The Block Island Times

This week in history, 258 years ago: Catherine Ray and Ben Franklin's secret

By Robert M. Downie | Dec 31, 2012
The signature of Catherine Ray, the same as so happily seen by Benjamin Franklin on letters she sent to him. This signature is from a one-of-a-kind map made in 1756 of Block Island’s southwestern corner, from the author’s unparalleled collection of island history. As shown in this family document, Catherine and her sisters owned all the land along the southern bluffs, stretching for one and a third miles from Block Island Sound eastwards to Rodman’s Hollow.

This week in history, 258 years ago, in December 1754, the first meeting occurred between Caty Ray*, a 23-year-old Block Island resident of "wit and gaiety," and the famous Benjamin Franklin, a 47-year-old husband and father. The two were distantly related by marriage, and they met at a relative's home in Boston.

Catherine Ray was born in 1732 out near the southwest corner of the island, in between the present-day homes of artist Marilyn Bogdanffy and fisherman Gary Hall.

She was a granddaughter of Simon Ray, one of the most prominent of the first Block Island settlers of 1661. When she was 5 years old, her grandfather died at the age of 102 and was buried at the Island Cemetery. His large, horizontal slate gravestone can still be seen in the old part of the graveyard.

Catherine became the friend of two prominent men of her time. One was Ezra Stiles, the long-time president of Yale University, who became her mentor.

The other was Benjamin Franklin, whose correspondence with Catherine is preserved in a book published by the American Philosophical Society in 1949.

The letters, which chronicle their sincere friendship, were written from 1755 — shortly after they met — until just before Franklin's death in 1790. During that time they saw each other on only five occasions, the last at Philadelphia in 1776, near the beginning of the American Revolution.

Between Christmas and New Year's of 1754, the two traveled together by carriage from Boston to Newport, continuing after several days to Westerly. When Franklin was living in Paris 25 years later, Caty wrote of their long ago trip:

"I with Pleasure look Back Upon those Pleasant days I used to see you in Boston and the Agreeable Journey to Westerly which you have Some times Mentioned."

The journey has raised speculation — fueled by two of his letters to Catherine — about the charms of Franklin, who was known for his conquests. The first, mailed from Philadelphia on March 4, 1755, expressed the strong feelings he felt watching her leave Westerly's shore. Caty was voyaging to her home on harborless Block Island, visible on the horizon, where her small boat, perhaps a “Block Island double-ender,” would land on a West Side beach:

"I thought too much was hazarded when I saw you put off to sea in that very little skiff, tossed by every wave. But the call was strong and just, a sick parent. I stood on the shore, and looked after you, till I could no longer distinguish you, even with my glass… Towards evening all agreed that you must certainly be arrived before that time, the weather having been so favourable; which made me more easy and cheerful, for I had been truly concerned for you…

"Persons… complain of the northeast wind, as increasing their malady. But since you promised to send me kisses in that wind, and I find you as good as your word, it is to me the gayest wind that blows, and gives me the best spirits. I write this during a northeast storm of snow, the greatest we have had this winter. Your favours come mixed with the snowy fleeces, which are pure as your virgin innocence, white as your lovely bosom, and — as cold."

But the gentlemanly Franklin kept his thwarted advances in perspective, adding:

"But let it warm towards some worthy young man, and may Heaven bless you both with every kind of happiness."

The theme, mixing care with the wistfulness of lost love, was repeated by Franklin on October 16, 1755, to the still-unmarried Caty, in his "Multiplication" letter, one of the most famous of the thousands he wrote:

"You must practise ADDITION to your Husband's Estate, by Industry & Frugality; SUBTRACTION of all unnecessary Expenses; MULTIPLICATION (I would gladly have taught you that myself, but you thought it was time enough & woud'nt learn) he will soon make you a Mistress of it. As to DIVISION, I say… Let there be no divisions among ye."

Franklin was not restricted by the artificial morals of the Puritans, who lived in the century before him, nor of the Victorians, who came in the century after — and even if his life had been led in either of those two eras, his independent thinking doubtless would never have been stifled.

Three years after meeting Franklin, Catherine Ray married William Greene, the son of Governor William Greene of Rhode Island. One of her sisters, Anna, married Samuel Ward, son of an earlier governor of Rhode Island. Both Caty's and Anna's husbands also became governors of the state. So each sister had a governor for a husband, another for a brother-in-law, and another for a father-in-law.

By the end of 1787 the United States had won its Revolution, and written a constitution — and Benjamin Franklin, one of the key participants of both events, had become famous on two continents.

That December of 1787, Catherine wrote her final letter to Franklin, ending with these last words:

"Hear you have lovely Grand Children and take Great Pleasure in them. So have we, they seem as near as our own (children). May they continue lovely through life is the wish of your most affectionate and obliged friend — Caty Greene."

And a little over a year later, in March 1789, Benjamin replied, his last letter to her containing a good deal of practical philosophizing, and his last words saying:

"Among the Felicities of my Life I reckon your Friendship, which I shall remember with pleasure as long as that life lasts, being ever, my dear friend, yours most affectionately."

Franklin died in April 1790 and was given the most impressive funeral in Philadelphia's history.

Catherine Ray died in 1794. Her lengthy obituary in the Newport Mercury started off by forthrightly revealing the male-dominated society of the era:

"Perhaps there are few of her sex who have possessed more extensive powers of mind, or discovered greater excellence of character, than Mrs. Greene... having for the course of near 40 years given every proof of conjugal affection, of maternal tenderness and care, and of every domestic virtue..."

If Catherine Ray Greene had any secrets, her obituary did not divulge them.


*Correction: Caty's maiden name was Littlefield, not Ray

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