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The Doctors' Mob Riot

Article #119 • Written by Greg Bjerg

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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.

Article written by Greg Bjerg, published on 18 February 2006. Greg was born and raised in Iowa and graduated with a degree in Journalism from Drake University. Sadly, he passed away on 20 March 2011.

Edited by Alan Bellows.

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Posted 18 February 2006 at 06:10 pm

Damn Interesting indeed!

Thought I'm curious to know what are the loopholes, I wish to have 10,000 dollars to donate when I die, or at least pay for my debts :P .

Posted 18 February 2006 at 10:19 pm

this is why i'm a daily hit. where the hell else will you read about this kinda stuff. killer cool

Posted 18 February 2006 at 10:40 pm

I will sell my body for $10,000 to anybody who wants it. I get the cash now. You get a notarized statement guaranteeing you my corpse upon my death.

A few notes...

Any evidence of foul play will invalidate the contract. But don't worry, I have diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. My days are no doubt short.

And a $10,000 windfall will likely shorten them even more. :)

Posted 19 February 2006 at 01:11 am

That's funny that that this artical would come up now.

The most recent episode of "NCIS" (CSI in the US Navy, not realted to the CSI franchise though) delt with a modern day equivenlt of this where a cremetorium would give the familys wood ash and sell the bodies.

Posted 19 February 2006 at 05:06 am

This reminds me of the news story we had over here (Britain) a while ago. Some animal rights activists decided that it would help their cause to dig up the deceased relative of a scientist who did work on animals.

Greg Bjerg
Posted 19 February 2006 at 12:20 pm

There are two new books, "Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains" and "Black Markets: The Supply and Demand of Body Parts" that cover the cadaver black market. While it is illegal in the US to buy or sell bodies, the law allows for reimbursement of "expenses". This can generate $10,000 or more in "expenses". Medical schools can legally pass bodies donated by relatives to brokers who then sell them, or rather expense them.

Posted 19 February 2006 at 04:12 pm

I wish someone would buy my body for 10,000 does it help if I'm built any or does it help if your of large stature

Posted 19 February 2006 at 09:17 pm

"In the morning Governor George Clinton called out the militia and many doctors scurried to leave town."

I wish that sentence had been:

"In the morning Governor George Clinton called out the funk! And many doctors boogied and got down."

Posted 20 February 2006 at 02:14 am

haha dave... I was afraid that I was the only person that made the funkadelic connection.

Posted 20 February 2006 at 02:44 am

If there has ever been a greater name for a song than "electric spanking of the war babies" I've not heard about it. All heil Bootsy Collins slap bass!

indra c
Posted 20 February 2006 at 05:10 am

How do you get from selling corpses to praising the ultra-lords of funk?

Now if THAT isn't damn-interesting...

Posted 24 February 2006 at 09:13 am

now thats just evil, digging up someones body and cutting it up. And it was one huge coincidence that the medical student picked this kid to mess around with.

Posted 13 March 2006 at 12:42 pm

I find it endlessly amusing that this apparently was the US's first riot. And John Jay, future cheif justice of the Supreme Court, was knocked out by a rock. How would you like to beam a judge in the face? Ah, gotta love mass chaos :P

Beautiful Confusion
Posted 23 August 2007 at 10:00 am

I used to think that grave robbing was done by the lowest of scum but later I found out that Leonardo Da Vincci did it back in his day to better understand the human body. He furthered medical research by providing the most detailed drawing and diagram of the human heart than what was available before that time. They say that it was doctor's were actually encouraged to study a corpse should they ever get the opportunity.

Beautiful Confusion
Posted 23 August 2007 at 10:03 am

*They say that doctor's were actually enoucouraged to study a corpse should they ever get the opportunity.*
sorry, i started to write something else and then decided against it.

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