Ben's Bones

Based on the True Story of 28 Bodies Buried in Benjamin Franklin’s Basement

Fiction - Historical - Personage
323 Pages
Reviewed on 04/25/2023
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Asher Syed for Readers' Favorite

Joseph C. Gioconda creates an entertaining fictional account of what is not known about the real discovery of human bones buried under Benjamin Franklin's London home in Ben's Bones. Franklin spent almost two decades cumulatively in England, renting rooms from a mother and daughter in London with whom he formed platonic familial relationships, Margaret and Polly Stevenson. In this period of history, scientists studying the human body had difficulty obtaining a steady stream of corpses to dissect and research. Polly's husband William Hewson opens a school and purchases corpses from sellers Wilds and May for anatomy studies, suspecting but unwilling to acknowledge that they cull the bodies by murder. Wilds and May are willing to sell bodies but not remove them once dissected and Hewson concocts a plan to bury them himself, on the grounds of the house that Franklin lives in.

I work within walking distance of the Benjamin Franklin house at 36 Craven Street and it is where I enjoyed my first-ever American Thanksgiving back when they had them at the house. They have since been moved to larger premises because of their popularity. The human and animal bones on display are among the greater curiosities of the museum. So when I saw that Joseph C. Gioconda had written a story about them I was immediately drawn to Ben's Bones. The story has a series of first-person point-of-view characters that smoothly round out the plot and arc, which are as grim as will be expected in a story that encompasses murder, dissection, and body disposal. This discussion is frequent and detailed, such as when Hewson writes, “The specimens’ blood has always been fresh and fluid. This is a critical fact when studying hematology.” These are people murdered for Hewson's coin and he is, at best, an antihero and, at worst, an accomplice to murder. Still, Gioconda's ability to build on the human elements of the living, relationships, social customs, Franklin's time in England, and what was transpiring back in North America, and London during that era are all present and meticulously researched. It's a solid, believable, and well-written story. Very highly recommended.

Emily-Jane Hills Orford

We all marvel at the wonders of modern medicine. But do we realize how in the dark so many medical professionals of the past were until the dawn of modern imaging technology? Ben's Bones: Based on the True Story of 28 Bodies Buried in Benjamin Franklin’s Basement informs readers that eighteenth-century England was rife with body snatchings, all in the name of anatomical studies. There was even suspicion that some of the scientists involved contracted and paid professionals to kill people, like unborn full-term babies, to be dissected and studied. Beneath the house on Craven Street in London, the very house where Benjamin Franklin lived during his diplomatic tenure in England, was William Hewson’s anatomy school. Did the astute Franklin know of the goings-on in the basement beneath him? How could he not with the smell of rotting flesh permeating the house? The connection between Franklin's and Hewson’s activities remains a mystery, one worthy of further investigation and conjecture.

Joseph C. Gioconda’s historical novel Ben’s Bones is based on a true story. The author presents a thoroughly researched and documented look at an otherwise relatively unknown aspect of the famous American politician’s life in London in the late eighteenth century, bringing to life a compelling reality. Some might prefer to turn a blind eye to the suggestion that someone as prominent as Franklin might be somehow involved in the nefarious activities of early anatomical students and the illegal murders and procurement of human bodies for dissection and research. The plot follows the activities and lives of both Franklin and his associates who operated in the basement of the Craven Street house where he lived. Dialogue is used effectively to develop characters and move the story along and historical aspects are accurately presented. A detailed author’s note at the end provides the documented historical aspects that inspired this story. This was a fascinating work and a real puzzle for mystery readers.

Jamie Michele

Ben's Bones by Joseph C. Gioconda is a historical fiction novel that revolves around the American Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, and the re-worked mystery of the human remains discovered under the floorboards of a house where Franklin lived for sixteen years as a lodger. The house on Craven Street is a nondescript terraced home just off what is now called Trafalgar Square in central London. Gioconda's story begins with the arrival of Ben Franklin, who rents four rooms from a widow named Margaret Stevenson and her daughter Mary, who is affectionately called Polly. London is awash with crime, including the lucrative trade of grave robbing in order to provide specimens to academics, doctors, and scientists, and ultimately turns into murder once grave robbing becomes untenable. Two notorious men who murder to provide fresh cadavers are no more guilty than those who are complicit in their purchase, and when death comes knocking at Craven Street, who is doing what and who knows what begins to unravel in a two-hundred-year-old mystery.

Today is the day that author Joseph C. Gioconda taught me how the highly esteemed and respectable Benjamin Franklin enjoyed standing naked as the day he was born in front of his open window, plain as day to any passing by, in a ritual he called an 'air bath'. Dear friends, once this has been described in the pages of Ben's Bones it can never, ever be scrubbed from the imagination. When it comes to what most Americans know about Benjamin Franklin, most are limited to a key, a kite, and an extremely important signed document. What Gioconda achieves in his novel is breathing life into Franklin's London years, allowing immersion into where he lived and the company he kept with a girl he regarded as his second daughter, Polly, and her future husband, William Hewson. Hewson plays a key role in the plot of Ben's Bones, as do characters with alternating points of view that Gioconda employs to keep readers engaged in different facets of crime. The writing is well done and the scenes and dialogue are clever. I chuckled a bit when one particular woman is on the cusp of being murdered only to inform the assailants that she would be recognized by the man they would sell her body to. What are the odds? I have no idea, but I do know that the odds of a reader enjoying this book are pretty darn high.

Grant Leishman

Ben’s Bones by Joseph C. Gioconda is a fascinating blend of true events and the writer’s artistic license. Much of what occurs in this story is documented fact and the author uses his literary skills and imagination only when necessary to fill in the blank portions. Before the War of Independence, the great Benjamin Franklin spent many years in London, England as a diplomat representing the colonists’ concerns to the British Parliament and Crown. Whilst boarding in London he met and befriended a widow and her young daughter Polly, to whom he became both a mentor and surrogate father. This period of the mid-1700s was a great time of scientific exploration. One such field was medicine and the study of human anatomy and disease. One aspiring medical pioneer was a young man by the name of William Hewson who was determined to learn and understand the functioning of the human body. The only viable way to understand how the body worked was to dissect recently deceased persons. To feed the demand from the many anatomy schools that had sprung up, a massive underground body-snatching industry grew up overnight. If they wished to further their studies anatomists were required to delve into this seedy world of corpses, kidnap, and even murder. When Polly falls in love with and marries William Hewson, both Benjamin Franklin and Polly are unknowingly drawn into a criminal world that they would much rather know nothing about.

Ben’s Bones is a riveting read. The idea of a market for dead bodies (or even better, freshly dead bodies) is not something that many would have reason to consider but in the 1700s it was a flourishing industry. Joseph C. Gioconda does a superb job of melding the true historical records with intimate details of Ben Franklin’s life and character, as well as the other various persons that make up this sordid tale of corruption and butchery. What I particularly enjoyed was the juxtaposition of the high and mighty “doctors” who could do no wrong and the poor sack-men whose job it was to raid the graves of the recently dead to supply the doctors' insatiable demands for more material for their study and lectures. The deference given to the doctors by the courts, merely due to their societal position, was stunning. Not for the faint-hearted, this story pulls no punches when describing the disgusting tasks these early doctors had to become involved in to study and understand the workings of the human body. William Hewson summed it up best when he described to his wife the idea that science was a “messy” business. The author used the work to explore the morality of what these early scientists were prepared to do to satisfy their curiosity but also to further the needs of science and humanity as a whole. The story, to some extent, is a simple question: “Does the end justify the means?” In this case, the answer was that for those dedicated to solving human illness, it probably did. This idea of the greater good could also be extended to include the future 19th-century concept of eugenics. This is a fascinating book that raises many ethical and philosophical questions, which I enjoyed immensely and can highly recommend.

K.C. Finn

Ben's Bones: Based on the True Story of 28 Bodies Buried in Benjamin Franklin’s Basement by Joseph C. Gioconda is a work of historical fiction that revisits the early life of an iconic figure. It is best suited to the general adult reading audience. Based on shocking true events in the often overlooked history of Benjamin Franklin, the work is set in London during his travels there during the mid-eighteenth century. As Benjamin develops close ties with the family that he rents rooms from, his young friend Polly becomes attached to a promising young doctor who is a student of anatomy. But this doctor’s dubious connections to those who acquire bodies for study land Benjamin in some very hot water.

Joseph C. Gioconda takes real history and true crime and weaves them into a superb novelization that captures the eerie spirit of London’s body-snatching past. As a fan of these Gothic elements and grim histories myself, it was fascinating to read about it with an Americanized twist in the narrative and to see how the roles and social status of the different characters affected the criminal and justice elements. I enjoyed the portrayal of Franklin and felt his dialogue was suitably rich for a Founding Father, but the novel also didn’t shy away from humanizing him, showing vulnerabilities and a darker side that we’re all capable of when the occasion calls for it. Ben's Bones is a stellar read with much to offer fans of world history but also those genuinely interested in the grim but fascinating tale of how the world of modern medicine was born.