About 70 years ago the great-granddaughter of a Waterbury doctor who practiced in the late 1700s donated a skeleton to the Mattatuck Museum that the doctor apparently had saved as an anatomical specimen. Its bones were labeled and a name, "Larry," was inscribed on its skull.
At the museum "Larry" became a popular exhibit until he became an embarrassment. The skeleton was that of one of the doctor's slaves. His real name, or at least the name his owner, Dr. Preserved Porter, called him by, was Fortune. Now the museum is embarked on a major research project to learn all it can about Fortune. He is being resurrected almost literally as the skeleton in the closet of Connecticut slavery. His story, whether as folklore or fact, is gruesome.
Warren Perry, the Central Connecticut State University professor who is the archaeological consultant on what is being called the Fortune Project, tells the basic folklore version this way: "Fortune lived in the doctor's household and was part of the family and was loved. But one day Fortune is at the Naugatuck River and he slips in and drowns. The story has it that Dr. Preserved Porter jumps in to save him, but can't. And so he flayed his body on the spot and took him home."
With his slave's freshly dead body at his disposal, Dr. Porter apparently couldn't pass up the chance to use it for science. At this point in the story, Perry raises his eyebrows. "Would you do that to the servant you love as part of the family?"
In other versions of the story, Fortune is running from punishment when he drowns, or the doctor brings him home to boil the flesh from his bones, or murders his slave deliberately, and the skeleton eventually gets stored in an attic or a closet.
Some of the folklore is no doubt true. But here is what various anthropologists around the country who have examined Fortune's skeleton have so far determined. The cause of death was a broken neck. His age was about 40, his height about 5-feet-2, his body well-muscled. His skeleton was expertly preserved; some of the bones appear to have been boiled to remove fat and drilled with holes to drain fluid. Perry says the bones also showed some "enthesopathies." These are small depressions left where muscle ligament has ripped away.
Perry is familiar with such injuries from his work on the African Burial Ground Project in Manhattan, where hundreds of slave skeletons were uncovered during construction of an office building and analyzed like Fortune's has been. Many of the New York slaves, men, women and children, had enthesopathies. Normally, they result from labor that is too much for the body to bear. Perry says Fortune had them on his arms and legs.
"It doesn't look from his body as if he had such a nice life in Connecticut," he says. "Captivity wasn't nice for the captives in Connecticut or anywhere else."
Perry is just part of a team of scientists and historians working on the Fortune Project for the museum. He narrates a documentary film that is being shot and has attracted the interest of PBS's "Nova." One of the team reconstructed the image, shown here, of Fortune as he might have appeared in the flesh.