The Doctors' Riot of 1788 - Blog! - Two-Fisted History


The Doctors' Riot of 1788

Many of us who take US History learn about the challenges that the early Republic faced in the form of Shays’ Rebellion and Whiskey Rebellion, but do you know the story of America’s first riot? No, not the Pine Tree Riot!

Before the Mid-to Late 1800s human dissection was not only illegal, it was one of the most heinous crimes.  Right up there with canabalism and wearing white after Labour Day  Still, doctors and medical students needed to know how the human body worked.  There soon grew up a business which saw some rather shady and unsavoury people digging up the bodies of the recently deceased and selling them to medical schools for large profit.  These people were called ‘Resurrectionists,’ and they would rob any grave that they could.  Richer families would hire gun-wielding sentries to watch over the graves until the body decomposed enough that it would be useless.

One morning in April 1788, just five years after the American War for Independence had ended, some kids were playing in a field just outside the New York Hospital.  One of the boys peeked inside one of the windows where a medical student named John Hicks was dissecting a cadaver.  Hicks saw the boy, picked up the corpse’s arm, and yelled, ‘This is your mother’s hand.  Watch it or I’ll slap you with it!’

This was a big mistake on Hicks’ part as the boy’s mother had just died a few days before. Ooooh.  Too soon?

The boy ran home and told his father what had happened.  The father grabbed some of his friends & neighbours, and wentThe theives didn't even fill up the hole! to check on his wife’s grave.  Sure enough, the plot had been dug up and the coffin hauled out and broken into.  The news quickly got around the city, and soon hundreds of ‘concerned citizens’ took to the streConcerned citizens with torches and pitchforks.ets and surrounded the hospital.

The horde forced their way in and discovered a grisly sight – human bodies in all stages of mutilation and decomposition.   The mob became even more outraged and pulled Dr. Wright Post and three of his students – the only individuals who didn’t manage to escape – into the streets.  Fearing they would be lynched, New York Mayor James Duane interceded and had the Sheriff take them to the city jail for their protection.

An Angry Mob

The mob’s fury intensified through the night as over 2,000 people took to the streets after hearing of the atrocities committed in that charnel house of a hospital.  The physicians of New York had either fled or were in hiding to escape the wrath of the rioters who were searching house-to-house for them.

By morning, the crowd had surrounded the courthouse.  New York Governor George Clinton called iJohn Jay, future SCOTUS Chief Justice, was hit by a rock.n the Militia to disperse the crowd.  Many of the United States’ founding fathers tried to settle the mob down, however the rioters began getting more violent – even throwing rocks & bricks.

The commander of the militia, war hero General  Friedrich von Stueben, refused to give the order to fire.  Eight of the rioters were killed and several more injured.  The mob disbanded as doctors began to tend the wounded. 

The New York legislature, in response to the riot, passed a law a few weeks later allowing hanged criminals to be dissected for medical purposes in an attempt to prevent further grave robbing.  The law failed to completely stop grave robbing, as the Resurrectionists continued to operate well into the mid-1800s.  Even today a cadaver might sell for more than $10,000!

<< Go back to the previous page

Tags : History England USHistory Riots MedicalHistory

Resources for Social Studies Students & Teachers