The story of how Benjamin Franklin flew a kite during an electric thunderstorm to determine whether or not lightning was an electric phenomenon, is a well-known one. One might expect that Franklin, as a founding father of the United States and signatory to the Declaration of Independence would have been a sensible man. It seems the opposite is true.
Although it is not certain whether Franklin actually went through with the kite experiment – according to his writings he was well aware of the dangers of exposing himself to lightning and it has been proven that if he had performed the experiment in the manner prescribed in his proposal, he would most certainly have been killed – he did have, according to head of the Royal Society’s library and archives, Keith Moore "a penchant for showmanship and dangerous experiments.
In 2005, the Massachusetts Historical Society made public documents describing the story of the first turkey to be cooked using electricity. In a letter to his brother John, dated December 25, 1750, Franklin relates what transpired when he took it upon himself to electrocute a turkey for Christmas dinner. The feast was to be an homage to all things electrical: "A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electrical shock and roasted by the electrical jack (spit) before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle, when the healths of all the famous electricians in England, Holland, France and Germany are to be drank in electrified bumpers (tumblers). The birds kill’d in this manner eat uncommonly tender."
The experiment did not go quite as smoothly as planned. According to the letter: "I have lately made an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat. Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro' my own Arms and Body." Witnesses saw a "great flash" and heard a crack as "loud as a pistol". Franklin himself saw and heard nothing since he had been rendered unconscious. His arms, he recalled, remained numb until the next morning.
There is evidence that Franklin was embarrassed by the incident: "You may Communicate this to Mr. Bowdoin (a Boston friend of Franklin's who also experimented with electricity) As A Caution to him, but do not make it mor Publick, for I am Ashamed to have been Guilty of so Notorious A Blunder."
Illustration: Wild Turkey Cock (Meleagris Gallopavo) from John James Audubon's Birds of America, first published as a series of sections between 1827 and 1838.