New England's fortune: An inheritance of black bodies and bones

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Histories of emancipation find ballast in the moments we memorialize. This piece tracks possessive investments and emancipatory challenges with origins in eighteenth-century New England. In the face of Connecticut's 1784 gradual manumission Act, slaveholders in a New England town protected their family's interests by transforming their human property into intellectual property. In 1798 an enslaved man named Fortune was dissected after his death by his owner, Dr. Preserved Porter, and the skeleton exhibited as a symbol of medical and social capital. Renamed Larry, the bones paid professional dividends for more than a century afterward, and were rearticulated in 1930s Europe before becoming the most popular exhibit at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. This article fleshes out the buried histories of dis(re)membered black subjects by examining white ownership and display of black bodies after death. By unearthing the relationship between medical knowledge generation and white uses of black bodies, I illustrate how white knowledge and status is indebted not only to black labor in life but also to the work that black bodies continued to do in the name of medical progress. This essay interrogates the politics of black death and dissection and the contemporary complexities of historical recovery and resuscitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)287-303
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of American Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 18 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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