The 1788 Doctors’ Riot and Colonial White Nationalism
January 3, 2020 2:14 PM   Subscribe

As part of a warning against disinformation amplified by the internet and social media in his annual New Year's message, Chief Justice Roberts writes, "In the winter of 1788, New York newspapers reported accounts that medical students were robbing graves so they could practice surgery on cadavers. In April, the chatter gelled into a rumor that students at New York Hospital were dissecting a schoolboy’s recently deceased mother. An angry mob stormed the hospital, and the mayor gave some of the medical staff refuge in the city jail. When the mob marched on the jail, John Jay, who lived nearby, grabbed his sword and joined Governor Clinton to quell the riot. In the ensuing commotion, a rioter struck Jay in the head with a rock, knocking him unconscious and leaving him, according to one account, with “two large holes in his forehead.”" While a rumor may have been the immediate motivation for the riot, a closer review of the history reveals that a colonial idea of white supremacy was the disinformation that helped inspire mob violence.

American resurrection and the 1788 New York doctors' riot (Caroline de Costa and Francesca Miller, The Lancet)
“Resurrection”, as body-snatching or grave-robbing was called, was the cheapest, surest way to obtain the remains of the newly deceased, especially in the winter when bodies decayed at a slower rate. Doctors and medical students turned to the cemeteries of the poor and of people of colour. As long as body-snatching was limited to these two repositories of the dead, many New Yorkers felt they could overlook the nocturnal activities of the resurrectionists.

However, black New Yorkers objected. On Feb 3, 1788, a group of black freedmen petitioned the city's Common Council to prevent further desecration of their graveyard:
"“Most humbly sirs, we declare that it has lately been the practice of a number of young gentlemen in this city who call themselves students of the physic, to repair to the burying ground, assigned for the use of your petitioners. Under cover of the night, in the most wanton sallies of excess, they dig up bodies of our deceased friends and relatives of your petitioners, carrying them away without respect for age or sex. Your petitioners are well aware of the necessity of physicians and surgeons consulting dead subjects for the benefit of mankind. Your petitioners do not presuppose it as an injury to the deceased and would not be adverse to dissection in particular circumstances, that is, if it is conducted with the decency and propriety which the solemnity of such occasion requires. Your petitioners do not wish to impede the work of these students of the physic but most humbly pray your honors to take our case into consideration and adopt such measure as may seem meet to prevent similar abuses in the future.”"
But their petition was ignored and the looting of the African Burial Ground continued.
In the winter of 1788, New York newspapers reported accounts that medical students were robbing graves so they could practice surgery on cadavers.

“And What Say the Living?” An Examination of Public Discussion of Anatomical Dissection Prior to the Doctors’ Riot of 1788 (Carmen Niemeyer, Lycoming College)
[at 170] In February of 1788, The Daily Advertiser, a New York City daily newspaper, published a series of letters to the printer in response to medical students’ grave robbing. Views expressed in these letters provide insight into the intensified public discord between the medical field and the public. Each submission presented a distinct view from either a concerned citizen or a shameless student. The students’ letters exhibited a distinct conflict between the image professional doctors attempted to convey (Samuel Bard’s commencement advice) and that of their students at medical school. This series of letters elucidates both medical students’ actions and ideologies, and society’s main concerns and motives for aggression in response to the students. These published public words on anatomical studies and grave robbing transformed the atmosphere of New York City into a vulnerable field ripe for conflict. The hostile dissonance emerged because of a few letters to the newspaper editor.

Newspapers fostered dangerous opinion and dialogue through popular discussion in taverns during America’s colonial period, so they are reliable sources to reference public perception. Depending on the tavern type, the population present could vary. The patronage included people from all levels of society including wealthy men, laborers, craftsmen, merchants, clerks, and rogues so that the characteristic group comprised a “socially and culturally heterogeneous” mixture.41 Those frequenting local common houses for all classes usually included residents of the neighborhood and travelers passing through. They met to discuss the day’s happenings, to eat, drink, and enjoy each other’s company. The chatter could include anything from meaningless small talk to plans for illegal activity. Local customers met on a regular basis to continue conversations or arguments. Taverns regularly kept both local colonial and British newspapers for common reading. These papers were frequently read aloud to all patrons who would listen. [...]

[at 175] A reward advertisement for pertinent grave robbing information is perhaps the most significant publication in this series of Daily Advertiser articles, because it highlights a moment when students stepped across class boundaries to infuriate the upper classes and incite the raging mobs of the Doctors’ Riot. This article abruptly altered the upper class’ perception of medical students’ morals to match society’s view as a whole. Someone, most probably an anatomy student, had robbed a deceased member of the Trinity Church from her grave in February of 1788. The church advertised in the widely read Daily Advertiser for a one hundred dollar reward given to whomever found the grave robbers.58 The church’s notice was the first publicly advertised incident of a white person’s body stolen from a gated churchyard. Students typically used bodies of the poor white and black residents from the paupers’ and Negro burial grounds for dissection purposes with few repercussions. [...] The Daily Advertiser posting signaled a shift in the public discussion and a growing awareness of medical students’ differences from their previous generations. A student had been so bold as to have crossed the graveyard gates. [...]

[at 176] Students’ greater need for specimens spurred them to take bodies from outside the socio-economic hierarchy of acceptable cadavers. Before, "Students had contented themselves with ripping open the graves of strangers and negroes, about whom there was little feeling; but this winter they dug up respectable people, even young women, of whom they made an indecent exposure."62 As the author of the 100 Dollar Reward advertisement alleged, the students went beyond the bounds of this accepted hierarchy.
In April, the chatter gelled into a rumor that students at New York Hospital were dissecting a schoolboy’s recently deceased mother. An angry mob stormed the hospital, and the mayor gave some of the medical staff refuge in the city jail.

Grave Robbing And The Doctors Riot of 1788 (Miguel Hernandez, The New York History Blog)
[...] 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.
The Gory New York City Riot that Shaped American Medicine (Bess Lovejoy,
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. [...]
Although most of the doctors and medical students fled when the workmen appeared, a handful remained to try and guard the valuable collection of anatomical and pathological specimens, many imported. Their efforts were in vain, and the specimens were dragged out in the street and set ablaze. Bayley and his protégé, Wright Post, might have been added to the fire too if it hadn’t been for the arrival of Mayor James Duane and the sheriff, who ordered the doctors and medical students escorted to jail for their own protection.
When the mob marched on the jail, John Jay, who lived nearby, grabbed his sword and joined Governor Clinton to quell the riot. In the ensuing commotion, a rioter struck Jay in the head with a rock, knocking him unconscious and leaving him, according to one account, with “two large holes in his forehead.”

The Gory New York City Riot that Shaped American Medicine (Bess Lovejoy,
Things quieted down after that, but the next morning, a mob ran around the city searching for doctors, medical students, and bodies. Hundreds descended on Columbia, despite the efforts of alumnus Alexander Hamilton, who pleaded with the crowd from the school’s front steps. He was shouted down and pushed past, and the crowed ran into the school, where they searched the anatomical theatre, museum, chapel, library, and even student’s bedrooms for signs of dissection. Finding no bodies (students had removed them all the previous night), the men searched several other doctors’ homes—including Bayley’s—in vain, then marched down Broadway to the jail. Governor George Clinton, Mayor Duane, and other prominent politicians urged them to disperse, but the crowd refused and swelled into an estimated 5,000. Armed with rocks, bricks, and timber torn from the nearby gallows, they finally attacked the jail, yelling “bring out your doctors!”
Inside, the medical students clambered over the broken glass and used the rocks and bricks thrown at them to fend off their attackers. One of the rioters climbed inside the jail through a ground floor window, only to be killed by a guard, which further incensed the rioters outside. Governor Clinton called out several rounds of militiamen, who attempted to calm the scene, although they had strict orders not to fire their muskets. That is, until Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay (who would become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court the following year) “got his scull almost crackd” with a rock, and the Revolutionary War hero General Baron von Steuben was hit with a brick.
American resurrection and the 1788 New York doctors' riot (Caroline de Costa and Francesca Miller, The Lancet)
By the time 5000 frenzied people were massed outside the jailhouse demanding blood, the militia had been called in. The rioters began throwing rocks; Governor Clinton sent in the cavalry who galloped up Broadway and charged the mob. At least three and possibly up to 20 people died in the mêlée; many of the rioters are thought to have later died from their wounds. For the next few days, the militia patrolled the streets as life gradually returned to normal.
The anger and ill will towards the physicians did not end with the riot and the doctors who remained in the city trod lightly. Charges were attempted against the students but Hicks himself never appeared in court. In January, 1789, the State Legislature pushed forward a statute to prevent “the odious practice of digging up and removing for the purpose of dissection, dead bodies interred in cemeteries or burial places”. Anyone who broke the law would stand on the pillory or be publicly whipped, fined, or imprisoned. The statute also permitted the bodies of executed criminals to be used in dissection, “in order that science [might not] be injured by preventing the dissection of proper subjects”. Now medical students could legally do something that they had been doing for years, cooling their heels next to the hangman's noose, but the corpses of executed criminals were not sufficient to fulfil their needs. “Resurrection men”, professionals who used stealth and discretion, were recruited to replace the students and went on to control the supply of cadavers for generations.
The poor, the Black, and the marginalized as the source of cadavers in United States anatomical education. (Edward C. Halperin, Clin Anat. 2007 Jul;20(5):489-95)
When the practice of hands-on anatomical dissection became popular in United States medical education in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, demand for cadavers exceeded the supply. Slave bodies and thefts by grave robbers met this demand. Members of the public were aware that graves were being robbed and countered with various protective measures. Since the deterrence of grave robbing took time and money, those elements of society who were least economically and socially advantaged were the most vulnerable. Enslaved and free African Americans, immigrants, and the poor were frequently the target of grave robbing. The politically powerful tolerated this behavior except when it affected their own burial sites. Slave owners sold the bodies of their deceased chattel to medical schools for anatomic dissection. Stories of the "night doctors" buying and stealing bodies became part of African American folklore traditions. The physical and documentary evidence demonstrates the disproportionate use of the bodies of the poor, the Black, and the marginalized in furthering the medical education of white elites.
Chief Justice Roberts also writes in his annual New Year's message that "It is sadly ironic that John Jay’s efforts to educate his fellow citizens about the Framers’ plan of government fell victim to a rock thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor. Happily, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay ultimately succeeded in convincing the public of the virtues of the principles embodied in the Constitution. Those principles leave no place for mob violence. But in the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital." He further writes:
By virtue of their judicial responsibilities, judges are necessarily engaged in civic education. As Federalist No. 78 observes, the courts “have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment.” When judges render their judgments through written opinions that explain their reasoning, they advance public understanding of the law. Chief Justice Earl Warren illustrated the power of a judicial decision as a teaching tool in Brown v. Board of Education, the great school desegregation case.1 His unanimous opinion on the most pressing issue of the era was a mere 11 pages — short enough that newspapers could publish all or almost all of it and every citizen could understand the Court’s rationale.
Return to the African Burial Ground (interview with physical anthropologist Michael L. Blakey, Archaeology Magazine)
There has been some discussion at the U.N. about the right to know. For descendants of the enslaved in different parts of the world to have the right to know about the past and the right to memorialize history so that it might not happen again. With the project, we knew that we were peeling off layers of obscurity. We were also doing something that scholars within the African diaspora have been doing for about 150 years and that is realizing that history has political implications of empowerment and disempowerment. That history is not just to be discovered but to be re-discovered, to be corrected, and that African-American history is distorted. Omissions are made in order to create a convenient view of national and white identity at the expense of our understanding our world and also at the expense of African-American identity. So that the project of history--in this case using archaeology and skeletal biology--is a project meant to help us understand something that has been systematically hidden from us. And that involved us in a struggle. We're all good, balanced, even-handed scientists and humanists. But with the African Burial Ground we found ourselves standing with a community that wanted to know things that had been hidden from view, buried, about who we are and what this society has been.
posted by katra (9 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
I had never heard of this event before. Thank you for compiling this extensive post, lot to read here.
posted by PMdixon at 3:01 PM on January 3, 2020 [8 favorites]

This is just, like, the perfect symbol of all that is wrong with Roberts' tenure on the court. Of course the guy who led the gutting of the Voting Rights Act is more upset that John Jay got hit by a rock than that the whole reason the riot happened was arrogant teenage med students literally stealing poor people's and black people's dead relatives for dissections.

I mean, I know this is unfair, the report's point that civic education is important and the judiciary should help is fine and good, but the irony of pontificating about democracy and civic virtue while ignoring that the riot was because people were legit mad about a real heinous thing is just... typical.
posted by Wretch729 at 3:27 PM on January 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

I understand the riot to have been about arrogant teenage med students stealing the dead relative of people who weren't poor or black.
posted by PMdixon at 3:37 PM on January 3, 2020 [16 favorites]

but the irony of pontificating about democracy and civic virtue while ignoring that the riot was because people were legit mad about a real heinous thing is just... typical.

The sources suggest that the mob violence was fueled by white supremacist/nationalist ideology, and that it would be a misreading of the history to overlook that element of the riot. The sources note that there was a white supremacist heirarchy for acceptable grave desecration, and it was only when that heirarchy was publicly known to be violated that there was a violent uprising. The "rumor" appears to be from the children, as to the location, which initially sparked the riot, but it appears to have ignited an underlying rage.

The white supremacist/nationalist rage that appears to have led to the mob violence is not legitimate, and one of the clues that Roberts may also be suggesting this is in his citation of Brown v. Board of Education as a crucial part of civic education, soon after his warning about the danger of "false information." Of all the cases he could have referenced as an example of civic education, he chose a landmark civil rights case that declared the pretense of 'separate but equal' to be fundamentally unconstitutional. It caught my attention in the context of the reports about the history of the Doctors' Riot that I was finding during my research, and the context of the systemic racism and rising white nationalism of this era.
posted by katra at 4:05 PM on January 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

It's interesting to know that Roberts, in his inimitable 'as refracted through shards of bottle glass collected near the site of an early 18th Century colonial Massachusetts apothecary' style, is as worried about Trump's threat to the very Republic as we are.
posted by jamjam at 5:26 PM on January 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

Unfortunately, it seems to be an open question whether Roberts has as much respect for the bodies of living poor or black women.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:14 PM on January 3, 2020 [13 favorites]

I guess that I have become a sort of expert on grave-robbing. I researched it for one of my novels and for a media project. I also have recently finished up a non-fiction book regarding a grave-robbing scandal, which I am still shopping around to sell.

Here is a blog post I put together regarding grave-robbing at the University of Michigan Medical School.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:20 PM on January 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

dances_with_sneetches, that is fascinating, and thank you for sharing. One of your sources: The Resurrectionists (James Tobin, Medicine at Michigan Magazine, Fall Issue, 2008) seems to confirm that the historical pattern continued through the Civil War era:
“I found my duties peculiar,” Andrews wrote. “I was a state officer charged with the duty of getting the material, but there was a statute consigning me to prison if I did my duty.”

Andrews settled on two principles. First, figuring that no one would pursue him for the loss of a “pauper cadaver,” he worked only with the supervisors of “potter’s fields” — burying grounds for the unclaimed dead — and poorhouse cemeteries, mostly in Detroit and western Wayne County. Second, he made sure to procure only out-of-towners, so that “the receiving point at Ann Arbor” might “be kept perfectly calm and friendly."
It also seems noteworthy that James Tobin appears to minimize these heinous crimes by describing the choice to commit them as "an excruciating moral compromise" instead of an exercise of privilege and power.

And as further context: Grave Robbing, Black Cemeteries, and the American Medical School (JSTOR Daily)
In the 19th century, students at American medical schools stole the corpses of recently-buried African Americans to be used for dissection.
As literature scholar Benjamin Reiss relates in American Quarterly, the 1788 New York Doctors’ Riot was sparked by reports of a white woman’s body stolen for dissection. “The ensuing riots and others like them in the early national period helped antebellum doctors and anatomists understand that their reputations and even security depended on producing an illusion of social distinctions between corpses that reproduced those between living bodies,” writes Reiss.

Frequently cemeteries of enslaved people and free African Americans were on the city edges, and not as protected as churchyards. “Unable to bury their dead in white churchyards, the city assigned blacks a segregated section of the cemetery,” legal scholar Steven Robert Wilf writes in the Journal of Social History. “This topographic configuration and black powerlessness made them the ideal victims of anatomists.” He cites a 1788 New York anatomy proponent who stated, “the only subjects procured for dissection are the productions of Africa or their descendents … and if those characters are the only subjects of dissection, surely no person can object.” [...]

Archaeologist James M. Davidson in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology describes how grave robbing in African American cemeteries around Dallas continued into the early 1900s. Dr. Charles Rosser, a Baylor founder, even admitted in his autobiography to grave robbing as an “incident of regular routine” ignored by local officials during the early years of the school.

History has been slow to acknowledge the extent to which the bodies of African Americans were involuntarily used in medicine. Grave robbing is just one aspect of this. Nevertheless, the dehumanizing of the dead in development of medicine demands recognition.
posted by katra at 6:43 PM on January 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Grave robbing in the North and South in antebellum America (Rachel H. Mathis, M.D., Jill H. Watras, M.D., F.A.C.S, Jonathan M. Dort, M.D., F.A.C.S., American College of Surgeons, CC2016 Poster Competition)
Grave robbing flourished as new medical schools formed during the early years of the Republic. The public generally turned a blind eye to the goings-on because, as noted by historian Warner, bodies filched were mostly from “groups whose aggrievement was least likely to incite wide public protest: Criminals, African Americans, [and] paupers.”3 The victims were the most powerless in society, in unmarked graves in potter’s fields next to almshouses, with family and friends too poor to spare the time or money to provide for and protect their remains. Upper classes, devoted to the scientific and medical progress, were deaf to the concerns of those whose family members’ graves were being desecrated, so long as their bodies were not among the dissected ones. The rare occasions when grave robbers happened to snatch a corpse from an upper class family often created a public outcry.

At least twenty “anatomy riots” occurred from 1788 to 1857 in the United States. Most were sparked by stealing “the wrong kind of body.”3 [...]

Blacks were exploited for dissection in both the North and South. There was a shift to poor immigrants in large Northern cities in the later antebellum period. As northern states passed anatomy acts in the 1840s, the urban poor became a legal supply of cadavers. In the South, slaves and free blacks were illegally dissected and even lauded as anatomical supply by medical schools of that time. The use of the poor and blacks as an unobjectionable source of dissection material reinforces the deep racism and rigid classicism of antebellum America, both North and South.
Anatomy of an insurrection (Yale Medicine, 2002 - Spring)
Early on the morning of January 12, 1824, Jonathan Knight, Yale’s first professor of anatomy and physiology, received a startling piece of news. During the night, a body had been snatched from a fresh grave in the West Haven burying ground and the incensed townspeople were pointing fingers at the college. [...] A search began for the missing body of Bathsheba Smith, “a respectable young female of nineteen” and the daughter of a local farmer. The West Haven burough constable, Erastus Osborn, was dispatched immediately to the college. His account of discovering the corpse in the medical school building at Grove and College streets appears in a letter to his father [...]

Not since the British invaded New Haven in 1779 had the townspeople been so incensed, Elizabeth H. Thomson wrote in her unfinished history of the School of Medicine. The scandal stirred up such a ferocious anger that a mob of some 600 men armed with pistols, clubs and daggers stormed the college at nightfall. The authorities read the state’s Riot Act several times, but the crowd kept pelting the building with stones and shouting “tear down the college” and “death to the students.” Those inside feared the mob would batter down the walls. Justus D. Wilcox, a medical student who witnessed the attacks, gave this account of the escalating attacks in a letter: “[At nearly midnight] the Governor’s foot guards were called out. They assembled on the green, each man provided with sword and bayoneted gun, with ball and cartridge; they marched at quick step to the Medical college inspired [by] fife and drum which beat the revelle, and sounded the notes of war.”

During the investigation, sensational newspaper headlines (“Another Grave Plundered!”) fanned the fury and gossips spun some outlandish tales about the medical school.
posted by katra at 7:48 PM on January 4, 2020

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