1788 Two Hundred Years Ago

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On April 13 a group of boys playing on the grounds of New York Hospital in New York City looked up to see a mischievous medical student standing at a window, waving a severed limb. One of the boys found a ladder and climbed up to the third-floor window. Peering inside, he witnessed what a local newspaper later called “a shocking shamble of human flesh”—a gruesome array of cadavers and body parts.

The unsettled child blurted something about his recently deceased mother. The medical student, John Hicks, Jr., picked up an arm and told the boy it was his mother’s. Horrified, the boy fled home and told his father about the morbid incident.

There had been talk of body snatching in New York City. Municipal law made no provision for the legal acquisition of cadavers for study, and the city’s medical students resorted to skulking about on moonless nights, exhuming corpses from fresh graves.

Most students at New York Hospital and Columbia College confined their body snatching to the nearby potter’s field and to the burial ground for blacks. Free blacks and the city’s poor raised some fuss, but outrage did not become widespread until a body disappeared from the respectable Trinity Churchyard.

When the father heard his son’s story, he armed himself with pick and shovel and hurried to his wife’s grave site. There he found an empty coffin. Enraged, the man set out for New York Hospital, recruiting others along the way. The mob had swelled to hundreds by the time it reached the hospital. Doctors and students, including Hicks, fled for their lives. Rioters piled up bones and anatomical specimens for a bonfire.

The tumult continued throughout the next day, though by this time most doctors and medical students had either left the city or been arrested. The mob converged on the city jail, where a skirmish between rioters and the local militia left several men dead and many wounded.

The following year the state legislature passed a law “to prevent the odious practice of digging up and removing for the purpose of dissection, dead bodies interred in cemeteries or burial places.” The new law imposed stiffer penalties for grave robbing.

The task of procuring bodies for dissection eventually fell to professional body snatchers, and New York’s burial grounds became the source of cadavers for most of the nation. The situation remained uncorrrected until the 1854 “bone bill” provided medical schools with unclaimed bodies.