Doctors’ Riot, 1788

In former times “body snatching,” or digging up bodies for dissections, was much, more heard of than at present. The fear of it was so great, that often, in the neighborhood where medical students were pursuing their studies, persons who lost friends would have a watch kept over their graves for several nights, to prevent them from being dug up. Neither the high social position of parties nor sex was any barrier to this desecration of graves, and the public mind was often shocked by accounts of the young and beautiful being disinterred, to be cut up by medical students. In the city there was, a few years ago and perhaps there is now a regular commercial price for bodies.

Although it was conceded that for thorough instruction in medical science, subjects for dissection were necessary, yet no one outside of the medical profession could be found to sanction “bodysnatching.” There is a sacredness attached to the grave that the most hardened feel. Whenever the earth is thrown over the body of a man, no matter how abject or sinful he may have been, the involuntary exclamation of every one is “requiescat in pace.” When, it comes to be one of our own personal friends, a parent, sister, or child, to this feeling of sacredness is added that of affection, and no wrong is like that of invading the tomb of those we love. Shakespeare left his curse for him who should disturb his bones; and all feel like cursing those who disturb the bones of friends who are linked to them by blood and affection.

In the winter of 1787 and 1788, medical students of New York City dug up bodies more frequently than usual, or were more reckless in their mode of action, for the inhabitants became greatly excited over the stories that were told of their conduct. Some of these, if true, revealed a brutality and indecency, shocking as it was unnecessary. Usually, the students had contented themselves with ripping open the graves of strangers and Negroes, about whom there was little feeling; but this winter they dug up respectable people, even young women, of whom they made an indecent exposure.

The stories did not lose anything by repetition, and soon the conduct of physicians and medical students became a town talk. There seemed to be no remedy for this state of things; the graveyards, which were then in the heart of the city, were easily accessible; while plenty of men could be found, who, for a small sum, would dig up any body that was desired. A mere accident caused this state of feeling to culminate and suddenly break out into action. In the spring, some boys were playing in the rear of the hospital, when a young surgeon, from a mere whim, showed an amputated arm to them. One of them, impelled by curiosity, immediately mounted a ladder that stood against the wall, used in making some repairs, when the surgeon told him to look at his mother’s arm. The little fellow’s mother had recently died, and filled with terror, he immediately hastened to his father, who was a mason, and working at the time in Broadway. The father at once went to his wife’s grave, and had it opened. He found the body gone, and returned to his fellow workmen with the news. They were filled with rage, and, armed with tools, and gathering a crowd as they marched, they surged up around the hospital.

At first many seemed to be impelled only by curiosity, but as the throng increased, the masons became eager for decisive action. Threats and denunciations began to arise on every side, and then appeals for vengeance, till at length they rushed for the door, and pouring into the building, began the work of destruction. For a while there was a terrible rattling of bones, as they tore down, and smashed every anatomical specimen they could lay their hands on. Valuable imported ones shared the common fate. They swarmed through the building, and finally came upon fresh subjects, apparently but just dug up. This kindled their rage tenfold, and the students, who thus far had been unmolested, were in danger of being roughly handled.

The news of the gathering of the crowd and its threatening aspect, had reached the Mayor, who immediately summoned the sheriff, and taking him with several prominent citizens, hastened to the spot. Finding the students in the hands of the infuriated mob, he released them, and to the satisfaction, apparently, of the rioters, sent them to jail for safe keeping.

There was now nothing left for them to do, and they dispersed, and the matter was thought to be ended.

But, during the evening, knots of men were everywhere discussing the events of the day, and retailing the exciting reports that were now flying thickly around; and next morning, whether from any concert of action, or impelled by mere curiosity, is not known, crowds began to fill the street and yard in front of the city hospital. The discovery of the bodies the day before had deepened the excitement, and now a more thorough examination of the building was proposed, and also an examination of the physicians’ houses. Matters were beginning to wear a serious aspect, and the Governor, Mayor, Chancellor, and some of the prominent citizens of the town, came together to consult on a course of action. It was finally resolved to resort in a body to the spot where the mob was assembled, and make a personal appeal to it. They did so, and presented an imposing appearance as they advanced up Broadway. Although representing the State and city, they did not presume on their authority, but attempted persuasion. Mounting the steps, they in turn addressed the throng, which now kept momentarily increasing, and exhorted them as law abiding citizens to use no violence. Some made most pathetic appeals to their feelings, their pride and self respect; indeed, begged them, by every consideration of home and justice, to desist, and retire peacefully to their homes. They solemnly promised that a most thorough investigation should be made, and they should have all the satisfaction the laws could afford. More they ought not to ask. These appeals and promises produced a favorable effect on many of the mob, and they left. But the greater part refused to be pacified. Their blood was up, and they insisted on making the examination themselves. They did not propose to commit any violence, but having begun their investigations they were determined to go through with them.

The Mayor and the Governor seemed to have an unaccountable repugnance to the use of force, and let the mob depart for Columbia College without any resistance. The professors and students were amazed at this sudden inundation of the crowd, who swarmed without opposition through every part of the building. Finding nothing to confirm their suspicions, they left without doing any material injury. Still unsatisfied, however, they repaired to the houses of the neighboring physicians, and the leaders, acting as a delegation of the crowd, went through them with the same result. It was a singularly well behaved mob, and they received the report of the self constituted committees with apparently perfect satisfaction, and when they had made the round of the houses, gradually broke up into knots and dispersed.

But the lawless spirit of a mob seldom arrests and controls itself. Having once felt its strength and power, it is never satisfied till it measures them against those of the legal authorities, and yields only when it must. Hence, as a rule, the quicker “it feels the strong hand of power” the better for all parties. Promising legal satisfaction, to law breakers is a very unsatisfactory proceeding. Obedience first and discussion afterwards is the proper order to be observed.

The Mayor had hardly time to congratulate himself on having overcome so easily a serious difficulty, before he found that he had not as yet touched it. In the afternoon, the crowd again began to assemble, and this time around the jail, with the avowed purpose of taking vengeance on the students and physicians locked up there for safe keeping. Having asserted and exercised, against all law, the right of domiciliary visits, it was but a short and easy step to assert the right to punish also contrary to law. As they gathered in front of the jail, it was seen that a different spirit from that which they had hitherto exhibited ruled them. The tiger was unchained, and loud shouts and yells were heard. “Bring out your doctors! bring out your doctors!” arose on every side. They threatened to tear down the building unless they were given up. The inmates became thoroughly alarmed, and barricaded the doors and windows, and armed themselves the best way they could for self defence. Attempts were made to parley with the crowd, but they would listen to nothing, and answered every appeal with loud shouts for the doctors. What they intended to do with them by way of punishment was not so clear, though what their fate would have been, if once at their mercy, there was little doubt. The city authorities now became alarmed, murder was imminent, and having no police force sufficient to cope with such a formidable mob, they decided that the city was in a state of insurrection, and called out the military. About three o’clock, the force marched up the street, and passed quietly through the crowd, which opened as they advanced. As they moved past, a shower of dirt and stones followed them, accompanied with taunts, and jeers, and mocking laughter. The whole military movement was evidently intended only for intimidation to show the rioters what could be done if they resorted to violence; for the soldiers, instead of taking up their quarters, as they should have done, in the building, having exhibited themselves, marched away. But the mob, still retaining its position and threatening attitude, another force, a little later, consisting of only twelve men, was sent up. This was worse than nothing, and as the little handful marched solemnly up, the crowd broke out into derisive laughter, and all sorts of contemptuous epithets were heaped upon them. Instead of waiting for them to come near, they rushed down, the street to meet them, and swarming like bees around them, snatched away their muskets, and broke them to pieces on the pavement. [Footnote: John Jay and Baron Steuben were both wounded in trying to allay the mob.] The soldiers, disarmed, scattered, and hustled about, were glad to escape with whole bodies.

This first act of open resistance excited the rioters still more they had passed the Rubicon, and were now ready for anything, and “to the jail! to the jail!” arose in wild yells, and the turbulent mass poured like a tumultuous sea around the building. They rushed against the doors, and with united shoulders and bodies endeavored to heave them from their hinges. But being secured with heavy bolts and bars, they resisted all their efforts. They then smashed in the windows with stones, and attempted to force an entrance through them; but the handful of men inside took possession of these, and, with such weapons as they could find, beat them back. Numbers were of no avail here, as only a few at a time could approach a window, while those within, being on the defensive, knocked them back as often as they attempted to climb in. The rioters, baffled in their attempts, would then fall back, and hurl paving stones and bricks at the windows, when those who defended them would step one side. But the moment the former advanced again, the latter would crowd the windows with clubs and sticks. The enraged assailants tore off pickets, and advancing with these, made desperate efforts to clear the windows. But those within knew it was a matter of life and death with them, and stubbornly held their ground. The fight was thus kept up till dark, amid yells and shouts and a pandemonium of noises, and no efforts apparently were made to put an end to it, and release the inmates of the jail. But steps had been taken to organize and arm a large body of militia under an experienced officer, and now in the dim starlight their bayonets were seen gleaming, as they marched steadily forward on the dark, heaving mass that filled the street far as the eye could see. The rioters, however, instead of being intimidated at the sight, sent up a yell of defiance, and arming themselves with stones and brick bats, hurled them in a blinding volley on the troops. So fierce was the assault, that before the latter had time to form, many were knocked down, and some badly wounded. The commanding officer, finding the fight thus forced on him, gave the order in a ringing voice, “Ready, aim, fire!” A flash broad as the street followed, lighting up the gloom, and revealing the scowling faces of the mob, the battered front of the jail, and the pale faces of those guarding the windows. They had not expected this close, point blank volley, for the timid action of the authorities had not prepared them for it, and they stopped in amazement and hesitation. The commanding officer understood his business, and instead of waiting to see if they would disperse, poured in another volley. The rioters were confounded as they saw their comrades fall by their side, but still stood at bay; until at last, seeing the dead and wounded on every side, they could stand it no longer, but broke and fled in every direction. In a few minutes the street was clear of all but the dead and wounded, the groans of the latter loading the night air. The poor wretches were carried away, and the troops remained on the spot all night. The next day the city was in a fever of excitement. The number of killed was greatly exaggerated, and the denunciations of the butchery, as it was called, were fierce and loud. On almost every corner groups of excited men were seen in angry discussion multitudes gathered in front of the jail, and gazed with horror on the blood stained pavement.

The soldiers who had committed the slaughter were cursed and threatened by turns, but they quietly rested on their arms, ready, it was evident, to repeat the experiment at the first open act of violence. For awhile there was danger of a general outbreak throughout the city; but the authorities had become thoroughly aroused to the danger of the situation, and seeing that the quicker they brought the conflict to a close, the better, made such a display of force, that the riotous spirit was overawed. Still, it was not entirely subdued, and it was evident that it was kept under by fear alone. The physicians of the city came in for almost as large a share of the hatred as the military. They were the original cause of the disturbance, and threats against them became so open and general, that they were in constant dread of personal violence, and many fled from the city. They scattered in every direction, and there threatened to be a general Hegira of physicians. All the medical students were secretly stowed into carriages, and hurried off into the country, where they remained till the excitement died away. It did not, however, subside readily; indeed, the danger of open revolt was so great for several days, that the military continued to keep guard at the jail.




Headley, Joel Tyler. The great riots of New York, 1712 to 1873: including a full and complete account of the Four Days' Draft Riot of 1863. New York: E. B. Treat, 1873.

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