- 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
It was quite dark when the militia officers and gentlemen swordsmen started up Broadway to defend the jail. One of them, General Matthew Clarkson, ran ahead to 133 Broadway, the home of John Jay, a Columbia alumnus (in the pre-Revolution days when it had been called King’s College) and now Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
“My God, Jay!” cried Clarkson as Jay opened the door, “the mob is surrounding the jail! They’re going to break in and rip up the doctors. If they succeed we’ll have murder and universal confusion. There’s no time to lose! Can you let me have a sword?”
Though he suffered from rheumatism, John Jay bounded up the stairs to get weapons for himself and Clarkson.
The militia officers and gentlemen swordsmen, headed by Governor Clinton and General Malcolm, had by now reached the Fields and were marching through the rioters toward the jail. Wrote one officer who was among them: “We marched up to the jail, and the mob waited for us until we were within ten paces of the door; our orders were not to fire: The mob were of opinion that we dare not fire, or if we did, it would be over their heads. This sentiment added to their temerity, and as soon as we entered the jail yard, they began to throw brick bats, stones and sticks.”
It was at this moment that Jay and General Clarkson arrived at the scene to join those in the jailyard. Many in the throng knew and admired Jay, but the riot had by then created such confusion, and there were so many people milling about shouting so many conflicting things, that it was hard in the drizzle and darkness to distinguish between friend and foe, physician and statesman, gentleman and laborer. As Jay looked back over his shoulder, his face caught a flash of light from one of the torches, and a rock came flying through the air and struck him in the head. He fell at the feet of General Clarkson, who immediately got help and carried him, unconscious and bleeding, to the almshouse next door.
At this point Governor Clinton would no doubt have ordered the militia to fire on the mob, had it not been for the man shouting in his ear above the pandemonium. It was Baron von Steuben, and he was pleading with the Governor, as he had done all the way up Broadway, not to allow the soldiers to use their muskets. Then suddenly von Steuben found himself tottering backward and falling to the ground from the blow of a well-aimed brick against the side of his head. He had no sooner put his hand to his head and felt the blood than he had a change of heart toward the rioters. “Fire, Governor!” he shouted. “Fire!”
When another leading citizen, Commodore Nicholson, was struck down, and the mob only increased the tempo and force of its barrage, the militiamen (as one of their officers said later) “could not be restrained any longer, cooped as they were in the jail yard. They began to fire at first high, which the mob did not reward. After this trial, in vain, to disperse them, they levelled their muskets with full effect, and several [of the rioters] were wounded.”
Pressing their advantage, the militiamen split in two; one half remained in the jailyard while the other half, bayonets fixed, charged and drove the mob back through the Fields toward the Brick Presbyterian Church. So outnumbered were these charging soldiers, however, that instead of driving the mob back in a body they succeeded only in cutting a path through it—a path that immediately closed behind them. By the time they reached the Brick Presbyterian Church, they found themselves surrounded.
Then they fired in the direction of the jailyard. This not only caused the other soldiers stationed there to fire back—confused in the rain and darkness as to exactly who was firing—but it gave the mob a chance to attack them before they could reload. As a result, they were forced to retreat—not toward the jail this time, for the mob had already reoccupied that area, but away from it.
Before the rout was complete, a company of cavalrymen came galloping up Broadway. From a window in a house opposite St. Paul’s Chapel an eight-year-old boy named William Alexander Duer saw the whole spectacle: “Never shall I forget the charge I saw made upon a body of the rioters …” he said sixty years later after retiring as president of Columbia. "… I first perceived the troop as it debouched from Fair, now Fulton, Street, and attacked the masses collected at the entrance of the Fields … some of them retreating into the churchyard—driven … through the portico by the troopers striking right and left…”
And so it went throughout the night until several rioters were killed and many wounded, and countless officers and gentlemen in flare-ups here, there, and everywhere were mauled and beaten. During one of the lulls in the fighting, General Clarkson and Dr. John Charlton helped John Jay from the almshouse and drove him home.
“The stone must have been large,” Mrs. Jay wrote in a letter to her mother, “as it made two large holes in his forehead. Judge, Mama, of my feelings, when I saw him hurried from the carriage to the chamber by the Doctor and other gentlemen. The Doctor immediately ascertained his wounds, and to my unspeakable relief pronounced that there was no fracture.”