What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“LAST Wednesday morn, at break of day, / From Philadelphia run away, / An Irish man, nam’d John M‘Keoghn, / To fraud and imposition prone.”
The “Poets Corner” was a regular feature in the New-London Gazette in the late 1760s. It frequently ran in the first column on the final page, appearing alongside advertisements and, on occasion, news items. When readers perused the February 3, 1769, edition, they encountered a relatively short poem in the “Poets Corner” and a much lengthier one among the advertisements. This second poem, bearing the title “ADVERTISEMENT,” told the story of John McKeoghn, an Irish indentured servant who ran away from Mary Nelson in Philadelphia on January 10.
The poem told a cautionary tale about how looks and actions could be deceiving. “He oft in conversation chatters, / Of scripture and religious matters, / And fain would to the world impart, / That virtue lodges in his heart; / But take the rogue from stem to stern, / The hypocrite you’ll soon discern, / And find (tho’ his deportment’s civil) / A saint without, within a devil.” Not only had McKeoghn run away, he had also stolen several textiles and garments from Nelson. In addition, he “Can curse and swear as well as lie.” The poem warned colonists to assess inner character rather than rely on outward appearances. Just because McKeoghn possessed goods that testified to a particular status, just because he often comported himself in a particular way, did not mean that he truly belonged among the ranks of the genteel that he so successfully imitated. With sufficient observation, anyone who met him should have been able to recognize him for the fraud he was.
It seems unlikely that Nelson paid to place this advertisement in the New-London Gazette. More likely, Timothy Green, the printer, spotted the poem among the advertisements in the January 16 edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle and decided to reprint it as an entertaining piece for his readers. The poem did not mention any suspicions that McKeoghn was headed to Connecticut in particular. If Nelson had intended to place the advertisement in newspapers beyond Philadelphia, she certainly could have chosen others with more extensive circulation and more readers, especially newspapers published in Boston and New York. Although printers did not usually reprint advertisements free of charge, Green may have made an exception in this case, seizing an opportunity to present a curiosity to his readers.