A young boy peered into the dissection room at New York Hospital in post-colonial Manhattan only to see medical student John Hicks, Jr. pick up a corpse’s arm and wave it at him. Hicks then shouted, “This is your mother’s hand. I just dug it up. Watch it or I’ll smack you with it!” The frightened boy ran into the April night believing every word the student had said because his mother had died a few days before.
The father, upon hearing the story, gathered some friends and headed toward the local cemetery and his wife’s burial plot. They found the grave open and empty. The hole hadn’t even been refilled and the coffin had been pried apart. Word soon spread through lower Manhattan and hundreds were storming the hospital.
It was the beginning of America’s first riot – The Doctors’ Mob Riot of 1788.
The perpetrators of the grave robbing were a group known as “resurrectionists” and their purpose was to get cadavers for medical instruction. Medical students and anatomy teachers of that time were frequently involved in grave robbing for this purpose. Resurrectionists preferred to rob the graves of the poor and homeless but had no problem with desecrating any unguarded plot if demand was great enough. The problem was so great in New York that wealthy families would pay a shotgun-wielding watchman to stand guard over a new burial for two weeks, after which time the body would become useless for dissection.
When the mob reached the hospital they circled the large building and blocked the exits. The torch carrying crowd cried to lynch the doctors inside and might have except that all but one had escaped out the rear windows. Only Dr. Wright Post and three students remained inside to protect anatomical specimens. But they couldn’t defy the rioters and everything from the rare specimens to surgical instruments were destroyed. Dr. Wright and his three students had been taken to the city jail by the sheriff in order to protect them.
The mob’s anger continued to build through the night. They were looking for vengeance and doctors as they moved from street to street. The crowd searched for John Hicks at the home of a prominent physician and would have found him had they looked in the attic.
In the morning Governor George Clinton called out the militia and many doctors scurried to leave town. But the mob increased in size as the day progressed and they eventually headed towards Columbia College. They attacked the college and destroyed yet more specimens and medical tools. Future Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton tried valiantly to quiet them while future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay was knocked unconscious by a thrown rock. By evening the rioters had descended on the Manhattan jail and would not disperse. Baron Friedrich von Stueben, a hero of the American Revolution, was leading the militia and refused to use force — that was until he was hit in the head by a brick. The order to shoot at the rioters was given.
The militia fired. Eight were killed and many more were seriously wounded. The doctors treated the wounded, and the rioters disbanded in the morning.
Weeks later the New York legislature passed a law allowing for the dissection of hanged criminals but the grave robbing continued as bodies started to arrive from Long Island. The resurrectionists and grave robbers didn’t stop providing cadavers until the middle of the 19th century, thus making the riot completely in vain.
Today a clandestine market still exists for cadavers and body parts in America. US law prohibits corpses from being traded and sold. Still, by using legal loopholes some corpses can generate above $10,000 per body.