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Bones in the Basement
of Franklin's London Digs

We're sure there's no connection between the e-mail we sent to a group called the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House and the subsequent addition to their Web site. After all, we were only trying to find out a little more about an item we had seen in a church newsletter about some bones being found in the basement of 36 Craven Street in London, where Franklin lived from 1757 through 1774.
    Having been tipped off to that item by an alert alumnus this past spring, we poked around a little and eventually made our way to the Friends' Web site -- www.rsa.org.uk/franklin/ -- which was full of information about Franklin's London residence and the group's recent efforts to restore it. But there was nothing, alas, about the sort of skull-diggery we were after. So we sent an e-mail, stating our journalistic interest in the house and its restoration, and asking if anyone knew anything about those old bones. We never got an answer.
    Then, weeks later, we decided to make one last visit to the Web site -- and there, on the Benjamin Franklin Centre's home page, was a brand new red-and-black hyperlink: !Stop Press! Bones found at No. 36 !Stop Press!
    So we stopped, and we clicked, and found ourselves reading about how enough money had finally been raised to start the repair-work needed to prevent No. 36 from collapsing. Then we hit pay dirt: "This work, which started in late 1997, has led to the discovery of the remains of 10 bodies hidden beneath the floor of the basement. The remains, 200-year-old bones, were buried at the time Franklin was living in the house. As most of the bones show signs of having been dissected, sawn, or cut with one skull having been drilled with several holes, the supposition is that they were the results of illegal medical experiments."
    Stop the press, indeed. Enter one William Hewson, husband of Mary "Polly" Stevenson, the daughter of Franklin's landlady. "In the early 1770s, Dr. Hewson was in partnership with William Hunter who, with his brother John, was one of the founders of surgery in England. After a dispute with Hunter was resolved, with the help of Franklin, Hewson is believed to have established a rival school and lecture theatre in the Stevenson house." And there, in the basement, according to a Westminster coroner, Hewson apparently buried those "anatomical specimens" -- a prudent move, since the corpses had undoubtedly been obtained by illegal grave-robbing.
    "The discovery is seen as providing an important insight into a time when significant developments were beginning to take place" in surgery, the Web site notes. "As someone who helped Polly and Hewson, Franklin can be seen as part of that history. There is, of course, no suggestion that Franklin was a grave robber or a participant in the lectures." Whew.
    Franklin did serve as representative for the Pennsylvania Assembly and chief agent for the American colonies (a function not unlike that of ambassador) during his 17 years at 36 Craven Street; he also invented bifocal glasses and watertight bulkheads for ships and entertained such figures as Edmund Burke, James Boswell, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine. The house, between what is now Charing Cross Station and Trafalgar Square, is the only still- standing residence of Franklin in the world, having barely survived years of neglect and German bombs in World War II. Recently, the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House joined forces with the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, & Commerce (of which Franklin was a member) to raise money for the restoration.
    Hewson, incidentally, died in 1774 (the year Franklin left London), having contracted septicaemia when he cut himself while dissecting a partially decomposed corpse. He was 34 years old.
    "Franklin continued to support the widowed Polly, who ultimately followed him to America," the Web site states. According to the University Archives and Records Center, both of her sons went to Penn: William Hewson, C1788, G1791, and Thomas Tickell Hewson, C1789, G1792. Thomas, like his father, became a doctor.

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/25/98