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?