Grave Robbers, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and the Doctor’s Riot

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The Doctors' Riot of 1788

The Doctors’ Mob, the first New York street riot, is a Burke-and-Hare tale of paranoia, body snatchers, cadavers, resurrectionists, and anatomists.

New York was gripped by the Revolution in 1788. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison were writing Federalist essays as fast as the New York Packet could print them. The state would soon ratify the Constitution. Politics and lofty ideals, however, did not wholly occupy the city’s mind. Something more visceral colored the collective imagination, and pulled Hamilton and John Jay into what many call the United States’ first riot.

New Yorkers paid scant attention when the graves of transient criminals, anonymous indigents, executed murderers, or the local black burial grounds were desecrated and corpses exhumed, but when stories began to circulate that graves of middle class whites had become fair game for the resurrectionists, the city grew paranoid and fearful. Robbing graves for corpses to go under the knives of hospital anatomists had hit too close to home.

Medical Training, the Law, Anatomists, and Resurrectionists

During the late eighteenth century, the era of the barber-surgeons closed. Specialists became academically trained. To better understand the human body, medical students and their preceptors developed clinical labs. As the number of teaching facilities and medical students increased, so did the demand for bodies on which to practice.

British Common Law, per the Murder Act of 1751, allowed physicians to dissect the bodies of executed criminals for research; indeed, such post-mortem punishment was regarded as a deterrent to crime. The British precedent was widely adopted in America. New York, however, executed too few to adequately supply the proliferating medical institutions. Study cadavers could not be legally sourced any other way.

Where the legal code failed, the laws of supply and demand succeeded. Procurement of fresh cadavers—they had to be fresh for proper research—became the trade of black market body snatchers, or resurrectionists, such as, later, Burke and Hare.

Entrepreneurs of the shadows, deft with tarpaulins, quick and quiet with shovels and rakes, the best body snatchers could escape detection and deliver a fresh corpse through hidden entrances to medical facilities inside of an hour. Everyone worked swiftly, even the doctors and students: bodies not embalmed decompose rapidly, handicapping research, and no one wanted to be caught holding identifiable remains. Dissection was done on cue, before loved ones discovered the empty grave.

The specter of disinterment and rapid, untraceable dissection so haunted New Yorkers they posted armed guards over fresh graves, buried the dead in iron coffins or or kept them in locked vaults until decomposition rendered them a less useful prop. The public feared the grave robbers, but they held the medical schools and doctors responsible. Anatomists were despised, as this 1846 epitaph attests:

“Her body stolen by fiendish men,
Her bones anatomized,
Her soul, we trust, has risen to God,
Where few physicians rise.”

A Severed Limb Ignites the Doctors’ Riot

New York was incensed by recent discoveries of “frequent and wanton trespasses in the burial grounds.” Body snatchers had grown increasingly careless, even cavalier; reports indicated that the body of a “much esteemed young lady, of good connections” had been snatched, and she was left to lie around “exposed” and “indecent.” Horrified, the city was ready to erupt.

The immediate spark is variously reported, in the manner of urban legend. The most common version involves a young boy who was caught peeping through the windows of an anatomy lab. The student inside allegedly hoisted and swung either a hand or leg, and threatened to smack the child with it, telling him that the limb belonged to the boy’s mother, whom the doctor had just dug up. Unfortunately, the boy had just lost his mother. Scared witless, he ran home. When he told his father what the student said, the father checked his wife’s fresh grave, and found it empty. His posse soon attacked the hospital.

A letter from a Virginia military officer to his governor, Edmund Randolph, provides a different view of the immediate cause of the Doctors’ Riot, perhaps more credible, but even more gruesome:

“As some people were strolling by the hospital, they discovered something hanging up at one of the windows, which excited their curiosity, and making use of a stick to satisfy that curiosity, part of a man’s arm or leg tumbled out upon them. The cry of barbarity was soon spread- the mob raised- and the Hospital apartments were ransacked.

“In the Anatomy room were found three fresh bodies- one boiling in a kettle, and two others cut up–with certain parts of the two sex’s hanging up in a most brutal position. These circumstances, together with the wanton & apparent inhuman complexion of the room, exasperated the Mob beyond all bounds-to the total destruction of every anatomy in the hospital.”

Mobs Spread the Doctors’ Riot over Three Days

Hundreds of angry New Yorkers attacked the Hospital, bent on destroying the anatomy lab. The mob demolished the equipment. They filled carts with body parts for reburial. Doctors and medical students, in mortal danger, fled; authorities locked some students up in jail just to keep them safe.

But the mob even attacked the jail, threatening to kill. Innocent bystanders were injured in frays of rocks. Alexander Hamilton and John Jay addressed the crowds and tried to pacify them; Jay was knocked unconscious by a rock. The militia was brought in. Baron von Steuben, the Revolutionary War hero, advised Governor Clinton to have the militia hold fire, fearing too much bloodshed. When the Baron was struck by a brick, he changed his orders, and the militia killed eight. Many more lay wounded.

Skirmishes persisted for three days. The identity of the corpse that incited the Doctor’s Riot was never disclosed.

Sources:

  1. Bell, Whitfield J. “Doctors Riot, New York, 1788.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 47:12. December 1971.
  2. Blake, John. “The Development of American Anatomy Acts.” Journal of Medical Education 30:8, August 1985.
  3. Tward, Aaron D. “From Grave Robbing to Gifting: Cadaver Supply in the US.” JAMA. 2002; 287:1183.