When Ben Franklin was the American colonies ambassador from 1757 to 1775, he lived in London along Craven Street in a four-story Georgian home. In 1998, the Friends of Benjamin Franklin worked to turn the rundown home into a museum to honor him. Franklin’s Philadelphia home was demolished in 1812 so new construction could occur.
Just a month into those renovations, Jim Field, a construction worker, found something odd while working in the basement. What he found was a tiny pit and, up out of the dirt, was a thigh bone… of human origin. Upon the discovery, police were called in to supervise the excavation. Additional human bones were found for a total of 1,200 bones.
Preliminary examinations showed the bones belonging to 10 bodies, six of which were children and dated about 200 years back. While Scotland Yard wasn’t interested in them, because of their age, historians as well as the Institute of Archaeology were highly interested in them. Why? It would mean that Franklin was living in the home at the same time these bones were buried in the basement.
Did Franklin Do It?
Was Franklin a serial killer? Further research on the bones showed that some of them had been sawed through, had scalpel marks or were drilled into. Thus, it wasn’t murder but rather an anatomical study. And, it wasn’t Franklin; it was his friend William Hewson.
Hewson was the student of William Hunter, an anatomist. That is, until the pair had a disagreement and Hewson chose to continue studying on his own. At this point in time, anatomy was in its infancy; but, the ethical and social morals of then didn’t like it. So, it was legally difficult to get a constant stream of human bodies. Thus, Hunter, Hewson and others in this field would rob graves – either digging the corpses up themselves or hiring professionals to do it for them – in order to get their “specimens”.
Researchers believe the 36 Craven Street home was the place where Hewson set up his anatomy lab. Hewson’s mother-in-law was the landlord, the tenant was someone he trusted and he had a number of sources he could turn to for corpses. Bodies were moved from their gravesites and transported to either the wharf on one side or from the gallows on the other side. When through with the corpses, Hewson buried the remaining body parts in the home’s basement instead of trying to dispose of them, which could have ended in legal troubles if he was caught.
Was Franklin involved? The jury is still out on that! Speculation still abounds for the Friends of Benjamin Franklin group. Franklin might have known what was taking place in the home but may not have actively participated in the dissection. After all, Franklin wasn’t as concerned with medicine as he was with physics.
Of course, it is possible that Franklin had no idea about the dissections, as he might have not been in the home when they were occurring. Evidence has revealed that Franklin permitted Hewson to use the home while he lived elsewhere with the landlady.
The year Franklin returned to North America, Hewson died from an infection. It happened after he accidentally cut himself while he dissected a decaying body.