Fortune's Bones

Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem

Marilyn Nelson

There is a skeleton on display in the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. It has been in the town for over 200 years. Over time, the bones became the subject of stories and speculation in Waterbury. In 1996 a group of community-based volunteers, working in collaboration with the museum staff, discovered that the bones were those of a slave named Fortune who had been owned by a local doctor. After Fortune’s death, the doctor dissected the body, rendered the bones, and assembled the skeleton. A great deal is still not known about Fortune, but it is known that he was baptized, was married, and had four children. He died at about the age of 60, sometime after 1797.

Marilyn Nelson was commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum and received a grant from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts to write a poem in commemoration of Fortune’s life. Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem is that poem. Detailed notes and archival materials provide contextual information to enhance the reader’s appreciation of the poem.


  • Ages: 12 and up
  • Grades: 6 - 12
  • Pages: 32

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Recent Reviews

7This requiem honors a slave who died in Connecticut in 1798. His owner, a doctor, dissected his body, boiling down his bones to preserve them for anatomy studies. The skeleton was lost and rediscovered, then hung in a local museum until 1970, when it was removed from display. The museum began a project in the 1990s that uncovered the skeleton's provenance, created a new exhibit, and led to the commissioning of these six poems. The selections, which incorporate elements of a traditional requiem as well a New Orleans jazz funeral, arc from grief to triumph. A preface lays out the facts of Fortune's life, followed by "Dinah's Lament," in which his wife mourns the husband whose bones she is ordered to dust. Other pieces are in the voices of Fortune's owner, his descendants, workers, and museum visitors. The penultimate "Not My Bones," sung by Fortune, states, "What's essential about you/is what can't be owned." Each page of verse faces a green page containing text and full-color archival graphics that lay out the facts of Fortune's story. This volume sets history and poetry side by side and, combined with the author's personal note on inspirations, creates a unique amalgam.

—School Library Journal

A series of six stirring poems to honor Fortune's life. Part funeral mass, part freedom celebration, her spare words are clear about the harshness of his servitude and what his remains tell about his backbreaking labor. In the climactic poem, "Not My Bones," Fortune himself speaks: "You can own someone's body, / the soul runs free." Nelson's small poems are framed by a wealth of facts as well as archival photos and images from the museum exhibit.


Nelson's eulogy for a slave who lived in New England, [the poems] jolt us out of any feeling we might have that another person's misfortune is none of our business.

—New York Times Book Review

A glorious reclamation of a man whose identity had been assailed from the moment of his birth to beyond his death.

—Kirkus Reviews


—Voice of Youth Advocates

Honors for Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem

  • Coretta Scott King Honor Book
  • The Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
  • ALA Notable Children's Books
  • Capitol Choices: Noteworthy Books for Children