Benjamin Franklin Puts the Moves on My Ancestor’s Girlfriend

I’ve never been much for ascribing traits of a living person to the influence of a distant ancestor, whose genes are so mixed with those of others that they lose any meaning, yet in looking for my father — and pondering on his longing to become a writer — I was drawn to the distant past.

I caught a glimpse of him in the stubborn race of the French Huguenots. His family name was French, and it comes from quercus, the Latin word for oak. His family, Les Garrigues, fled religious persecution in southern France; they made their way to Philadelphia and became Quakers.

Anecdote of a Distant Time

But I think I found more than a glimmer of him in eighteenth century Philadelphia, in a youth named James Ralph, who was perhaps Benjamin Franklin’s best friend. It may have been Ralph who was responsible for a kind of artlessness — and restlessness — that was passed down to my father, and to my father’s children, because Ralph was my father’s grandfather-preceded-by-five-greats.

Ralph and my father were much alike, from a tendency to read poetry to their women to a longing for immortality through their words in print.

The young James Ralph wanted to be a poet, not a merchant as all the important people were then in Philadelphia. I found these words in Franklin’s Autobiography:

Ralph was ingenious, genteel in his manners, and extremely eloquent; I think I never knew a prettier talker. Ralph was inclin’d to pursue the study of poetry, not doubting but he might become eminent in it, and make his fortune by it.

He Usually Lived With

He married young, and when his friend Ben decided at the age of eighteen to go to London in 1724, James Ralph left behind him his wife and little girl and went off with Franklin to England.

It didn’t take Ralph long to find romance.

In our house there lodg’d a young woman, a milliner, who, I think, had a shop in the Cloisters. She had been genteelly bred, was sensible and lively, and of most pleasing conversation. Ralph read plays to her in the evenings, they grew intimate, she took another lodging, and he followed her.

The couple lived together for some time, but her sewing didn’t earn enough to support them both, with her child, so Ralph went to teach at a boys’ school in the country, where, oddly enough, he actually used the name “Benjamin Franklin” instead of his own, explaining to Franklin that when he became a famous poet he would not want anybody to know that he once had to engage in such undignified work as teaching.

He continued to write frequently, sending me large specimens of an epic poem which he was then composing, and desiring my remarks and corrections. These I gave him from time to time, but endeavor’d rather to discourage his proceeding. All was in vain; sheets of the poem continued to come by every post.

While Ralph was away, Franklin took a new look at the milliner and tried to seduce her. She refused him, and when Ralph came back from the country, he, in effect, told his Pennsylvania chum to go to hell.

Thus I spent about eighteen months in London. My friend Ralph had kept me poor; he owed me about twenty-seven pounds, which I was now never likely to receive; a great sum out of my small earnings! I lov’d him, notwithstanding, for he had many amiable qualities.

Franklin went home; Ralph stayed in England and in 1728 he published his poem, Night, which Alexander Pope ridiculed as mere howling.

Decades later, when Franklin was in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, he returned to England and visited Ralph on his death bed. Franklin found that “he was esteem’d one of the best political writers in England” but his reputation was “indeed small as a poet, Pope having damned his poetry in the Dunciad; but his prose was thought as good as any man’s.”


In a library in Philadelphia I found the wife that Ralph left behind with a baby named Mary (she was either Hannah Ogden or her sister, Rebecca Ogden; the records differ).

Mary grew up and married Samuel Garrigues, a grocer, who begat William, a carpentry inspector; who begat Samuel, a carpenter and farmer; who begat William, a constable; who begat Samuel Pierce, who was my father’s grandfather.

My father remembered Samuel Pierce Garrigues only vaguely because the old man died in 1909 when Charles Harris was just seven, but he had been first a clerk and then a carpenter. He and his family moved to Indiana between 1854 and 1858, to a pretty little farming town called Rockville, which I once visited, and then, following the westward course of America’s new empire, moved to Kansas in 1878, and they stopped being Quakers and became Methodists.

The land was there for the taking. But first the family had to dig sod from the prairie and make a lean-to house to shelter them from the bone-chilling winters and miserably hot summers. Afterward Samuel and his older boys built a real wooden house.

Samuel became prosperous, and one day he was named a justice of the peace. He was, in the eyes of his community, an important man.

Parents of the Red-Haired Boy

Samuel and Ellen’s third son was Charles Louis Garrigues, who married a German-American girl named Emily Young in 1890. I remember him when he was seventy or so, a tall man with white hair and a white mustache and bony knees (I know, because I sat upon them).

In Kansas, Charles Louis was a farmer and Emily was a farmer’s wife, and they produced five farmer’s children — Samuel C., George William, Eleanor, Charles Harris and Patricia.

Charles Harris Garrigues, born July 7, 1902, was my father. His last name is pronounced “GAIR-uh-gus,” and sometimes he spelled it Garrigus. Though his parents called him Harris, his friends knew him as Brick, for his red hair. And that’s why this book, the result of my search, is Brick’s Book.)