New York

Doctor’s riot of 1788

April 16, 1788
New York, New York
A three-day riot begins between doctors at a medical school and citizens of the city

Tensions had been high in the area for some time as the medical school was known to rob graves to obtain fresh human cadavers for dissection; the practice of “violating” a body was a taboo at the time, so very few bodies were willingly provided to schools. One of physicians teaching at Columbia College had received his medical training in England, where grave robbing was much more common. Because of this, he himself was known to visit the two nearby cemeteries to obtain specimens.

On or around April 16, am incident involving a human cadaver’s severed arm sparked public outrage. One version of the story claims the arm was hung from a window to dry which a group of passing children witnessed. Another reports a curious boy who climbed a ladder to peer into a classroom and a student, John Hicks, casually waved the arm at the boy. The third — and most sensational — states a group of children were playing by the school when Hicks called to the children, waved the arm at them, and told one of the boys the arm belonged to the child’s recently deceased mother. In all versions, the children informed their parents of the arm and an infuriated mob stormed the school.

Alexander Hamilton attempted to calm the mob at the steps to the school, but was unsuccessful. The crowd swept past him and searched for any signs of dissection. Finding none, they rushed to the jail where many doctors and medical students were being kept for their protection. By this time, the rioters numbers had swelled to 5,000.

The riots spread throughout the city, with physicians forced to leave or go into hiding. The mob searched for any doctors or medical students left with Hicks, considered the source of the riot, the primary target.

Militiamen were initially under strict orders not to fire at the rioters, until two prominent men were injured: Secretary of Foreign Affairs (and future first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) John Jay who “got his scull almost crackd” by a rock and General Baron von Steuben who was hit with a brick. After these attacks, the militiamen no longer held back and fired into the crowds.

The rioting only ceased a few days later when the governor ordered a militia to patrol the streets and restore order. Between 6 and 20 casualties were suffered.

In the wake of the riots, graves were opened to verify their occupants were still present and guards were positioned in the cemeteries to ensure the rest of the deceased would not be disturbed. The doctors, for their part, formally announced no cadavers were obtained from cemeteries in the city. However, the potter’s field and Negroes Burial Grounds were not technically within city limits; the physicians neglected to comment if these cemeteries were desecrated.

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