Fortune as he may have looked in life. Painted
by William Westwood, a medical illustrator, based on Fortune's skeleton.
Fortune was an African American man enslaved by Waterbury
physician Dr. Preserved Porter in the late 18th century.
Fortune was probably born in the 1740s, but we do not
know where. Dental analysis may someday reveal if he spent
his childhood in Africa, the Caribbean or North America.
Fortune and his entire family were the legal property
of Dr. Porter, listed as a group of 5 slaves in the Porter
household in the 1790 federal census. Fortune and his
wife Dinah were living in Waterbury by the 1780s; their
son Jacob was born here in 1786. Fortune and Dinah also
had two daughters: Mira, born in 1789, and Roxa, born
in 1791. The dates of their births were recorded in the
town records by Dr. Porter. A Connecticut law passed in
1788 required slave owners to record the birth of every
child of their slaves in order to help guarantee their
gradual emancipation under a law passed in 1784.
Fortune had an older son, named Africa, who was born in
September of 1772 and was therefore not eligible for emancipation
under the 1784 law. The location of Africas birth
is not yet known; his mother may have been someone other
than Dinah, since he is so much older than the other children.
Fortune and his family lived on a farm owned by Dr. Porter
east of the town center. Fortune owned his own house a
quarter of a mile from the Porter homestead. He probably
worked on Dr. Porters 75-acre farm, perhaps operating
the farm while Porter tended to his medical practice.
The farm, as indicated by Porter's probate inventory,
produced rye, Indian corn, onions, potatoes, apples, beef,
hogs, cider, hay, oats and buckwheat. Dinah would have
worked in the Porter home, cleaning and cooking. Fortune,
Dinah and their children may also have been hired out
to work for other Waterbury residents on occasion.
Fortune was baptized in the Episcopal church on December
20, 1797; he died in 1798. There is no month or day given
for Fortunes death. He may have died two weeks after
his baptism, or a year after.
Following Fortunes death, his wife and children
remained the property of the Porter family, but by 1800
only Dinah and and a young man named Luke were still in
the Porter household. It is not known where Luke came
from, or if he was related to Fortune. The Porters may
have sold Africa, Jacob, Mira and Roxa shortly after Fortunes
death; they do not appear to have still been living in
Waterbury in 1800. By state law, however, it would have
been illegal to sell them outside Connecticut.
When Dr. Porter died in 1804, Dinah was bequeathed to
his widow and Luke to his daughter Hannah. Hannahs
husband, Joseph Bronson, was a farmer and would most likely
have had Luke help work his farm. Dinah, who was in her
forties, would have worked as Lydia Porters household
The Skeleton's Story
Upon Fortunes death in 1798, Dr. Porter, a renowned
bone surgeon, prepared his skeleton to serve the study
of anatomy. In recent years, Fortune's bones have provided
scientific evidence to document the circumstances of his
The rugged bone structure, especially where the muscles
attached to the bones, suggest Fortune was a powerful
man accustomed to the heavy work of a farmer.
Fortunes bones indicate that he suffered several
injuries during his lifetime, which had healed before
his death: he had a broken lower back and other injuries
to the bones in his hand and foot. These injuries, which
were not unusual for agricultural workers at the time,
did not kill him. He was generally in good health at the
time of his death, at about 60 years of age.
The Cause of Death
The cause of death may have been a snapped vertebrae
at the top of his spinal column, just below the skull,
caused by a sudden jerking back of the head, like whiplash.
Scientists have ruled out death by hanging, since damage
to the vertebrae is limited to the top one, which was
snapped, not crushed. There does not seem to be damage
to other bones that would suggest that he fell at the
time the neck snapped, although earlier historians wrote
that Fortune fell into the Naugatuck River and drowned.