Uncovering historical mysteries at Stenton House

Thin wires run from an odd-looking contraption to the limp arm of an elderly American statesman who lies dying in a darkened bedroom inside his elegant stone home that graces the countryside northwest of colonial Philadelphia.

It is the middle of the 18th century and the man in the bed is James Logan, an Englishman who came to America as William Penn’s secretary and who went on to become mayor of Philadelphia and then governor of Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Franklin, longtime admirer and friend of Logan, connects the wires to their ports, winds the crank handle of his machine and anxiously watches his patient.

The lifeless side of Logan jolts as electricity courses through his paralyzed limbs. Minutes later, Franklin searches for signs that his friend has been restored to health.

A trove of fascinating tales

The story, which is among the lore at Stenton House in Germantown, sounds too far-fetched to be true.

In addition to everything else with which he experimented, did Benjamin Franklin try an early form of electric shock therapy to cure James Logan? Maybe.

According to historians, a letter found in the Logan family papers raises that tantalizing possibility. In it, Franklin asks Logan for permission to conduct his experimental therapy. Nobody knows for sure if the proposed treatment was ever administered, but historians say that’s a possibility.

“Part of the beauty of history is that it is a mix of story, myth and fact. It’s about deducing and suggesting, essentially sometimes asserting our best guesses about the past,” said Stenton curator Laura Keim.

Today, Stenton is not only a museum housing a prized collection of 18th century furniture, books and manuscripts left by Logan and his relatives. It’s also the home of fascinating tales, including that of Franklin’s possible use of shock therapy.

These stories have been passed down through the generations by people who lived and worked at Stenton.

In the process, they have been embellished and taken on a life of their own. How true are they? It’s the job of historians to find out.

Here are three of the stories that intrigue history buffs.

Saving James Logan

Among his many other discoveries, Benjamin Franklin is famous for his kite-and-key experiment, which proved that lightning is electrical in nature.

Franklin’s interest in electricity apparently went well beyond extracting an electrical charge from a storm cloud. He was also fascinated by how electricity affects the human body.

Franklin’s letter to Logan, now in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania archives, reveals Franklin’s request. But Logan died in 1751 and no one knows whether Franklin ever got to try his treatment.

Deborah Logan, the wife of James Logan’s grandson George, “was very committed to preserving family history, and transcribed many of Logan’s documents while she lived at Stenton,” says Kaelyn Taylor, Stenton’s program coordinator.

However, she never transcribed anything related to Franklin’s offer and a response from Logan has never been found.

Franklin’s idea to use electricity as a cure for human ailments was a precursor to the relatively modern technique of electro-convulsive therapy, which passes an electric shock through the cortex of the brain, inducing seizures. The avid inventor apparently developed a crude electro-shock machine to test his various theories about electricity.

In their book “Pushbutton Psychiatry: A History of Electroshock in America,” professors Timothy Kneeland and Carol A.B. Warren note that John Wesley, the 18th century Englishman who founded Methodism, purchased an electrical “apparatus” from Franklin five years after Logan’s death.

Saving Stenton

Twenty-one years later, another intriguing Stenton tale started taking root.

In 1777, Stenton was unoccupied by the Logan family. James’ son William had died in 1776 and the estate was left to his son, George.

At the time, George was finishing his studies in Scotland and didn’t want to return home right away, especially in the middle of a war, to claim the house he had inherited. Until he returned to Stenton in 1781, servants continued to live on the estate, keeping up the mansion and its grounds.

One of those servants was a woman named Dinah, a former slave who had recently secured her freedom through William Logan.

The handed-down story holds that British soldiers approached the property, demanding to know where Stenton kept its hay so they could use it to burn down the estate, a tactic the British used throughout the area. Dinah pointed them toward the barn and began gathering up family valuables to save them from destruction.

Thinking on her toes, Dinah feigned fear of the soldiers in the barn, telling the newly arrived troops that deserters were hiding there. In the confusion of the moment, the soldiers collecting the hay were arrested and hauled away as deserters.

Stenton was saved from destruction.

She lived the remainder of her life as a paid servant at Stenton and was eventually able to bring her family together there.

“Dinah became a beloved servant, almost a member of the family,” said Taylor.

While the story cannot be proven, Stenton commemorates Dinah with a plaque describing those storied heroic actions at the mansion’s back door.

Looking for a garden wall

An old stone barn sits adjacent to Dinah’s plaque. Built in 1787, the barn displays farming tools from the 18th and 19th century. It is now used by children for Stenton’s “History Hunters” elementary school education program.

Historians hypothesize that the bricks used in the construction of the barn’s interior may have been recycled from a British-style forecourt and garden wall built along with the original house. They reason that having a British-style wall after 1783, when the Revolutionary War ended, would have been just too British-looking in the face of the hard-fought American independence.

Last fall, as Stenton was launching an archeology project to locate garden walls, there was a surprise discovery in the Stenton archives: a map of the front yard showing an excavated area clearly identifying foundation remains.

If the map was correct, archeologists could take the measurements and apply them to the excavation. This was precisely the approach they took, carefully following the measurements on the map to begin digging where the corner of the old foundation should be.

“We started to come down on a dense concentration of brick, mortar and stone rubble,” recalled archeologist Deborah Len Miller. “Further excavation revealed that we had undoubtedly uncovered the corner of a large stone and mortar foundation that likely supported a brick structure. The bricks were likely robbed for reuse at Stenton.”

The ongoing archaeology project is now starting up again. Miller said she hopes to learn more about the wall fragments, which may enable her to make a conclusion as to the origin of the barn’s interior bricks. The dig may also confirm what, up until now, has been a story passed down through oral tradition.

“I’m often asked just how exciting it is to find things in the ground. To be honest, it’s not always as glamorous as it seems, but there are moments when the planets align and things really go the way you hoped,” Miller said. “That seems to be what’s happening at Stenton, and it’s pretty exciting.”

****

Christine Adkins and Erin Carroll are La Salle University students who write for Germantown Beat, a local student-produced news site. NewsWorks features articles from GermantownBeat on its Northwest Philadelphia community sites and contributes multimedia journalism training to the program.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.