The Skeletons in Benjamin Franklin’s Basement

LONDON, 1998 – Renovators were working on turning Benjamin Franklin’s ambassadorial abode in London into a museum and stumbled across a shocking discovery: over 1200 human bones had been buried in a pit in the basement.

It was quite a fright for the renovators and conservationists doing repairs on 36 Craven, the house. In a pit one meter wide by one meter deep, more than 1200 pieces of bone were found: over a dozen bodies, six of which were children. Each of the bones dated back to Franklin’s day.

This raised some scary questions for the historical community. Why on earth were there skeletons in Benjamin Franklin’s basement? What was he doing with them? Did he kill the people himself? All of these were plausible questions, especially upon the first shock of such a find. Benjamin Franklin was the Grand Master of Masons of Pennsylvania– an influential member of the Masonic society at the time. Was it all part of some dark ritual, or secret experiment?

Well, it turned out the latter was actually true, but not in the way you might think.

During Benjamin Franklin’s time, in the 1700s, the Church and most people in general thought of anatomical study as a taboo. Not much was known about the human body because disections of cadavers were actually illegal. It was almost impossible to come by a steady supply of human bodies for dissection and study.

Benjamin Franklin had a student at the time- his best friend, William Hewson, an anatomy and science student. It’s likely that the pair were conducting secret, illegal dissections of pawned bodies in Benjamin Franklin’s basement.

Many of the skeletons have fractures and precise nicks and cuts that were most likely made from medical instruments. It’s likely that Hewson was turning to either grave robbing or professional “resurrection men” to acquire specimens for his experiments. Creepy, but plausible. It was a good place to set up shop. The only people going in of that house were Benjamin Franklin, Hewson’s best friend and teacher, and the landlady, who was his mother-in-law. There was a convenient wharf at one end of the street, where bodies could be smuggled in to and picked up from, and the basement of the building had a dirt floor. Hewson wouldn’t even need to go through the risky business of smuggling the bodies out. He just needed to bury them in the basement.

It’s likely that Benjamin Franklin was quite aware of his student’s illegal studies in his basement, but experts say he probably wasn’t involved. At least we can rest, relieved, in the knowledge that one of American’s Founding FathersĀ probably wasn’t a serial killer.