“In the spring [of 1788], some boys were playing in the rear of the hospital, when a young surgeon, from a mere whim, showed an amputated arm to them,” wrote J.T. Headley in The Great Riots of New York, published in 1873.
One boy climbed a ladder to get a closer look. The boy became convinced that it was recently deceased mother’s arm. His response set off one of New York’s weirdest events, known as the “Doctors’ Riot.”
The horrified boy ran and told his father, a mason working on Broadway. The father rushed to his wife’s grave in Trinity Churchyard, had it opened—and saw that the body was gone.
He concluded that the surgeon had stolen his wife’s corpse, and he immediately gathered a throng of working men to storm the hospital.
Now, it wasn’t farfetched at all for the father to assume the surgeon stole the body. Students at the city’s medical schools routinely did this (or hired others they politely called “resurrectionists” to do it) in the 18th century, as it was the only way they could study anatomy.
“The fear of [grave-robbing] was so great, that often, in the neighborhood where medical students were pursuing their studies, persons who lost friends would have a watch kept over their graves for several nights, to prevent them from being dug up,” wrote Headley.
Usually the med students robbed the graves of outcasts, or they went to the burial grounds of the city’s black population, where there was less of a chance they would attract the attention of city officials.
But lately they’d stolen corpses of more well-off citizens, angering many in the young city.
But back to the riot. The men tore down the hospital door, and when they found fresh bodies in various states of dissection, they attacked the students. Officials quelled the mob and locked the students in jail for their own safety.
The next day, 300 men showed up at the jail. “Bring out your doctors!” the angry crowd yelled, hurling stones and carrying muskets.
The next year, the city passed a law against grave robbing, and officials came up with another way med students could learn their trade: using the bodies of hanged criminals. Nobody seemed to complain.
[Top and bottom photos: NYPL Digital Gallery; second photo: Corbis]