Grave Robbing And The Doctors Riot of 1788


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new york hospitalThe origins of this civil disturbance began in early February of 1788 and broke out in mid April of that year. Actually the City’s doctors did not riot as the name implies. However, it had its origins in the illegal procurement of corpses of free blacks and slaves and poor whites by doctors and medical students at an unaccredited surgical training school in lower Manhattan led by Richard Bailey, a Connecticut-born doctor who had studied in London.

Apparently it was expensive and almost impossible for the school to provide corpses for its teaching purposes and the professors and students resorted to stealing them from nearby Trinity Church yard and other local cemeteries including the one for people of color then known the “Negro Burying Ground”

As it happened in early February of 1788, the increased number of corpses being stolen from this place alarmed the black community and on February 3rd, a group of New York City freedmen petitioned the Common Council to take action to stop the desecration of the graves and bodies of their black brethren. The petition was largely ignored, and no effort was made to stop the exhumations.

However, on or about April 16th , a group of white children were playing outside Richard Bailey’s training school which operated out of rented space at Kings College (now Columbia University) where a student named John Hicks, was dissecting an arm. Allegedly, the student, waved the arm out a nearby window, at the children, and told a boy whose mother had recently died that it belonged to her. The boy then ran home to inform his father of this. Upon exhuming his wife’s coffin and finding it empty, he gathered a group of friends and neighbors and led them to the school where they broke in and found several bodies in various stage of mutilation. Eventually, the number of protestors substantially grew. They surrounded the building, attempted to destroy it and attacked the professors and students. At this point, Mayor James Duane and the sheriff, arrived at the scene with a small detachment of municipal watchmen to escort the faculty and medical students to jail where they would be safe from the fury of the mob.

However the next day, an even larger crowd descended on Kings College where they confronted several of the alumni including Alexander Hamilton. He pleaded with the crowd for restraint but was shouted down and pushed aside and the crowd ran into the school, where they searched the entire place for signs of dissection. Finding no bodies, the crowd then marched down Broadway to the jail to get at the medical students and faculty. When they arrived they found Governor George Clinton, Mayor Duane, and other prominent politicians gathered there to urge them to disperse. The crowd’s t refusal forced the governor to call out a company of militia. They had orders not to fire but when Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay, and Revolutionary War hero, General Baron von Steuben, were hit with a bricks and rocks, the militiamen opened fire. Initially, at least three rioters and three members of the militia were killed, but by the time the riot was quelled several hours later the final death toll was estimated at 20.

This is a part of a series about 18th and 19th century racial and ethnic riots in the city of New York. The terms Negro and Black are used here in their historical context.

Illustration: New York City Hospital, extracted from Pen and Pencil Sketches of the Great Riots by HEADLEY, courtesy Wikimedia user Metilsteiner.

2 thoughts on “Grave Robbing And The Doctors Riot of 1788

  1. Loren Rhoads

    What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it. I’ve heard that there are “leftovers” from the dissection classes buried on the main quad at the University of Michigan, bodies that were robbed from graves to train doctors. Don’t know if it’s true, but it sparked my curiosity about the intersection between medical training and grave robbing in this county.

    Reply

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