Cellar Dwellers

updated 04/06/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FOR MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES the house, an elegant four-story Georgian at No. 36 Craven Street in London, kept its grisly secret. But back in November a group calling itself Friends of Benjamin Franklin House began to convert it into a museum to honor the philosopher, scientist and Founding Father, who lived there from 1757 to 1775. On Dec. 15, Jim Field, a construction worker involved in the renovation, found the skeleton of a 12-year-old girl in the basement.

"It was raining," says Field, "and the basement was dripping—like a horror movie." Workers soon unearthed nine more skeletons, six of them children's. All, judging from evidence of surgical techniques used on them, date from around the time Franklin lived there.

Ben Franklin a mass murderer? It appears not. The finger of suspicion is pointing at the activities of his friend Dr. William Hewson. Married to Polly Stephenson, daughter of the landlady at No. 36, Hewson was a pioneer anatomist. And, with dissection of human bodies prohibited, scientists had to get cadavers from grave robbers and dispose of them carefully—or face death or deportation.

"Whether Franklin knew what Hewson was doing—probably," says Hilaire Dubourcq, a spokesman for Friends of Benjamin Franklin House. "But it was very doubtful that he participated. Franklin was a physicist—he was not into medicine."

On April 23, 1774, Hewson, then 34, cut himself while dissecting a putrid corpse and later died of blood poisoning. The following year, at the outbreak of the American Revolution, Franklin—who had been the London agent for the American colonies—left No. 36 Craven Street forever—and took to his own grave whatever he knew of the stories that lay buried in that house.

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