The Doctors Riot

In 1788 thousands of New Yorkers took up arms to protest grave robbing for medical dissection—a mob swept the city searching for and beating doctors, who took refuge in jail

 By Harriet Washington

New Yorkers hunting down doctors who were conducting illegal dissections. (Harper's Illustrated Weekly)

New Yorkers hunting down doctors who were conducting illegal dissections. (Harper’s Illustrated Weekly)

Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, heroes of the newly minted American republic, did not spend April 15, 1788, penning the Federalist Papers, nor were they holding forth on the virtues of a free press while bedecked in morning coats and powdered wigs.

Instead they crouched, bleeding profusely, behind members of the state militia on the outskirts of New York City. Bodies lay scattered and blood pooled in the streets as hordes of shrieking, outraged New Yorkers fled the militia’s bullets in a chaos of fear. Many of the fleeing were badly wounded, some fatally, but the city’s doctors couldn’t help them: nearly all were in jail.

In 1788 one of every five New Yorkers was African American, and they had a serious grievance. In 1712 and in 1741, New York slave rebellions had been triggered by refusals to allow African Americans to bury their dead. By the late 18th century, they were allowed to use the Negros Burying Ground, north of Chambers Street. But few of the deceased remained in their graves.

Most of the bodies used by scientists, students and physicians at New York Hospital and at Columbia College, which then housed the city’s only school of medicine, were unceremoniously ripped from the black graveyard. Anatomical dissection ran counter to strong 19th century sentiments regarding the sanctity of the body that were shared by blacks and whites. Dissection was seen as a shameful social abomination and many believed that it could prevent resurrection. It was also illegal.

On Feb 3, 1788, freedmen petitioned the Common Council for relief. They wrote that they harbored no objection to dignified and organized medical research and dissection, but they resented the nightly gatherings of loud, swaggering, drunken, black-clad adolescent “students of Physic” who, “under cover of Night and in the most wanton of sallies,” unearthed black bodies to “mangle their flesh out of a wanton curiosity and then expose it to the Beasts and Birds.”

The council did not deign to reply and the popular press proved indifferent: “The only subjects procured for dissection are the productions of Africa . . . if these are the only subjects of dissection, surely no one can object.” But when emboldened young medical students extended their forays into white graveyards at Trinity Church and the Brick Presbyterian Church, New Yorkers did object, en masse.

On April 13, 1788, two months after the freedmen’s fruitless petition, children playing outside a window of New York Hospital annoyed John Hicks, who brandished an arm he was dissecting at a small boy with crude mockery: “It’s your mother’s arm! I just dissected it!” Had he known that the boy’s mother had recently died, he might have held his tongue. The boy ran home to tell his father, who gathered friends and proceeded to Trinity cemetery to investigate by digging up his late wife’s grave: it was empty.

The enraged group complained loudly of medical butchery as it headed for the New York Hospital building, amassing a crowd of 400 resentful citizens. According to eyewitness James Thacher, “Some of the mob having forced their way into the dissecting-room, several human bodies were found in various states of mutilation. Enraged, they exposed them from the windows and doors to public view, with horrid imprecations.” All the doctors ran off, except five who sought to protect the anatomical specimens, but they were overwhelmed, dragged into the street and beaten by the crowd, which was now 2,000 strong.

The rioters swept from house to house, searching for hidden doctors to assault—merely wearing the physicians’ trademark all-black attire was enough to earn one a serious beating. Alerted to the crisis, Mayor James Duane ordered the bailiff to lock all the city’s doctors in the municipal jail at a square called Fields for their own protection. This square, also known as Broadway Commons, was the site of the gallows, whipping posts and stocks, and it lay between what is now Ann Street on the south and Chambers Street on the north. Broadway and Nassau Streets made up its western and eastern boundaries.

The crowd snowballed into 5,000 indignant citizens—one-sixth of all New Yorkers, black and white—as they hurtled down Broadway in search of the abominable Hicks. He had taken refuge in John Cochran’s house, across the street from Trinity Church, and although the mob destroyed the home looking for him, Hicks escaped to the roof and hid behind a neighbor’s chimney. He ultimately managed to escape and fled the state. Most other terrified doctors reached the Fields and managed to claw their way into jail, taking refuge among the gallows, stocks and the scourging stage. If they could not get in, they had to “slip out of windows, creep behind bean barrels, crawl up chimneys and hide beneath feather beds,” recalled Thacher.

The mob “ransacked the homes of every doctor in New York,” and battered the jailhouse all through the night. Afraid that the throng was about to breach the jail, Governor George Clinton called out the militia, led by Manhattanite Baron von Steuben.

The next morning, the mob surged to Columbia College and Alexander Hamilton gravely ascended its steps to deploy his considerable oratory gifts to beg for order. Unmoved by his gravitas, rioters swarmed past him to locate medical students and body parts. Finding neither, they contented themselves with destroying laboratories before decamping to the wealthy Smith Street neighborhood. And so the day progressed. Thousands roared with anger at the “butchers” as they roamed the city in search of errant doctors, while they were trailed by John Jay and Hamilton, whose flowery pleas for reconciliation were ignored.

On Wednesday, April 15, the militia fought the mob for hours, until Hamilton tried to play peacemaker again. This time, he and Jay were stoned. As they cowered, bleeding, behind the militia, another well-aimed rock struck the Baron, who ordered the cavalry to open fire. As gunfire ripped through the shocked mob it dispersed, leaving at least five and many as 20 dead. Many later died of their gunshot wounds.

The mob had come close to breaching the jail, and it lay in shambles: The doctors were ordered to pay for its repair. Early the following year, New York passed a law against grave robbing; but it also freed a small number of bodies for dissection by permitting a double sentence of death and dissection for heinous crimes, “in order that science [might not] be injured by preventing the dissection of proper subjects.” The new law did not fulfill the medical quota however, and so the practice of grave-robbing continued, once again focused on black cemeteries.

In 1790, federal law legalized dissection. In 1830, Massachusetts become the first state to enact laws allowing unclaimed bodies to be used for dissection, and by 1840 many other states had followed suit. New York, however, passed such a law only in 1854.


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