How a 200-Year-Old Gift From Benjamin Franklin Made Boston and Philadelphia a Fortune

Benjamin Franklin left instructions in his will that had to be followed for 200 years.
Benjamin Franklin left instructions in his will that had to be followed for 200 years.
Bill Oxford/iStock via Getty Images

Less than a year before his death on April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin added a codicil, or addendum, to his will. In it, he bequeathed 1000 pounds sterling, or what would have been the equivalent of $4000, to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia. (Franklin had been born and raised in Boston but left for Philadelphia when he was 17, making both cities near to his heart.)

The money, he wrote, was to be handled in a very particular way. For the first 100 years, each of the 1000 pounds sterling would accrue interest and be used to fund loans for young tradesmen starting out in business. Franklin, who had become a printer as the result of a loan given to him, valued resources for apprentices.

At the end of the 100 years, the cities could take 75 percent of the principal and spend it in public works. Boston, he suggested, should invest in a trade school. Philadelphia could possibly pay for water pipes connected to Wissahickon Creek. The remaining 25 percent would be left until another century had passed, at which point the cities and their respective states could spend the funds in whatever way they wished. But after 200 years, would the economic needs of the modern world match up with Franklin’s wishes?

A "vain of fancy"

Franklin had been a lifelong philanthropist, gifting Philadelphia with its first public library, its first hospital, its first volunteer fire department, and even its first streetlight. His Academy of Philadelphia became the University of Pennsylvania in 1750. The funds for his trusts were accumulated from his salary as governor of Pennsylvania from 1785 to 1788, a move informed by the belief that public servants shouldn’t be paid. It was an edict he even tried to include in the Constitution.

Franklin’s desire for the trusts was to bolster the careers and opportunities for young tradesmen looking to start their own businesses. It was a lofty ambition that assumed that need would endure for the next two centuries. Even Franklin was unsure his wishes could be adhered to without dissent. “Considering the accidents to which all human Affairs and Projects are subject in such a length of Time, I have perhaps too much flattered myself with a vain Fancy that these Dispositions will be continued without interruption and have the Effects proposed,” he wrote in his will.

Benjamin Franklin left small fortunes to Boston and Philadelphia. Pleasureofart/iStock via Getty Images

There was wisdom in his words, though it would take some time for them to materialize. For the first 100 years, the funds were used as Franklin intended, subsidizing the pursuits of apprentices hoping to perform their skilled trade. Franklin was very specific about the demographic of loan recipients: They had to be male, a mechanic who had undertaken an apprenticeship, under the age of 25, and married.

As time went on and the concept of apprenticeships fell by the wayside, critics of Franklin’s rigid parameters began to emerge. In 1884, shortly before the 100th anniversary of the funds, The Boston Globe deemed the trusts “inflexible” and irrelevant to a world in which only three people were using Boston’s trust funds for their intended trade purpose. In response, trustees soon removed the apprenticeship requirement, though the other elements remained.

discourse turns disagreeable

If Boston was vocal about how to best use the money, it was because they had more of it. In 1887, Philadelphia’s investments had left them with a total of just $70,800 compared to Boston’s $327,799.45. With 75 percent of the money to be made available for public works in 1890, Philadelphia opted to open a museum named the Franklin Institute. In Boston, a debate began about how best to spend it. Some suggested it could help reduce Boston’s debt. Others wanted to build a public bath house. A recreation hall for Boston Public Garden was discussed.

As Franklin predicted, the discourse eventually turned acrimonious. From 1890 to 1904, no one could agree on how to spend the money, and controversy surrounded a group of Boston aldermen who were accused of misappropriating the funds for junkets. Finally, it was decided that opening a school would honor Franklin’s original intentions of supporting skilled trades. Wealthy philanthropist Andrew Carnegie agreed to donate money if Boston donated land and used the trust to build a trade school. The Franklin Union—later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology—opened in 1908 and eventually became a two-year technical school.

The Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, Massachusetts. Paul Marotta, Getty Images

As the 20th century continued, restrictions on the trusts were loosened further. In Boston, more than 7000 medical students received loans between 1960 and 1990.

The way to wealth—and litigation

As the second century of Franklin’s trust drew to a close, both cities were looking to benefit greatly from his generosity. Boston’s trust fund was worth $4.5 million; Philadelphia’s was worth $2 million. Most of the money—roughly 76 percent in the case of Massachusetts—would go toward the state. Just as they had 100 years prior, discussions were had about how the funds should be spent.

In Philadelphia, advocates for low-income housing lobbied for the money. So did those who believed education should be paramount. Philadelphia City Hall argued for elaborate annual parties to draw tourists. Mayor Wilson Goode appointed a committee of Franklin experts to try and adhere to his wishes. The city’s share, roughly $520,000, was ultimately used for grants for high school students looking to learn a trade, with the state giving their share of roughly $1.5 million to the existing Franklin Institute museum.

While Boston saw arguments over the best use of the funds, it also grappled with a claim. The Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology argued they were owed the $4.5 million due to a 1958 law that terminated the trust and gave it over to the school. The state’s Supreme Court, however, ruled at the time that the trust couldn’t end prematurely. The school argued the law was still valid, however. After several years of court dates, the school was finally awarded the $4.5 million—the total of the funds due both Boston and Massachusetts—in 1994.

Inspired by Franklin’s philanthropy, in 1936 multimillionaire Jonathan Holden used $2.8 million to fund a series of trusts, some of which weren't due to be released for up to 1000 years. Before the idea was leveled in court and converted to trusts that paid out yearly instead of disrupting an economy in the distant future, his donation to the state of Pennsylvania alone would have been worth $424 trillion.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

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Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

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2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

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Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

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3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

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Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

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4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

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The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

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5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

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Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

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6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

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This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

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Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

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8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

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What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

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Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

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10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

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Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.