American Heritage Book Selection: The Body Snatchers


The next day, with troops patrolling the streets, the few eruptions that did occur were quickly brought under control, and the city sought its normal level of activity. Many people who had not left their homes since the riots began walked or rode up Broadway to see what had happened to the jail. And indeed, the damage was so extensive that sixteen extra guards were there to prevent escapes during the repairs, which would take three months to complete. The anatomy students and their professors were ousted from the New York Hospital building; moreover, they were presented with a bill for damages to the tune of twenty-two pounds, seven shillings, ten pence.

Three months in jail was the usual sentence for stealing a dead body. After the riots, the first to be found guilty and sentenced was not John Hicks, Jr., but a young man named George Swinney, who had taken the “dead body of a white woman out of a coffin from a grave in Trinity Church Yard.” Hicks was indicted on four counts of body stealing, but the grand jury mysteriously adjourned before his case could be heard.

The medical profession had received a blow from which it would not recover for years. The furor and criticism did not even begin to abate until the winter following the riot. On January 16, 1789, the New York state legislature passed an “Act to prevent the odious practice of digging up and removing for the purpose of dissection, dead bodies interred in cemeteries or burial places.” Offenders would “stand in the pillory” or “suffer other corporal punishment (not extending to life or limb),” as well as “pay such fine, and suffer such imprisonment” as the court directed. At the same time, “in order that science [might not] be injured by preventing the dissection of proper subjects,” the act permitted the bodies of executed criminals to be delivered to surgeons for dissection.

This act was passed in an attempt to satisfy everybody, but the lawmakers knew, or should have known, that the bodies of executed criminals would never be sufficient for the needs of doctors and medical students in a city growing day by day.

As new medical schools were established in the city, professional body snatchers came into being and in time gained almost exclusive control of the supply of cadavers. The anatomists and surgeons, who from the beginning had been against grave robbing and in favor of the kind of legislation that would make it unnecessary and unprofitable, had no more choice than the citizens of the 1920s who wanted to obtain a bottle of whiskey. They had to co-operate with the professionals into whose control the supply had passed. With the advent of the railroad, bodies were even exported from New York to medical schools in other states. Indeed, in its first annual announcement in 1841, the medical department of the University of New York stated that

No city in the Union furnishes the same supply of the material for the study of practical Anatomy, as the City of New York .… It is a fact of notoriety, that a considerable part of the supply required in the dissecting rooms of Philadelphia has heretofore been obtained from New York, and a number of other medical schools in the country are mainly dependent on her, even for those subjects required for the illustration of their anatomical lectures.

In the early 1850s, when six to seven hundred graves in New York City and its environs were annually despoiled, the city’s most distinguished doctors joined in a plea for a change in the law. One important argument was that with the opening up of the western territories a great many physicians and surgeons would be needed, and they should be well trained.

In 1853, however, when a bill “for the Promotion of Medical Science” was introduced in the state legislature, it was fought by German and Irish immigrant societies as well as by councilmen of the City of New York, who urged the legislature to oppose by every means the passage of any bill legalizing the dissection of dead bodies. It was not until April of the next year that “the Bone Bill,” as it was commonly called, was passed. This “Act to Promote Medical Science” recognized dissection as an essential part of medical instruction and made unclaimed bodies from public institutions available in numbers adequate to the needs of the medical schools. Ironically, this was the same kind of act that doctors had asked for sixty-six years earlier, after the Doctors’ Riot of 1788.