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That Time They Found Those Bodies in Ben Franklin's Basement

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Bob Krist/CORBIS

From 1757 to 1775, Ben Franklin lived in an elegant four-story Georgian house at No. 36 Craven Street in London during his time as an ambassador for the American colonies. In late 1998, a group calling itself Friends of Benjamin Franklin House began to convert the dilapidated building into a museum to honor Franklin, whose other home in Philadelphia had been razed in 1812 to make way for new construction (a "ghost house" frame now sits on the site).

One month into the renovations, a construction worker named Jim Field was working in the basement when he found something odd: a small pit was in a windowless basement room. Inside, sticking out of the dirt floor, was a human thigh bone.

The police were called and supervised excavation continued. More human bones were pulled up. And more. And more, until some 1,200 pieces of bone were recovered. Initial examinations revealed that the bones were the remains of 10 bodies, six of them children, and were a little more than 200 years old. Their age discouraged any interest from Scotland Yard, but piqued the curiosity of historians and the Institute of Archaeology. The bones' age meant they may have been buried in the basement around the same time that Franklin was living in the house.

The Doctor Did It

Did America put a serial killer on the $100 bill? Almost certainly not. Continued study of the bones revealed that some of the bones had been sawed through. Others bore the marks of a scalpel. A few of the skulls had been drilled into. The evidence pointed not to murder by Franklin, but anatomical study by his friend William Hewson.

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

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

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

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

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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