In the early years of medical practice, it would not have been uncommon for a doctor to have skeletons and other kinds of human remains and soft tissue preserved in their labs and offices. In fact, it’s not so uncommon to see that today. Dr. Preserved Porter, of Waterbury, Connecticut, was no different.
Dr. Preserved Porter was the grandson of Waterbury’s first physician, Daniel Porter. Medicine was the family business and the family produced many generations of doctors. Preserved Porter owned a 75-acre farm in Waterbury, and according to the federal census of 1790, he had 5 individuals whom he enslaved.
Back then, there was no mass-produced $200 textbooks, slick illustrated flashcards or body donation programs to help students gain skills and learn. In fact, prior to 1834, it was illegal to dissect bodies in the United States.
When one of Porter’s enslaved men died in 1798, evidence shows that he used his body for study. He took the body, cleaned it, and expertly prepared the bones as a study aid.
Once the bones were cleaned, tiny writing shows the labels that were used to identify the various parts of the body. In Porter’s time, it would not have been unusual for a slave to end up a medical specimen. Medical cadavers were in short supply, and so students and practitioners would rob graves to get fresh corpses for practice. Slaves were among the populations that were vulnerable to such practices.
Porter allowed local doctors to come and examine the remains. He also used the skeleton to train his own children and grandchildren. In fact, in 1933, it was his great-granddaughter, Dr. Sally Porter Law McGlannan, who donated the skeleton to the Mattatuck Museum, where it was on display until the 1970s. “Larry” was the name that had been inscribed on the skull.
It wasn’t until the 1990s when the museum began a project to examine the skeleton more rigorously, that “Larry” began to tell his story.
The museum partnered with researchers from many institutions, including Howard University, Quinnipiac University, University of Oklahoma and Hampshire University.
The bones suggested that “Larry” was a man of African descent, about 5 ft. 6in. in height, and was between 55-60 years old when he died. Knowing which family donated the remains helped researchers learn that “Larry” was actually Porter’s slave named Fortune.
Fortune was married and had a family. “Fortune and his wife Dinah were living in Waterbury by the 1780s; their son Jacob was born here in 1786. Fortune and Dinah also had two daughters: Mira, born in 1789, and Roxa, born in 1791. The dates of their births were recorded in the town records by Dr. Porter. A Connecticut law passed in 1788 required slave owners to record the birth of every child of their slaves in order to help guarantee their gradual emancipation under a law passed in 1784. Fortune had an older son, named Africa, who was born in September of 1772 and was therefore not eligible for emancipation under the 1784 law.” (http://www.fortunestory.org/fortune/who.asp).
Fortune’s arms and legs showed small depressions where ligaments had been torn or ripped as a result of strenuous labor. These depressions are called enthesopathies. This type of injury is consistent with other examined remains of enslaved people.
Historical records state that Fortune fell into the Naugatuck River and drowned. Injuries near his neck suggests that he may have snapped a vertebrae when he fell, which caused his death. This would be consistent with the records.
Historical records also indicate that Fortune’s children were sold shortly after his death. However, his wife, Dinah, remained with the Porter family.
William Westwood, a medical illustrator, used the skeleton to create a portrait of what Fortune may have looked like shortly before his death. The museum is using DNA analysis to try and locate any descendants that he may have, and 3D scans and prints were used to recreate the bones for continued study. They are also using chemical analysis to try and learn more about his early years- where he was born, grew up, etc.
In 2013, over 215 years after his death, Fortune was finally memorialized in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Waterbury, the same church where records show he was baptized in the 1790s. His remains were laid to rest in one of the most distinguished cemeteries in the area. Had he been buried at the time of his death, Fortune, would not have been allowed to be there.
His story and complex history remains on exhibit at the Mattatuck Museum.
Lang, Joel. “The Skeleton in the Closet.” Courant.com. Hartford Courant, 12 July 2008. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. <http://www.courant.com/news/special-reports/hc-fortune.artsep29-story.html>.