Why Were Skeletons Buried in Ben Franklin’s Basement?

In 1998, over 1,200 bone fragments were discovered in the basement of the London townhouse where Benjamin Franklin had lived during the mid-1700s.
In 1998, over 1,200 bone fragments were discovered in the basement of the London townhouse where Benjamin Franklin had lived during the mid-1700s.

Tampering with dead bodies was outlawed throughout the Middle Ages, even in the name of furthering our understanding of human health and anatomy. In 18th-century Britain, it had become more acceptable to use human bodies for scientific study, although only if the cadavers had been executed murderers. There often weren’t enough bodies to go around, so anatomists turned to body snatchers known as "resurrectionists" for corpses to study.

What does this have to do with Benjamin Franklin, one of America's most famous Founding Fathers? Well, beginning in 1757, Franklin lived at 36 Craven Street in London while serving as a diplomat. Some 240 years later, during construction to make the house into a museum, at least a dozen bodies were found in the basement, buried in a secret room under the garden. But before you jump to sinister conclusions about an American icon, historians theorize that Franklin’s close friend, William Hewson -- an early anatomist and the son-in-law of Franklin's landlady-- had been working in secret at Franklin's home at the time. There's no evidence that Franklin was involved, although it's likely he was aware of Hewson's activities.

The bones in the basement:

  • “The most plausible explanation is not mass murder, but an anatomy school run by Benjamin Franklin’s young friend and protege, William Hewson,” reported The Guardian.

  • More than 1,200 human bones and skeleton fragments were found at the site. The bones, which have been carbon-dated to Franklin's era, came from at least a dozen bodies, six of whom were children.

  • The house on Craven Street was perfect for corpse deliveries, with a wharf at one end and a gallows at the other. Historians say Hewson probably buried the bones on site rather than risk getting caught disposing of them elsewhere.

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    • In 1998, over 1,200 bone fragments were discovered in the basement of the London townhouse where Benjamin Franklin had lived during the mid-1700s.
      In 1998, over 1,200 bone fragments were discovered in the basement of the London townhouse where Benjamin Franklin had lived during the mid-1700s.