NEW HAVEN, Conn.— Abused in life and death, an enslaved man known as Mr. Fortune will be honored with an elaborate funeral more than 200 years after he died in Connecticut.
Fortune’s remains lay in state in the Capitol rotunda in Hartford Sept. 12 before being taken by state police escort to Waterbury for a memorial service at the church where he was baptized and burial in a cemetery filled with prominent residents. Plans call for bagpipers and the singing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“It’s a long overdue honor,” said Steven R. Mullins, one of the organizers. “We’re not just remembering one man. His body is representing all of the slaves that came over here and worked in this country.”
Fortune was owned by Dr. Preserved Porter on a farm in Waterbury. When Fortune died in 1798, Porter, a bone surgeon, preserved his skeleton by having the bones boiled to study anatomy at a time when cadavers for medical study were disproportionately taken from slaves, servants and prisoners.
One of Porter’s descendants gave the skeleton in 1933 to Mattituck Museum in Waterbury, where it was displayed from the 1940s until 1970. The descendant referred to the slave as “Larry,” and his name was forgotten at the time.
A local historical account from 1896 claimed “Larry” slipped on a rock and drowned in the river. Tests over the years, including a recent exam at Quinnipiac University, found evidence of a neck fracture around the time of death not associated with hanging. The university has not been able to determine his cause of death.
The study by Quinnipiac concluded that Fortune was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and died when he was around 55 years old, said Richard Gonzalez, an assistant professor and forensic anthropologist at Quinnipiac school of medicine. He suffered a number of painful ailments, including a fracture in his left hand, a severe ankle sprain and lower back pain.
“He was an individual who was in considerable distress,” Gonzalez said.
The museum has long wanted to give Fortune a proper burial, director Bob Burns said. The latest tests, which included CT scans of the bones, will allow researchers to continue studying the bones without the physical need for them, he said.
“We’ve always had a desire to finally put these remains to rest but there was always a concern that there may be some new opportunity to learn more in the future. And that future is right now,” Burns said.
Maxine Watts, chairman of a committee involved with the project and past president of the NAACP, shared those concerns. Now that the latest tests have been done, she said it’s time to bury Fortune.
“Now we feel even though he was used that way he did prove underneath the skin we’re all the same,” Watts said of the earlier anatomical study of the skeleton.
The Rev. Amy D. Welin of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Waterbury, who will preside over the funeral, said she considers Fortune a parishioner, albeit one who died long ago.
“I think it’s been a very convoluted path to justice,” Welin said. “I’m hoping we can use this as a learning experience and a time of reflection on how do we as human beings treat one another and how do we deal with issues of diversity now.”
Fortune will be buried near contemporaries who never would have spoken to him or viewed him as human, said Mullins, president of the southern Connecticut chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians. He noted the use and display of his bones was done without his consent.
“He will be at a place of honor completely contrary to the life he and his family and his colleagues in slavery ever knew,” Mullins said.