Benjamin Franklin’s Squirrel Died in England in 1772 and Was Buried There

Twyford House, in the tiny village of Twyford, southwest of London, was the occasional country retreat of Benjamin Franklin, when the American was a diplomat from Pennsylvania in the 1770s. (John Kelly/TWP)

“Some people regard squirrels as rats with bushy tails,” said Ben Leyland as we sat sipping tea in the kitchen of Twyford House, gazing through a picture window at an allee of carefully trimmed hornbeam trees. “I quite like squirrels. They’re quite entertaining.”

“They’re fluffy. They look cute,” said Ben’s wife, Anna Leyland, equally pro-squirrel. Just then, a squirrel leapt from a hornbeam to a hanging bird feeder and started nibbling on seed.

It was a July morning last summer. I’d taken the train from London’s Waterloo station to visit Twyford, an 18th-century house in Hampshire, England.

Ben and Anna had recently purchased the mansion, and they lived there with their two small children and one large dog, amid a confusion of carpenters and plasterers who were renovating the 300-year-old structure.

I’d come to Twyford because of Benjamin Franklin. In the 1770s, Franklin lived in London while serving as a representative of Pennsylvania. Twyford became a welcome retreat from the big city, a place so comfortable that it’s where the Founding Father began writing his autobiography.

The Summer House is a one-room cottage on the grounds of Twyford House. It is thought that Benjamin Franklin started his autobiography in the Summer House while a guest of the Shipley family. (John Kelly/TWP)

Twyford was home then to Jonathan Shipley, a bishop in the Church of England, his wife, Anna Maria, and their six children. Franklin’s favorite was the second-youngest daughter, Georgiana, a spitfire whom a later acquaintance described as “tall, handsome, and self-sufficient, a scholar, and a painter.”

As a token of affection, Franklin had his wife back in America, Deborah, ship an Eastern gray squirrel to England as a gift for the Shipleys. Mungo, as the squirrel was named, was an instant hit but was killed by a dog and buried somewhere near Twyford House, supposedly under a stone engraved with an effusive elegy penned by Franklin.

Could I — America’s leading squirrel enthusiast — find the famed Mungo’s remains?

I asked the couple if they’d bought the house because of the Franklin connection.

“I’m in investment, and one of my big investment heroes is Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s sidekick,” Ben said. “And one of Charlie Munger’s big heroes is Benjamin Franklin. So for me, yes, though I suspect if that connection hadn’t been here we would have bought it anyway, because it’s such a great house.”

After Mungo’s death, Deborah Franklin procured another squirrel. “I have sente a Squerel for your friend and wish her better luck,” Deborah wrote — perhaps a touch acidly — on Oct. 29, 1773.

This squirrel was named Beebee, and he was a survivor. In 1774, Georgiana wrote that he had grown fat and lively and had “as much liberty as even a North American can desire” — a little dig at the Colonists’ discontent.

Beebee was still alive as late as May 1779, when Georgiana wrote to Franklin that the squirrel had “grown quite old & has lost his eyesight, but nevertheless preserves his spirits & wonted activity.”

Beebee left no further historical record, but it was Mungo I was after.

“There’s only one grave in the garden, and it’s hard to make out,” Anna said. She offered to show me around.

Contemporary sources said Mungo had been buried in the “garden,” but what did that mean? A large kitchen garden dated from Victorian times. If Mungo was there, he’d been plowed over.

What had once been the front of Twyford House — with impressive bow windows installed in Franklin’s day — was now the back. The current front had a large graveled driveway. If Mungo was there, he’d have been paved over.

In a corner of what a modern American would call the back yard was a weathered stone obelisk, about two feet high, broken and repaired. Letters were inscribed on each face, but big ones, much too big to fit Franklin’s 22-line paean to Mungo.

I ran my fingers along the lichen-covered stone, making out “JET the 1st” and “JET the 2nd.” I was pretty sure this is where the family dogs were buried.

Far across the garden, a gray squirrel perched on the bird feeder. He was not a literal descendant of Mungo’s — I’ve seen no mention of the issue — he was just a squirrel. And he wasn’t talking.

Short of ground-penetrating radar, some carbon-dating equipment and a team of archaeologists, there was no way I was going to find Mungo. I said my goodbyes to Anna and started walking to the center of Twyford to ring for a cab.

And then the heavens opened. I scurried to find shelter in the nearby St. Mary’s Church. As I waited for the rain to cease, I explored.

On the west end of the nave were memorials to various members of the Shipley family. None for Mungo, but there was Georgiana, rendered in white marble.

As a young woman, she’d fallen in love with a man named Francis Hare-Naylor. Born into a wealthy family but disinherited by his scheming stepmother after his father’s death, Francis eloped with Georgiana and took her to Europe. She corresponded with Goethe and became an accomplished watercolorist.

In 1806, Georgiana died in Lausanne, Switzerland. Like Mungo, the globe-trotting squirrel, she died far from home and rests in foreign soil.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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