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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 Š 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
"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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Gazette Last modified 8/25/98