Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is considered a great American patriot who signed the Declaration of Independence. But he didn't always live in the United States. He traveled extensively in Europe and lived in London for over ten years. Interestingly, when restoring his London home in 1998, restorers discovered a startling secret in the basement - human remains. Franklin lived and worked at his London home at 36 Craven Street for 16 years before returning to America in 1776. More than two hundred years later, when the house was turned into a museum, an incredible discovery was made. In the basement, a windowless room beneath the garden, lay the remains of 28 human bodies. Analysis of the remains showed they were around 200 years old, meaning they were in the house at the same time Franklin lived there.
They were found by a worker who found a femur about 3 feet by 3 feet sticking out of a hole in the basement. The police continued the excavation and eventually 1,200 bone fragments were recovered from the pit. Six of the remains found were children. In addition, remains of 43 different animal species were unearthed. Many of the bones showed signs of surgical cuts and one skull even had holes. So why would Benjamin Franklin have skeletons in his closet? It is believed that it was not he who did this, but his guest.
Friends of the Benjamin Franklin House, the organisation responsible for the renovation, say they were placed there by William Hewson. A close friend and mentor of a British surgeon and anatomist, Franklin lived in Craven Street for two years. It is believed that he was conducting autopsies in the basement at the time. Hewson was an early practitioner of anatomy, and his need for privacy stemmed from the complicated rules of dissection at the time. The understanding that dissection and comparative anatomy were useful in advancing medicine was more widespread, but the problem was finding cadavers. A law passed in 1752 allowed the autopsy of executed murderers, but there were not enough bodies.
Many faculty turned to grave robbers to fill the need. Interestingly, this was not illegal. According to British historian Ruth Richardson, “technically, exhumation was not a crime of theft; For although dead human bodies were indeed bought and sold, a dead body did not constitute immovable property in the eyes of the law and therefore could not be possessed or stolen.”
Hewson was a lecturer at William Hunter's famous anatomy school, but left after a dispute broke out between the men. After moving in with Franklin, he opened his own anatomy school in the basement where the remains are kept. Evidence of this is the liquid mercury found on turtle bones and the bright red colour associated with dog bones found in the basement. Hewson recorded records of experiments consistent with this evidence. While the bodies in Franklin's basement suggest the Founding Father had dark secrets, the truth isn't so ignominious. While it is likely Franklin knew about the Hewson School, friends of the Benjamin Franklin house believe it is unlikely that he was involved in actual autopsies.