History | August 27, 2017 5:00 am

Why Benjamin Franklin Was Estranged From His Wife for Nearly 20 Years

New theory suggests that it had to do with failure to treat their son's smallpox.

Why Benjamin Franklin Was Estranged From His Wife for Nearly 20 Years
Benjamin Franklin (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Between 1757 and 1774, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin seemed to be steering clear of his wife.

Read: He was home for just two of the last 17 years he spent with her, across the Atlantic in England, a long ship-ride away. And that final date is significant, as it was the year when Deborah Franklin died.

What could’ve made a man, who was married for 44 years to the same woman, stray so mightily?

As Smithsonian‘s Stephen Coss proposes: It had to do with the death of their son, “Franky.”

Franklin would be Deborah’s second husband; her first had duped her into marrying him (he had a secret wife in England). She moved out but was unable to divorce him because of laws at the time.

So in stepped Franklin, who had just fathered a child with another woman out of wedlock, and was in need of a wife to mother his baby. The only woman he knew of that would fit that profile—because of her own estrangement from her first husband (who at this point, was dead)—was Deborah. (Franklin and Deborah had briefly been a couple in the 1720s, hence his later “attraction” to her.)

They, in turn, had a child of their own—Francis Folger Franklin (“Franky”)—who died a month before his fourth birthday of smallpox.

The new theory banks on the fact that Franklin had become a major proponent of an early smallpox vaccination—which he heralded as a life-saver in his newspaper as the outbreak widened—and that his wife was against. When Franky died, after being denied the early vaccine, Franklin blamed his wife for their child’s death.