Benjamin Franklin

For more than two centuries, hundreds of human bones have rested (in peace) under the London home of Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States. But the secret of these bones is not as terrifying as you might suspect.

As it turns out, the son-in-law of Franklin’s landlady taught anatomy privately in the house at a time when the new field of science was just beginning to grow in England. But this does not mean that the bones were completely innocent: the practice of dissection was not strictly legal back then.

Read more: Ben Franklin: Founding Father, Citizen Scientist

Grim discovery of Ben Franklin’s bodies

The bones were first discovered in the late 1990s, while the Craven Street home was undergoing conservation repairs. Museum staff called in an investigator, said Marcia Balisano, the museum’s director Benjamin Franklin Housemuseum at Franklin’s former residence in the heart of London, but the latter quickly determined that the bones were more than a century old.

It wasn’t entirely surprising. “If you keep digging in London, you can find anything – Roman remains, Viking remains or something like that,” she says.

The researchers then dug a small pit in what is now called the seminar room; in Franklin’s time, however, it was just a small space at the back of the house. The pit, one meter wide and deep, revealed more than 1,200 bone fragments belonging to at least 15 individuals.

But since this is only a small part of the space that would have been in the so-called garden at the back of the house, there are probably many more bones that remain unexcavated.

The Benjamin Franklin House in March 2019 (Credit: William Barton/Shutterstock)

Benjamin Franklin’s house in London

Franklin had been to England before to train as a printer decades earlier. But by the time he moved to London in 1757, he had already retired from printing. Instead, he arrived as agent for the family of William Penn.

“When I come back [to London], his fate was very different,” says Balishanno. “He was one of the most famous colonizers of his time.”

From 1757 to 1775, Franklin was a boarder at the house. He became quite close to Polly, the daughter of his landlady Margaret Stevenson. According to Balischiano, Franklin wrote her “charming letters” whenever either of them traveled.

Polly married William Hewson – an anatomist famous for his discoveries in blood coagulation – in 1770. He studied under William Hunter, famous obstetrician who also lectured on anatomy. The two worked together until they had a dispute over scientific discoveries.

With Franklin’s help, Hewson was eventually elected to the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. “[Franklin] a thought [Hewson] was a polite and promising young man,” says Balishanno.

Franklin also intervened in the scientific dispute between the two scientific phenoms, she continues: “He tried to mediate this dispute between Hewson and William Hunter in order to get some of his preparations and samples back into his possession.”

Was Ben Franklin a serial killer?benjamin franklin’s

Dissection wasn’t fully legal until the 19th century, Balishanno explains. The discipline was growing, but not enough people were teaching the subject.

Therefore, after Hewson married Polly, Franklin encouraged him to set up a private academy on Craven Street. The bones found in the house in the late 1990s are probably the same ones used for educational purposes at this academy.

Many of the bones had distinctive markings on them. The femurs were cut in a specific way, possibly as an aid to teaching amputation students. “It’s a good skill if you’re a surgeon to know how to do these things,” Balishanno says.

Likewise, some of the skulls had cuts that were likely made by a trepanning device, a tool that was used to make circular holes in the skull. At the time, this practice was thought to relieve pressure on the brain. The presence of the skeletons indicates that he studied anatomy, not that he was a serial killer.

A reenactor at the Benjamin Franklin House in January 2007 (Credit: Joseph Somm/Shutterstock)

Benjamin Franklin’s bodies were illegal

Balischano says scars like this support the idea that these bones are likely from cadavers used in anatomy school. Because the practice of dissection was still legally unclear at the time, the bodies may have been acquired in dubious ways, she adds.

The term “resurrectionists” was a euphemism used at the time for grave diggers who could retrieve bodies. Or the anatomists might have colluded with an executioner, she speculated. In any case, it is not entirely clear where these particular human remains would have come from.

Regardless of the dubious provenance of the bones, Balishanno says he believes Franklin was moved by the underlying motive.

“[Franklin] was a champion of science – he supported young researchers and others who could exemplify his passion for knowledge and innovation,” she says. “He probably liked the idea that this scientific work would continue.”

Read more: Cities built on secret graveyards

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