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Some skulls in a Penn Museum collection may be the remains of enslaved people taken from a nearby burial ground

Potter’s fields that were scattered over the land where Penn now stands were dug up and human remains removed for study, including some skulls in the museum’s Morton Collection, a new report says.

Exterior of the Penn Museum.
Exterior of the Penn Museum.Read moreInga Saffron / File Photograph

More than a dozen skulls of Black Philadelphians, poor and virtually anonymous, are currently held by the Penn Museum in its Morton Collection of skulls, a group of over 1,000 skulls amassed by Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician and white supremacist, according to a report now posted on the university’s website.

Until last summer, skulls from the collection were located in a classroom and used for teaching, but some were moved into closed storage following an outcry from students and community activists who argued that such holdings amounted to an affront. At the time, the collection was said to include 53 skulls of enslaved persons from Cuba, and the university committed to repatriating or reburying them.

But the detailed report compiled by Paul Wolff Mitchell, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and a fellow in the Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery project, says that some of the skulls, of both Black and white Philadelphians, were torn from the burial grounds used by the Philadelphia Almshouse and its successor institutions, Philadelphia Hospital and Philadelphia General Hospital.

The report says it’s highly likely that some are the remains of the formerly enslaved, although holes in the historical record will probably mean we’ll never know for sure.

» READ MORE: Penn Museum to put part of collection with skulls of the enslaved into closed storage

Much of Penn, including Franklin Field, is built over the unmarked graves of paupers, and many of their bodies were stolen by grave robbers and used for medical education and research, largely by Penn’s medical school and Jefferson Medical College, the report states.

“Much of the price for making Philadelphia the American ‘city of medicine’ in the nineteenth century was paid in cadavers,” the report says. “Overall, the bodies of poor, marginalized, and Black Americans were made into the objects of nineteenth-century anatomy.”

A spokeswoman for the Penn Museum said the museum “welcomes new independent research” into the collection.

“The Museum is currently in the process of reviewing the report’s contributions documenting Black Philadelphians in the collection and will include this information as it takes important steps towards repatriation and reburial,” she said.

The museum has its own committee looking at what should be done with the collection and how best to address the holdings of enslaved people from Cuba, but the spokeswoman said there is no timeline for reaching conclusions.

The Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery Project was established in 2018 after Amy Gutmann, Penn president, charged professor Dorothy Roberts to examine slavery’s impact on the medical school’s “pedagogy, research, and medical practices on alumni and its lingering effects on medicine.”

» READ MORE: Penn’s ‘profoundly painful’ past: At least 75 of the school’s earliest trustees owned slaves

The presence of Black Philadelphians’ remains in the Morton Collection presents a wholly new dimension to the project.

Mitchell, the researcher who compiled the report, said the remains of Black Philadelphians “whose crania were taken by Morton and whose bodies were dumped in these potter’s fields, including one right in front of what is in now the museum underneath Franklin Field,” likely included numbers of formerly enslaved people.

“But we can’t know that for sure because they are divorced from their names and they’re divorced from any ability to trace personal history,” he said. It is impossible to determine whether an individual was born free, or escaped slavery. Which, in turn, raises multiple questions about how the museum treats the Morton holdings.

“This is raising the question of how the museum addresses the remains of individuals for whom we can’t say for certainty they died enslaved or were born enslaved,” Mitchell said. “Moreover, it approaches the broader question of why is it slavery or for that matter of dying enslaved, why is this the relevant characteristic for deciding that the remains should be reburied. … We need to think about all the remains of Black people.”

One individual has been minimally identified, Mitchell said. John Vorhees was a Black man born in Chester County who ended up at Philadelphia Hospital (located where Children’s Hospital is now located) and died in 1846. He was buried in the potter’s field where Franklin Field now stands. Burials there are said to have numbered in the thousands and extend down 20 feet and more, with coffins stacked one atop the other. The field was in use from 1832 to 1860.

Vorhees’ body was subsequently dug up and his skull was removed and added to Morton’s collection of skulls.

“John Vorhees is the only individual among those Black Philadelphians in the Morton Collection for whom we have a name, and the one thing that we know is that he claimed at least to have been born in Chester County and he died in Philadelphia,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have a birth certificate for him because for the years in which he was born, Chester County didn’t keep the relevant birth records. All we know is he is listed as a ‘mulatto porter’ by Morton, and that he was alleged to have killed a person.”

Morton did like to utilize “lurid” details in his labeling of human remains, Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s report notes that the bodies amassed by Morton and those taken by grave diggers for use in anatomy classes and other medical school teaching played a critical role in establishing the dominance of the university’s prominence in the medical field.

Museums used the remains for display. Medical professors used them in clinical education.

“The history of Blackness as object of medical and anthropological study cannot be made discrete from the history of slavery, just as Blackness and enslavement cannot be separated in accounting for the remains of Black Philadelphians in Morton’s skull collection,” the report states. “Any commitment to addressing Penn’s historical complicity in the institution of slavery must address itself to all aspects of anti-Black racism, which extends to all Black bodies in historic anatomical collections.”