- Historic Sites
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
By now Hamilton was joined in his peacemaking efforts by Mayor Duane, Governor George Clinton, and many other prominent citizens. The Governor and the Mayor, finding the people more than ever bent on revenge against the doctors, “went among them and endeavored to dissuade them from committing unnecessary depredations,” according to one eyewitness.
The mob leaders, frustrated by their failure to find anything in the college building and determined to carry their search to the homes and offices of the suspected physicians, led the way down to what John Adams called the “court end” of town, where “the rich, the well born, and the able” lived. The Governor and the Mayor, realizing that the better part of order would be to accompany the rioters rather than forbid them, continued their pacifying efforts for a good half mile through the rain.
By the time the mob reached Smith Street, where both Bayley and McKnight lived, the Governor and the Mayor had convinced those in the vanguard, many of whom carried torches, that if a search was to be made, the crowd should delegate leaders to make it; that way destruction and looting would be avoided. The leaders agreed and fortunately found nothing untoward in either of the doctors’ houses.
At this point many of those in the mob began to straggle off to taverns and tippling houses to moisten their throats and talk. But unfortunately, for every person who quit the mob two joined it, for news of the commotion was still spreading. Not only that, but among these latecomers were disreputable element from the waterfront—the kind of “loose strangers,” as Mayor Duane was later to call them, “who, having nothing to lose, eagerly join the throng, are the foremost in mischief, and lead on to every act of desperation without scruple or regret.”
This dangerous addition added impetus to the mob’s thrust up Broadway toward the jail and the still-imprisoned physicians. At the junction of Beekman and Nassau streets they fanned out over the green fronting on the Brick Presbyterian Church to wait for the stragglers to catch up. Through the drizzly twilight they could see their destination: the Fields, with its prisons, almshouse, gallows, whipping post, and stocks. With their torches, clubs, and tools dancing in the air, they waited until the press from behind made longer waiting impossible. Then, in a wild, eddying, screeching mass, they rushed upon the Fields, breaking through the enclosing fence and jamming into the area with such force that the gallows twisted and swayed in the air and came crashing to the ground. Quickly converting the timber into battering rams, then breaking off and using for clubs the chunky blocks of wood that made the whipping post and stocks so formidable, they pressed onward to the jail, whose rain-wet walls reflected their torches like huge mirrors.
“Bring out your doctors!” they cried, and threatened to tear down the building if necessary. They threw stones and bricks at it, broke through the fence around it, and made charges with their timber. Inside, the doctors clambered over broken glass to barricade the door and beat off—with the very missiles thrown at them—the attempts by the rioters to get at them through the unbarred windows on the ground floor.
The prison guards had orders not to fire unless the building itself was breached, so no lives were lost during this opening skirmish. But the rioters became more daring, and finally one of them actually succeeded in getting through a ground-floor window. When this man was killed by one of the guards with a bayonet, the rage of the mob increased to such fury that no one at the scene expected the physicians to remain alive.
The city authorities, by now thoroughly alarmed, sent a small force of eighteen militiamen to the scene but gave them strict orders not to fire on the rioters. Mayor Duane especially was determined that there be no more bloodshed. Another distinguished resident of the city who agreed with him was Baron von Steuben, the German general whose Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States had been of such value to the Revolutionary Army. The soldiers were to march to the jail with their muskets on their shoulders and by their presence alone subdue the rioters.
Their arrival brought about a lull in the riot, but no, sooner had they marched downtown again than the mob’s clamoring resumed where it had left off--and now became more violent. In fact, about an hour later, when the imprisoned doctors were in greater danger than ever, another small force appeared; this time the rioters, convinced they would not be fired upon, rushed the soldiers, snatched and smashed their muskets, and chased them back downtown.
By now the growing darkness added to the danger in the streets. Farther downtown Governor Clinton, Mayor Duane, Baron von Steuben, and many other prominent citizens were assembling—this time with every available member of the militia—for a march up Broadway to defend the prison. The reason for the confusion and delay in sending the militia in full force at the outset was later explained by an officer who took part in the action: “The Governor … ordered out the militia, but as they [the soldiers] were most of them with the mob, but fifty [were] collected with firearms … every man an officer … [and] many gentlemen [with] swords and clubs.”