Benjamin Franklin was one of the best-known and well-loved of America’s Founding Fathers. Franklin’s brilliance and wit caused him to excel in almost every area of human understanding. He left his mark as a philosopher, scientist, inventor, statesman, and humorist. Was he also a mass murderer?
For nearly twenty years prior to American independence, Franklin lived at 36 Craven Street in London, England. He was officially there in a political capacity, but his always-active mind also sought answers to scientific mysteries. He left this address in 1776 to return to Pennsylvania and support the growing independence movement.
Over 200 years later, workers were conducting repairs on Franklin’s old London residence. As they did so, they discovered something rather peculiar and terrifying: human remains. In a secret, windowless room beneath the garden, excavators uncovered over 1,200 pieces of bone. When analyzed, forensic scientists concluded the bones belonged to fifteen bodies, six of whom were children. The bones were dated to the time that Franklin lived at the home.
Did one of the most important and influential men of the 18th century have a dark secret? Was Benjamin Franklin a mass murderer? Could the American Revolution have been staged as a convenient way to cover up the bloodthirsty killing spree of the man who discovered electricity?
As it turns out, Franklin undoubtedly had secrets, but they weren’t quite as nefarious as one might think. Franklin’s friend and protege William Hewson was a student of medicine and anatomy. He made use of Franklin’s house for an anatomy school for others who wished to unlock the secrets of the human body. The lessons had to be conducted in secret since in Franklin’s time, anatomy lessons were a dark, ethically ambiguous business. With studies of anatomy still in their earliest stages, society looked with disapproval at anything that hinted at disturbing the eternal slumber of those who have passed from this earthly life. Hewson and others like him were left with no choice but to obtain their object lessons through grave digging or by paying grave robbers to unearth human remains.
Researchers think that 36 Craven was an irresistible spot for Hewson to establish his own anatomy lab. The tenant was a trusted friend, the landlady was his mother-in-law, and he was flanked by convenient sources for corpses. Bodies could be smuggled from graveyards and delivered to the wharf at one end of the street, or snatched from the gallows at the other end. When he was done with them, Hewson simply buried whatever was left of the bodies in the basement, rather than sneak them out for disposal elsewhere and risk getting caught and prosecuted for dissection and grave robbing.
According to the curators of the museum that now operates at the location, Franklin was probably aware of the illegal studies going on in his building, but it’s doubtful he was personally involved. Given the inquisitive nature of his brilliant mind, however, it is not difficult to imagine the great man taking an occasional peek at the fascinating studies taking place just below his home. He once said, “A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.” Perhaps he meant to punctuate that sentence a little differently to suggest that every good home needs food, fire, and a body, too.
Read more fun facts about Benjamin Franklin.
Read about the attempts to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln.