New York City, 1788
By 1788, New York City was a rough and tumble, post-revolutionary town consumed by a frantic building boom after the recent British occupation. The city had not fanned out into boroughs. The population of thirty thousand, largely unwashed and illiterate, were packed like sardines into a part of the island of Manhattan that ended at Chambers Street, the location of the African Burial Ground. Racial tensions continued for over three decades until the Revolutionary War. When the Revolution ended, physicians were in extremely short supply since many returned to the mother country or immigrated to Canada.
Horses, goats, and cows wandered through the dirt streets. Gangs of shipyard ruffians roamed throughout the town with impunity since they outnumbered the small corps of volunteer city watchmen. Sewage littered the streets and city dweller released swine at night to devour the refuse. The port of New York was home to the second largest slave market in the newly created republic and because of New York’s history of volatile ethnic strife. Slave owners deliberately imported blacks directly from Africa. Since the Africans spoke many varied dialects and languages, few were able to communicate with either other.
The masses of blacks, either enslaved or free, needed to help build the city were prohibited from associating with whites and even denied burial with them. According to author Thomas Gallagher, “When they died, they were interred in the African Burial Ground above Chamber’s Street.”
The macabre events that almost brought down the entire city occurred in that humble graveyard. Body snatching, the only way medical students obtained fresh specimen for dissection, assumed a disquieting racial element in 18th century New York. The students routinely looted the Burial Ground for freshly buried corpses while the rest of society looked away. They shared the sentiments of a landowner who described himself considered himself as “a strong advocate for science.”
Ressurectionists. Hablot Knight Browne, 1847.
I rather believe that the only subjects procured for dissection, are productions of Africa…and those too, who have…been transmitted to gaols …for…burglary and other capital crimes; and if those characters are the only subjects of dissection, surely no person can object.”
A small vocal part of the population did object. On February 3, 1788, the free blacks of New York petitioned the Common Council to prevent the desecration of their graveyard. They made their declaration public.
Most humbly sirs, we declare that it has lately been the practice of a number of young gentlemen in this city who call themselves students of the physic, to repair to the burying ground, assigned for the use of your petitioners. Under cover of the night, in the most wanton sallies of excess, they dig up bodies of our deceased friends and relatives of your petitioners, carrying them away without respect for age or sex. The students of the physic mangle their flesh out of a wanton curiosity and then expose it to beasts and birds. Your petitioners are well aware of the necessity of physicians and surgeons consulting dead subjects for the benefit of mankind. Your petitioners do not presuppose it as an injury to the deceased and would not be adverse to dissection in particular circumstances, that is, if it is conducted with the decency and propriety which the solemnity of such occasion requires. Your petitioners do not wish to impede the world of these students of the physic but most humbly pray your honors to take our case into consideration and adopt such measure as may seem meet to prevent similar abuses in the future.
The Common Council ignored the petition and did nothing; however, the concerns of the blacks continued to ferment because the disinterment of recently buried bodies, “resurrection”, was blatant in post-Revolutionary New York. There were no ways to refrigerate cadavers and French chemist, Jean-Nicolas Gannal had not yet perfected arterial embalming.
The medical profession had a dilemma; there were not enough bodies for dissection. Four years earlier, the state of Massachusetts attempted to discourage dueling and accommodate the needs of medical students. Massachusetts gave over the bodies of those killed in duels and those executed for killing another in a duel to medical students and the infamous Spunkers of the Harvard Medical School.
New York had no such laws. What doctors needed was a law giving all the city’s unclaimed bodies to Columbia College and other authorized anatomy schools, but this the lawmakers, aware of the temper of the people, refused to pass. The only legal way to dispose of a dead body, therefore, was to bury it. Once buried, no one could exhume a body, except by consent of the relatives, without committing an indictable offense against the common law. Although students stole the bodies of poor whites, the churchyards, where citizens of substance were buried, had been left unmolested.
This impasse left the professors with three choices: They could abandon the teaching of anatomy altogether and thereby stunt the growth of American surgery; they could teach theory only and send their students out to practice on live patients; or they could obtain bodies stealing them. In Britain, professional body snatchers called resurrectionists kept medical schools supplied with anatomical subjects. Resurrectionists were usually criminals, and sometimes murderers, who not only stole bodies recklessly, but often fought skirmishes over them within graveyard walls. In America, in the years immediately following the Revolution, the professors eliminated the middleman by stealing bodies themselves, so discreetly they did not arouse the public’s attention.
The trouble began when the studies of anatomy students progressed to the point they needed to do the dissecting themselves. Once, professors procured bodies for their students by paying resurrectionists to steal bodies for them and defrayed the cost by raising laboratory fees. In New York, however, medical students, known as students of the physic, had their own special back-to-school list; paper, quills, books, and bodies. The boys went on the hunt for bodies, despoiling graves of the poor and people of color.
On the morning of February 15, 1788, the first in the chain of the events to come occurred in the offices of the New York Daily Advertiser in New York City. Many New Yorkers were acquainted with Francis Childs, the newspaper’s printer, editor, and founder, because of his anti-slavery sentiments. Like everyone in New York, Childs was aware of the activities of the students of the physic. Childs had received a shocking missive about the activities of the students of the physic from a reader who asked the Daily Advertiser to publish it. The author of the letter wished to remain anonymous and signed it with the nom de plume “Humanio”.
Mr. Printer, the repositories of the dead have been held in a manner sacred, in all ages, and almost in all countries. It is a shame that they should be so very scandalously dealt with, as I have been informed they are in this City. It is said that few blacks are buried, whose bodies are permitted to remain in the grave. And, that even enclosed burying-grounds, belonging to Churches, have been robbed of their dead: That swine have been seen devouring the entrails and flesh of women … that human flesh has been taken up along the docks, sewed up in bags; and that this horrid practice is pursued to make a merchandize of human bones, more than for the purpose of improvement in Anatomy. If a law was passed, prohibiting the bodies of any other than Criminals from being dissected, unless by particular desire of the dying … for the benefit of mankind, a stop might be put to the horrid practice here; and the minds of a very great number of my fellow-liberated, or still enslaved Negroes, quieted. By publishing this, you will greatly oblige both them, and your very humble servant.
While Boston had established Harvard College a hundred and fifty years earlier, the only qualified medical school in New York in 1788 was part of Columbia College, formally the King’s College. King George II had mandated the fledgling medical school in 1754. The college housed it in a three-story stone building in the area that became Park Place. The school was equipped with an anatomical theatre and under the control of thirty-eight-year-old Dr. Charles McKnight. Dr. McKnight, a New Jersey native, was the product of a staunchly pro-revolutionary family and had served as a senior surgeon in the American Army of the Revolution.
In addition to Dr. McKnight, two other doctors who, though not part of the Columbia faculty, were famous in medical circles because of their skill in anatomy. Born in Connecticut of English and French ancestry, Dr. Richard Bayley had been educated in England. Although he had served as a surgeon in the British army during the Revolutionary War, his skill at surgery opened doors for him in the newly formed Republic. According to historians, there had been grumbling among some of his fellow doctors who charged Bayley with “cutting up his patients and performing cruel experiments upon the sick soldiery” while working as an army surgeon in Newport, Rhode Island. However, because of the need for doctors in the new country, desperate medical professions forgave Bayley’s past transgressions.
Dr. Bayley and his protégé, Wright Post, had been giving private lectures at the otherwise unused New York Hospital building which had been vacant since the British had housed soldiers in it during the Revolution. The twenty-two-year-old Post was born and bred in New York State. Despite his youth, Post had apprenticed for two years under Dr. Bayley before studying medicine for two years in London. In those days, surgeons often gave private instruction in anatomy, both to college students and to working medical apprentices.
At the same time that Humanio’s letter appeared in the Daily Advertiser, newspapers throughout the city also carried notices of Bayle and Post offering anatomy lectures. The public began to link the lectures with the stealing of dead bodies from the city’s graveyards. Although many of the city elite felt the study of anatomy was necessary for doctors, most of New York shared the same attitude as people of color toward grave robbing. Rich and poor alike considered post-mortem dissection a great indignity to the dead. The public criticized surgeons for their lack of skill and scolded them for trying to develop it.
The grave-robbing students had a number of advantages; there were graveyards tucked in nooks and corners all over New York. The general lawlessness following the war and the ineffectiveness of the city watch (forty-odd men with clubs who guarded the city at night) also worked to their benefit. Potter’s field and the Blacks burial were adjacent to each other in the upper reaches of the Fields, a triangular plot of ground that is the site of City Hall Park. Medical students from both Columbia and the New York Hospital classes were only a few blocks from the city’s two least respected and ignored cemeteries. In addition, since gravediggers often buried several paupers in a single grave, the students could obtain more bodies in less time than in a churchyard where undertakers rarely buried more than one person on the same day.
The students robbed graves after dark, especially on moonless nights when the city’s only light came from the few whale-oil lamps set on posts throughout the street. The lamps were filthy and poorly trimmed. Instead of giving off a full light, they “barely made the darkness visible.” On moonlit nights, the lamplighters usually didn’t light the lamps at all. When a cloud obscured the moon, the only dangers to the students were slamming into one of the posts, colliding with a goat or pig, attack by rowdies in an alley, or even tripping over a mourner or someone hired to protect a grave.
In most cases, the soil above a fresh grave was loose. Since the students worked in relays at top speed, it took only about an hour to uncover a coffin, remove the corpse, and restore the earth to its former position. The students removed rocky or pebbly soil with wooden shovels to avoid the noisy scraping of metal against stone. Sometimes, the early morning sun threatened to make an appearance or the moon emerged from behind a cloud. Speed became essential. The students dug up the head of the coffin and broke off enough of the lid to drag the body out. A corpse had to be disrobed and the clothes returned to the coffin before the students could refill grave and make their escape. The clothes and the coffin belonged to the heirs or relatives. To take them would be stealing.
Since bodies were of no use for dissection purposes after advanced decay had set in, the students made the thefts when it was most dangerous, when the relatives of the dead might be on watch or visiting the graves. Friends or relatives would often place an object on or just below the surface of a freshly made grave, so they could tell whether the earth had been disturbed. Unlike the professors, who were discreet when grave robbing, the students did not take the time to cover their tracks and more and more bodies were discovered to be missing.
Humanio’s letter in the Daily Advertiser seemed only to make the students more daring in their escapades and more contemptuous of the public’s attitude.
One “student of physic” wrote to Mr. Childs in defense of himself and his colleagues:
Great offence, it seems, has been given to some very tender and well meaning souls by gentlemen of the medical department, for taking out of the common burying ground of this city bodies that had been interred there; one in particular, whose philanthropy is truly laudable, has obtained a place for his moving lamentations in your useful paper. Whence is skill in surgery to be derived? Kind and generous Humanio … your head is too empty, and your heart too full … And to whom would Humanio call for assistance, should he snap his leg, or burst a blood vessel? Run, run [he would say] to that barbarous man who has dissected most flesh and anatomized most bones.
Doctors Bayley, Post, and McKnight must have winced to see this unnecessarily abusive letter printed in the Daily Advertiser on the same day as an announcement that showed the students had upped the ante and things were coming to a head.
100 Dollars REWARD
Whereas one night last week, the grave of a person recently interred in Trinity Churchyard was opened, and the Corpse, with part of the clothes, were carried off.—Any person who will discover the offenders, so that they may be convicted and brought to justice, will receive the above reward from the Corporation of the Trinity Church—
By Order of the Vestry
Robert C. Livingston, Treasurer
New York Feb. 21, 1788
The Daily Advertiser published another contemporary account of the body snatching:
We have been in a state of great tumult for a day or two past. The causes of which, as well as I can digest from various accounts, are as follows: The young students of physic, have for some time past, been loudly complained of for their very frequent and wanton trespasses in the burial ground of this City. The corpse of a young gentleman from the West Indies was lately taken up, the grave left open and the funeral clothing scattered about. A very handsome and much esteemed young lady, of good connection was also carried off. These, with various other acts of a similar kind, inflamed the minds of people exceedingly and the young member of the faculty as well as the mansions of the dead, have been quickly watched.
With this theft from Trinity churchyard, blacks and poor whites suddenly found powerful allies since the city’s most respected and influential families buried their dead there. Reaction against the students spread rapidly, and since neither public petitions nor private pressure could move the Common Council to action, letters to the Daily Advertiser increased, along with its circulation.
Meanwhile, the free blacks in the city, having waited for the Common Council to act, had obtained the use of a private burial yard in Gold Street. A man named Scipio Gray owned the yard, lived next to it, and acted as the yard’s custodian. The acts of the students had inflamed the citizens and one would think that the students would have avoided this private yard. They did not. On a dark midnight, a group of them along with the “student of physic” who had answered Humanio’s letter in the Daily Advertiser, went to Scipio Gray’s house and ordered him, “at the peril of his life,” to remain indoors. Several of them then went to the yard and disinterred two bodies, the corpse of a child and an aged person. When Mr. Gray asked them “if they were not ashamed of their conduct,” the student of physic replied that he would do the same to his own grandfather and grandmother and “think it no crime.”
Humanio who either witnessed the events or heard about them second hand, wrote about them in a second letter to the Daily Advertiser. The Student’s answer did not deny the charges; instead, issued another insult to Humanio
Do not to be so rash and imprudent, as again to attempt to espouse the cause of his fellow sufferers (for I take him to be some manumitted slave) without first applying for another quarter’s tuition at the free blacks school; that he may thereby be enabled to convey his meanings, at least in good, if not in elegant, language.
Student of Physic,
When the Advertiser printed this letter, on March 1, 1788, it drew a line between the majority of the city did not want the dead resurrected and the few who felt disinterring them was in the public interest.
A clash became inevitable and all eyes turned to a youth named John Hicks Jr. Young Hicks studied medicine along with Bayley’s other students. Hick’s father had worked in the General Hospital as an “Established Mate” during the British occupation. The city directory listed Hicks, Sr. as a doctor. The younger Hicks, like the writer of the letters to Humanio, was both a “junior” and a medical student with a Broadway address. From accounts of the time, many in the city suspected John Hicks Jr. of being both the writer of the “student of the physic” letters and the boy who threatened Scipio Gray, but no historian has proved it. Accounts from the period show that citizens around the town already knew of the macabre antics of young Hicks. College students were younger in the 18th century. The average freshman was fifteen years old. Hicks, who was not to receive his M.D. for five more years, was an undoubtedly spoiled and exceptionally cruel teen.
New York Hospital
The citizens’ anger with doctors in general, and medical students in particular, came to a head on April 13, 1788. It was a chilly Sunday afternoon and the cloudy skies promised rain. Jonquils and bluestems bloomed about the city and the only sound on the grounds of the New York Hospital was childish laughter as a group of children played in front of the hospital. Though it was the Sabbath, a group of medical students busied themselves with dissection. It was late afternoon when John Hicks Jr. and his fellows were working in the third floor dissection room. As the boys played below, Hicks grabbed a dismembered limb, depending on the account, a leg or possibly an arm, and dangled it out the window at the children. Some witnesses claimed a student placed it out the window to dry, but whatever the reason, seeing the body part raised the children’s curiosity. The building had been under repair and according to most accounts, workmen had left a ladder long enough to reach the dissecting room window. The children mounted the ladder to see what the students were up to and the macabre shenanigans of John Hicks Jr. confronted them.
Writers and historians have retold and embellished the legend over the years. The most popular version of the story claimed that since one of the boys had recently lost his mother, the scene of black and white cadavers of both genders in various stages of dismemberment was especially horrific to him. In some accounts, the child screamed that his mother had died and Hicks lifted an arm from one of the tables and told the boy to “look at his mother’s arm”. In another account, Hicks supposedly pointed a hand at the youngster peering through the window. “This is your mother’s arm. I just dug it up!”
The tykes scrambled down the ladder and the child who had just lost his mother ran off screaming for his father. The war of words between Humanio and the student of the physic had put everyone in the city on tenterhooks and the city was a powder keg ready to blow. The tyke’s father enlisted his chums to help him exhume his wife’s coffin and when they pulled it from the ground, they found it empty. The riot was on.
As fascinating as that scenario is, William Heth’s eyewitness account of incident did not mention a child, but told of a human limb being dangled from a window and attracting a crowd. Perhaps the story of the children was a fabrication and the less dramatic account of Hicks waving a severed limb out a window was the actual event that triggered the riot; whatever his specific action, they sparked the violence. Citizens began to mass around the building. At the sound of the approaching throng, Hicks, along with the other medical students and professors, made a hasty retreat. By the time the mob broke into the building demanding that the doctors present themselves, the hospital was abandoned except for Wright Post and four of the senior medical students who also refused to leave. Post stood in wait for the throng with young men, all of whom only two or three years younger than himself. The young men were determined to save a valuable collection of anatomy specimens and wax renderings doctors had collected over the years. It was also possible that they wanted to prevent the crowd from discovering a far grislier sight in the anatomy room.
The rioters were in a deadly temper when they stormed the lecture room. Once they came upon the collection of anatomical and pathological specimens that Dr. Post and his students had risked their young lives to protect, they became even more frenzied. Though no one laid a hand on him or his comrades, Dr. Post was powerless to stop the mob from carting away the medical treasures. There are accounts of the collection being burned in a great bonfire, but since it was raining, that is unlikely.
Perhaps the riot would have ended at this point; unfortunately, something, possibly a stench wafting from another room, alerted the rioters. The Daily Advertiser described it as “a shocking shamble of human flesh.” Dr. James Thacher, a witness to the storming of the New York Hospital, detailed the grotesque spectacle in his memoirs:
The concourse assembled on this occasion was immense, and some of the mob having forced their way into the dissecting-room, several human bodies were found in various states of mutilation. Enraged at this discovery, they seized upon the fragments, as heads, legs and arms, and exposed them from the windows and doors to public view, with horrid imprecations.
Another contemporary report published after the riot, also described what the rioters found:
On Sunday last, as some children were playing, part of an arm or leg tumbled out at them. The cry of barbarity was soon spread and the young sons of Galen fled in every direction as the mob raised and the hospital apartments were ransacked. In the Anatomy room, were found four fresh bodies, one boiling in a kettle two other cutting up with certain parts of the two sexes hanging up in a most brutal position. These circumstances, together with the wanton and apparent inhuman complexion of the room, exasperated the mob beyond all bonds to the total destruction of every anatomy in the hospital, one which was of so much value and utility, that it is justly esteemed a great public loss.
It is a wonder that Post and his students were not killed and turned into anatomical specimen themselves. By the time the throng dragged the young doctors into the street, an estimated two thousand people had witnessed the incident. They beat one of Post’s students, David Hosak, so severely that a friend pushed his way through the mob to pull him to safety. Mayor James Duane and the sheriff, followed by bailiffs, tried to bring the crowd to order. In an attempt to protect the doctors from the mob tearing them apart, he ordered the battered medical men escorted to the Fields, the area of the city where the symbols of law and order, the jailhouse, the almshouse, the gallows, the whipping post, and the stocks were located.
Later that evening, a group splintered from the throng and buried the dissected subjects. Bands of rioters left the Hospital grounds and moved across the city, spreading word of the monstrosities they had seen and promising “a general Hegira of physicians”. By then the whole of New York was ensnared by the madness. Medical students who had escaped were hurried out of town while the physicians remaining in the city were forced to “slip out of windows, creep behind bean barrels, crawl up chimneys and hide beneath feather beds”.
Dr. Richard Bayley
As more and more New Yorkers joined the crowd, the threat of an outright rebellion loomed large. The mob marched down Broadway carrying lanterns to light their way in search of the real culprit, “the odious Dr. Hicks”. The authorities arrested Dr. Bayley in a bid to protect him from the wrath of the mob who wanted to cut off the doctors’ hands. Bayley joined Post and the students in jail. Some of the rowdies in the crowd began attacks on any man dressed in black, the traditional color of doctors. A splinter group even paid a visit to a home with the sign, “Sir John Temple” affixed to the door. It is estimated that eighty percent of the populace were illiterate and though Sir John Temple was not a doctor, one of them misread the printing on the post. The mob ransacked the house without realizing that “Sir John” did not mean “surgeon”. According to Mrs. Lamb, an eye witness, “(the mob) were just barely restrained from leveling it to the ground”.
The next morning, Monday, April 14th, 1788, the throng massed in front of New York Hospital once again, looking for John Hicks Jr. They had not found him in his parent’s home, but there were reports he had sought sanctuary in the home of Dr. John Cochran that stood across from Trinity Church. Though Dr. Cochran had retired from medical practice, he was a man of great prominence in New York, a personal friend of George Washington, and one of the bastions of New York society. Perhaps because the citizens of New York held Cochran in such high regard, young Hicks chose his residence as a hiding place.
When the esteemed gentleman answered the door, the leaders of the mob stormed his home. The rioters tore Cochran’s place apart searching for him from cellar to garret. Some even opened the scuttle to see if he was hiding on the roof but found nothing. Their search must have been a cursory one; if one of the rioters had climbed through the scuttle, they would have discovered the teen cowering behind the chimney of the next house. The temper of the mob was such that they would have torn Hicks apart, limb by limb. Instead, Hicks managed to escape once again and left New York along with the other medical students and professors. He eluded capture leaving the mob to focus their anger on the doctors who remained. The throng searched the houses of suspected physicians and by the evening, had ransacked the homes of every doctor in New York.
On Tuesday, Dr. Bayley effectively washed his hands of the mess by signing a sworn affidavit denying any personal involvement in the business of resurrection and claiming ignorance of his students’ nighttime activities.
He hath not, directly or indirectly, had any agency or concern whatsoever, in removing the bodies of any person or persons, interred in any churchyard, or cemetery, belonging to any place of public worship in [this] city; and that he hath not offered any sum of money to procure any human body so interred, for the purposes of dissection: and this deponent further saith, that no person or persons under his tuition, have had any agency or concern in digging up or removing any dead body interred in any of the said churchyards or cemeteries, to his knowledge or belief; and further this deponent saith not.
Within a few days, his statement was followed by similar affidavits from Dr. McKnight, several fifth year students, and most interestingly, from John Hicks Sr., father of the most hated man in New York. Most notable was the absence of a statement by Wright Post.
The city’s newspapers published Bayley’s statement and stoked the flames of discontent. By afternoon, the mob had massed together and pressed on towards Columbia College. Upon their arrival, the most famous Columbia alumnus and trustee, Alexander Hamilton, stood on the steps of the college to greet them. Hamilton surely viewed the students’ actions with distaste, but was determined to save New York and his alma mater from violence, but his attempt at peacemaking failed. The rioters broke past him and swarmed through every room in the college searching for cadavers and body parts. Luckily for both Columbia and Alexander Hamilton, students had removed all anatomical specimens the previous day. Their action may have saved Columbia from destruction.
Mayor Duane, Governor Clinton, Chancellor Robert Livingston, and the city fathers joined Hamilton as he sloshed through the rain and tried to dissuade the common folk from doing further damage. The Brahmans of New York followed the throng when they abandoned the college and continued their search down Smith Street in the more elegant part of New York, the “court end of the city”. It was a world of Georgian mansions and cobblestone streets, a universe away from the hovels that most of the rioters lived in. Perhaps New York was a city of “haves and have-nots” but that afternoon the have-nots held all the power.
The rioters marched to the McKnight and Bayley residences and invaded their homes. They searched for John Hicks Jr., dissected bodies, and proof that the doctors were up to ghoulish activities, but found nothing. Disgruntled and angry, they disbursed for the evening.
By Wednesday, anger toward the doctors and simmering hatred for the upper classes finally blew up and the mob wanted blood. The mayor ordered an armed brigade and artillery regiment, but even that show of force didn’t stop the rioters from trekking towards the Fields and the imprisoned physicians. By the time the crowd reached their destination, it numbered 5,000, fully a sixth of the city.
The imprisoned doctors had great reason to fear for their lives when they heard the yells of the throng marching towards them. One group of rioters tore through the fence erected to protect New York from jailbreaks while others broke the wooden plants of the gallows into battering rams and attacked the jail’s brick walls. The jailhouse windows were unbarred and the doctors joined their jailers in fighting off rioters. The guards had been ordered not to use their muskets and no lives were lost, but one of the rioters squeezed through a ground-floor window and was bayoneted by a guard. News that one of their own had been injured so enflamed the mob that the destruction of the jail commenced with renewed vigor.
A force of eighteen militiamen marched towards the Fields with the mayor at the head. The militia was composed of volunteers aged sixteen to fifty who drilled once a month, more for camaraderie than anything else. Like most of New York, the militiamen were sympathetic to the rioters and their leaders ordered them not to fire upon the mob. Baron von Steuben, the aging Prussian warrior who helped lead the Continental Army to victory, joined the Mayor and the militia in the march towards the jail. The city leaders assumed the sight of muskets slung about the militiamen’s shoulders would subdue the rioters and were correct…at least for a while. The presence of the militia brought about a temporary lull in the violence, but as soon as they marched out of sight, the mob commenced battering the jailhouse walls again.
The doctors were in even greater danger than before. Another group of militiamen came to their rescue, but the mob rushed them, smashed their muskets, and chased them downtown. According to a letter written to John Sullivan, the Governor of New Hampshire, the sight of the militia made the crowd even angrier:
(The militiamen) so enraged the mob that they determined to force the jail and cut off the young doctors’ hands. They accordingly made the attack, broke down the yard – all the lower windows of the place and made an entry on the lower floor.
That evening it began to rain again. Clinton, Duane and von Steuben assembled an army of officers and gentlemen swordsmen and marched with them towards the jail in another bid to rescue the doctors. The city fathers did not want a confrontation between their muskets and an unarmed mob. General Matthew Clarkson, a dashing thirty-year-old war hero, heard about the brouhaha and decided to join the militiamen. He stopped at the home of the venerable John Jay, a Columbia alumnus from the pre-Revolution days. Since Clarkson was unarmed, he asked Jay for a sword. Jay gave him a sword, grabbed another for himself and the two went directly to the Fields to join the militia assembled at the jailhouse.
An officer who made the trek wrote a contemporary report:
We marched up to the jail and the mob waited for us until we were within ten paces of the door; our orders were not to fire. The mob were of the opinion that we dare not fire, or if we did, it would be over their heads. This sentiment added to their temerity and as soon as we entered the jail yard, they began to throw brick bats, stones and sticks.
As President of the Manumission Society, John Jay enjoyed a degree of respect second only to General Washington and the city fathers hoped his presence would have a calming effect on the mob. It did not. As Jay stood in place, one of the rioters pitched a rock that struck him on the head and the venerable gentleman collapsed at General Clarkson’s feet. Soon another city official, Commodore Nicholson, fell to the ground after a rock struck him. The throng continued their advance armed with rocks. Baron von Steuben was next one struck. He fell backward and commanded the militiamen to fire.
The militiamen in the jail yard began firing, first pointing their weapons above the heads of the rioters. Muskets were difficult to aim with any accuracy but in the second volley, the militia pointed them toward the rioters. Several went down. The militia split into two groups, some remaining near the jail while others advanced towards the crowd with their bayonets fixed. Though they drove some of the rioters back, the militiamen were greatly outnumbered and found themselves surrounded. They shot their muskets one more time then began to reload in the darkness and pouring rain. That lull in the firing gave the mob a chance to press on.
A company of cavalrymen galloped up Broadway to the Fields and charged through the rioters who were marching towards the jailhouse. Fighting continued throughout the night and some rioters died. Records of the period differ as to the number of casualties: some say three died on the spot, some say five, another eight and still others swear fifteen to twenty died immediately. The rioters engaged several militiamen, gentleman soldiers and volunteers in hand-to-hand combat and the toll was great on both sides. It is probable many of the wounded died later but no accurate count exists.
For the next few days, the militia patrolled the streets and normal life began anew. John Jay and Baron von Steuben survived but their wounds were significant enough to put them on bed rest for ten days. The city jail was almost destroyed and extra guards stood watch in the Fields as the building was being rebuilt. The anger towards doctors was so great that the city leaders ousted them from the New York Hospital building and presented with a bill for the damages.
Three months in jail was the usual sentence for stealing a body, but anger remained over the young woman’s corpse purloined from the Trinity Courtyard. The trial began in late April and the first student brought to justice was a youth named George Swinney. He along with another student, Isaac Gano, had taken the “dead body of a white woman out of a coffin from a grave in Trinity Church Yard”. The court indicted the ringleader, John Hicks Jr., on four counts of body stealing but his case was never heard.
The anger and ill will towards the physicians did not end with the riot and the doctors who remained in the city had to tread lightly. Repercussions from the riot continued for years and according to Dr. Jules C. Ladenheim, author of the definitive paper on the riot, it was a factor in New York being one of the last colonies to ratify the Constitution. In January of 1789, the State Legislature pushed forward a statute to prevent “the odious practice of digging up and removing for the purpose of dissection, dead bodies interred in cemeteries or burial places”.
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Friedenberg, Zachary B. The Doctor in Colonial America.
Gallagher, Thomas. The Body Snatchers.
Lademheim, Jules Calvin. The Doctors’ Mob of 1788.
Lepore, Jill. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan.
Marks, Geoffrey and Beatty, William K. The Story of Medicine In America.
Ottley, Roi. The Negro in New York.
Francesca Miller is a Los Angeles native with a background in Hollywood history. She has worked as an entertainment journalist and co-authored the biography of Sarah Benhardt, The Diva and Doctor God, which has been optioned by Poverty Row Entertainment for a feature film. Her work has been published in History Today, The Lancet, and Simply Sxy, and she collaborated on The Soul of Los Angeles, a history of African Americans in Los Angeles. She is a member of the RWA and SCBWI. She writes dark Young Adult Fiction with strong female protagonists as well as romance as Lee Rene. Her Depression-era New Adult romantic mystery, Mitzi of the Ritz, is due to be released by Solstice Publishing in late 2016.
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