The Gory New York City Riot that Shaped American Medicine

tags: New York City, medicine



Bess Lovejoy is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of "Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses."

For most Americans, being a physician is a respectable profession, held in high esteem and relatively untarnished by the constant health care debates. But that wasn’t always the case, and one of the first major riots in the post-revolution United States was caused by popular anger against doctors. The so-called “Doctors’ Riot,” which began on April 16, 1788, and killed as many as 20 people, influenced both the perception of American medicine and the way it was carried out for decades to come, even though it has been mostly forgotten today.

In the closing years of the 18th century, New York was home to only one medical school: Columbia College. At the time, those looking to practice medicine didn’t have to graduate from a professional school, and this led to some students attending private, not-for-credit classes at New York Hospital, taught by Richard Bayley, a Connecticut-born doctor who had studied in London with the famous Scottish surgeon John Hunter. Anatomical dissections were a central component of these classes, and medical training in general, but they were offensive, even seen as sacrilegious, to early New Yorkers. In the winter of 1788, the city was abuzz with newspaper stories about medical students robbing graves to get bodies for dissection, mostly from the potter’s field and the cemetery reserved for the city’s blacks, known as the Negroes Burial Ground. While some of those reports may have been based on rumor, they pointed to an underlying truth: with no regulated source of bodies for dissection, the medical students had taken matters into their hands and begun plundering the local graveyards.

In February, a group of the city’s free and enslaved blacks submitted a petition to the Common Council complaining of “young gentlemen in this city who call themselves students of the physic,” and who “under cover of the night, in the most wanton sallies of excess … dig up bodies of our deceased friends and relatives of your petitioners, carrying them away without respect for age or sex.” The petitioners didn’t ask for a stop to the grave-robbing, only that it be “conducted with the decency and propriety which the solemnity of such occasion requires.” But the petition was ignored; many in the city were willing to turn a blind eye to grave-robbing as long as those bodies were poor and black. However, on February 21, 1788, the Advertiser printed an announcement saying that a body of a white woman had been stolen from Trinity Churchyard. With that, popular resentment began to boil over.

There are conflicting accounts of how the riot began, but most place the start outside New York Hospital, where a group of boys playing in the grass saw something that upset them—and then incensed the city. In some tellings, the boys saw a severed arm hanging out of one of the hospital windows to dry. In other versions, one of the boys climbed a ladder and peered into the dissecting room, where a surgeon waved the severed arm at him. In yet other versions, the boy’s mother had recently died, and the surgeon told the boy the arm had belonged to his mother. In this version of the tale, recounted in Joel Tyler Headley’s 1873 The Great Riots of New York, the boy ran off to tell the news to his father, a mason, who went to the cemetery and exhumed his wife’s coffin. After finding it empty, he marched on the hospital with a group of angry worker friends still carrying their picks and shovels...




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