Full EpisodeBen Franklin's Bones

When skeletal remains of at least 10 people, including several infants, turned up in the basement of Benjamin Franklin’s British residence, people wondered if the Founding Father might have had a much darker side, as the bones had been meticulously cut and drilled. Franklin was aware of the bodies in his basement, but they weren’t the victims of violent acts. Rather, they were used for the purposes of an illegal anatomy school that helped shaped modern medicine.

Production Credits Print

NARRATOR
JAY O. SANDERS

DIRECTOR 1
KATE THOMAS-COUTH

EDITOR
SIMON PEARCE

CAMERA
CHRIS VILE
ALEX HOLDEN

ASSISTANT PRODUCER
CRIS WARREN

PRODUCTION COORDINATORS
RYAN EVANS
LAURA SUNNUCKS

PRODUCTION TECHNICAL COORDINATOR
MATT WADDLETON

PRODUCTION MANAGER
REBECCA LEE

DIRECTOR OF PRODUCTION
ANDIE CLARE

COLORIST & ONLINE EDITOR
CHRIS GUNNINGHAM

DUBBING MIXER
JONATHAN JENKINS

MUSIC
AUDIO NETWORK

POST PRODUCTION
FILMS AT 59

ARCHIVE
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
THE ROYAL SOCIETY
WELLCOME LIBRARY, LONDON

LOCATIONS
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN HOUSE
BART’S PATHOLOGY MUSEUM
CHARLES WESLEY’S HOUSE, BRISTOL
THE SCHOOL OF PHYSICS, UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL

SPECIAL THANKS
BATH AND BRISTOL NUMISMATIC SOCIETY
CHRIS BAILEY

SERIES OPEN AND ADDITIONAL GRAPHICS

DESIGNERS
DAVID CHOMOWICZ
BOBBY CHANG
ADAM HELFET-HILLIKER
CURTIS STILES
RAFAEL TRUJILLO
FELICIA VAN OS

SERIES OPEN AND ADDITIONAL GRAPHICS
PRODUCER
MARGI KERNS
EDITOR
JAY SLOT
MUSIC
JIM HEFFERNAN
MICHAEL MONTES

For THIRTEEN

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT
BENJAMIN PHELPS

COORDINATING PRODUCER
STEPHANIE CARTER

For THIRTEEN

BUDGET CONTROLLERS
LAURI STRANEY
SUSAN BARTELT

EDITOR
MICHAEL WEINGRAD

AUDIO MIXERS
JON BERMAN
NEIL CEDAR

EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS, ICON FILMS
OWEN GAY
HARRY MARSHALL

EXECUTIVE IN CHARGE
STEPHEN SEGALLER

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
STEVE BURNS

© 2015 THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

THIS PROGRAM IS A PRODUCTION OF ICON FILMS AND THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC FOR WNET, WHICH ARE SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR ITS CONTENT.

Transcript Print

COMM In 1997 a builder digging in the basement of a London townhouse makes a grisly discovery.... the bones of not one but dozens of bodies.

Detective Inspector Jim O’Connell (retired)
Metropolitan Police Service - New Scotland Yard
I was very aware that it could be a major crime scene.

COMM The house is Benjamin Franklin’s. What went on at 36 Craven Street, the home of a Founding Father?

Dr. Paul Knapman
Coroner, City of Westminster (retired)
Could it be that that Benjamin Franklin was involved with murder? I mean, we didn’t know and we had to find out.

COMM Franklin had lived in London, England at a time when the pursuit of science and the activities of the criminal underworld collided.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian

They could literally make a killing off the dead.

Dr. John Troyer
Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath
It was just absolutely disgusting.

Dr. Simon Chaplin
Head of The Wellcome Library

All that mattered was that the body was dead.

COMM What does one of America’s most iconic figures have to do with the bones in the basement?

COMM In December 1997 work was being carried out on an elegant Georgian town house in the heart of London - 36 Craven Street – a property that was once the home of Benjamin Franklin. In the intervening years many others had lived there but now it was undergoing extensive renovation to transform it into a museum dedicated to Franklin’s life. Then in the basement one of the builders made a shocking and gruesome discovery. As he dug into the ground he unearthed what appeared to be a pit - a pit filled with human bones. He found first one bone, then another and another. There appeared to the bones of not just one person but several. Who were the victims? Had he unearthed the work of a serial killer? The police were called.

Detective Inspector Jim O’Connell (retired)
Metropolitan Police Service - New Scotland Yard

When I actually looked at the bones, er which were in the back of the property, my initial reaction was what have we got here? I had never seen bones in a house like this before. I saw what I believed to be the remains of more than one person, certainly one skull and a number of major bones of the body. Spoke to the builders; they were a little bit shocked, a little bit apprehensive one of them was with us. I would say in my 30 years in the police service this is the first private address I have been to where there have been bones found actually concealed in the property and I thought I need to get some expert advice here and that is what we did, we called on a local coroner to come and give us some assistance.

COMM It would be the coroner’s job to determine if foul play had taken place at Craven Street and if so, when.

COMM Building work was immediately halted and the site shut down. Coroner, Dr Paul Knapman was called to the house.

Dr. Paul Knapman
Coroner, City of Westminster (retired)
It is the duty of a coroner to investigate all violent, unnatural, suspicious deaths and also where the cause of death is unknown. And this the actual basement, of course now it is all nice and clean but at the time you must imagine that this is a building site, we had debris, we had mud and stones and everything like that, and here’s the pit, this is the actual pit.

COMM Dr Knapman noticed something intriguing about this macabre collection of bones.

Dr. Paul Knapman
Coroner, City of Westminster (retired)
These are some of the bones that were actually found. Here for example is a femur but the curious thing here it’s been cut across. Why is that, that is not usual? Similarly here is a skull and the skull has been cut across there, I mean absolutely sawn.... so it is perfectly clear that these have been interfered with.

COMM The sight of these bones rang alarm bells. A few years previously the story of serial killers Fred and Rosemary West had shocked the British public. The bodies of several women had been found buried in the basement and grounds of their home in Gloucestershire. Between them the couple were charged with 22 counts of murder.

Dr. Paul Knapman
Coroner, City of Westminster (retired)
So where were we here, was this a similar sort of case? Were we dealing with murder?

COMM Against this dark backdrop it was vital to establish how old the bones were. Dr Knapman had them sent away for specialist testing and the results completely changed the nature of the investigation – the bones dated back more than a century.

Dr. Paul Knapman
Coroner, City of Westminster (retired)
Now if they are a hundred years old or more then there is no possibility of any living person being charged with a murder or anything like that so to that extent the coroner isn’t so involved and neither are the police. But these were very unusual circumstances, I mean there was a possibility that there had been a murder several hundred years previously, we didn’t know so we continued to actually try and find out what had happened here.

COMM Whatever had happened in the basement at Craven Street it had become an historical case and the finger of suspicion was now pointing to occupants of the house more than a century earlier. The task of dating the bones more specifically fell to archaeologist Professor Simon Hillson. He’s a specialist in the biology and history of human remains. To do this he had to go the basement of Craven Street himself...

Professor Simon Hillson
University College London
Professor Simon Hillson:
It really was quite poorly lit, there was no lighting really in the house and when I got down there I saw this, this hole. The builders wanted to finish off in the basement in a weeks’ time so initially we were given one week to do this small but very complicated excavation. I was very clear all the time this was an important building, but at that point I was keeping an open mind, just to try and understand what the assemblage was.

COMM Professor Hillson excavated the site layer by layer, unearthing hundreds of bones. He also discovered numerous items of pottery and glass. These would be pivotal in dating the bones. Carbon dating isn’t accurate enough for bones that are just a few hundred years old, so the key was to date these items. Tests revealed that the fragments were from the mid 1700’s – the very time Benjamin Franklin lived at Craven Street. Could the unthinkable be true – could he have had something to do with the pit of bones?

COMM Between 1757 and 1775 Benjamin Franklin lived and worked in the very heart of Georgian London. He was the first person to represent Pennsylvania and later the British colonies of Massachusetts, Georgia and New Jersey as a lobbyist to the British Parliament.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House Benjamin Franklin was certainly the most famous colonial of his day and his role here in London was strategic.

COMM By day he attended to matters of politics meeting with the leading figures of the age.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House He worked tirelessly during this period to try and effect reconciliation between the interests of the crown and the interests of the colonies.

COMM But what did Ben Franklin do at night? He threw himself into his other passions of philosophy, science and invention.

Keith Moore
Head Librarian, The Royal Society
Benjamin Franklin was curious about the world and he operated in it as a gentlemanly scientist.

COMM When he finally left London he became one of the most important figures in history – a Founding Father of a newly independent America. But now almost 250 years after his departure the discovery of the bones in the basement threatened to sully the great man’s reputation….

COMM The press began to speculate about suspected crimes carried out at the house.

Dr. Paul Knapman
Coroner, City of Westminster (retired)

The whole thing was bizarre, here was a house that had been occupied by Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of America and we’ve got bones that have been cut across and everything like that. Could it be that Benjamin Franklin was involved with murder? I mean we didn’t know and we had to find out.

COMM But surely a man of Franklin’s stature could not be implicated?
Franklin’s early career was spent in Philadelphia where he established a successful printing business. During his 40’s he turned his attention to his passion for politics and scientific research and by 1757 had moved to London as a diplomat. At that time the nation was the epicentre for a spate of scientific and philosophical advances which captured his imagination. In 1752 he’d won world-wide fame when he proved that lightening was not an act of God but in fact electricity.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House
Franklin was passionate about science. He was intellectually curious and there was no subject that didn’t pass his attention. He was here in London pursuing experiments related to electricity, he looked at better ways to make clocks and improve bifocal lenses, he even created a flexible steel catheter for his brother.

COMM And he tried to find a cure for the common cold.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House
He believed that you needed to let out the stale air and let in the fresh air, here in his rooms at Craven Street he supposedly took an air-bath where he sat around without his clothes for a time each day and had the windows wide open so that he could take in the fresh air. Franklin thought that science could really help people and he was always looking at ways to improve life for himself and for others.

COMM But what possible connection could Franklin have to the bones? Could he have been experimenting on corpses for some reason, or trying to link the properties of electricity with medicine? Perhaps the bones themselves could provide clues. Professor Hillson uncovered more bones which bore the same cut marks observed by the coroner.

Professor Simon Hillson
University College London
So these are some of the leg bones from the site, there are lots of parts of the limbs, most of them have cut marks on them, these are saw cuts; you can see the marks of the teeth running across it, it seems to have been done in one go. This is the top of an adult skull and it’s been cut off using a saw, we can tell it is a saw because of the scratch marks on the teeth and also it was a straight saw, they took several cuts.

COMM One fact was clear from the bones – these bodies had been cut up after death.

Professor Simon Hillson
University College London
All of these must be post mortem because they haven’t healed. If a bone is cut or broken and then heals then new bone grows over and so we can certainly tell if a break took place sometime before death.

COMM Among the bones was an even more unsettling find - the remains of a new born baby.

Professor Simon Hillson
University College London
This is from the back of the head and in a little baby it is made up of 4 different pieces.

COMM The tiny bones he uncovered made up an almost complete skeleton of the infant.

Professor Simon Hillson
University College London
We really don’t know who the child was or why it ended up in there.

COMM Professor Hillson made another extraordinary discovery - the human bones were mixed in with animal and bird remains.

Professor Simon Hillson
University College London
This was something different – this was a jumbled collection, what we call co-mingled assemblage, and it was clearly different to a regular cemetery.

COMM Amongst the animal bones were those of some exotic creatures, including those of a Green Sea Turtle...

Professor Simon Hillson
University College London
These for example are the arm bones, the humerus which are very very distinctive, I recognised what I was dealing with the moment I saw them in the ground. The exciting thing was to find not only the turtle but also mercury sitting in association with it. It is quite strange in an excavation to find something that moves when you are trying to dig it up and I actually had to chase it through the ground with a plastic spoon. Very strange to see free-flowing running mercury in the ground during an excavation, I’ve never seen it before or since.

COMM The presence of the mercury and the turtle was a tantalizing find but for the moment its significance would remain unresolved....In total Professor Hillson unearthed 1700 animal bones and 2,000 fragments of human bone and teeth - the remains of an estimated 28 people. But who was responsible for this grim stash of bones? Could Ben Franklin really have been involved? To determine this, the investigation had to eliminate all the occupants of the house at that time.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House
In a sense the house here at Craven Street functioned as the first de facto American Embassy because Franklin was visited by anyone and everyone calling in from the colonies. Franklin officially rented 4 rooms in the house although he was said to be less a lodger than the head of a household living in serene comfort and affection. He kind of over-ran the place, he even had a cat.

COMM The house belonged to a widow named Margaret Stevenson and her daughter Mary - known as Polly. With Franklin’s wife Deborah and his daughter Sally remaining in Pennsylvania, this house became Franklin’s home for almost 16 years.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House
When Franklin came to this house he was very warmly received and kind of found a surrogate family similar to what he had left behind in Philadelphia. His wife Deborah was afraid of crossing the ocean so it was said and his daughter Sally remained as well so by coming into this house he was able to have the best of everything really, because he was in such an exciting place, but also had this kind of important private life.

COMM But it appeared there was another notable resident of 36 Craven Street. A young doctor called William Hewson also lived at the house. Who was he and was there a connection between him and the pit of bones? William Hewson had moved from the north of England to London to further his medical career. 10 years after his arrival, while visiting friends on the English coast, he met a woman who would change his life.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
William Hewson met a young woman named Polly Stevenson and she was the daughter of Margaret Stevenson. Polly was always described as being an unusually intelligent woman, so Franklin and Polly had a very close relationship, she was a dear friend of his, he considered her somewhat of a second daughter.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House
Polly writes a letter to him letting him know that she has met someone quite special and Franklin writes back feigning jealousy but then goes on to say that he must be someone rather extraordinary if she’s taken an interest in him.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
William and Polly were married at St Mary Abbot’s Church on July 10th of 1770 and Franklin actually played a very large role in the ceremony. He was given the honour of walking Polly down the aisle and he at the end signed their wedding certificate for their marriage.

COMM Franklin and Hewson became friends but also kindred spirits – they were both swept up by the powerful intellectual principles of what was referred to as the Age of Enlightenment.

Keith Moore
Head Librarian, The Royal Society
The Enlightenment was an age of reason and trying to be rational about Man’s affairs and understanding the universe and it celebrated the individual.

COMM At the heart of this movement was the Royal Society, an influential organization that dated back to the 1600’s. It aimed to develop science for the benefit of humanity. The great thinkers of the day congregated here to demonstrate their work. This place would provide another tangible link between Franklin and Hewson.

Keith Moore
Head Librarian, The Royal Society
We have here the greatest autograph book in the world. This is the Royal Society’s Charter Book. It contains the founding document of the organisation from 1662 and the signatures of all of the Royal Society’s fellows, the greatest scientists in the world. You’ll see here we have the greatest of them all, this is Sir Isaac Newton, he was elected in the 1670’s and he signed the volume right there. On this page we have the discoverer of oxygen Joseph Priestley, very important figure for Enlightenment chemistry. Here we have the astronomer William Herschel, the man who discovered the planet Uranus and ushered in a whole new era of planetary science. Most importantly here we have Benjamin Franklin, the greatest experimental scientist of this period. These were all individuals who made significant impacts on late 18th century science.

COMM Then in 1769 Franklin was one of a group of Fellows who proposed a new member should join the society.

Keith Moore
Head Librarian, The Royal Society
On this page we have the signature of William Hewson, and it is not just Benjamin Franklin who supports him into the fellowship but it’s a range of his peers and really what they are saying is here was a man who was a great scientist, he deserved to be in this book with the rest of science and really when you think about it this is between these two boards a history of science over 350 years.

COMM But Hewson was no ordinary physician. He practiced an art that aimed to investigate the inner workings of the human body by peeling it back layer by layer....Hewson was an anatomist.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
Hewson entered the scene of anatomy at a really ideal crossroads; this was a time that they were looking at practical dissections as an art of teaching and instead of just researching these things and reading about them there was much more of a hands-on approach to medicine and science.

COMM So did the activities of William Hewson hold the key to the gruesome discovery at Craven Street? Perhaps the bones were not the result of murders but were in fact anatomy specimens. The pit of bones held a vital clue.
Hewson had conducted extensive research into the human lymphatic system and his detailed findings were recorded by leading anatomical artists of the day. But to earn his place in the Charter Book he’d gone a step further giving a ground-breaking lecture at the Royal Society.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
Now, up until this point it was believed that humans had a lymphatic system but Hewson really set out to prove that this existed in other species as well.

COMM His subject took everyone by surprise – it wasn’t human at all – it was a Green Sea Turtle.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
Now one of his most ingenious experiments took place with a dead turtle and Hewson basically injected mercury into the turtle and watched how it went through the lymphatic system.

COMM Could the turtle in Hewson’s experiment be the very same one Professor Hillson had discovered in the pit of bones?

Professor Simon Hillson
University College London
This is some of the bones of the shell of the turtle. And one of the fascinating things was there was a little bead of mercury actually resting inside the bone of the shell and it’s exciting because it’s a very clear association with Hewson, the find of mercury in association with the bones of a turtle.

COMM This was a dramatic turning point in Professor Hillson’s mission to find the source of the bones at Craven Street. He now had compelling proof they were the work of William Hewson and that the human bones also had to be connected to him. Was Benjamin Franklin now off the hook?
As an anatomist Hewson was breaking new ground in medical research, but his endeavors required a vital component ….human corpses to dissect. But where did they come from? To answer this we have to delve into a gruesome and disturbing world – a world where those at the very forefront of scientific endeavour in the mid 18th century rubbed shoulders with London’s criminal underworld.

COMM Dr Lindsey Fitzharris is an expert in mid 18th century medicine and surgery.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris:
People died from all kinds of things in the 18th century which we just don’t die from today like smallpox, consumption, typhus, and of course you could die from really simple things like a broken leg or a broken arm. If that arm or leg had to be amputated you could die of blood loss, you could die of shock or post surgical infection, so it was a really dangerous time to live. Medicine wasn’t hugely advanced and of course the understanding of the body was very different than how we understand the body today, so for instance, people believed that sickness was caused by an imbalance in humours, you were often blood-let to cure yourself. Some of the stranger treatments were electric shock therapy, mesmerism or hypnosis, mercury treatments, you could be purged which was very unpleasant as well. Of course we know today that probably those treatments did more harm than good.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
Hewson was a man of the age and he was very much involved in pushing the boundaries of modern science and medicine. This was a time that medicine was becoming much more of a professional science, and it was moving away from more of the medieval quackery that had been previously established.

COMM But to advance the science of medicine Hewson had to enter a world that was illegal and unsavoury.
Historically surgery was regarded by physicians, as a lowly activity – little more than manual labour. Its practitioners, unlike physicians who went to university, had no formal qualifications. They were known as Barber Surgeons.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
So when you enter a barber shop today, you go in for a shave you go in for a haircut, but of course there was a time when barbers did a lot more than that. They used to pull teeth, they used to pick lice from the hair, they lanced boils and they’d do some minor surgical procedures. This really started because monks in the medieval period weren’t allowed to spill blood so the barbers sort of took over from that. They would go into the monasteries and give the monks haircuts and they’d also perform these minor surgical procedures.

COMM If men like Hewson were to elevate surgery from these primitive methods then they would have to understand the inner workings of the body... but there was a problem. Dating back to the era of Henry VIII the only people who could legally dissect bodies were universities and the Company of Barber Surgeons. But in 1745 the Barber Surgeons disbanded providing a new opportunity for ambitious young physicians like Hewson.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
At that point surgery starts to become more professionalised and the surgeons themselves separate from the barbers and the barbers start to just deal with hair, fingernails, those kinds of things

COMM In this new climate as many as 20 private anatomy schools were set up across London in the second half of the century.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
And so what happens is all these private anatomy schools pop up to give medical students the opportunity to learn anatomy by dissecting their own cadaver.

COMM However, up until this time the only bodies legally available to the Barber Surgeons had been those of hanged murderers.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
People really feared dissection in the 18th century because they had a real literal vision of the resurrection of the body rising after death and everything had to be in its place. So the idea of being anatomised was really horrible because your body was dispersed or kept in containers and it wasn’t kept all together. And in fact you get these really poignant letters of criminals before they die on the scaffold and they’re writing letters to their family begging them to come to their execution to claim their bodies lest they fall into the hands of the surgeons and be mangled and torn apart, and it’s really awful, I mean they actually feared the dissection almost more than they feared the death itself.

COMM But anatomists needed many more bodies than the gallows could provide. With no legal means of acquiring them they were forced to turn to the criminal underworld. Their pursuit of knowledge would fuel a dark and clandestine profession – body snatching. Grave robbers assumed a twisted name stolen from the Christian Church – they became known as “Resurrectionists”. Operating under the cover of night and armed with crowbars and shovels they scoured burial grounds and graveyards and plundered bodies from freshly dug graves to supply the eager anatomists. Dr Simon Chaplin is an expert in the Resurrectionists’ underground activities.

Dr. Simon Chaplin
Head of The Wellcome Library
This is Bun Hill Fields in the centre of London one of the last surviving 18th century burial grounds. Today it is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city in the 18th century it was far more peaceful and quiet. It also had the other thing that Resurrectionists wanted – bodies and lots of them. Pauper’s graves where bodies were laid out in rows, easy picking for the Resurrectionists.

COMM But the Resurrectionists needed to move swiftly to avoid being caught.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
People really hated dissection, they hated the idea of it and they certainly hated the idea of their loved ones being dug up without them knowing and being brought to the dissection table.

Dr. Simon Chaplin
Head of The Wellcome Library
Quite often family members would gather around a graveyard they knew to have been desecrated and if the Resurrectionists were caught they could expect to be hounded by the mob.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
You get stories from towns and villages where it would be discovered that a body had been stolen and all of the relatives would come to the cemetery and dig up the graves of their loved ones and take the coffins home with them until the cemetery could be made secure.

COMM To make the process as efficient as possible the Resurrectionists developed specific techniques to get the bodies out of the ground as quickly as possible. Historian Dr. John Troyer has studied the activities of the Resurrectionists. Using this representation of a grave he’s going to explain their methods.

Dr. John Troyer
Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath
The grave robbers had a very good system, it was very efficient, it was very fast. They would take a shovel, so like a spade and they would cut the cut the grave in half this way, mark it out, and they would dig the dirt out from the top half of the grave, just to get to the top of the actual coffin, this part here, would be the head of the deceased person. They were so fast some of them they talked about being able to do it in about 8 minutes. And then they would put down the shovel, and then they would pick up some kind of blunt instrument like this, like a pick axe, and what they would do is crack into it and then once that was opened they would grab something like this rope, sometimes the rope had a hook on it but oftentimes they would just loop it, put the rope down in the grave around the neck of the deceased and they would pull it tight to pull the person out.

COMM The practice was repugnant, but the law governing the stealing of a body from a grave was surprising.

Dr. Simon Chaplin
Head of The Wellcome Library
The truth was in the 18th century you couldn’t own a body and therefore stealing a body wasn’t a crime, stealing the shroud that the body was wrapped in, stealing the coffin, taking grave goods, trespassing in a graveyard , they were all crimes.

Dr. John Troyer
Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath

Dr. John Troyer:
What they wanted was the body itself so that’s what they took, so they would take off the rings, take off the jewellery put it back in, cover it with dirt, and then they would be on their way.

Dr. Simon Chaplin
Head of The Wellcome Library
Quite often nobody would be any the wiser as to whether a body had been removed. The grave would be filled in smoothed over and made to look good so a lot of the body snatching went on without anyone ever knowing about it.

Dr. John Troyer
Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath
You did have to be tough, you had to be willing to deal with rather gruesome situations, particularly if you cracked open a coffin and the person had been dead for too long, so could have been a real decomposing body, or a body that died of small pox, there could have been any number of reasons that it was just absolutely disgusting.

COMM The early anatomists need for bodies drove this underground industry and it became a highly lucrative business.

Dr. Simon Chaplin
Head of The Wellcome Library
All that mattered to a Resurrectionist was that the body was dead. Child, adult, old, young, diseased or healthy it made no difference, they could sell every body they got to the anatomists.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
The Body Snatchers could literally make a killing off the dead. They could make as much as 10 guineas per body – which was 20 times the weekly wage of a silk weaver in the East End of London. Certainly there were bodies that were worth more than others, for instance if it showed an interesting pathology, if there was a deformity that was very obvious to the body snatchers, a pregnant woman would fetch a huge amount. So body snatchers would be very excited if they came across something that was unusual.

COMM And this was an industry that was as cut-throat as it was lucrative...

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
I like to think of the body snatchers as the gangs of New York, they are always fighting each other and trying to come up with ways of undermining one another.

Dr. Simon Chaplin
Head of The Wellcome Library

If a body snatcher knew that a surgeon was buying from somebody else he might deliberately try and bring down the authorities on that surgeon rather than the body snatchers, dumping a body outside his house for example so that it might be discovered by his neighbours and cause a hue and cry, these were the kinds of tactics that Resurrectionists engaged in.

COMM But as skilled as the body snatchers were, sometimes the law caught up with them.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
Well people were certainly prosecuted but the punishment was relatively low in comparison to how much money could be made, so you may end up in jail for a couple of months, but during that time a lot of anatomists also continued to pay the families of the body snatchers left behind.

COMM These activities seem far removed from the high ideals of the men of the Enlightenment like Benjamin Franklin; so how did his friend and fellow scientist William Hewson become embroiled in this dark, clandestine world and what involvement did Franklin have?

COMM Hewson had first arrived in London in 1757 to study at the renowned anatomy school of William and John Hunter. He moved into lodgings at the school and became their apprentice. His job was to prepare the specimens that would be used for lectures given by William Hunter one of the most progressive surgeons of the day. Bart’s Pathology Museum in London houses some of the very specimens created during the late 18th century.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
These specimens were typical of what Hewson would have been making as an anatomist and you have all kinds of wonderful examples of diseases in here. For instance you have a human heart and chances are this person died of a heart attack and again the surgeon wouldn’t have been able to do anything to prevent this heart attack necessarily because they couldn’t have done internal surgery but by studying this specimen they’d understand the causes of the heart attack. You also have examples of diseases that people just don’t die from today, so for instance here you have gallstones, and of course people still get gall-stones, they get kidney stones they get urinary stones, but we can remove them a lot more effectively, but in the past people died from this all the time, and if you note the stones are quite large, and that had a lot to do with the 18th century diet.

COMM Hewson created thousands of specimens like this to be used during the anatomy lectures and instruction. By stripping away the human body to reveal its organs, blood vessels and bones, anatomists came to understand how the body worked.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
Hewson wouldn’t have just had wet specimens in his collection he would have had dry specimens as well, and quite a few skeletal remains. This is a great example of rickets which was caused by a vitamin D deficiency, and you can really see the curvature of the bone here and having a specimen like this would have taught anatomists about the condition, about the consequences of the vitamin D deficiency – and it was a very common condition in the 18th and 19th centuries.

COMM But there was no escaping the unsavoury nature of this kind of medical investigation.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
This is an example of a dry specimen and as you can see the body’s been shellacked and it’s a great teaching tool for the vascular system. But it is also the body of a child. For me this is a very poignant specimen because we don’t know where the child came from, the child was likely body snatched. Of course the anatomist needed specimens like this to learn about anatomy but also this was a real person this was a real child who died. And medicine owes a huge debt to these people who were dissected in the 18th and 19th centuries.

COMM By 1771 Hewson was making a name for himself as an anatomist. He was now a fellow of the Royal Society, married to Polly and a great friend of Benjamin Franklin. But after ten years of working alongside William Hunter the two men had a very public falling out. Forcing Benjamin Franklin to intervene.

Dr. Simon Chaplin:
Head of The Wellcome Library He even mediated in a dispute over who owned the preparations, the preserved body parts that Hewson and Hunter had made together.

COMM Franklin was busy with his demanding diplomatic role between the British government and the American colonies but still felt compelled to help his friend resolve this issue.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
He wrote many letters back and forth to the two trying to understand their sides of view. He ultimately wrote an agreement with the purpose of, you know, preventing this quarrel but ultimately it didn’t work and the two continued to fight.

COMM Hewson had had enough and he and Hunter parted company. Polly along with Hewson and their young son returned to her family home, 36 Craven Street. Now, without a job Hewson decided to build his own anatomy theatre. The perfect location, the back of the house. Craven Street it transpired was ideally situated. Tyburn – the infamous gallows where public hangings were conducted was just half a mile away. At the end of the street was Hungerford Dock, where dead bodies from ships could be acquired. Situated behind the house was a Graveyard.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
It meant that body snatchers could bring in bodies from the docks, from the workhouses, from the graveyards very efficiently... could bring them through the back door and into his anatomy school.

COMM Hewson would give lectures and conduct anatomy classes with the students who joined his new school, but conditions were far from the clinical standards we expect today.

Dr. Simon Chaplin:
Head of The Wellcome Library 18th century medical schools were noisome, smelly, messy places.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian
These bodies would have been in advanced states of decomposition in some cases. A body literally begins to decompose the moment it dies and gasses build up in the gut, things start to liquefy quite quickly. The other thing is that if a corpse was on the table, until you open up that corpse you might not realise how advanced the decomposition was until that point so for instance the anatomist Hewson might open up a body and find that the internal organs have already liquefied and that there is really no purpose in going any further with the dissection.

Dr. Simon Chaplin:
Head of The Wellcome Library The anatomists and his students had to inure themselves to the smell and to the experience of working on these decomposing bodies.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian Well it was William Hunter who said that a person had to have a necessary inhumanity in order to perform dissections and to perform surgeries and I think that that really captures exactly what was going on with these medical students, you did have to overcome something in yourself when you first saw that dead body laid out and you had to cut into it.

COMM All the remains uncovered by Professor Hillson in the pit of bones bear the marks of dissection and the work being conducted by Hewson and his students at the Craven Street school....

Professor Simon Hillson
University College London
Taking the top of the skull off is one of the classic things that is done at a post mortem, what happens is they cut straight down through the rest of the skull, so the skull is in two halves and students can see the arrangement of all the different bones inside. The brain would literally have been lifted out presumably in their hands. We don’t have the rest of this particular skull, I don’t think we have any other pieces that match up, so we don’t really know whether this was the first thing they did when they made the dissection. They were supplied with different parts at different times and it’s perfectly possible this was just a head.

COMM But what of Benjamin Franklin – did he know the extent of what was going on in Hewson’s anatomy school?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian I think it would be very unlikely that he’d be unaware I mean just considering the smells alone, of being so close to a dissection room.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House

He certainly knew about the anatomy school that was here. Franklin knew everything that was going on, on Craven Street and he would have been very interested in Hewson’s experiments.

Dr. Paul Knapman
Coroner, City of Westminster (retired)
It must be the case that he knew what was going on. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, there were doctors there, there were surgeons there, and he was a man who, you know, asked a lot of questions, he was a polymath, so he was bound to know.

COMM But why would such an important diplomatic figure have condoned not just the gruesome activities within the anatomy school but also the lengths that men like Hewson had to go to, to acquire bodies?

Keith Moore
Head Librarian, The Royal Society
It wasn’t particularly pleasant but it was necessary and if you wanted to understand people’s bodies and help in improving the human condition, which is one of the great missions of science, you have to understand things before you can make them better.

Dr. Simon Chaplin:
Head of The Wellcome Library What comes out in the 18th century are advances in the understanding of anatomy, the structure of the body, understanding physiology, how the body works, and understanding pathology, what disease looks like in the body. All of these things contribute to a better understanding of how the body works. The other big difference it makes of course is to surgery - it leads to advances in the practice of surgery, specific operations, but more generally it breeds a group of surgeons who are confident when it comes to wielding the scalpel because they have practiced on dead bodies, when it comes to operating on live patients, they know exactly what they are doing.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian These are instruments from Hewson’s period, they would have been used both for surgery as well as for dissection. Here you have various amputation knives. It was really important for them to learn how to do this on dead people, on cadavers in the dissection theatre while they are not struggling or screaming out in agony or bleeding. So you have an example there, you also have the bone saw and one of my favourite instruments in this collection is this tiny little bone saw and this would have been used to amputate fingers or toes.

Dr. Simon Chaplin
Head of The Wellcome Library We know that when a surgeon operates on us or when a doctor sees us, they have been taught anatomy, that wasn’t always true. It was through the work of people like William Hewson that anatomy as we understand it today came to become part of medical education. Someone like Franklin would have been appreciative of the kind of knowledge that was being created through dissection and through experiment.

COMM Hewson himself made significant medical advances. He discovered the lymphatic system existed not just in humans but also amphibious creatures and birds. He isolated fibrinogen as a key protein in the coagulation of blood. And he identified the true shape of red blood cells.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
Before this they had been known as globules and they were thought to be spherical in nature. But Hewson used the microscope to look at them and said “why no they’re flat as a guinea”. So for all of these amazing accomplishments, Hewson is currently known today as the Father of Haematology.

COMM Hewson’s school provided him with a thriving business to support his growing family. His classes were very popular and pupils paid up to 10 guineas for a series of courses. By 1774, two years after establishing his venture, Franklin’s friend and protégé was considered a great success.
But then tragedy struck. While dissecting a body Hewson cut himself. He developed a fever and fell gravely ill.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
Five days later he called his wife to his bedside and he said “take care of our children, I must bid you farewell” and then he actually ended up developing septicaemia and he passed away on the 1st of May.

COMM Hewson was just 34 years old.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical Historian It doesn’t surprise me that Hewson dies this way because there are other examples of anatomists or students dying of septicaemia when they cut their hand accidentally during a dissection. Of course there’s no real concept of bacteria or germs at this time.

COMM Franklin was devastated by the news that this talented young man and close friend had died.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House
One of the saddest letters that Franklin writes from Craven Street is about the death of William Hewson to his wife Deborah.

Benjamin Franklin VO “Our family here is in great distress. Poor Mrs Hewson lost her husband and Mrs Stevenson her son in law. He was an excellent man, ingenious, industrious, useful and beloved by all that knew him. She is left with two young children, and a third soon expected. He was just established in a profitable growing Business, with the best Prospects of bringing up his young Family advantageously. They were a happy Couple! All their Schemes of Life are now overthrown!”

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
I just love this letter because in the first line it talks about “our family here is in great distress” and this just goes to show how close Franklin was with the Hewsons, he had a great deal of respect for Hewson and was deeply affected by his death.

COMM This personal tragedy coincided with a crisis in Franklin’s own political career. Reconciliation between Britain and the colonies was not going to be achieved and Franklin’s role as a mediator was becoming impossible as he realised much of America wanted independence. He decided he needed to leave England and return home.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House
I think he does leave London with a very heavy heart. This was such an exciting place for him to be. He had great friendships here and he had worked so long to achieve something that in the end he couldn’t make happen.

COMM Franklin’s time in London came to an end but his relationship with Craven Street wasn’t over. He left Britain to make history – dedicating his life to establishing America as an independent nation first as a diplomat in France and later when he returned to Philadelphia. But despite this crucial work he didn’t completely leave Craven Street or Polly behind - a new chapter began.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
After Polly’s mother passed away in 1783 Benjamin Franklin wrote her a letter and invited her to come to Philadelphia to be his neighbour. In 1786 Polly decided to move her family to Philadelphia and there they remained.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House
Polly became a kind of daughter to him and so it’s only natural that he would want her to be with him in Philadelphia after the end of hostilities. When Franklin dies in 1790 Polly is in Philadelphia and supposedly comes to his bedside and all her descendants become American because of Franklin.

COMM But Franklin’s legacy went further, he encouraged Polly and William’s second eldest son, Thomas, to follow in his father’s footsteps. He became a prominent physician.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
Now since William Hewson there have been 5 more generations of Hewson physicians. I am very proud to say that I am a direct descendant of William and Polly. I am currently in my last year of studying medicine and I am very excited to be continuing this legacy within the Hewson family.

COMM Melissa Hewson and her father Ted have collected a large amount of archive relating to the Hewson family history dating back to William and Polly.

Ted Hewson & Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
Ted: This was marriage certificate between William Hewson and Polly, signed by Benjamin Franklin
Melissa: Isn’t that incredible and I think that just goes to show how close he was with them during their marriage. And then these are multiple letters that were written, this is actually an original letter written in William Hewson’s writing. This is an original that was written to Mr William Hewson, it says teacher of anatomy at Craven Street. Now this was the first edition of Hewson’s research to be published. It talks about his research on the blood, on the lymphatics, we were just talking about how he injected mercury into the dead turtle and this is an illustration of that.
Ted: As far as physicians he was just one of many in the Hewson lineage, from certainly William, to Thomas, Adinel, Adinel Jr, William and James...and Melissa’s as well right?
Melissa: In one year
Ted: And coming...Melissa!
Melissa: Ha ha, first female.
Ted: I will have to expand that frame.
Melissa: Second red head!

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
As a small child I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather about these amazing men of medicine. Hearing these stories certainly created in me a desire to study in the field of medicine and I have to say when I get married I don’t think I’ll ever be able to change my professional name. Being called Dr. Hewson on a daily basis will continue to remind me of how truly amazing it is to bear the Hewson name.

COMM The bones at Craven Street are symbolic of a remarkable chapter in medical history. The macabre activities of the body snatchers belie the important work that was done to create a profession based on science, logic and evidence.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
The Hewson family just loves the story of the Craven Street bones. And I have to say it’s the type of story that we tell again and again around the dinner table with friends. So it’s a very unique story to have attached to our name, and we just love it.

COMM But it’s also given us an insight into to the life and character of Benjamin Franklin.

Keith Moore
Head Librarian, The Royal Society
I think the Craven Street bone pits are part of Franklin’s story, yes, I do think that the material there is a window on a particular time and place, and it really says that science was important and necessary.

Dr. Simon Chaplin
Head of The Wellcome Library
I think the discovery of the Craven Street bones reveals just how tightly Franklin was enmeshed in the medical and scientific world of 18th century London. And it was through that cross fertilisation of ideas bringing together someone who was an entrepreneur, a philosopher, together with physicians and surgeons that led to such great advances in human knowledge.

Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Director, Benjamin Franklin House
We get a kind of three for one deal with Benjamin Franklin House, we get the incredible character of Benjamin Franklin, we get a beautiful Grade 1 simple Georgian building, and we also get the roots of medical history with the Craven Street bones.

COMM But this is a deeply personal story too, it shines a light on the relationship Benjamin Franklin had with the people he considered a second family. By bringing Polly and her children to live near him Franklin created one of the first true American families, arriving as they did in the newly independent America.

Melissa Hewson
Medical Historian
So I have to say that every time the Hewson family comes to see Franklin’s grave, it’s a very special moment for us, our family is just filled with deep emotion of gratitude. We look at Ben Franklin and we see someone who’s responsible for bringing us where we are today and I think that’s just an incredible history.