Franklin’s Last Home

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As Anne Keigher, an architect deeply involved with the London house Benjamin Franklin called home for almost 16 years, shows me around it, she points out a supporting pillar in the basement. “This original pier needed new concrete footing poured beneath it, so we were digging down to shore it up,” she says. “That’s when we discovered the bones.”That was on a damp, gray December day in 1997, at the very beginning of the endeavor to restore the world’s only surviving Franklin residence. Work immediately halted so the London coroner could examine the site. Thorough searching yielded some 1,200 bones, which are still being catalogued. Some of them had been sawed. A skull had holes drilled through it. They had been buried when Franklin was living in London.

Does this mean we must add “serial killer” to Benjamin Franklin’s endless résumé?

No. As it turned out, William Hewson, the son-in-law of Franklin’s landlady, had operated a small anatomy school in this same Craven Street building during the 1770s, a time when doctors often relied on shady “resurrection men” for fresh corpses to dissect. After finishing with his specimens, Hewson disposed of them in the back garden. A later expansion of the house turned that garden into basement space. (And the much disturbed dead eventually got their revenge: Hewson died in 1774 from septicemia—blood poisoning—acquired while performing a dissection.)

The University of London’s Institute of Archaeology studied the bones and returned them to 36 Craven Street, which opened to the public as a museum in January, just in time for Franklin’s 300th birthday. The bones are on exhibit to help tell visitors about Hewson and his medical work here. The building’s top floor houses a small research center; on the floor below, children can explore topics close to Franklin’s heart in a science center. On the “Historic Experience” tour an actor playing Polly Hewson, the doctor’s wife, introduces visitors to eighteenth-century London, with help from twenty-first-century audiovisual technology.

“I always have to tease out what’s fact and what’s lore,” says the house’s director, Márcia Balisciano.

From the outside the building looks much as it did in Franklin’s day. It’s one of several tall, thin, and nondescript row houses that line narrow Craven Street, their red bricks darkened by centuries of dust and grime. Standing on the sidewalk and squinting enough to blur out the tall modern buildings rearing up behind the eighteenth-century structures, I can almost imagine I’m back in Franklin’s London, that a coach might pass by carrying William Pitt the Elder to consult Franklin about last-ditch efforts to reconcile Britain and her colonies.

Franklin moved into his lodgings at 36 Craven Street in August 1757, along with his illegitimate son, William, and their two slaves, King and Peter. Franklin’s wife, Deborah, whom he had married in 1730, refused to cross the Atlantic and stayed behind in Philadelphia.

The Pennsylvania Assembly had sent Franklin to London to negotiate with the Pennsylvania Proprietors, members of the Penn family who owned the colony. His main mission was to gain permission for the assembly to tax the proprietors’ lands to help defray expenses of the French and Indian War.

“I lodge in Craven Street near Charing Cross, Westminster; We have four Rooms furnished, and every thing about it is pretty genteel.” Franklin wrote to his wife. His building was one of several Georgian terraces the Craven family had built here around 1730. Many of the buildings found use as lodging houses that offered tenants a convenient location in the heart of London, just steps away from the Strand. “I think the full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross,” said Franklin’s contemporary Samuel Johnson.

Franklin’s landlady, the widowed Margaret Stevenson, and her daughter, Polly, became Franklin’s surrogate family. (Polly would later move to Philadelphia to be near him.) He lived here until 1762, then returned to Philadelphia and the whirlwind of Pennsylvania politics. Two years later the assembly sent him back to England to negotiate an end to proprietary rule and he resumed his comfortable life in Craven Street. Perhaps it was too comfortable. In 1767 the painter Charles Willson Peale, a fellow Philadelphian, dropped by and discovered Franklin kissing a young woman perched on his knee, a scene Peale sketched in his diary.

Franklin found other ways to pass his time at Craven Street. He invented the instrument he called his glass armonica, a series of glass cylinders mounted on a rotating rod that the performer played by holding wet fingers to the rims of the spinning glasses. He pioneered the use of bifocal lenses and developed a damper so his fireplace would burn more efficiently. He also took “air baths”—sitting naked in front of the open windows of his second-floor parlor.

Polly married William Hewson in 1770, and when Margaret visited relatives that September, the Hewsons watched over her illustrious lodger. During Margaret’s absence Franklin wrote comic newspapers he called the Craven Street Gazette . “We hear that from the Time of her Majesty’s leaving Craven Street House to this Day, no Care is taken to file the Newspapers; but they lie about in every Room, in every Window, and on every Chair, just where the Doctor lays them when he reads them,” one entry read. “It is impossible Government can long go on in such Hands.”