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Fortune as he may have looked in life. Painted by William Westwood, a medical illustrator, based on Fortune's skeleton.
Who was Fortune?

His Life

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 Africa’s 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. Porter’s 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 Fortune’s death. He may have died two weeks after his baptism, or a year after.

Following Fortune’s 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 Fortune’s 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. Hannah’s 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 Porter’s household servant.

The Skeleton's Story

Upon Fortune’s 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 life.

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.

Fortune’s 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.

Fortune was probably 5'6" tall. He is shown here in clothing based on ads in Connecticut newspapers and artwork of the 18th century.

Fortune's Baptism Record
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Fortune's Baptism Record - 1797
Detail of the record book of St. John's Episcopal Church in Waterbury. Collection of the Mattatuck Museum.

Fortune's Skeleton
Fortune's Skeleton
Fortune's skeleton was articulated in the 1930s.
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