One afternoon in the fall of 1723, Miss Deborah Read of Philadelphia happened to be standing in her doorway when she spied a tall and slightly disheveled young stranger straggling up the street, nibbling on a puffy roll from a baker’s shop.
Benjamin Franklin had arrived in Philadelphia at the age of 17, having secretly booked passage under cover of the story that he “had an intrigue with a girl of bad character.” In truth, he had simply run away from Boston and the restrictions of his childhood home.
Soon Franklin was renting a room from Miss Read’s father, and courting the lady herself. Deborah was plain, but domestically-inclined and comfortable; Benjamin was handsome, genial, and a promising young tradesman.
Yet he was planning a trip to London. Deborah’s mother insisted that a marriage be postponed.
The trip didn’t work out exactly as planned. Franklin ended up being detained for almost two years, during which time he wrote to Deborah only once, and did indeed indulge in the occasional “intrigue with a girl of bad character.”
Eventually Franklin returned to Philadelphia, where he settled down and began to establish himself. By his mid-20s he was a successful newspaper publisher. Possessed of a considerable sexual appetite, in a culture that definitely frowned on bachelorhood, Franklin naturally enough began to look for a wife. At first he aimed at finding a woman with a dowry attached, but he soon learned that young printers were not in enough demand for dowries to be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Deborah, possibly discouraged after having received only one short letter from Franklin while he was in London, had married a charming but unreliable potter. They soon became estranged; she moved back in with her mother, and he absconded with a slave and took off for the West Indies, never to be heard from again. This left her in an awkward position, since bigamy was punishable by thirty-nine lashes and life imprisonment.
Deborah’s mother, now a widow, had been making a living by selling homemade medicines. She had her advertising bills printed by the most prosperous printer in town, none other than Benjamin Franklin.
Thus Franklin resumed his acquaintance with the family and became a regular visitor, advising the family on business matters. He and Deborah renewed their affection for one another, and in the fall of 1730 they began living together as man and wife, seven years after she first spotted him from her doorway.
Franklin brought with him to the marriage an illegitimate infant son named William, of whom he had sole custody. The identity of William’s mother remains a mystery.
The marriage of Deborah Read and Benjamin Franklin was never sanctioned by an official ceremony; a common-law arrangement was necessary to protect them from charges of bigamy in case the absconding potter ever reappeared. While the union of these two very practical people may have seemed less than romantically charged, nevertheless they lived together in affection and mutual satisfaction for another forty-four years, until her death.