The New York Doctors’ Riot – April 1788
Let’s get the New Year off with a bang with a good old riot. It is a tale of exploitation and the thirst for knowledge. We’ve come across grave robbers aka resurrectionists before who exhumed freshly buried bodies to sell to medics for dissection to quench their thirst for discovering how the human body operated. It was a practice that the Brits seemed to have exported across the pond.
Slaves could only be buried outside of the New York city limits in a series of plots on Chambers Street which were close by another graveyard for society’s unfortunates, the Paupers. More germane to our story both cemeteries were close to the Big Apple’s only medical school, Columbia College. Winter was a favourite time for grave-robbing as the ambient temperatures preserved the disinterred bodies longer than would have been the case in the summer. The winter of 1788 saw a significant increase in the number of bodies disinterred by medical students, particularly from the slave graves, and on February 3rd 1788 a group of freedman complained to the Common Council about what was going on. No one paid them any mind.
The casus seditionis, in April 1788, was the rather bizarre behaviour of John Hicks, a student of the physician, Richard Bayliss who was rumoured to be a resurrectionist. A group of children playing near the hospital saw Hicks in the throes of dissecting an arm. Bizarrely, sensitive soul that he was, Hicks leant out of the window waving the arm, telling one of the children that it was the arm of his recently deceased mother. The boy, not unsurprisingly, rushed home to tell his father who immediately went to the grave of his old Dutch and found it empty. He assembled a group of neighbours who marched on the hospital and broke in.
They were astonished to find a number of cadavers in varying stages of dissection and in their anger forced Bayliss’ assistant, Wright Post, and a number of students out into the street. It was only through the intervention of the mayor of New York, James Duane, that the medics were shepherded to the safe confines of the local jailhouse.
But the crowd was not done yet. Around 2,000 residents had by now assembled as the news of the discoveries at the hospital spread and a prolonged bout of rioting ensued. The New York medical community was forced to flee into hiding. The mob were on a mission to find Hicks and reached the courthouse where they started throwing rocks. The militia and cavalry were summoned to disperse them but the rioting continued for several days and was only quelled when Governor Clinton put a military presence on the streets. In all at least 3 rioters and 3 militiamen were killed, although some reports put the death toll as high as twenty – at least the medics had a supply of new cadavers – although the rioters had destroyed all the specimens they could lay their hands on.
Not unnaturally, the events of April 1788 meant that the medical profession was held in low esteem and a number of the students who were suspected of being resurrectionists were put on trial, although Hicks was not one of them. In January 1789 a law was finally passed imposing harsh sentences – time in the pillory or a whipping or fines and imprisonment – for anyone convicted of disturbing graves. The one exception was convicted felons who were still fair game. But the scourge was not eradicated – a subclass of professional resurrectionists merely replaced the amateur medical students.