her thumb and finger. Whilst thus engaged, her strong mind poured forth an uninterrupted torrent of wild thought, and anecdotes and reminiscences of men and events. She went to London about the year 1767, near the period of Franklin’s appearance there as the agent of Pennsylvania. The peculiarity of her character, and the excellence of her wax figures, made her rooms in Pall Mall a fashionable lounging-place for the nobility and distinguished men of England. Here her deep penetration and sagacity, cloaked by her apparent simplicity of purpose, enabled her to gather many facts and secrets important to “dear America”—her uniform expression in referring to her native land, which she dearly loved.

She was a genuine Republican and ardent Whig. The King and Queen often visited her rooms; they would induce her to work upon her heads, regardless of their presence. She would often, as if forgetting herself, address them as George and Charlotte. This fact she often mentioned to me herself. Whilst in England, she communicated much important information to Franklin, and remained in London until ’75 or ’76, engaged in that kind of intercourse with him and the American government, by which she was placed in positions of extreme hazard.

I saw her frequently in Paris, in ’81, and in various parts of England, from ’82 to ’84. Her letters followed me in my travels through Europe. I had assisted her at Paris; had extended aid to her son at Nantes, and given him a free passage in one of our ships to America. Her gratitude was unbounded. This son was a painter and artist of some eminence, and in 1784 took a model of Washington’s head, in plaster. I heard from Washington himself an amusing anecdote connected with this bust.

In January, 1785, I enjoyed the inestimable privilege of a visit under his roof, in the absence of all visitors. Among the many interesting subjects which engaged our conversation in a long winter evening (the most valuable of my life), in which his dignified lady and Miss Custis united, he amused us by relating the incident of the taking this model. “Wright came to Mount Vernon,” the General remarked, “with the singular request, that I should permit him to take a model of my face in plaster of Paris, to which I consented with some reluctance. He oiled my features over, and placing me flat upon my back, upon a cot, proceeded to daub my face with the plaster. Whilst in this ludicrous attitude, Mrs. Washington entered the room, and seeing my face thus overspread with the plaster, involuntarily exclaimed. Her cry excited in me a disposition to smile, which gave my mouth a slight twist, or compression of the lips, that is now observable in the busts Wright afterwards made.” These are nearly the words of Washington.

Some time after my acquaintance with Mrs. Wright commenced, she informed me that an eminent female chemist of Paris had written her a note, that she would make her a visit at twelve o’clock the next day, and announced also, that she could not speak English. Mrs. Wright desired me to act as interpreter. At the appointed hour, the thundering of a carriage in the court-yard announced the arrival of the French lady. She entered with much grace, in which Mrs. W. was no match for her. She was old, with a sharp nose—with broad patches of vermilion spread over the deep furrows of her cheeks. I was placed in a chair between the two originals. Their tongues flew with velocity, the one in English and the other in French, and neither understanding a word the other uttered. I saw no possibility of interpreting two such volleys of words, and at length abruptly commanded silence for a moment.

I asked each—“Do you understand?” “Not a word,” said Mrs. Wright. “N’importe,” replied the chemist, bounding from her chair, in the midst of the floor, and dropping a low courtesy—was off. “What an old painted fool,” said Mrs. W., in anger. It was evident that this visit was not intended for an interchange of sentiment, but a mere act of civility—a call.

I employed Mrs. W. to make the head of Franklin, which was often the source of much amusement to me. After it was completed, both being invited to dine with Franklin, I conveyed her to Passy in my carriage, she bearing the head upon her lap. No sooner in presence of the Doctor, than she had placed one head by the side of the other. “There!” she exclaimed, “are twin brothers.” The likeness was truly admirable, and at the suggestion of Mrs. Wright, to give it more effect, Franklin sent me a suit of silk clothes he wore in 1778. Many years afterwards, the head was broken in Albany, and the clothes I presented to the “Historical Society of Massachusetts.”

An adventure occurred to Mrs. Wright in connection with this head, ludicrous in the highest degree, and although almost incredible, is literally true. After the head had been modelled, she walked out to Passy, carrying it in a napkin, in order to compare it with the original. In returning in the evening she was stopped at the barrier, in course to be searched for contraband goods; but as her mind was as free as her native American air, she knew no restraint, nor the reason why she was detained. She resisted the attempt to examine her bundle, and broke out in the rage of a fury. The officers were amazed, as no explanation, in the absence of an interpreter, could take place. She was compelled, however, to yield to power. The bundle was opened, and to the astonishment of the officials, exhibited the head of a dead man, as appeared to them in the obscurity of the night. They closed the bundle without further examination, believing, as they afterwards assured me, that she was an escaped maniac, who had committed murder, and was about concealing the head of her victim.

They were determined to convey her to the police station, when she made them comprehend her entreaties to be taken to the Hotel d’York. I was in my room, and hearing in the passage a great uproar, and Mrs. W.’s voice pitched upon a higher key than usual, I rushed out, and found her in a terrible rage, her fine eye flashing. I thrust myself between her and the officers, exclaiming, “Ah mon Dieu, qu’est ce qu’il-y-a?” An explanation ensued. All except Mrs. W. were highly amused at the singularity and absurdity of the affair.

The head and clothes I transmitted to Nantes,—they were the instruments of many frolics, not inappropriate to my youth, but perhaps it is hardly safe to advert to them in my age. A few I will venture to relate. On my arrival at Nantes, I caused the head to be properly adjusted to the dress, which was arranged in a natural shape and dimensions. I had the figure placed in the corner of a large room, near a closet, and behind a table. Before him I laid an open atlas, his arm resting upon the table, and mathematical instruments strewn upon it. A handkerchief was thrown over the arm stumps, wires were extended to the closet, by which means the body could be elevated or depressed, and placed in various positions. Thus arranged, some ladies and gentlemen were invited to pay their respects to Dr. Franklin, by candle-light. For a moment, they were completely deceived, and all profoundly bowed and courtesied, which was reciprocated by the figure. Not a word being uttered, the trick was soon revealed.

A report soon circulated that Doctor Franklin was at Monsieur Watson’s, “sur l’Isle de Frydeau.” At eleven o’clock the next morning, the Mayor of Nantes came in full dress, to call on the renowned philosopher. Cossoul, my worthy partner, being acquainted with the Mayor, favored the joke, for a moment after their mutual salutations. Others came in, and all were disposed to gull their friends in the same manner.

The most amusing of all the incidents connected with this head, occurred in London, where I had sent it after the peace of ’83, when I had established a bachelor’s hall in that city. I placed the figure in full dress, with the head leaning out of the window, apparently gazing up and down the square. He had formerly been well known in that part of the city, and was at once recognized. Observing a collection of people gathering at another window, looking at him, I ordered him down.

The morning papers announced the arrival of Doctor Franklin at an American merchant’s in Beliter Square, and I found it necessary to contradict the report. In the interval, three Boston gentlemen, who were in the city, expressed a wish to pay their respects to the Doctor. I desired them to call in the evening, and bring their letters of introduction, which they had informed me they bore, expecting to see him at Paris. I concerted measures with a friend, to carry the harmless deception to the utmost extent on this occasion. Before entering, I apprised them that he was deeply engaged in examining maps and papers, and begged they would not be disturbed at any apparent inattention. Thus prepared, I conducted them into a spacious room. Franklin was seated at the extremity, with his atlas, etc., etc., and my friend at the wires. I advanced in succession with each, half across the room, and introduced them by name. Franklin raised his head, bowed, and resumed his attention to the atlas. I then retired, and seated them at the further side of the room.

They spoke to me in whispers: “What a venerable figure,” exclaims one. “Why don’t he speak,” says another. “He is doubtless in a reverie,” I remarked, “and has forgotten the presence of his company; his great age must be his apology. Get your letters, and go up again with me to him.” When near the table, I said, “Mr. B——, Sir, from Boston.” The head raised up. “A letter,” says B——, “from Doctor Cooper.” I could go no further. The scene was too ludicrous. As B. held out the letter, I struck the figure smartly, exclaiming, “Why don’t you receive the letter like a gentleman?” They were all petrified with astonishment, but B. never forgave me the joke….

Soon after my return to Paris, I dined and spent the evening with the immortal Franklin. Arriving at an early hour, I discovered the philosopher in a distant room, reading, in the exact posture in which he is represented by an admirable engraving from his portrait, his left arm resting upon the table, and his chin supported by the thumb of his right hand. The mingling in the most refined and exalted society of both hemispheres had communicated to his manners a blandness and urbanity, well sustained by his native grace and elegance of deportment. His venerable locks waving over his shoulders, and the dignity of his personal appearance, commanded reverence and respect; and yet his manners were so pleasant and fascinating that one felt at ease and unrestrained in his presence. He inquired if I knew that he was a musician, and conducted me across the room to an instrument of his own invention, which he called the Harmonica. The music was produced by a peculiar combination of hemispherical glasses. At my solicitation he played upon it, and performed some Scotch pastorales with great effect. The exhibition was truly striking and interesting; to thus contemplate an eminent statesman, in his seventy-sixth year, and the most distinguished philosopher of the age, performing a simple pastorale on an instrument of his own construction. The interest was not diminished by the fact, that this philosopher, who was guiding the intellects of thousands; that this statesman, an object of veneration in the metropolis of Europe, and who was influencing the destiny of nations, had been an untutored printer’s boy in America.