Secrets of the Dead


Ben Franklin's Bones

When skeletal remains of at least 10 people turned up in the basement of Benjamin Franklin’s British residence, people wondered if the Founding Father might have had a much darker side. 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.

AIRED: January 28, 2015 | 0:54:40

NARRATOR: Coming up on "Secrets of the Dead"...

I saw what I believed to be the remains of more than one person.

NARRATOR: Hundreds of bones found in a London basement.

MAN: Here was a house

that had been occupied by Benjamin Franklin.

NARRATOR: But was Franklin himself

responsible for these grisly remains?

Scientists dig into the truth

and reveal the dark underbelly of early medicine.

Body snatchers could bring in bodies from the docks,

from the graveyards, and into his anatomy school.

NARRATOR: "Ben Franklin's Bones" on "Secrets of the Dead."

NARRATOR: A builder digging in a basement in London

makes a grisly discovery.

The bones of not one but dozens of bodies.

I was very aware that it could be a major crime scene.

NARRATOR: Benjamin Franklin called this townhouse home

for more than 15 years.

What went on at 36 Craven Street,

the home of a founding father?

Could it be that Benjamin Franklin

was involved with murder?

I mean, we didn't know, and we had to find out.

NARRATOR: Benjamin Franklin lived in London

at a time when the pursuit of science

and the activities of the criminal underworld collided.

They can literally make a killing off the dead.

It was just absolute disgusting.

All that mattered was that the body was dead.

NARRATOR: What does one of America's most iconic figures

have to do with the bones in the basement?

In December 1997, work was underway

at an elegant Georgian townhouse in the heart of London.

36 Craven Street, where Benjamin Franklin lived

while representing the American colonies.

In the intervening centuries,

countless others have lived there,

but now it was undergoing extensive renovation

to transform it into a museum dedicated to Franklin's life.

But as one of the builders dug into the basement foundation,

he made a gruesome discovery.

He unearthed what appeared to be a pit

filled with human bones.

He found first one bone, then another and another.

It appeared there were bones belonging

not just to one person but several.

Had he unearthed the work of a serial killer?

The police were called.

When I actually looked at the bones, which were

in the back of the property,

my initial reaction was, "What have we got here?"

I've 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.

I 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 services,

the first private address I've 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's what we did-- we called on a local coroner

to come and give us some assistance.

NARRATOR: It would be the coroner's job

to determine if foul play had taken place at Craven Street,

and if so, when.

Building work was immediately halted

and the site shut down.

Coroner Dr. Paul Knapman was called to the house.

[Knocking on door]

KNAPMAN: It's the duty of a coroner

to investigate all violent, unnatural, suspicious deaths

and also where the cause of death is unknown.

And this is the actual basement.

Of course, now, I mean, it's 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.

NARRATOR: Dr. Knapman noticed something intriguing

about this macabre collection of bones.

KNAPMAN: 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's been cut across there.

I mean, absolutely sawn.

So, it's perfectly clear that these have been

interfered with.

NARRATOR: The sight of these bones rang alarm bells.

A few years earlier, the story of serial killers

Fred and Rosemary West

shocked the British public.

The bodies of several women were found buried

in the basement and grounds of their home in Gloucestershire.

Between them, the couple was charged with

22 counts of murder.

So, where were we here?

Was this a similar sort of case?

Were we dealing with murder?

NARRATOR: Against this dark backdrop,

it was vital to establish the age of the bones.

Test results completely changed the nature of the investigation.

The bones were more than a century old.

Now, if they're 100 years old or more,

then there's 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, it 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.

NARRATOR: Whatever had happened in the basement,

it was now a historical case.

And the finger of suspicion pointed to those

who lived in the home more than a century ago.

The task of dating the bones more specifically

fell to archaeologist Simon Hillson.

He's a specialist in the biology and history of human remains.

To perform the tests, he had to go

to the basement of Craven Street himself.

It really was quite poorly lit. There was no lighting, really,

in the house, and when I got down there,

I saw this hole.

The builders wanted to finish off in the basement

in a week's 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.

NARRATOR: Professor Hillson excavated the site

layer by layer,

unearthing hundreds of bones.

He also discovered numerous pieces of pottery and glass.

These artifacts would be pivotal.

Carbon dating isn't accurate enough

for bones that are just a few hundred years old,

so, the key was to date these objects.

Tests revealed the fragments were from the mid-1700s,

the very time Benjamin Franklin lived at Craven Street.

Could the unthinkable be true?

Could a founding father have had

something to do with the pit of bones?

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

at British Parliament.

Benjamin Franklin was certainly the most famous

colonial of his day,

and his role here in London was strategic.

NARRATOR: By day, he attended to politics,

meeting with the leading figures of the age.

He worked tirelessly during this period

to try and effect reconciliation

between the interests of the crown

and the interests of the colonies.

NARRATOR: But what did Benjamin Franklin do at night?

He threw himself into his other passions

of philosophy, science, and invention.

Benjamin Franklin was curious about the world

and he operated in it as a gentlemanly scientist.

NARRATOR: After he finally left London in 1775,

Franklin went on to become 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.

The press began to speculate

about crimes carried out at the house.

KNAPMAN: 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.

NARRATOR: But surely a man of Franklin's stature

could not be implicated.

His early career was spent in Philadelphia,

where he established a successful printing business.

In his forties, 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, England was the epicenter

of scientific and philosophical advances

which captured Franklin's imagination.

In 1752, he'd won worldwide fame

when he proved that lightning was not an act of God

but in fact electricity.

BALISCIANO: 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.

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

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 on

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.

NARRATOR: 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 the coroner observed.

HILLSON: 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's a saw because of

the scratch marks on the teeth,

and also it was a straight saw.

It came--they took several cuts.

NARRATOR: One fact was clear--

these bodies had been cut up after death.

HILLSON: All 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.

NARRATOR: There was an even more unsettling

discovery among the bones--

the remains of a newborn baby.

HILLSON: This is from the back of the head,

and in a little baby, it's made up of 4 different pieces.

NARRATOR: The tiny bones he uncovered

made up an almost complete skeleton of an infant.

HILLSON: We really don't know who the child was,

why it ended up in there.

NARRATOR: Hillson made another discovery--

the human bones were mixed in with animal and bird remains.

This was something different. This was a jumbled collection,

what we call commingled assemblage,

and it was clearly different to a regular cemetery.

NARRATOR: The mixture of animal bones included

some exotic creatures,

like those of a green sea turtle.

HILLSON: These, for example, are the arm bones, the humerus,

which are very, very distinctive.

I recognized 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's quite strange in an excavation to find something

that moves when you're 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.

NARRATOR: The mercury and the turtle were tantalizing finds.

But for the moment, their significance

would remain unresolved.

In total, Professor Hillson unearthed 1,700 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 have really been involved?

To solve the mystery, the investigation

had to eliminate all the occupants

of the house at that time.

BALISCIANO: 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 overran the place. He even had a cat.

NARRATOR: The house belonged to a widow

named Margaret Stevenson

and her daughter Polly.

With Franklin's wife and daughter

remaining in Pennsylvania,

36 Craven Street became Franklin's home

for almost 16 years.

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.

NARRATOR: But it appeared there was

another notable resident of 36 Craven Street--

a young doctor named William Hewson

also lived at the house.

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.

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.

BALISCIANO: Polly writes a letter to him

letting know him that

she's 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.

William and Polly were married at St. Mary Abbots Church

on July 17 of 1770,

and Franklin actually played a very large role

in the ceremony.

He was given the honor of walking Polly down the aisle,

and he, at the end, signed their

wedding certificate for their marriage.

NARRATOR: Franklin and Hewson were kindred spirits,

both swept up by the powerful intellectual principles

of the Age of Enlightenment.

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.

NARRATOR: At the heart of this movement

was the Royal Society,

an influential organization that dated back to the 1600s.

It aimed to develop science for the benefit of humanity.

The great thinkers of the day gathered to demonstrate their work.

This group would provide another tangible link

between Franklin and Hewson.

MOORE: 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 organization 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 1670s

and he signed the volume right there.

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 all individuals who made significant impacts

on late-18th-century science.

NARRATOR: Then, in 1769,

Franklin was one of a group of fellows

who proposed a new member should join the society.

On this page, we have the signature of William Hewson.

And it's not just Benjamin Franklin

who supports him into the fellowship,

but it's a range of his peers,

and really what they're 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.

NARRATOR: 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.

HEWSON: 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.

NARRATOR: 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 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 groundbreaking lecture at the Royal Society.

HEWSON: 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.

NARRATOR: His test subject took everyone by surprise.

It wasn't human at all. It was a green sea turtle.

And 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.

NARRATOR: Could the turtle in Hewson's experiment

be the very same one Professor Hillson discovered

in the pit of bones?

HILLSON: 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.

NARRATOR: 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 result

of William Hewson's work.

Could Benjamin Franklin be ruled out as a suspect?

As an anatomist, Hewson was breaking new ground

in medical research.

And his work required a vital component--

human corpses to dissect.

But where did they come from?

To answer this question, we must delve into a disturbing world.

A world where those at the very forefront

of scientific endeavor in the mid-18th-century

rubbed shoulders with London's criminal underworld.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris is an expert

in mid-18th-century medicine and surgery.

People died from all kinds of things in the 18th century

that 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 leg or arm 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 humors.

So, you were often bloodlet 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.

HEWSON: 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.

NARRATOR: But to advance the science of medicine,

Hewson had to enter a world

that was illegal and unsavory.

Historically, surgery was regarded by physicians

as a lowly activity, little more than manual labor.

Its practitioners, unlike physicians who studied medicine,

had no formal qualifications.

They were known as barber-surgeons.

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'd lance boils, and they'd do some

minor surgical procedures.

This really started because monks in the medieval period

weren't allowed to spill blood, and so the barbers

sort of took over from that,

and they'd go into the monasteries

and they'd give the monks haircuts

and they'd also perform these minor surgical procedures.

NARRATOR: 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,

only universities and the barber-surgeons

were legally sanctioned to dissect bodies.

But in 1745, the barber-surgeons disbanded,

providing a new opportunity

for ambitions young physicians like Hewson.

At that point, surgery starts to become more professionalized,

and the surgeons themselves separate from the barbers

and the barbers start to just deal with hair,

fingernails, those kinds of things.

NARRATOR: In this new climate,

as many as 20 private anatomy schools

were set up across London.

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.

NARRATOR: However, up until this time,

the only bodies legally available to the barber-surgeons

had been those of hanged murderers.

FITZHARRIS: 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 anatomized 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.

NARRATOR: 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 graveyards, plundering bodies

from freshly dug graves to supply the eager anatomists.

Dr. Simon Chaplin is an expert

in the resurrectionists' grisly activities.

CHAPLIN: This is Bunhill Field in the center of London,

one of the last surviving 18th-century burial grounds.

Today, it's 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.

Paupers' graves, where bodies were laid out in rows--

easy picking for the resurrectionists.

NARRATOR: But the resurrectionists needed

to move swiftly.

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.

Quite often, family members would gather round a graveyard

they knew to have been desecrated

and if the resurrectionists were caught,

they could expect to be hounded by the mob.

FITZHARRIS: 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 secured.

NARRATOR: To make the process as quick as possible,

the grave robbers developed specific techniques

to get the bodies out of the ground.

Historian Dr. John Troyer has studied their activities.

Using this representation of a grave,

he explains the resurrectionists' methods.

The grave robbers had a very good system.

It's very efficient, it's very fast.

They'd take a shovel, sort of like a spade,

and they would cut the grave in half this way, mark it out,

and they'd 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'd put down the shovel and they'd pick up

some kind of blunt instrument like this, like a pickaxe,

and what they would do is they would crack into it.

And then once that was opened,

they'd 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'd pull it tight to pull the person out.

NARRATOR: The practice was repugnant,

but the law actually governing the stealing of a body

was surprising.

CHAPLIN: 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.

What they wanted was the body itself,

so, that's what they took.

So, they'd take off the rings, they'd take the jewelry,

put it back in, cover it with dirt,

and they'd be on their way.

Quite often, no one would be any the wiser

as to whether a body had been removed.

The grave would be filled in, smoothed over,

made to look good, so, a lot of the body snatching went on

without anyone ever knowing about it.

TROYER: 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, it could've been a real-- a decomposing body

or a body who died of smallpox.

There could be any number of reasons that it was just

absolute disgusting.

NARRATOR: The early anatomists' need for bodies

drove this underground industry,

and it soon became highly profitable.

CHAPLIN: 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.

FITZHARRIS: 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 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.

NARRATOR: The industry was as cutthroat

as it was lucrative.

I like to think of the body snatchers

as the gangs of New York.

They're always fighting each other

and trying to come up with ways of undermining each other.

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 neighbors

and cause a hue and cry.

These were the kinds of tactics

that resurrectionists engaged in.

NARRATOR: But as skilled as they were,

sometimes the law did catch up with them.

FITZHARRIS: Well, people were certainly prosecuted,

but the punishment was relatively low

in comparison to how much money could be made.

So, you might end up in jail for a couple months,

but during that time, a lot of anatomists

also contained to pay the families

that the body snatchers left behind.

NARRATOR: These activities seemed 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 himself have?

Hewson came to London 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.

Barts Pathology Museum in London

houses some of these 18th-century specimens.

These specimens were typical of what

Hewson would've 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 gallstones,

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.

NARRATOR: Hewson created thousands of specimens like this

for anatomy lectures and lessons.

By stripping away the layers of flesh and muscle

to reveal organs, blood vessels, and bones,

anatomists came to understand how the body worked.

Hewson wouldn't have just had wet specimens in his collection.

He would've 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've 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.

NARRATOR: But there was no escaping

the unsavory nature of this kind of medical investigation.

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's 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 anatomists 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.

NARRATOR: 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 10 years of working alongside William Hunter,

the two men had a very public falling-out,

forcing Benjamin Franklin to intervene.

He even mediated in a dispute

over who owned the preparations,

the preserved body parts

that Hewson and Hunter had made together.

NARRATOR: Franklin was busy as a diplomat

for the American colonies,

but he still felt compelled to help his friend

resolve this issue.

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.

NARRATOR: Hewson had had enough,

and he and Hunter parted company.


He moved with Polly and their young son

into her family home, 36 Craven Street.

Now, without a job, Hewson decided to build

his own anatomy theater.

He found the perfect location-- the back of 36 Craven Street.

The house was ideally situated.

Tyburn, the infamous gallows

where public hangings were conducted,

was just half a mile away.

Hungerford Dock, where dead bodies from ships could be acquired,

was just at the end of the street,

and a graveyard was located behind the house.

It meant that body snatchers could bring in bodies

from the docks, from the workhouses,

from the graveyards very efficiently.

[Knocking on door]

Could bring them through the back door

and into his anatomy school.

NARRATOR: Hewson would give lectures

and conduct anatomy classes with the students,

but conditions were far from the clinical standards

we expect today.

18th-century medical schools were noisome, smelly,

messy places.

FITZHARRIS: These bodies would have been in advanced

states of decomposition in some cases.

A body literally begins to decompose

the moment it dies,

and gases 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 realize

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 had already liquefied

and that there's really no purpose on going any further

with the dissection.

CHAPLIN: The anatomist and his students

had to inure themselves to the smell

and to the experience of working on these decomposing bodies.

FITZHARRIS: 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.

NARRATOR: All the remains uncovered by Hillson in the pit

bear the marks of dissection,

consistent with the work being conducted

by Hewson and his students at the Craven Street school.

HILLSON: Taking the top of the skull off

is one of the classic things that's done at the postmortem.

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've got 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.

NARRATOR: But what of Benjamin Franklin?

Did he know the extent of what was happening

at Hewson's anatomy school?

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.

BALISCIANO: He certainly knew about the anatomy school

that was here.

Franklin knew everything that was going on on Craven Street,

and he would've been very interested

in Hewson's experiments.

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.

He--and he was a man who-- he asked a lot of questions.

He was a polymath, so, he was bound to know.

NARRATOR: But why would such an important figure

have condoned not just the gruesome activities

but also the lengths to which men like Hewson went

to acquire bodies?

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.

CHAPLIN: 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 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've practiced on dead bodies.

When it comes to operating on live patients,

they know exactly what they're doing.

FITZHARRIS: These are instruments from Hewson's period.

They would've 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 theater

while they're 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 favorite instruments in this collection

is this tiny, little bone saw,

and this would've been used to amputate fingers or toes.

We know that when a surgeon operates on us,

when doctor sees us, they've 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.

NARRATOR: Hewson himself made significant medical advances.

He discovered the lymphatic system

existed not just in humans but also in 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.

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 and skinny."

So, for all of these amazing accomplishments,

Hewson is currently known today as the father of hematology.

NARRATOR: 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 protege was considered a great success.

But then tragedy struck.

While dissecting a body, Hewson cut himself.

He developed a fever and fell gravely ill.

5 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 septicemia

and he passed away on the first of May.

NARRATOR: Hewson was just 34 years old.

It doesn't surprise me that Hewson dies this way because

there are other examples of anatomists or students

dying of septicemia when they cut their hand

accidentally during a dissection.

Of course, there's no real concept of bacteria or germs

at this time.

NARRATOR: Franklin was devastated

by the death of this young man, his close friend.

One of the saddest letters that

Franklin writes from Craven Street

is about the death of William Hewson

to his wife Deborah.

MAN AS FRANKLIN: 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's 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.

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.

NARRATOR: This personal tragedy coincided

with a crisis in Franklin's political career.

It became clear that reconciliation between

Britain and the colonies was not possible.

As he began to understand his countrymen's

desire for independence,

Franklin decided he needed to leave London

and return to Philadelphia.

BALISCIANO: 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.

NARRATOR: Franklin's time in London came to an end,

but not his relationship with the Craven Street residence.

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 the Hewsons behind.

A new chapter began.

After Polly's mother passed away in 1783,

Benjamin Franklin wrote her a letter

and invited her to come to Philadelphia

to be his neighbor.

In 1786, Polly decided to move her family to Philadelphia,

and there they remained.

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.

NARRATOR: But Franklin's legacy went further.

He encouraged Polly and William's son

to follow in his father's footsteps.

Thomas Hewson became a prominent physician.

Now, since William Hewson, there have been

5 more generations of Hewson physicians,

and I'm very proud to say that I am a direct descendant

of William and Polly.

I'm currently in my last year of studying medicine

and I'm very excited to be continuing this legacy

within the Hewson family.

NARRATOR: Melissa Hewson and her father Ted

have collected information related to

the Hewson family history

dating back to William and Polly.

TED HEWSON: This marriage certificate between

William Hewson and Polly,

signed by Benjamin Franklin.

MELISSA HEWSON: 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, the lymphatics.

We were just talking about how he injected mercury

into the dead turtle,

and this is an illustration of that.

As far as physicians, he was just one of many

in the Hewson lineage, from certainly William

to Thomas.

Anno. Anno, Jr. William.

And James.

And Melissa's as well, right? [Laughs]

In one year. And coming--Melissa.

[Laughs] First female.

We'll have to expand that frame.

Second redhead. [Laughs]

MELISSA HEWSON: 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.

NARRATOR: 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.

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.

NARRATOR: But it's also provided insight

into the life and character of Benjamin Franklin.

MOORE: I think that 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.

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-fertilization 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.

We get a kind of 3-for-one deal with Benjamin Franklin House.

We get the incredible character of Benjamin Franklin.

We get a beautiful Grade One simple Georgian building,

and we also get the roots of medical history

with the Craven Street bones.

NARRATOR: 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 in Pennsylvania,

Franklin started the Hewson family

on a new path in a new country.

MELISSA HEWSON: 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.

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