American Heritage Book Selection: The Body Snatchers

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In another room they burst in upon a tall, elegant gentleman in a velvet coat, lace-ruffled shirt, and knee breeches; his hair was powdered and tied back in a queue. It was Dr. Wright Post, and in the room with him were three students and a rare collection of anatomical and pathological specimens—a collection so valuable, especially in a newly established country suffering from a dearth of doctors after a devastating war, that Post and the others had probably remained behind to protect it.

Driven to frenzy as much by one another as by the sight of the anatomical specimens, the rioters tore at and smashed everything in sight, piling the bones and the half-dissected subjects into carts and burning them to ashes in a huge bonfire in the street outside. And at the height of the shouting and destruction more subjects were discovered in another room—bodies too fresh not to have been just dug up. This so increased the fury of the rioters that Post and his three students, unmolested until now, were in danger of becoming fresh subjects themselves. Grabbed and torn at from all directions, they were dragged out of the building and would surely have been massacred (there were now over two thousand people milling about) had not Mayor James Duane and the sheriff arrived.

Mayor Duane immediately ordered the sheriff to jail Post and the students in an effort both to protect them and to placate the mob. Bruised and beaten, their clothes torn, the medical men were escorted, amidst jeers and epithets, down Broadway toward the prison.

The whole city was caught up in the disturbance now, and as the number of people in the street increased, confusion, unrest, and the danger of outright rebellion grew. The rioters now started down Broadway in search of the real culprit, “the obnoxious Dr. Hicks.” That Hicks had eluded them added to their anger and their disinclination to calm down and go home. As they forced their way downtown, pushing and shoving, their rage made every doctor an object of suspicion, a concealer of dead bodies if not of Hicks himself. At length they reached 97 Broadway.

“Here’s a doctor’s house!” someone shouted. “Dr. Cochran!”

What happened inside the Cochran home as the mob surrounded it, though never recorded, can easily be imagined. Dr. Cochran himself came to the door, but they pushed him aside and shouldered their way in. They wanted Hicks, and when after going from cellar to garret they failed to find him, they went so far as to open the scuttle to see if Hicks was hiding on the roof. Had they climbed out through the scuttle they would have found him huddled in the gathering darkness behind the chimney of the next house.

No graves were robbed that night as Hicks, most other medical students, and many physicians and surgeons left town under cover of darkness.

The next morning Dr. Bayley (who had joined the medical men in the jail during the night) made out an affidavit in which he swore that “he hath not, directly or indirectly, had any agency or concern whatsoever, in removing the bodies of any person or persons, interred in any churchyard, or cemetery, belonging to any place of public worship in [this] city; and that he hath not offered any sum of money to procure any human body so interred, for the purposes of dissection: and this deponent further saith, that no person or persons under his tuition, have had any agency or concern in digging up or removing any dead body interred in any of the said churchyards or cemeteries, to his knowledge or belief; and further this deponent saith not.”

This affidavit of Bayley’s, published the next day in the newspapers, clearly avoided the issue. Not only did it fail to mention the two cemeteries in the city where most of the grave robbing had taken place—potter’s field and the Negro burial ground—but it did not deny that his students might have taken bodies from churchyards or cemeteries belonging to places of public worship. All Dr. Bayley really said was that if they had, he didn’t know about it.

At any rate, while Bayley was swearing out his affidavit in the prison, the people began to gather again despite a chilly rain. They headed toward Columbia College.

On the steps of the college building they found a famous alumnus and trustee of the college, Alexander Hamilton, who had been informed of their intention to search the college building and had rushed from his home at 58 Wall Street to see if he could stop them. Suddenly, to the astonishment of the students attending classes inside, the mob broke past Hamilton and swarmed throughout the building. They inspected the museum, chapel, anatomical theatre, sitting rooms, studies, students’ bedchambers, and even the library, then almost bare of books after seven years of pilferage (a volume a day had kept a redcoat in rum). Fortunately for the college and perhaps for Alexander Hamilton himself, no anatomical specimens were found. They had been removed the day before by medical students who had succeeded in filtering through the mob unrecognized.