To make sense of this story, you need to understand that for centuries, many Christians believed in resurrection of the body. That means the belief that when the Second Coming occurs, the dead will rise out of their graves, to be called before the seat of judgment.
People who believed in that doctrine were very concerned with the integrity of dead bodies. If the cadaver was damaged, the body that climbed out of the grave would be damaged, and if there was no body there could be no resurrection. That’s one reason that the bodies of murderers were handed over to medical students who needed bodies to properly learn anatomy; the dissected bodies of criminals meant that their bodies could not resurrect, and so handing them over to medical students was an eternal punishment.
A problem for medical education is that there were never enough bodies. This was particularly a problem in the young United States. At that time, students did not have today’s extremely long and detailed medical curriculum. Students who wished to become physicians or surgeons essentially apprenticed to doctors and took classes from recognized practitioners. In 1788 in New York City, there was one medical program at Columbia College. Students also could take lessons from a Dr. Bailey, and classes might take place at a hospital. A few bodies were available for dissection, but not enough. There was no means of preserving a body then, although specific parts could be preserved in wine, whisky, honey or alcohol.
Students remedied the shortage by stealing bodies. There were also professional criminals who specialized in robbing graves. Bodies could be sold for $5 to $25, a useful amount of money two centuries ago. There was little in the way of street lighting, and there were not many police; there were only constables who carried lanterns and clubs and shouted “All’s well!!”
Grave robbers invaded graveyards at night, looking to steal freshly buried bodies. Few people would be out at night, and constables could be bribed. Bodies were often stolen from Potter’s Feld, where the poor were buried, or from the Negro Burying Ground. The authorities were not concerned with the robbery of graves of the poor or minority people. But they were outraged if a body was taken from a churchyard.
The 1788 Doctor’s Riot began on April 14th with one boy daring another boy to peek in the windows of the hospital where medical classes were being offered. A boy accepted the dare, found a sort of ladder and climbed up to peek in the window. One of the medical students noticed, and grabbed an arm from a cadaver being dissected, rushed the window and shouted at the boy “This is your mother’s arm!” The boy ran home. By a weird coincidences, the boy had just lost his mother, and his father dropped everything to head for the churchyard where the woman had been buried. They disinterred the casket, opened it—and the body was gone.
The enraged father headed for the medical college, gathering other men as he went, and the enraged mob reached the facility. New York City was small then, and news of the mob would have traveled quickly. The students heard the mob coming and had scattered. The mob stormed into the place, and found several bodies in various states of dissection. They threw the bodies, all the specimens they found, furniture and equipment out the windows and into the street, where it was burned. Meanwhile, the mayor and the sheriff arrived and rounded up some medical students, arresting them and carrying them off to jail for their own protection.
Public anger over the stolen body simmered overnight, and the mob reassembled the next morning. The anger was probably fueled by the ready availability of alcohol, which Americans then drank in huge quantities because the water was polluted and dangerous to drink. The mob split in two. One invaded the medical college and trashed it, searching for cadavers and evidence of dissection. The other went hunting for medical students, who had scattered and hidden themselves, or who were in protective custody in jail. Neither group found what they were looking for, and that afternoon, went to the site of the city jail. Hundreds of angry people in a hanging mood demanded the students be turned over.
The mayor hastily assembled a group of about 50 militia to protect the jail and quiet the mob. The growing mob was not intimidated and began throwing rocks at the jail and the militia. They probably threw the stones used to pave streets, ripped out of the pavement, heavy and dangerous when thrown.
Volleys of stone hit the ranks of the militia as the mob attacked. Members of the crowd struggled with militiamen. The results were horrendous. The militia fired two volleys into the crowd, breaking it up and dispersing it. Three militiamen had been killed, and their fire killed about twenty members of the mob.
There were a dozen or more Doctor’s riots over grave robbing in the next several decades, in several American cities. The 1788 New York riot was by far the worst. The problem of not enough cadavers was partly solved when states began passing laws that allowed medical programs to claim the bodies of people who died in almshouses or the unclaimed bodies of people dying in hospitals. Grave robbing continued but gradually ended.
One other effect of the doctor’s riots was a growing fear of bodies being stolen. Entrepreneurs invented a variety of means to protect the dead. Protection didn’t have to be permanent, so long as it deterred the resurrection men long enough for a body to decay; a decayed body was unusable for medical instruction. One such device was called the “mortsafe,” a kind of iron cage protecting the grave.
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