by Cathy P. Ross
Sep 13, 2013
03:32 PMCulture Cat
The skeletal remains of a man named “Larry” were on display at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury for over 40 years, but in the 1970s the display was removed out of respect for the deceased, and the rising social conscience of the community. Fortune’s bones were finally laid to rest yesterday in Waterbury, more than two centuries after his death.
Questions arose about the true identity of the person whose remains these were, and finally it was decided that the bones needed to be identified. In the 1990s, the museum’s African American History Project Committee, a group of volunteers, conducted exhaustive research for three years and its findings were placed on exhibit in Fortune’s Story/Larry’s Legacy. They found that “Larry” was a slave (named Fortune) owned by Dr. Preserved Porter, a prominent Waterbury bonesetter and community leader, who also owned Fortune’s wife Dinah and their four children. After Fortune’s death in 1798, Porter removed his organs and boiled the body down to skeletal remains to use as a teaching tool. The skeleton then stayed in Porter’s family for four generations before it was given to the Mattatuck Historical Society, and eventually the museum.
In 2003, the museum commissioned poet Marilyn Nelson to write a tribute to Fortune. In Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, Nelson presents a triumphant, heart-wrenching, six-poem eulogy that gives Fortune humanity and dignity. She even includes a New Orleans-style jazz funeral for him.
In "Dinah's Lament," Fortune’s wife mourns for him but through unbearable grief, she reveals his identity. When Dinah is asked to dust the bones by her mistress, she says:
Since she seen Fortune head in that big pot Miss Lydia say that room make her feel ill,
sick with the thought of boiling human broth. I wonder how she think it make me feel?
To dust the hands what use to stroke my breast; to dust the arms what hold me when I cried;
to dust where his soft lips were and his chest what curved its warm against my back at night.
The five other poems are spoken in the voices of Fortune's owner, his descendants, workers, and museum visitors, and "Not My Bones" is sung by Fortune himself. He sings, "What's essential about you/is what can't be owned."
May his message resound, and his soul rest in peace.