Benjamin Franklin remains one of the most known of the United States’ Founding Fathers. But, before he became a key figure in the American Revolution and Revolutionary War, he spent much of his time in London, United Kingdom. And not too many years ago it came to light that there were human remains in the house where he lived - from around the time he lived there. Casey Titus explains.

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin from 1767. Portrait by David Martin.

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin from 1767. Portrait by David Martin.

From 1757 to 1775, Benjamin Franklin often resided in an elegant, four-story house at 36 Craven Street in London, United Kingdom. Fast forward 228 years later to 1998 when construction on the historic home began as part of a remodeling project to transform the building into a museum to honor Franklin’s legacy.

Approximately a month into the remodeling, Jim Field, a construction worker was working in the basement of the Franklin home when he came across a gruesome discovery – a thighbone sticking out from the dirt floor. A coroner was called in and confirmed that the bone was in fact, human. The police were also called and further investigation uncovered 1,200 pieces of human bone along with a turtle and other animals. In total, there were ten bodies. Six of those bodies were children. Forensic investigation dated the bodies to be more than 200 years old, roughly the time renowned Founding Father Benjamin Franklin resided in this London home.

As a renowned revolutionary against one of the world’s greatest empires and a powerful freemason – the Grand Master of Masons of Pennsylvania - dark secrets can easily be attributed to the face of
the United States’ $100 bill.

Further forensic investigation of the human remains revealed that some of the bones had been sawed into – they had scalpel marks, while skulls had been drilled into. However, the bones with these clean-cut marks also disclosed no signs of healing. Therefore, the dismemberment of the bodies had occurred after death.

 

Just who did it?

The key piece of evidence of who committed the dismemberment was the mercury in the turtle bones. All of the human and animal remains were linked not to Benjamin Franklin, but a close friend of his by the name of William Hewson. Hewson was an anatomist and the father of hematology. One of his most renowned experiments included injecting a deceased turtle with mercury while recording the element’s travel through the lymphatic system. As a result, Hewson was the first to recognize that animals and humans share a similar lymphatic system.

At the time, conducting autopsies on anyone other than an executed criminal was illegal due to religious fears that a body not fully intact would fail to journey into the next chapter after death. The attempts of anatomists and scientists like Hewson to perform this kind of medical practice had to be performed in secret, and they often resorted to buying deceased bodies from body snatchers and grave robbers.

Benjamin Franklin himself was a scientist and interested in human anatomy. As a result, researchers and an organization called the Friends of Benjamin Franklin found some evidence that Franklin allowed his friend Hewson to conduct secret and illegal autopsies in his London home’s basement. Bodies could be smuggled from graveyards. Then, rather than sneaking the bodies out and disposing of the bodies elsewhere, they buried them in the house to avoid the risk of getting caught and prosecuted for dissection and grave robbing.

 

Franklin & Hewson – What came next?

There is no evidence to suggest that Franklin was involved in the dissections himself though. In 1774, one year before the United States’ most recognized Founding Father left England and returned to the colonies, Hewson’s passionate pursuit of scientific inquiry would cost him his life, accidentally slicing himself while dissecting a corpse and dying of an infection.

Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in the independence and creation of one of the world’s first modern republics, with the help of his inventive writings. He was also a polymath curious about the world around him would go to many lengths for the sake of knowledge, even harboring illegal anatomical experiments in his basement.

 

What do you think of the article? Did Franklin allow these experiments in his home while in London?