What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The following Lines be pleased to read, / And they will shew the Cause indeed.”
Henry Funk and Christian Carpenter wanted to increase the chances that readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette took note of their advertisement offering a reward “For securing JOHN FARRAN, in Lancaster Goal” for stealing horses. Except for the headline at the top and their signatures at the bottom, the entire advertisement consisted of rhyming couplets that described Farran and the offense he committed. Other advertisements in the June 2, 1773, edition offered rewards for capturing runaway indentured servants or enslaved people who liberated themselves, but each of them featured a paragraph of dense text. In contrast, Funk and Carpenter’s notice had plenty of white space to draw the eye and an entertaining poem to hold readers’ attention. The aggrieved advertisers certainly put more effort into composing it than their counterparts did in writing formulaic notices that described indentured servants and enslaved people.
Funk and Carpenter offered an overview of the situation. “In April last was stole away, / From each of us (we’re bold to say) / Two stately Horses, stout and strong, / And Farran did the cruel Wrong.” He escaped into the woods with the horses, saddles, and other goods, but “The honest Neighbours round about, / Did hunt and find the Villain out.” Farran managed to escape and “Where he is gone, we cannot say, / But he’s a Rogue, by Night and Day.” According to Funk and Carpenter, that had not been the thief’s first infraction. Instead, he had a history and “This Rogue is known both far and near, / To steal and sell, from Year to Year.”
To aid in identifying the fugitive, Funk and Carpenter offered a description, a bit disjointed in order to achieve the rhymes. For instance, they interspersed a warning that Farran might change his name with information about his age and appearance. “To tell his Marks we do incline, / His Age may be full Thirty-nine; / He’ll change his Name too, now and then, / His Height may be full five Feet ten.” Similarly, they muddled together other aspects of his physical description with his speech patterns and their suspicions that the thief would attempt to disguise himself. “His Hair is black, Complexion too, / And as it suits, says Thee, or You; / To tell his Clothes, it will us fail, / For them he’ll Change, or more will steal; / He is a stout and well made Fellow, / And in his Colour something Yellow.”
While no great work of literature, Funk and Carpenter’s advertisements likely achieved one of its intended purposes. The rhyming couplets, though awkward, presented a more engaging and a more memorable story than if they had settled for a standard notice. That, in turn, may have put more colonizers on the lookout for the notorious Farran, increasing the chances of capturing him and securing him in the Lancaster Jail.