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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
It was February 15, 1788, a Friday morning, in the offices of the New York Daily Advertiser at 28 Hanover Square in New York City. Francis Quids, the paper’s printer and editor, had just received a letter from a reader who asked that the letter be published. Because New York was small, extending only as far north as Chambers Street and containing only thirty thousand people, almost everyone knew what was going on in it. Still, the letter was shocking —not in the sense that it told Mr. Childs something he did not know about the city, but because it declared openly what was being discussed privately in tavern, home, and coffeehouse.
Mr. Childs decided to publish the letter. Whether he sensed the importance of what he was doing, or was merely anxious to be the first to establish in print the existence of the controversy, he set off a chain of events that was to involve New York, the country in general, and the medical profession in particular, for the next half century.
Mr. Printer [the letter began], The repositories of the dead have been held in a manner sacred, in all ages, and almost in all countries. It is a shame, that they should be so very scandalously dealt with, as I have been informed they are in this City. It is said that few blacks are buried, whose bodies are permitted to remain in the grave. And, that even enclosed burying-grounds, belonging to Churches, have been robbed of their dead: That swine have been seen devouring the entrails and flesh of women … that human flesh has been taken up along the docks, sewed up in bags; and that this horrid practice is pursued to make a merchandize of human bones, more than for the purpose of improvement in Anatomy. … If a law was passed, prohibiting the bodies of any other than Criminals from being dissected, unless by particular desire of the dying … for the benefit of mankind, a stop might be put to the horrid practice here; and the minds of a very great number of my fellow-liberated, or still enslaved Blacks, quieted. By publishing this, you will greatly oblige both them, and your very humble servant.
The letter was signed “Humanio.”
Twelve days before this letter appeared, the free and enslaved Negroes in the city had petitioned the Common Council to prevent the desecration of their graveyard, but the Common Council apparently intended to do nothing about it. Although the bodies of poor whites had been stolen as well, the churchyards, where citizens of substance were buried, had been left unmolested. As one citizen, who called himself “a strong advocate for science,” put it: “I rather believe that the only subjects procured for dissection, are productions of Africa … and those too, who have … been transmitted to gaols … for … burglary and other capital crimes; and if those characters are the only subjects of dissection, surely no person can object.”
The only qualified medical school in the city at that time was part of Columbia College, which occupied a three-story stone building just two and a half blocks uptown from St. Paul’s Chapel at what is now Park Place. It had an anatomical theatre, where Dr. Charles McKnight of the medical faculty lectured in anatomy. Dr. McKnight, who had been a senior surgeon in the American Army of the Revolution, was progressive to the point of being ahead of his time. He had saved many lives by performing operations that later became accepted surgical procedures.
Two doctors who were not affiliated with Columbia, Richard Bayley and his protégé, Wright Post, gave private lectures at the otherwise unused New York Hospital building (vacant since the British had housed soldiers in it during the Revolution). It was not unusual in those days for surgeons to give private instruction in anatomy, both to college students and to doctors’ working apprentices. Dr. Bayley was a highly skilled surgeon who that very month, though antiseptics were unknown and the only anesthetics in use were opium and whiskey, extracted a bladder stone of 2½ ounces from a man fifty-eight years old, and another weighing no less than 7½ ounces from a man sixty-eight years old. He of all surgeons in America would have agreed with his colleague in London, Dr. Charles Bell, who claimed that the legal supply of bodies was inadequate. “Unless there are a succession of bloody murders, not three subjects are dissected in a year,” Dr. Bell said.
At about the same time that Humanio’s letter appeared in the Daily Advertiser, the newspapers were also carrying notices about the anatomy lectures being offered by Doctors Bayley and Post. It therefore did not take an unduly suspicious public to link the lectures with the stealing of dead bodies from the city’s graveyards. Despite common agreement that the study of anatomy was absolutely necessary for medical men, the attitude of the Negroes toward grave robbing was shared by the general public. Among rich and poor alike, post-mortem dissection was considered a great indignity. The ironical result was that surgeons were criticized for want of skill and castigated for trying to develop it.
Even if New York had followed the lead of Massachusetts and enacted a law giving the surgeons the bodies of those killed in duels and those executed for killing another in a duel (Massachusetts had passed such an act in 1784, more to discourage dueling than to help the study of anatomy), the supply of bodies would still have been inadequate to the needs of the professors and their students. What doctors needed was a law giving all the city’s unclaimed bodies to Columbia College and other authorized anatomy schools, but this the lawmakers, aware of the temper of the people, refused to pass. The only legal way to dispose of a dead body, therefore, was to bury it. Once buried, it could not be exhumed—except by consent of the relatives—without committing an indictable offense against the common law.
This impasse left the professors with three choices: They could abandon the teaching of anatomy altogether and thereby stunt the growth of American surgery; they could teach theory and send their students out to practice on live patients; or they could obtain bodies surreptitiously. In the British Isles, medical schools were kept supplied with anatomical subjects by professional body snatchers—resurrectionists. These men were usually criminals anyway, and sometimes even murderers, who stole bodies recklessly and often fought skirmishes over them within graveyard walls. In America, in the years immediately following the Revolution, the professors eliminated the middleman by stealing bodies themselves—at first so discreetly that they did not arouse the public’s attention.
The trouble started when anatomy students advanced to the stage when a practical acquaintance with the human body required that they do the dissecting themselves. Were the professors to go out and steal bodies for their students at an increased tuition rate? Or were they, as in England and Scotland, to find resurrectionists to do the stealing for them and defray the cost by raising the laboratory fee? As it worked out in New York in the late 1780s, a do-it-yourself method came into use, as it had in England and Scotland before resurrectionism became a business: each student was expected to obtain his own bodies to dissect, just as he was expected to obtain his own paper and quills and books.
The compactness of the city at the time, the way the graveyards were tucked here and there in nooks and corners all over town, the general lawlessness following the war, and the ineffectiveness of the city watch (forty-odd men with clubs who guarded the city at night) were to the advantage of the students. Potter’s field and the Negro burial ground were adjacent to each other in the upper reaches of the Fields, a triangular plot of ground now the site of City Hall Park. This meant that medical students from both Columbia and the New York Hospital classes were only a few blocks from the city’s two least guarded and least respected burial grounds. Not only that, but since several paupers were often buried in a single grave, more bodies were usually obtained in less time here than in a churchyard, where it was unusual for more than one person to be buried on the same day.
The students naturally carried on their activities after dark, especially on moonless nights when the city’s only illumination came from whale-oil lamps set atop posts in the street. These were few and far between, and so poorly trimmed and cleaned that instead of giving off a full body of light they “barely made the darkness visible.” On moonlit nights, and on nights when the moon was expected to appear, the lamplighters took the evening off and didn’t light the lamps at all. When a cloud obscured the moon, the danger to the students was not so much in being seen as in colliding with one of the posts in the street, falling over a pig or a goat, being attacked by ruffians in an alley, or literally tripping over a bereaved relative or someone hired to guard a grave.
In most cases, because the soil above a fresh grave was loose and the students worked in relays at top speed, it took only about an hour to uncover a coffin, remove the corpse, and restore the earth to its former position. Rocky or pebbly soil had to be removed with wooden shovels to avoid the noisy scraping of metal against stone. If the time of night or the state of the moon made a speedier operation essential, a hole was dug only to the head of the coffin and only enough of the lid was broken off to drag the body out. In either case, the corpse had to be disrobed and the clothes returned to the coffin before the grave could be refilled and an escape made. The clothes and the coffin, if not the body, belonged to the heirs or relatives, and to take them would be stealing.
Since bodies were of no use for dissection purposes after advanced putrefaction had set in, the thefts had to be made when it was most dangerous to make them, that is to say, when the relatives of the deceased might still be on watch or making frequent graveside visits. Friends or relatives who could not watch a grave themselves or afford grave watchers, or whose loved ones were not buried in protected churchyards, would often place an object on or just below the surface of a freshly made grave, so that they could tell whether the earth had been disturbed. The medical students and their professors, therefore, took note of such objects and carefully replaced them so that relatives, who were naturally reluctant to have graves reopened anyway, would assume all was well and never learn of the theft.
Some of the wealthier students used a trick designed to avoid entirely the trouble and danger of an exhumation. They would hire a seasoned sailor from one of the ships in the harbor, pair him off with one of the older harridans from the red-light district between Columbia and St. Paul’s, and dress them both in mourning clothes. The sailor and the woman would then call at the almshouse where some unknown had just died and, with an appropriate show of grief, claim the body of their dear departed relative. If they succeeded in convincing the almshouse custodian (who might have been paid beforehand to be convinced), the trip from the almshouse to either Columbia or the hospital was only a matter of blocks.
An even easier method was to bribe one of the undertakers who served the poor or those buried at the public’s expense. The coffin would be interred with nothing in it but weights, and the body hidden. That night, or preferably the next morning, a heavy sack, packing crate, or barrel would be carted through the streets to a certain destination. And there were also gravediggers who, for a reasonable sum, would remove the body from a coffin and put it in a sack after the mourners had departed. They would then bury the sack close to the surface of the grave, ready for a quick removal by the students that night.
Unlike the professors, who found it distressing to have to resort to grave robbing and therefore did so as discreetly as possible, the students (or at least a few of them) did not take enough pains to cover their tracks—with the result that more and more bodies were discovered to be missing.
And Humanio’s letter in the Daily Advertiser seemed only to make them more daring in their escapades and more contemptuous of the public’s attitude.
Wrote one young “Student of Physic” to Mr. Childs in defense of himself and his colleagues:
Great offence, it seems, has been given to some very tender and well meaning souls by gentlemen of the medical department, for taking out of the common burying ground of this city bodies that had been interred there; one in particular, whose philanthropy is truly laudable, has obtained a place for his moving lamentations in your useful paper.
He then went on at great length to justify the robbing of graves (“Whence is skill in surgery to be derived?”) and then to abuse the writer of the letter (“Kind and generous Humanio … your head is too empty, and your heart too full … And to whom would Humanio call for assistance, should he snap his leg, or burst a blood vessel? Run, run [he would say] to that barbarous man who has dissected most flesh and anatomized most bones”).
Doctors Bayley, Post, and McKnight must have winced to see this unnecessarily abusive letter printed in the Daily Advertiser—and on the same day as an announcement which read:
100 Dollars REWARD
Whereas one night last week, the grave of a person recently interred in Trinity Churchyard was opened, and the Corpse, with part of the clothes, were carried off.—Any person who will discover the offenders, so that they may be convicted and brought to justice, will receive the above reward from the Corporation of the Trinity Church
—By Order of the Vestry Robert C. Livingston, Treasurer New York Feb. 21, 1788
With this theft from Trinity churchyard, the Negroes and poor whites found powerful allies, for the city’s most respected and influential families buried their dead there. Reaction against the students therefore spread, and since neither public petitions nor private pressure could move the Common Council to action, letters to the Daily Advertiser increased, along with its circulation.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.