Benjamin Franklin's Basement

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Benjamin Franklin—scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, publisher, and philosopher.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
More well-known than any modern "influencer."

You may know him as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States or as a drafter/signer of the United States Declaration of Independence, or perhaps the first United States postmaster general.

Or maybe his experiments with electricity, inventing bifocals, becoming an early abolitionist and the first president of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.

You may know his face from the $100 bill or have heard his name on warships, towns, counties, corporations, or colleges. If you grew up in the US, you probably heard stories of him flying a kite in a storm to invent electricity.

Painting of Benjamin Franklin studying papers.
"Hmm, yes. Wind energy."

He was a prolific writer, including such works as:

Yes, he was known for a lot of things.

But, did you know about the bones in his basement?

I'm talking real human bones—1,200 of them from at least 15 people (6 children) were found in his basement in 1998. Be sure to add to his enormous list of life accomplishments: the most suspicious basement ever.

36 Craven Street, London

You read that right—Craven Street. Ben Franklin lived on Craven Street in London for nearly two decades, leading right up to signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1998, conservationists were repairing the place to turn it into a museum and stumbled across a one-meter pit in the basement that housed 1,200 pieces of human bone. Subsequent forensic investigations dated the bones to Franklin's time in the house.

How did the bones get there? Well, no one really knows because Ole Ben Franklin isn't around to ask, but there's one plausible theory: his roommate, William Hewson, was involved in the black market cadaver business.

William Hewson, the "father of hematology," ran a questionably-legal private anatomy school at 36 Craven Street. Back in the 18th century, anatomy was frowned on, and cadavers weren't easy to come by.

However, the enterprising William Hewson had a solid plan for a steady supply of bodies: grave robbing.

The landlady of 36 Craven street was William Hewson's mother-in-law. Graveyards were nearby, and all he had to do was pay professional "resurrection men" to procure bodies or just pack a shovel for the night and do it himself. After he was done with the bodies, he buried them in the basement instead of dealing with pesky body disposal and the possible repercussions of prosecution for dissection and grave robbing.

William Hewson died at 34 years old after contracting septicemia (sepsis) from—you guessed it—handling a cadaver. Hewson and his colleagues made significant scientific breakthroughs with their little underground operation that may have otherwise taken much longer. He isolated fibrin, an essential protein in blood coagulation. Additionally, he proved the existence of lymph nodes and hypothesized the presence and function of the lymphatic system.

Of course, if you go Googling any of this, you'll find most articles and websites claim that Benjamin Franklin knew nothing about it or that he knew but didn't participate. I have yet to see any actual evidence whatsoever of this theory. I mean, it's not like Benjamin Franklin ever broke the law—like, I don't know, leading a revolution against his own country, Great Britain. You have to ask yourself: if I lived with a guy who regularly brought in cadavers and cut them up in the house, is there any way I wouldn't know about it? And, if I did know about it, would I just pop on Netflix and try to ignore the sound of bone saws, or would I go downstairs to check it out?

Maybe some people are worried about besmirching Benjamin Franklin, but honestly, if he did know what William Hewson was up to and he helped out, it would make him that much more awesome.