In 1998, conservationists were doing repairs on 36 Craven, looking to turn Franklin’s old haunt into a museum. “From a one metre wide, one metre deep pit, over 1200 pieces of bone were retrieved”—remnants of more than a dozen bodies, says Benjamin Franklin House. Six were children. Forensic investigations showed that the bones dated to Franklin’s day.
Franklin was a noted revolutionary and powerful freemason—the Grand Master of Masons of Pennsylvania—so it’s easy to wonder what dark secrets Franklin may have hidden in his basement chamber. But the truth, it turns out, isn’t quite so dark.
During his time as an ambassador for the American colonies, Ben Franklin lived an elegant lifestyle. He stayed in a four-story Georgian house at No. 36 Craven Street in London between the years of 1757 and 1775. Centuries later, in 1998, a group known as Friends of Benjamin Franklin House started to convert the run-down building into a museum to honor Ben Franklin. His other home located in Philadelphia had been destroyed in 1812 to make way for new construction. There is a “ghost house” frame that now sits on the site.
One month into the work on the house, a construction worker named Jim Field was working in the basement when he found something very strange; a small pit in the windowless basement room. After investigating the pit further, Field found that there was a human thigh bone sticking out of the dirt floor.
Immediately the police were called and a supervised excavation continued. To their surprise, even more human bones were pulled out until they had around 1,200 pieces of bone recovered from the site. The initial examinations on the bones found that they were the remains of 10 bodies, six of them were children, and they were more than 200 years old. The age discouraged any further interest from Scotland Yard, but it sparked curiosity with historians as well as the Institute of Archaeology. The age of the bones meant that they could have been buried in the basement around the same time that Franklin was living in the house.When the bones were discovered, there were some people who began to wonder if Franklin had lived a secret double life as a serial killer. Of course that wasn’t the case. And continued study of the remains showed that some of the bones had been sawed through. Others had the mark of a scalpel.
There were even some of the skulls that had been drilled into. The proved that the findings did not show that Franklin was a murderer, but instead they were the remains of anatomical studies performed by his friend Willian Hewson.
Hewson was a student of anatomist William Hunter until they had a falling out and Hewson decided to continue his studies on his own. Anatomy was still a very new subject at the time, and there were many who frowned upon the practice at the time, saying that it was immoral to study corpses. To make matters worse, it was difficult to come by a steady supply of human bodies legally, so Hewson, Hunter and other pioneers in the field of Anatomy had to turn to robbing graves in order to perform their work.
They would either pay a professional “resurrection man” to provide them with cadavers, or dig the bodies up themselves in order to get their hands on various types of specimen.
Historians believe that Franklin’s residence at 36 Craven was the ideal spot for Hewson to establish an anatomy lab. He was friends with Franklin and the landlady was his mother-in-law.He was also provided with a convenient source of corpses since bodies could be easily smuggled from graveyards and delivered to the wharf at one end of the street. Or they could be taken from the gallows at the other end. When he was finished with each corpse, Hewson would bury the remains that he had left in the basement, instead of sneak them out for disposal at another location. He didn’t want to risk the chance of getting caught and prosecuted for dissection and grave robbing.No one knows for sure how much or how little Franklin was involved in his friend’s lab. As far as the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House believe, he could have known what was going on inside the house, but didn’t participate. Franklin was more interested in physics than medicine after all.It is also possible that Franklin wasn’t using the house during the time that the testing was going on and that he had no idea it was happening. The Friends have found some evidence that Franklin allowed Hewson to use the whole house for a while as he lived up the street with the landlady during that time.When Benjamin Franklin left England and returned back home to North America, Hewson fell victim to his scientific pursuits. He accidently cut himself while he was dissecting a corpse and later ended up dying from an infection.
· First apprenticed at 12 as a printer to his brother James, he established a successful printing house, founding Poor Richard’s Almanac, celebrated for its aphorisms
· He was elected to the colonial assembly, but his invention of the Franklin stove led him to turn to researching electricity in 1746
· His work established the distinction between positive and negative electricity, and showed that lightning and electricity are the same. He was among the first to advocate lightning conductors
· He is credited with discovering the path of storms across North America, the direction of the Gulf Stream and the properties of colours in absorbing light
· In 1764 he was sent to England to dispute the right of parliament to tax America without representation. In 1775 he was a founding father who helped draft the Declaration of Independence
· In signing the declaration he warned colleagues: “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall surely all hang separately.”
· He negotiated the French arms and money which enabled the colonists to win the war of independence. Franklin also negotiated the treaty which ended it
· He retired from public life in 1788 but in 1790, the year of his death, invented bifocal spectacles
The house has survived flooding, fire, rot, and the second world war bomb which demolished the two houses opposite it in the narrow street, with most of its original features battered but intact, including handsome panelling, window shutters and staircase – and the frame for the metal damper which Franklin designed, and did install in the troublesome back room fireplace.