Little is known about Reed's early life. She was born around 1708, likely in Birmingham, England, to John and Sarah Reed, a well respected Quaker couple. John Reed was a moderately prosperous building contractor and carpenter who died in 1724. Reed had three siblings: two brothers, John and James, and a sister, Frances. The Reed family immigrated to English America in 1711, settling in Philadelphia.
Reed met then 17-year-old Benjamin Franklin in October 1723 when he walked past the Reed home on Market Street one morning. Franklin had just moved to Philadelphia from Boston to find employment as a printer. In his autobiography, Franklin recalled that at the time of their meeting, he was carrying "three great puffy rolls". As he had no pockets, Franklin carried one roll under each arm and was eating the third. Reed (whom Franklin called "Debby") was standing in the doorway of her home and was amused by the sight of Franklin's "...most awkward ridiculous appearance." A romance soon developed. Unable to find appropriate living accommodations near his job, John Reed allowed Franklin to rent a room in the family home. Reed and Franklin's courtship continued and, in 1724, Franklin proposed to Reed. However, Reed's mother Mary would not consent to the marriage, citing Franklin's pending trip to London and financial instability. Reed and Franklin postponed their marriage plans and Franklin traveled to England. Upon arriving in London, Franklin decided to end the relationship. In a terse letter, he informed Reed that he had no intention of returning to Philadelphia. Franklin subsequently became stranded in London after Sir william Keith failed to follow through on promises of financial support.
Reed was then persuaded by her mother to marry John Rogers, a British man who has been identified variously as a carpenter or a potter. Reed and Rogers were married on August 5, 1725 at Christ Church, Philadelphia. The marriage quickly fell apart as the "sweet talking" Rogers could not keep a job and had incurred a large amount of debt before their marriage. Four months after they were married, Reed left Rogers after a friend of Rogers visiting from England told Reed that Rogers had a wife in his native England. Reed refused to live with or recognize Rogers as her husband. While the couple were separated, Rogers spent Reed's dowry, incurred more debt, and used the marriage to further his own schemes. In December 1727, Rogers stole a slave and disappeared. Soon after, unconfirmed reports circulated that Rogers had made his way to the British West Indies where he was killed in a fight. In his autobiography, Franklin also claimed that Rogers died in the British West Indies. John Rogers' true fate has never been proven.
Despite his previous intention to remain in London, Franklin returned to Philadelphia in October 1727. He and Reed eventually resumed their relationship and decided to marry. While Reed considered her marriage to her first husband to be over, she was not able to legally remarry. At that time, Province of Pennsylvania law would not grant a divorce on the grounds of desertion. She could neither claim to be a widow as there was no proof that Rogers was dead. If Rogers returned after Reed legally married Franklin, she faced a charge of bigamy which carried the penalty of thirty-nine lashings on the bare back and life imprisonment with hard labor. To avoid any legal issues, Reed and Franklin decided upon a common-law marriage. On September 1, 1730, the couple held a ceremony for friends and family where they announced they would live as husband and wife. They had two children together: Francis Folger "Franky", who died of smallpox at the age of four, and Sarah "Sally". They also raised Franklin's illegitimate son william.
political affairs that would eventually lead to the establishment of the United States. In 1757, Franklin embarked on the first of numerous trips to Europe. Reed refused to accompany him due to a fear of ocean travel. While Franklin stayed overseas for the next five years, Reed remained in Philadelphia where, despite her limited education, she successfully ran her husband's businesses, maintained their home, cared for the couple's children and regularly attended Quaker Meeting. Franklin returned to Philadelphia in November 1762. He tried to persuade Reed to accompany him to Europe, but again she refused. Franklin returned to Europe in November 1764 where he would remain for the next ten years. Reed would never see Franklin again.
In 1768, Reed suffered the first of a series of strokes that severely impaired her speech and memory. For the remainder of her life, she suffered from poor health and depression. Despite his wife's condition, Franklin did not return to Philadelphia even though he had completed his diplomatic duties. In November 1769, Reed wrote Franklin saying that her stroke, declining health and depressed mental state were a result of her "dissatisfied distress" due to his prolonged absence. Franklin still did not return, but continued to write to Reed. Reed's final surviving letter to Franklin is dated October 29, 1773. Thereafter, she stopped corresponding with her husband. Franklin continued to write to Reed, inquiring as to why her letters had ceased, but still did not return home.
On December 14, 1774, Reed suffered a final stroke and died on December 19. She was buried at Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia. Franklin was buried next to her upon his death in 1790.