Note: The Good Old Days is our regular Friday column. It is presented today as a special for Halloween.
On this Halloween, we present a story that starts as a tale of the macabre, and evolves into star-studded massacre.
It’s the tale of the first riot in the young United States, a riot not about taxes or whiskey but cadavers, and the inappropriate procurement of them. We turn to the writings of Dr. John Wilson:
The Doctors Mob, one of the most violent outbreaks of civil unrest in early American history, was a furious response to the common practice of obtaining cadavers for anatomical dissection by robbing graves. This hazardous and loathesome business, made necessary by the gross inadequacy of legal provisions for obtaining cadavers for medical instruction, was carried out by a disparate group, generally referred to as “resurrectionists.” Medical students and teachers of anatomy were frequently involved in grave robbing, and there was a more or less disreputable assortment of entrepreneurs who sold cadavers to medical schools or private teachers of anatomy.
Resurrectionists preferred to rob the graves of the poor, the unknown, and enslaved Blacks as least likely to be noticed and cause public outcry; but no graves were exempt unless there was some protection such as an iron coffin, a vault, or a watchman standing guard with a shotgun from dusk to dawn for two weeks, after which the corpse was so decomposed as to be of little use for dissection.
Grave robbing at its best was a complicated and dangerous undertaking that required careful planning to avoid detection, and considerable skill to complete the task with dispatch. Two strong men, two large canvas tarpaulins, digging tools, and a dark lantern to light the scene but invisible from a distance, were the essentials. Dirt was removed from only the head end of the coffin and placed on one of the tarpaulins. After silently breaking through the lid of the coffin, weakened by a row of holes bored across it, the corpse was hauled up by a hook inserted under the chin or, alternatively, by a rope attached to a ring on the back of a harness strapped under the arms. The body was then stripped of all clothing and wrapped in the other tarpaulin. The clothes were thrown back into the coffin, the excavated dirt returned to the grave, and its surface restored exactly to its prior appearance to disarm suspicion of tampering.
In the hands of experts, the over-all job required about an hour. The deceased, wrapped in the tarpaulin, was placed in a wagon, whose inconspicuous drive past the graveyard was carefully timed to coincide with the completion of the disinterment, and thence the cadaver was delivered to the medical school through a clandestine entrance. Bodies were usually procured during the cool season from November to February when anatomy courses were given, and were dissected immediately because embalming was not in use, putrefaction progressed rapidly, and discovery was always to be feared.
How did this particular uprising occur? Legend suggests its genesis was a series of unfortunate events starting on April 13, 1788, at the old New York Hospital in lower Manhattan:
“In a spirit of medical humor,” one chronicler of the period wrote, a medical student, John Hicks, Jr., picked up the arm of a corpse he had just dissected and pointed it at the youngsters peering in through the window. “This is your mother’s hand!” he shouted. “I just dug it up! Watch out or I’ll smack you with it!”
The children scattered into the dark, but one frightened boy took Hicks at his word. By a strange coincidence his mother had died recently. The boy repeated Hicks’s threat to his father, who gathered some friends and hurried toward the local cemetery. There, by another strange coincidence, he found his wife’s grave quite empty indeed. Whoever had robbed it hadn’t even bothered to refill the hole. The exposed coffin was broken apart, and the enraged spouse vowed to make someone pay for its desecration. He led his friends through the streets of lower Manhattan, others joining them, and a mob of hundreds soon stormed toward the New York Hospital and its unsuspecting staff. The mob had heard too many stories about young interns, stealing bodies from private cemeteries and now they had “proof.” The “Doctors’ Mob” of April 13-15, 1788, America’s 1st riot, had begun.
Eventually, the anatomy lab of the New York Hospital was destroyed. But the mob wanted blood, searching for local doctors and even raiding the home of Sir John Temple (his name sounded too close to “surgeon”). To Mayor James Duane and Governor George Clinton, it seemed like the worst was over. But the rioters had other plans for day two:
The mob had increased substantially and was hurrying toward Columbia College. There they attacked the building, looking for more anatomical specimens. Curious onlookers were assaulted. Alexander Hamilton faced the rioters and tried to persuade them to go home. That evening, in front of the city jail, it became apparent that the mob could not be dispersed without resorting to force. John Jay, soon to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was knocked unconscious by a rock. Another onlooker, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a hero of the American Revolution, pleaded with Governor Clinton not to order his troops to fire. Many would be killed, he insisted–try to curb the mob with words, not bullets. Yet, even as Steuben spoke, the rioters surged forward and the baron got hit on the head with a brick.
The baron quickly changed his mind. “Fire, Clinton, fire!” he shouted, and the governor gave the order.
From the crowd, eight were killed, with many more wounded. Physicians treated the wounded and the rioters disbanded. It would be tempting to think that everyone left with a renewed sense of the need for respecting the dead, and educating physicians, but Wallensky and Wallace say that’s not so:
No one ever identified the corpse that had incited the “Doctors’ Mob,” and the husband who avenged the desecration of his wife’s grave remains anonymous to this day. The riot was completely in vain. Although New York’s legislature soon passed a law authorizing the dissection of the bodies of persons executed for burglary, arson, and murder, it was a long time before body snatchers stopped escorting their nights’ work from Long Island to Manhattan via ferry, purchasing tickets for “drunken friends,” who more than repaid their kindness at $100 a body. The era of the “resurrectionists” or grave robbers lasted until almost the middle of the 19th century and spawned such characters as the infamous Englishman William Burke, who killed–by “burking” or smothering his victims–in order to supply the demands of the anatomists.
Hat tip: Vincent Trivett of L Magazine (though his contention that the doctors promptly dissected the fallen rioters could not be substantiated.)
More from the Village Voice about the history of violence in Lower Manhattan: Other Ghosts of Ground Zero covers the execution of Nathan Hale, the Doctor’s Mob, the Slavery riots, up to 9/11.