Ebenezer Kinnersley

University Archives profile on Kinnersley includes his wife’s help in running the dorms, who was in charge of hygiene and laundry. Outside of his life at Penn, Kinnersley was a leading scientist of the day studying electricity, and he was ‘the principal collaborator’ on Benjamin Franklin’s projects in the 1740s and 1750s.

Kinnersley traveled throughout the colonies showcasing his and Franklin’s inventions. On one trip in 1749 to Maryland and Virginia, Kinnersley shows an audience the power of electricity. One of his exhibitions shows how an electric current can travel through water by setting liquor on fire 200 yards away. Later in the trip, Kinnersley demonstrated some form of primitive shock therapy on participants, claiming that electricity applied to the human body can cure “tooth ache, pains in the head, deafness, pains in the limbs, which had been so violent as to take away the use of them, pain in the stomach, swelling of the spleen, sprains, relaxation of the nerves,” Of particular note of these experiments is his cure of Samuel Miller’s inability to raise his arms above his head, and curing a “negro boy’s” deafness. Presumably, Samuel Miller is white because his name was listed,
showing how Kinnersley experimented on both white and black bodies for his experiments.


Tax records from 1767 and 1769 indicate that Kinnersley owned one enslaved person. 
This would have been when Kinnersley was Steward of the dormitory. In looking further into Kinnersley’s connection to slavery, the College paid Kinnersley for “his negros Services at the Academy in Ringing the Bell making Fires.”

Kinnersely Day Book

Day Book Belonging to the Trustees of the Academy of Philadelphia, January 29, 1757

The Daybook notes continuous payments for Kinnersley’s enslaved man’s work – whose labor began October 25, 1756 – with payments beginning in January 1757. The last payment that directly mentions his enslaved man’s work is from January 1770. While the payments directly mentioning Kinnersley’s “negro” stop in 1770, Kinnersley continues to receive a second salary until his retirement in 1770, suggesting that he was still being paid for the enslaved man’s work on campus until 1770. The term “2nd Salary” is used in the College’s Account Book in 1768 and 1769 as well, when the 2nd salary referred to the enslaved man’s work. I, therefore, believe it is likely that the enslaved man worked on Penn’s campus until Kinnersley’s retirement in 1770. In 1872, 100 years after his retirement, Penn installed a stained-glass memorial to Kinnersley on the first landing of the east staircase ofCollege Hall, the main building on campus. The memorial was taken down sometime after 1918, the last reference I have found of it, though when it was taken down is a question that requires further research.

After Kinnersley retired from Penn in October 1772 for health reasons, he traveled to Barbados on the Brig Rachel in early December 1772 to spend the winter in a warmer climate. Ina March 13, 1773 letter Kinnersley wrote to his wife back in Philadelphia, he writes that: ‘Caesar was taken very ill last week with a pain in his bowels, which at last settled in his side, bleeding and some doses of physick have made him pretty well again.’ The nature of the letter was to inform his wife of his own health conditions after a winter in the Caribbean, and it is very personal in tone. Thus, including information about Caesar before an update on his own health implies that this is someone who would be intimately known to his wife, and is someone relevant enough to mention in the letter. The letter mentions Kinnersley’s desire to return to Philadelphia soon, and presumably, since Caesar recovers from his illness, he makes the return voyage with Kinnersley. In 1774, Kinnersley was again taxed for one negro. Based on the fact that Kinnersley was paid for his enslaved man’s labor from 1757-1770, the voyage to Barbados not long after his retirement, and a tax record recording only one negro from1767-1774, I believe that Caesar is likely the name of the enslaved man who worked on Penn’s campus. More research needs to be conducted into the life of Caesar to confirm without a doubt that he is the same man who worked on Penn’s early campus.

~ Dillon Kersh