I first heard of Mr. Fortune when I interviewed Hon. Steven Mullins, President of the Southern Connecticut Chapter of UBE (Union of Black Episcopalians) for a Coffee Hour at The Commons podcast episode.
Steven said that his “peak involvement” with his work with UBE was his involvement in the 2013 burial of Mr. Fortune, 215 years after his death in 1798. Steven went into some detail about who Mr. Fortune was, his connection to the Episcopal Church, and why it took 215 years for him to receive a proper burial.
In the 2013 edition of CRUX Magazine, Karin Hamilton wrote a feature story on the funeral service of Mr. Fortune, which I highly recommend and can be found here, on page 6.
After hearing Steven’s story and reading the history and account of the funeral in Karin’s article, I knew it was time for myself to learn some more about Mr. Fortune and to bring his story back to the limelight of ECCT.
So here is a little bit about Mr. Fortune.
Mr. Fortune was an African American man who was enslaved by Dr. Preserved Porter, a physician in Waterbury, CT. Mr. Fortune and his wife, Dinah, were two of five enslaved persons in the Porter household in the late 18th century. Mr. Fortune had 4 children — three, which were born to Dinah, were eligible for emancipation due to a 1788 law.
Mr. Fortune, and his family, were baptized at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Waterbury on December 20, 1797, the year before he died.
It took 215 years for Mr. Fortune to be buried. You see, Dr. Porter was a bone surgeon. After Mr. Fortune’s death, without his nor his family’s consent, his body was prepped as an anatomical model. Dr. Porter opened a school for anatomy in Waterbury and used his former slave’s skeleton for research and study for aspiring doctors.
After Dr. Porter died, Mr. Fortune’s skeleton remained in the Porter family and continued to be used for scientific research until 1933. Dr. Sally Porter Law McGlannan, a descendant of Dr. Porter who was taught the anatomical names of bones using Mr. Fortune’s skeleton, donated his skeleton to the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. Although by this time, Mr. Fortune’s name had been forgotten and his skeleton was referred to as “Larry.”
Mr. Fortune’s skeleton remained on display at the Mattatuck Museum as one of the most popular exhibits showcasing the history of 1) Waterbury’s medical history and 2) slavery in the North and in Connecticut. Mr. Fortune’s skeleton was eventually removed from public display in 1970.
According to fortunestory.org, a great resource for most of Mr. Fortune’s history, as of their copywrite date of 2004, Mr. Fortune’s skeleton was continually examined by researchers, scientists, and anthropologists. Although the attention of their study was to find out more about Mr. Fortune’s life, health, and death.
“In the early 1990s, Maxine Watts, who was then the president of the Waterbury chapter of the NAACP, realized there was not much yet recorded about the city’s African American history and asked the Mattatuck Museum to guide her group of volunteers in a project to locate the city’s oldest African Americans and record their stories,” Karin writes in her CRUX feature.
This work lead to a new exhibit at the Mattatuck Museum titled “Fortune’s Story: Larry’s Legacy,” which utilized facial reconstruction and other technologies to bring to life the story of Mr. Fortune. The exhibit opened in 2003 and the museum commissioned Merilyn Nelson to write a tribute, resulting in “Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem.” According to Nelson’s Author’s Note, Fortune’s Bones
is a New Orleans-styled brass band funeral service in attempts to combine the sadness of a requiem with the joyous event of a manumission.
In 2012, Steven and the Rev. Amy Welin, who was the priest-in-charge at St. John’s, Waterbury, began working together to arrange a proper burial for Mr. Fortune.
Steven recounted this once-in-a-lifetime experience on Coffee Hour at The Commons, Episode 35. On behalf of UBE, Steven made arrangements with the Connecticut State Capital to have the body of Mr. Fortune lay in state in the rotunda of the state building in Hartford.
“We basically gave him a wake,” Steven said on the podcast. “UBE acted on behalf of his family.”
There was a full police escort from the State Capital to St. John’s, Waterbury, where a funeral service was held with over 500 in attendance. Karin notes that attendees included poet Marylin Nelson and “scientists who worked on Mr. Fortune’s bones, pastors from historically Black churches in Waterbury, Mattatuck Museum officials, people who had grown up in the city and remembered the skeleton from school field trips, and many others.”
Afterwards there was a procession from St. John’s to Riverside Cemetery in Waterbury, where on September 13, 2013, Mr. Fortune was finally laid to rest, 215 years after his death.
The service of Thanksgiving for the life of Mr. Fortune included a homily from Amy; Steven served as the Master of Ceremonies, and the choir was made up of members from Grace Baptist Church, Mount Olive AME Zion Church, Zion Baptist Church, and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Mr. Fortune is now buried in the St. John’s plot at Riverside Cemetery. “He who was not allowed to sit with [slave owners] or be equal to them is now spending eternity, at least earthly eternity, in the same dirt they are in,” said Steven.
After hearing this story from Steven, and researching Mr. Fortune’s story, I decided it was my turn to visit Mr. Fortune’s grave. I packed a Book of Common Prayer and headed to Riverside Cemetery.
Mr. Fortune’s gravesite is right next to the dirt road, which made it pretty easy to spot. The headstone is one of the newer ones in the plot, and someone had recently placed some flowers. The name on the headstone, however, I found to be rather interesting, it said “The Man Fortune.” I am not sure why that struck me as odd or caught me off guard, perhaps because I have been referring to him as Mr. Fortune, forgetting that, as a slave, he was never referred to with the title “Mr.”
I stood at his grave with a mixture of emotions: grief over the oppression this man lived and the injustice done to his body after death; relief that his body lay undisturbed in the same dirt with the wealthiest families in Waterbury; and joy knowing that he is still visited — that who he is individually and the history he represents is not forgotten. I opened my prayer book and read silently the prayer at the end of Burial of the Dead: Rite I.
Before I left the cemetery, I decided I would drive around some more to capture some photos of Mr. Fortune’s final resting place. As I was driving past a pond in the center of the cemetery, a blue heron took off from her current resting place. She spread her wings wide and glided over the pond effortlessly before heading up the dirt path behind the pond. Once she reached the top of the dirt path, another creature darted from behind a tombstone — a red fox.
And in that moment I laughed to myself, because God is so quick to remind me of Jesus — the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head. Here I was at the tomb, like Mary and Martha, seeing life before me, and being charged to go and tell the story of resurrection. Mr. Fortune’s story is a story of resurrection, it is a Gospel story.
His cannot be a story of a slave’s skeleton being moved from one closet to the next to the ground to be forgotten. No, Mr. Fortune’s story is a story that must convict us to fight the oppressions which caused his life to be viewed as less than, and his body to be treated as a prop in our own neighborhood, for centuries.
We must continue to tell the story of Mr. Fortune, we must continue to confront the injustices in our histories, our communities, and our world. It is not only meet and right so to do, but it is our duty as Christians.
Note: Alderson Funeral Home donated the casket, a vault, hearse transportation to Capitol, church and cemetery and much more. Thank you Steven for letting us know, and thank you Alderson Funeral Home.