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American Heritage Book Selection: The Body Snatchers
Columbia College presented a peaceful exterior in 1788, but inside its medical laboratories something strange was going on; and under cover of darkness freshly interred bodies were disappearing from nearby burying grounds
June 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 4
Meanwhile, the free Negroes in the city, having waited in vain for the Common Council to act, had obtained the use of a private burial yard in Gold Street. One Scipio Gray owned the yard and lived right next to it, so he acted as the yard’s custodian. Considering the temper of the people, one would think that the students would have avoided this private yard on Gold Street. But one dark midnight a group of them, accompanied by the “Student of Physic” who had answered Humanio’s letter in the Daily Advertiser, went to Scipio Gray’s house and ordered him, “at the peril of his life,” to remain indoors. Several of them then went to the yard and disinterred the corpse of a child and that of an aged person. When Mr. Gray asked them “if they were not ashamed of their conduct,” the Student of Physic replied that he would do the same to his own grandfather and grandmother and “think it no crime.”
Humanio related these events in a second letter to the Daily Advertiser. The Student’s answer did not deny the charges; instead, he warned Humanio
not to be so rash and imprudent, as again to attempt to espouse the cause of his fellow sufferers (for I take him to be some manumitted slave) without first applying for another quarter’s tuition at the free negro school; that he may thereby be enabled to convey his meanings, at least in good, if not in elegant, language.
Student of Physic, Jun. Broad-Way
When the Advertiser printed this letter, on March 1, 1788, the issue could not have been more sharply drawn between those who did not want the dead disinterred and those who felt that disinterring them was in the public interest. A clash was inevitable, and it came on Sunday, April 13. The trouble started at the New York Hospital building, where some boys were playing on the grass below the rooms in which Doctors Bayley and Post held anatomy lectures.
Among Bayley’s students that year was a young man named John Hicks, Jr., whose father had worked in the General Hospital as an “Established Mate” during the British occupation and was now listed in the city directory as a doctor. The younger Hicks, like the writer of the letters to Humanio, was both a “junior” and a medical student with a Broadway address. He was suspected of being both the writer of the letters and the man who threatened Scipio Gray, but this was never proved.
On April 13 he was in the dissecting room, and while the boys were playing below, he took up a dismembered limb and waved it out the window so the boys would see it. College students were younger in those days (the average freshman was fifteen years old), and Hicks, who was not to receive his M.D. for five more years, was of an age for thoughtless pranks. The matter might have ended there, had it not been that one of the boys had recently been bereaved of his mother. This boy was particularly horrified—and morbidly curious, too.
Workmen repairing the hospital had left in the yard a ladder long enough to reach the edge of the dissecting room window on the third floor. Cautiously, the boy put the ladder against the building and climbed it until his eyes rose above the window sill and he saw Negro and white cadavers in various stages of dismemberment. In his horror and dismay he shouted something about his mother’s death, and at this point Hicks lifted a limb from one of the tables and told the boy to “look at his mother’s arm.” Indeed, since Hicks was soon to be indicted by the grand jury for stealing the dead body of a woman, he might have been telling the boy the truth.
At any rate, the boy scrambled off the ladder and ran down Broadway to his father, a mason, who was working with a crew of men on a building farther downtown. Had there been no recent alarm about body snatchers, the father might have cursed the students, quieted the boy, and gone on working. But all the gossip and rumors sent him rushing to his wife’s grave with a pick and shovel. When he uncovered the coffin and found it empty except for the burial clothes, he returned to the workmen he had left, filled with that boundless kind of hatred of which great riots are made.
John Hicks, Jr., must have sensed danger: before the workmen arrived, carrying tools for weapons and recruiting hundreds of partisans on their way up Broadway, he had left the hospital and hurried to the home of Dr. John Cochran, at 97 Broadway. Dr. Cochran was a personal friend of George Washington and other prominent citizens. He had retired and was no longer practicing as a doctor. Surely his house, of all the houses in the city, would escape search.
The clamor of the approaching mob warned the students and professors at New York Hospital (all but four of them) to make a hasty departure. Having unhinged the doors, the workmen pressed from room to room and from floor to floor, calling on the students to present themselves. But they found nothing and no one until they reached the rooms where the anatomy and surgery lectures were conducted. There they came upon what an eyewitness called “a great number of bones, and many subjects partly dissected, with preparations, etc.” The Daily Advertiser described it as “a shocking shamble of human flesh.”