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“A Penny Saved...” Is Still Working at Ben Franklin’s Gravesite
By Tom and Joanne O’Toole
Philadelphia’s Christ Church Burial Ground is three blocks from the church itself, and the who’s who of 18th century America have their final resting places here. Perhaps most prominent among them is statesman Benjamin Franklin.
The two-acre site was purchased by Christ Church in 1719, as there was no more room in the churchyard for burials. It was the nearest suitable piece of property to the church available at the time.
A large marble slab right inside the fence at the corner of 5th and Arch streets covers the graves of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin. It states only their names and the date 1790. The year was always the death date of the husband.
Supposedly, it was Ol’ Ben who coined the phrase, “A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned.” However, others – in view of a curious tradition
involving Mr. Franklin’s grave – might counter that sage advice with, “A Penny Tossed is a Penny Lost.”
A Penny for Your …
It’s said that 20 years after his death, along came a newly-married bride who tossed a penny up over the wall onto Franklin’s grave, telling friends she was doing it to insure that she and her husband “would have good luck, health and wealth throughout their marriage.”
She started a tradition that continues to this day. One of the guides at the cemetery said the average weekly take just in pennies is $75. That’s 7,500 pennies a week or a little over 1,000 pennies a day. Not many, you think? Well, that’s 390,000 pennies a year, and if you want to really get serious about the math, that’s about 45 pennies per hour – day in, day out. While visitors can toss coins onto the Franklin grave anytime they want, access inside the cemetery walls is available on a scheduled basis seven days a week. When we visited, there were not only pennies, but a goodly number of nickels, dimes and quarters on and around the gravesite. So we suspect the weekly collection is much greater than the total penny count indicates.
The Franklin Family Plot
Next to the Franklin grave are their daughter and son-in-law Richard and Sarah Bache, 1811. Just above the Franklin grave is the small plot were their son Francis is buried – having died of smallpox at four years, one month and four days on November 21, 1736.
Of the 4,000 buried in this cemetery, 2,700 are women and children, and most do not have tombstones. There are still 60 plots available, and the most recent burial was in 1997. A map of the cemetery dating back to 1864 can still be used today to identify graves.
The burial ground was opened to the public in 1858 so people could see the Franklin grave. There are many notables buried here, along with four other signers of the Declaration of Independence – George Ross, Benjamin Rush, Francis Hopkinson and Joseph Hewes.
Christ Church Cemetery
Originally just a field, a wooden fence was built about 1740 to enclose the burial ground to keep the grazing animals in, and the vandals out. In 1772 a 7-foot-high brick wall was built around the grounds to replace the deteriorating fence. It was in 1858 that an opening was made in the brick wall to make Franklin’s grave visible to the public, and the existing wrought iron fence section was installed.
In 1927 the crumbling wall was completely rebuilt, using most of the original bricks and capstone. To mark Franklin’s 250th birthday, the city installed a brick path from inside the Arch Street main gates to Franklin’s grave and a brick viewing area of the site. In 1971 the Christ Church Burial Ground was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the Secretary of the Interior.
Franklin’s grave is in the heart of Philadelphia’s sightseeing area, across the street from the U.S. Mint, and within a short walk of Independence National Historical Park, the Liberty Bell and the new National Constitution Center.
Christ Church itself is at 2nd and Market streets. It was called “The Nation’s Church” in the 1770-80s because Colonial patriots, loyalists and heroes of the time worshiped here. It is also the founding church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.
Founded in 1695, the grand sanctuary was built in 1727, and the soaring steeple – a project dear to Franklin’s heart – was built in 1754, making it the tallest structure in the United States for the next 100 years.
George Washington regularly attended services here; Franklin raised funds for the steeple; Betsy Ross had a pew and Dr. Benjamin Rush – the father of American psychiatry – was a parishioner. It is still an active Episcopal parish.
Among the many famous and noted persons buried at the church are two more signers of the Declaration of Independence – James Wilson and Robert Morris.
Franklin – The Man
The great adulation and high respect in which Franklin was held – having been recognized as the most revered and historically significant person of his time – has not dimmed from after more than 200 years.
A Bostonian by birth – and a printer by trade – he was a skilled diplomat who spent much of his time between Philadelphia and Europe. Mastering the printing business in London, he returned home and established the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Franklin ran his print shop for 15 years, and in 1743 hired David Hall to relieve him of his duties so he was free to travel to London and France on his many diplomatic missions.
Franklin designed the family home at Franklin Court on High Street in 1763. But it was his wife who was left in charge to oversee construction. Deborah died of a stroke in 1774. Franklin died 16 years later at the age of 84.
Franklin – The Founder
He had founded the Philadelphia Library; the first Philadelphia Fire Company; served as Postmaster of Philadelphia; was a member of the Provincial Assembly; invented the Franklin stove; founded the American Philosophical Society and the Pennsylvania Hospital; was the first to utilize electricity; became deputy Postmaster General for the Colonies; was a delegate to Congress at Albany and a colonel in the Provincial Militia; was Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and delegate to the Continental Congress; was minister to France; was a member of the Constitutional Convention of the United States and signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as the U.S. Constitution.
Franklin – The American
These were but some of his many achievements. The list goes on, with his many government positions and diplomatic service in Europe.
His successes and fame brought 20,000 mourners into the streets for his funeral procession. The cortege was led by all the clergy in the city as great and small participated in his funeral. Church bells were muffled and tolled as flags hung at half-mast throughout the city. As Franklin’s coffin was lowered into the grave, militia artillery fired their guns.
He captured the spirit of his age, and that of all of Philadelphia.
Celebrating Ben Franklin’s Tercentenary
Happy 300th Birthday, Ben! He drew lightning from the sky, helped establish the first public hospital, university and library, and went on to shape an independent and unified nation, as well as the American character. He was a printer, writer, scientist, inventor, civic leader,
revolutionary and international diplomat. He was one of the more extraordinary men of his time – and ours.
When Benjamin Franklin turned 300 on January 17, 2006, the entire world celebrated the life of America’s favorite overachiever, but no one will be feting Benjamin Franklin quite like Philadelphia, his adopted hometown.
Visitors to the city can use this time to see Philadelphia’s many historic sites and cultural attractions as restaurants, shops and hotels throughout the region will honor Franklin with special exhibits, programs, events, tours, menus and packages.
After seeing the exhibition, visitors will be encouraged to immerse themselves in Franklin’s Philadelphia, where the Founding Father’s rich legacy is still very much alive.
To make it easy for tourist to walk in Franklin’s footsteps, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism marketing Corporation (GPTMC) has created Walking in Franklin’s Footsteps, a self-guided walking tour available at
. This hour-long jaunt guides tour takers through the same streets Benjamin Franklin himself walked (Elfreths’ Alley) and to the places he worked (Independence Hall), prayed (Christ Church), played (American Philosophical Society), lived (Franklin Court) and founded (Pennsylvania Hospital).
The region’s arts and cultural organizations will honor the ultimate Renaissance man with plays and performances that would no doubt make Ol’ Ben proud. More than 20 cultural institutions are planning Franklin-related programming. The most up-to-date calendar of events and additional information on the celebration is available at