Was Benjamin Franklin a serial killer?

When in 1998 an organization called the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House decided to restore the house that Franklin had occupied while he was the American ambassador to England, workers discovered a trove of about 1200 human bones buried in the basement.

Initial reports said the bones were from the remains of more than 15 bodies — six of them children. Some of the bodies were dismembered, or with trepanned skulls (skulls with holes drilled through them).

The bones were dated to be just over 200 years old, which would mean they were buried around the same time Franklin lived in the house. So where did the bones come from? Did Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, kill people and hide their remains in his London basement or could there be another answer to this creepy story?

While Franklin was undoubtedly the most colorful and unconventional figure involved in the story of the American revolution and had many parts to his character, being a scientist, humorist, atheist, early abolitionist, philanderer, heavy drinker, and Freemason, the bones are more likely the result of his scientific interests.

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 Fathers probably wasn’t a serial killer.

But we’ll never know for sure will we?


  1. Jenora Feuer says

    Given Franklin’s documented interests in medicine, as well as his preference for scientific principles (he commented at one point about people who came to him for ‘cures’ he’d heard about while in Europe, how the people he’d treated would feel better for a couple of days and then go back to how they were before, and speculated that the ‘cure’ didn’t do anything at all and just the exercise and fresh air was the actual cause of the temporary improvement)… yeah, I expect that not only was Franklin aware, he probably approved.

    Franklin’s also pretty well documented as an early advocate of vaccination, even more so after the death of his son from smallpox.

  2. says

    Maybe I’ve become overly cynical, but I wonder if they were all already dead or -- this being the early US and one of these people being one of the founders -- some of them may have been living slaves who were experimented on.

  3. DonDueed says

    Tabby, this all took place in London. There were no slaves involved, and there’s no reason to think that the subjects were anything but cadavers.

  4. bmiller says

    DonDueed: That’s what the Deep State (eerrrrrrrr, The Masons) want us to think!

    More seriously and off-topic, the Jeffrey Epstein situation is major creepy. Even the wackiest conspiracy theories (massive ring of sexual predators, political big wigs involved) sometimes have a grain of truth?

  5. says

    We have to look forward, not back. If Franklin was involved, he was a man of his time -- we can’t judge what we don’t know. Besides, isn’t cannibalism a form of self-expression? Political correctness is running amok here!

  6. jrkrideau says

    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 dissections of cadavers were actually illegal.
    This may have been true in 3th C Rome.

    In 18 C Europe, total Bullshit. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3162231/

    It might have helped if the author of that piece of crap knew a bit about medical history. There may have been a shortage of bodies ( my father served as a graveyard guard before WWI to protect against grave robbers) but there was nothing particularly illegal about human dissection in the 18th C.

    No idea about the bones in the traitror’s basement. I just dislike total historical ignorance

  7. says

    So if it wasn’t anatomy, what was it?

    There is a Dan Brown thriller here, about the meeting between Franklin and De Sade.

    I have trouble with the idea thay Franklin would be studying anatomy and there was not a mention or a sketch or a journal. Franklin’s opsec was terrible.

  8. RationalismRules says

    @Marcus Ranum #9
    It’s worth having a look at the clip I linked to above. it wasn’t Franklin studying the bodies, it was a young anatomist he was mentoring (his landlady’s daughter’s fiancée).

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Jenora Feuer @ # 1: Franklin’s also pretty well documented as an early advocate of vaccination, even more so after the death of his son from smallpox.

    Earlier in his life, Franklin took the other side, mocking (in print) the vaccination program organized by Puritan firebrand Cotton Mather -- which, long story made short, led to his fleeing Boston and becoming a citizen of Philadelphia. Offhand, I can’t think of any other case where a scientist (to be) got it wrong and a hyperChristian preacher got it right.


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