This Week in Odd History, at least five people were killed and many more (including John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Baron von Steuben) injured when rioting broke out over the discovery of “resurrected” corpses at Columbia College, which was at the time the only medical school in New York City.
According to one version of the story, the riot started when a group of citizens out for a Sunday stroll discovered “a something” hanging out of a window at the medical school. As any normal person would do, they poked it with a stick, whereupon “part of a man’s arm or leg tumbled out upon them.” Another version of the story holds that it was a gang of children who discovered the bodies, when they peered into a window and a young medical student by the name of John Hicks Jr. waved a severed arm at them, calling out, “This is your mother’s arm! I just dug it up!” He might have held his tongue had he realized that one of the boys’ mothers had died recently. The boy ran home, his father took a gang to the graveyard to open his late wife’s tomb, and they found it empty.
However the discovery actually occurred, word spread quickly through a populace already deeply suspicious of the medical school. Eighteenth-century physicians faced a chronic shortage of cadavers for dissection and anatomy lessons, compounded by the difficulty of keeping bodies fresh without refrigeration or chemical embalming, which wouldn’t become available for decades yet. In New York, they weren’t even allowed to claim unidentified corpses found lying in the streets. Not surprisingly, then, they turned to grave-robbery, or “resurrection.” So long as they confined their digging to the public cemetery, for those too poor to afford private burial, or to the African Burial Ground, where both slave and free African Americans were buried, white New Yorkers largely turned a blind eye. Some even encouraged it, like the “strong advocate for science” who wrote: “I rather believe that the only subjects procured for dissection, are productions of Africa … and those too, who have… been transmitted to gaols … for… burglary and other capital crimes; and if those characters are the only subjects of dissection, surely no person can object.”
African Americans could and did object. On February 3, 1788, a group of freedmen petitioned the Common Council to put an end to the desecration of black graves. “Your petitioners are well aware of the necessity of physicians and surgeons consulting dead subjects for the benefit of mankind,” they wrote. “Your petitioners do not presuppose it as an injury to the deceased and would not be adverse to dissection in particular circumstances, that is, if it is conducted with the decency and propriety which the solemnity of such occasion requires.”
At the same time, a series of letters to the Daily Adviser by a correspondent calling himself “Humanio” claimed that while the corpses might have been used “for the purpose of improvement in anatomy,” they were also being fed to swine and sold along the docks. “If a law were passed, prohibiting the bodes of any other than Criminal from being dissected, unless by particular desire of the dying,” he wrote, “a stop might be put to the horrid practice here; and the minds of a very great number of my fellow-liberated, or still enslaved Negroes, quieted.”
The petition to the Common Council was ignored, but Humanio’s letters sparked an exchange with “A Student of Physic,” widely believed to be John Hicks Jr. After a letter in which Humanio described the invasion of a private African American graveyard owned by Scipio Gray, who had been forced at musket-point to watch while Columbia College medical students dug up the bodies of an elderly person and child, the Student of Physic wrote: “Kind and generous Humanio… for thou standest up in defense of the rights and privileges of the dead: and the dead when they recover the use of their tongues, shall gratefully thank thee… your head is too empty, and your heart too full … and to whom would Humanio call for assistance, should he snap his leg, or burst a blood vessel? Run, run to that barbarous man who has dissected the most flesh and anatomized the most bones.”
As the spring thaw approached, the students grew bolder. They began to invade private cemeteries and make off with more priveleged corpses. On April 16, 1788, Colonel William Heth wrote: “The Corpse of a Young gentleman from the West Indias, was lately taken up – the grave left open, & the funeral clothing scatterd about. A very handsome & much esteemd young lady, of good connections was also, recently carryd off. These – with various other acts of a similar kind – inflamed the minds of people exceedingly, and the young members of the faculty, as well as the Mansions of the dead, have been closely watchd.”
One of the Mansions the people watched was Trinity Churchyard, from which Heth’s “handsome and much esteemd young lady” had been snatched. Not coincidentally, that was also the graveyard from which the mother of the traumatized young boy allegedly taunted by Hicks had vanished. Whether or not that event occurred, something drew a large crowd to Columbia College on April 13, 1788. The students and their professors set themselves to rescuing their wax models and anatomical specimens, while Wright Post – a young doctor who kept an office at the school – and four students confronted the rioters in the lecture hall. The mob carried off whatever they could lay their hands on, then turned their attention to the anatomy room, where they found a scene later described as “a shocking shamble of human flesh.” “In the Anatomy room, were found three fresh bodies – one, boiling in a kettle, and two others cuting 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.” The protestors shared their outrage with those outside, by “[seizing] upon the fragments, as heads, legs and arms, and exposed them from the windows and doors to public view, with horrid imprecations.”
Some two thousand people watched as the rioters dragged as many medical students as they could find into the streets. It’s a wonder none of them was killed. One group broke off from the mob to bury the “fragments” they’d so recently dangled out the windows, while others marched down Broadway in search of “the odious Dr. Hicks.” They didn’t find him, but they did take out their aggression on several men unlucky enough to be wearing black, the color traditionally worn by physicians.
As the night wore on, the crowd dispersed, but it reassembled the next morning, still baying for Dr. Hicks’s blood. It tracked him to Dr. John Cochran’s house, across the street from Trinity Church, and tore the place apart looking for him. Apparently, though, no one thought to look on the roof – he was hiding behind the next-door neighbor’s chimney. He managed to escape without notice, and fled the state while the mob “ransacked the homes of every doctor in New York.” It didn’t find the doctors at home, though, as Mayor James Duane had had them escorted to the Fields, where the jail, gallows, whipping posts and stocks were located.
Tuesday, Alexander Hamilton took to the steps of Columbia College to plead for order, but the rioters rushed past him to search the school for medical students and body parts. Not finding either, they moved up Smith Street, where the wealthy had their mansions, and Hamilton and his well-to-do friends followed, mouthing eloquent pleas for reconcilation that the mob ignored.
Finally, on Wednesday, when five thousand people (one-sixth of the population) stormed the Fields, the mayor called in the militia. When someone clobbered Baron von Steuben, a well-respected veteran of the Revolutionary War, with a rock, he ordered the soldiers to fire. The first volley went over the rioters’ heads, but the second punched into the crowd. Hearing the shots, a company of cavalry clattered up Broadway and scattered the demonstrators. The fighting went on for hours, and by the end, no one knew how many had been killed. The jail had been all but destroyed, and the student physicians and their professors were billed for the damages.
In 1789, the state legislature passed a law prohibiting “the odious practice of digging up and removing for the purpose of dissection, dead bodies interred in cemeteries or burial places,” but allowing doctors and medical students to practice on the bodies of executed felons. As there were never enough executed felons, a brisk trade in cadavers continued. In the South, slaveowners quite legally sold the bodies of their deceased slaves as anatomical specimens. Elsewhere, career criminals known as Resurrection Men moved in to supply a constant stream of bodies in exchange for cash. (Some, like William Burke and William Hare, in Edinburgh, found the practice so lucrative they were even willing to kill for it.) In New York, these practices persisted into the 19th century, when medical schools were allowed to receive unclaimed bodies from the public morgues. In other parts of the United States, grave robbing for anatomical training continued into the 20th century.
Featured Image: The Reward of Cruelty, by William Hogarth. The full image is available here.