The New York City Doctors’ Riot

The grave of William Shakespeare is located in the Church of the Holy Trinity at Stratford-upon-Avon.  Its epitaph contains this dire warning against those who would disturb his remains:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, 

To dig the dust enclosed here.  

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.

The warning was meant literally, for until the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for physicians, scientists, and students to procure cadavers for dissection by means that today would be considered grossly unethical.  We are told that in some places grieving families would have to maintain vigils for several weeks over the graves of their recently interred loved ones, in order to prevent “body-snatching” by medical students.  The practice was of course illegal; and despite the public revulsion against it, the law could only do so much to stop it.  Graveyards were relatively easy to access, and there were men who could be hired to do the dirty work of obtaining corpses for dissection.  The unguarded graves of the poor and of slaves were especially vulnerable.  Those who were exploited in life were unable to find peace even after death.   

In April of 1788, however, public anger in New York City exploded into what became one of the strangest riots in American history.  Its lessons resonate for us today.  There resides within us an innate knowledge of what is ethical, and what is unethical; and when the boundary between these two quantities is violated, human dignity is offended, and righteous anger aroused.  The arrogance of the medical profession was checked by the outrage of the public. 

One day in April 1788, a group of young boys were playing on the grounds of the New York Hospital, which then was located on Broadway near Pearl Street.  A young doctor named John Hicks, perhaps trying to play some grisly joke, showed the boys an amputated arm.  He told one of the shocked boys that the arm had belonged to his mother, who had died recently.  The distressed youth immediately ran to his father, a stone mason working on Broadway, and conveyed the incident to him; and the enraged mason, together with some friends, opened his wife’s grave and found it empty.  The aggrieved men collected a crowd, armed themselves with tools, and set out at once for the hospital to seek redress. 

The crowd burst into the hospital and began to destroy it.  Finding fresh corpses on the premises only heightened the mob’s rage; they smashed every piece of equipment they could lay their hands on, and it appeared that the medical students there might lose their lives.  But news of the violence had reached the ears of the mayor; and he, together with police and a few prominent citizens, rushed to the scene.  With some difficulty the mayor convinced the mob to release the terrified medical students, who were lodged in jail temporarily for their own safety.  It seemed that the riot had ended.

But it had not.  As news of the incident spread, a large, angry crowd collected near the hospital and refused to disperse.  Those present were disgusted by the arrogance and callousness of the doctors, by their refusal to respect law and tradition, and by their contempt for the remains of the dead.  There were grumblings that physicians should have their homes inspected for stolen cadavers, and that the hospital grounds needed a thorough survey for contraband.  Finally  Governor Clinton and New York City mayor James Duane arrived to make a direct appeal to the crowd, perhaps sensing the potential for serious violence.  They begged the men in the crowd to go home, and to allow the authorities to handle the situation.  Some dispersed, but most did not.  By this time emotions were running so high that the crowd’s leaders insisted on inspecting the hospital themselves.       

The crowd then made its way to Columbia College, where it proposed to confront the doctors and students there.  They burst into the college and looked into its offices; finding nothing to arouse their ire there, they then entered homes of known physicians in the area.  Nothing was found, and the group began to melt away in frustration.  At that point, the crowd focused its attention on the medical students, still jailed for their own protection.  Here we see a phenomenon common with riots:  once the anger of the crowd has been kindled, it does not readily subside until it has found an outlet for its rage. 

The mob, therefore, reassembled in front of the jail and began to demand that the incarcerated medical students be released to them.  The jailers barricaded the doors and windows, fearing the worst; it soon became clear that the police present lacked the capacity to contain the furious mob.  A militia unit was therefore called up, which marched to confront the crowd.  They soon inexplicably marched away, and were replaced by a much smaller detachment of only twelve armed militiamen.  The crowd laughed at this pathetic force, rushed and disarmed them, and proceeded to smash their rifles on the pavement.  We are told that statesman John Jay and Revolutionary War hero Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben were wounded while trying to placate the mob.    

The mob now attempted to storm the jail by force.  An intense battle ensued that was maintained until dusk.  Soon a large detachment of troops, with bayonets fixed, moved towards the crowd in the darkness.  The size of the crowd has been reckoned at five thousand.  The mob taunted the soldiers, and pelted them with stones, fence-posts, and other missiles; many troops were wounded, and the situation quickly deteriorated.  The commanding officer ordered his men to fire first one volley, and then a second.  As dead and wounded rioters fell to the ground, the mob broke apart and dispersed. 

Anger was still in the air the next day.  There were exaggerated reports of casualties, and the soldiers who had fired into the crowd were reviled and denounced by their peers.  Yet they stood firm, and maintained that they had done their duty.  For a few days, the city seethed, and there were legitimate fears that the violence would escalate further.  The city’s physicians and medical students came under such a cloud of hatred that many were forced to flee; as one historian noted, “They scattered in every direction, and there threatened to be a general Hegira of physicians.” 

The number of dead is estimated at three rioters and three soldiers; other estimates have put the death toll closer to twenty.  Feeling ran high against doctors for several years.  There were feeble attempts to bring some medical students to trial, but these prosecutions were apparently inconclusive.  And there is no record of John Hicks ever having been tried or otherwise punished, the man whose callous actions had instigated the riots. Yet the lessons of the Doctor’s Riot of 1788 still resonate today: the public will neither forgive nor forget those who, under the guises of progress, safety, or public health, violate the strictures of ethics or basic humanity.     



Read more historical and ethical essays in Digest: