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The Bodies in Ben Franklin’s Basement

 

Hewson had been a student of the anatomist William Hunter until the two had a falling out and Hewson broke away to continue his studies on his own. Anatomy was still in its infancy, but the day’s social and ethical mores frowned upon it. Dissection of human bodies was prohibited by law A steady supply of human bodies was hard to come by legally, so Hewson, Hunter, and the field’s other pioneers had to turn to grave robbing — either paying professional “resurrection men” to procure cadavers or digging them up themselves — to get their hands on specimens.

Researchers think that 36 Craven was an irresistible spot for Hewson to establish his own anatomy lab. The tenant was a trusted friend, the landlady was his mother-in-law, and he was flanked by convenient sources for corpses. Bodies could be smuggled from graveyards and delivered to the wharf at one end of the street, or snatched from the gallows at the other end. When he was done with them, Hewson simply buried whatever was left of the bodies in the basement, rather than sneak them out for disposal elsewhere and risk getting caught and prosecuted for dissection and grave robbing.

How involved was Franklin, then? No one knows for sure. As far as the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House will speculate, Franklin could have known what was going in the house, but didn’t participate. He was, after all, more interested in physics than medicine. It’s also possible that he wasn’t using the house during the dissections and had no idea this was happening. The Friends have found some evidence that Franklin let Hewson have use of the whole house for a while and lived up the street with the landlady during that time.

The year Franklin left England and returned to North America, Hewson fell victim to his scientific pursuits, accidentally cutting himself while dissecting a putrid body and dying from an infection.

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