Benjamin Franklin - Founding Father & Serial Killer?
I know what you’re thinking, that this article is something along the lines of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer, but really I’m actually being serious here. Ben Franklin is now being investigated for possibly being a serial killer. It all started in 1998 when a construction worker named Jim Field found something odd jutting out of the dirt in a windowless basement. It was a thigh bone, a human thigh bone, and it was lying in the same London residence that Ben Franklin had been living in on and off between 1757-1775. Suspiciously more bones were found in a little pit down there. In fact 1,200 bones were found and forensic anthropologists working the site told everyone that these were the remains of ten individuals, six of whom were children. Carbon dating suggested they were from the exact period of time Mr. Franklin was living at 36 Craven Street. Who could these people be? And why were they here? Scotland Yard didn’t show any interest in the case as the victims were too old for anyone to need closure for them but they did state that anyone living in the home at the time should be considered a possible serial killer.
This wasn’t the first time that we’ve found skeletons in the closets of our founding fathers but it might be the first time they were actual skeletons. What was Ben Franklin doing in London anyway? Well that’s quite simple, he was acting as a foreign diplomat to ease the relations between the United States and Britain. Ultimately he was asking for aid in helping defend the frontier after the French and Indian War. Britain wasn’t overly thrilled by this and told him they’d love to help out – if he wanted to pay their 10,000 soldiers. Taxation without representation, there were those words again. It could drive anyone mad but could it drive them to murder?
Ben Franklin didn’t live alone while he was in London. He was a smooth ladies man and enjoyed a family-like life with not his wife back in the states but his landlord and the son he brought with him. He lived in the center of an intellectual mecca where many of the well-educated gathered to debate the issues of their day. He was surrounded by scientists, philosophers, politicians, and physicians, none of which were ever able to satiate his own curiosity for life. One of the people who he had become particularly close to was the son-in-law of his landlady, William Hewson. As luck would have it Hewson was a doctor.
Doctors at the time were taught anatomy by watching master surgeons dissect bodies in anatomy labs and surgical theaters. There was a problem with this however. Most of the population at the time were devout Christians who believed that the body could not be desecrated after death without risking the person entrance into heaven. It’s because of this that the only bodies that could be obtained legally were those of murderers who had been hung. Some feared this more than the hanging itself. And the surgeons weren’t 100% happy with this either as there’s just not that many murderers to go around.
Not to be deterred medical colleges still found bodies which were donated by shady individuals on the street. No questions were asked about where these bodies came from and some were murdered themselves, such as in the case of the notorious Burke and Hare. They would lure unsuspecting subjects to their home, saturate them with enough booze for them to pass out, and then smother them with a pillow. A certain Dr. Knox would then receive the bodies without ever knowing. They were caught and eventually memorialized in a catchy children’s song.
“Burke and Hare they were a pair,
Killed a wife and did not care,
Then they put her in a box,
And sent her off to Doctor Knox,
Burke's the Butcher,
Hare's the thief,
Knox is the boy that buys the beef!”
In response to this the law regarding bodies changed. Now instead of just be allotted the dozen or so murderers who were hung every year the medical colleges could have any body that was not claimed within 48 hours. They could now plunder the poor and workhouses. This still wasn’t enough as body snatching was a booming business. People would watch ghoulishly for freshly dug graves, dig them up, and under the cover of darkness deliver the poor dead to the door of whatever medical colleges were nearby. Some mortuaries and grave yards were even in on the business either turning a blind eye or outright selling dead people like they were meat.
So what does any of this have to do with Ben Franklin? As it turns out, maybe nothing. Being the lady-loving man he was he had spent some time living with a woman up the street leaving the house in the care of Dr. Hewson. Could he have been the one dragging in bodies? Indeed the bodies that were found had scalpel marks and drill holes in their skulls. They were very obviously used for anatomical study, but by whom and who else knew about it? Franklin was also a man of great curiosity and was interested in medicine and anatomy at the time. He even set up the first official hospital in the United States. He may have known about these shady dealings or he may not have. I am afraid we can’t prove it one way or another. What is known is that the bodies found in his home are far more likely the victims of grave robbing, with no physical proof of murder showing on their bones, and they were likely obtained by Dr. Hewson who died shortly after Franklin moved back to America when he cut himself during yet another dissection of a rotting corpse giving him the mother of all infections.
Funny enough Franklin isn’t the only public figure to be accused of being a serial killer. Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert was accused of becoming Jack the Ripper in a syphilitic rage. There’s no real proof of this but there is of the Maquis de Sade. He killed numerous prostitutes and because he was filthy and rich he got away with little more than a slap on the wrists, being imprisoned instead for various other “moral crimes.” Who would have ever guessed that the father of the word sadism could have been a serial killer… surprise surprise!
If you enjoyed this article perhaps you'd like to read some more historical excursions by Theophanes: