At the Riverside Cemetery in Waterbury there is a grave with curious markings.
It reads: “THE MAN FORTUNE. Died 1798. Buried September 13, 2013.”
The story of Fortune and his long-delayed burial is a grim one, a stark reminder of the horrors of slavery in Connecticut and beyond. But, during Black History Month, when achievements of African-Americans throughout the ages are honored and celebrated, Fortune’s story also is a reminder that it’s never too late to recognize wrongs committed and that dignity can survive degradation, even centuries of it.
Fortune was born in the 1740s in an unknown place. By the 1780s he was living in Waterbury as a slave. He, his wife Dinah, and their three children were the legal property of Dr. Preserved Porter. Fortune also had an older son, possibly from a previous relationship.
A few years earlier, at the start of the Revolutionary War, Connecticut had more slaves — upward of 6,000 — than any other New England state. Though there was an active abolitionist movement in Connecticut, emancipation bills were rejected by the Connecticut Legislature in 1777, 1779 and 1780. Progress toward freedom for slaves moved slowly. In 1774 the state stopped allowing new slaves to arrive, and in 1784 a law was passed that slaves born after March 1 would become free at 25 (this was later lowered to 21). It was not until 1848 that slavery in its entirety was abolished in the state.
During the 1780s and ’90s it was common for doctors to have slaves. What Dr. Porter did with Fortune’s remains, however, was unusual.
Fortune was baptized at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Waterbury on Dec. 20, 1797. He died at some point in 1798, though the date and details surrounding his death remain uncertain. What is certain is that even in death, Fortune’s forced service to Dr. Porter did not end.
At the time, cadavers were extremely sought after by doctors and medical students. In 1824, grave robbings by Yale Medical School students led to riots in New Haven. Similar riots had occurred in New York in the 1780s.
With the body of his deceased “property,” Dr. Porter evidently saw an opportunity to do what doctors were forbidden from doing with the remains of white people: dissect and study them. After dissecting Fortune, the doctor preserved his skeleton for scientific study. According to one account, he used this skeleton to create an anatomy school in Waterbury for local doctors to study the bones.
Of course, none of this was done with Fortune’s consent.
More than 100 years later, in 1933, Dr. Sally Porter Law McGlannan, a descendant of Dr. Preserved Porter and graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School, donated Fortune’s skeleton to the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. She wrote the museum that she received her first medical instruction when her father — who like many in her family was also a doctor — taught her the names of human bones using the skeleton, “just as the Porters were taught in the ages gone before.”
McGlannan referred to the skeleton as Larry, and a late-1800s account of Fortune’s death also incorrectly gave that name.
The skeleton known as Larry was displayed at the museum beginning in the 1940s. In 1970 it was removed out of respect for the remains.
In the 1990s, the Mattatuck Museum and its African American History Project Committee began to investigate Fortune’s story. His remains were examined by a variety of scientists, including researchers at Howard University, and details about his life — including his actual name — were verified from old documents.
In the 2000s, Marilyn Nelson, then the state’s poet laureate, wrote Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, a collection of poems inspired by Fortune’s story. This work of poetry in turn inspired the creation of Poor Yorick Journal, a literary journal of which I was the inaugural editor and that is published by Western Connecticut State University’s MFA Program.
In 2013, a team at Quinnipiac University examined the remains, and used a 3-D printer to create replicas of them. This preserved the bones for future analysis, and on Sept. 13, 2013, Fortune’s actual remains were finally laid to rest.
Before his burial, Fortune lay in state at the State Capitol rotunda. His funeral service was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Waterbury, where he had been baptized. His burial attracted national press from the likes of CNN and other major outlets.
“Fortune was a man whose destiny was forever controlled by others. He was a slave in life, a medical specimen in death, and was later a museum display,” Michael C. Dooling, Mattatuck Museum’s archivist, said in an email. “The decision to bury him more than two centuries after his death was decided upon by a group of people who deeply appreciated the injustice from which he had suffered and who desired to do the right thing by providing him a final resting place.”
On his grave today, below the date of his death and the much later date of his burial, are six additional words etched in stone for posterity: “Child of God, Free at last.”
This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
Did you like what you read here? Subscribe to Connecticut Magazine.