The Doctors riot was an incident that occurred in April 1788 in New York City Doctors riot, where the illegal procurement of corpses from the graves of slaves and poor whites resulted in a mass expression of discontent from poorer New Yorkers directed primarily at physicians and medical students.
By 1788, New York City was a rough and tumble, post-revolutionary town consumed by a frantic building boom after the recent British occupation. The city had not fanned out into boroughs. The population of thirty thousand, largely unwashed and illiterate, were packed like sardines into a part of the island of Manhattan that ended at Chambers Street, the location of the African Burial Ground. Racial tensions continued for over three decades until the Revolutionary War. When the Revolution ended, physicians were in extremely short supply since many returned to the mother country or immigrated to Canada.
In this time 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.
Because there was, at the time, no known method of preserving an entire corpse, thefts were performed hastily, often in winter to slow the rate of decomposition. In the winter of 1788, the number of corpses being exhumed by students increased substantially. The activities of medical students and physicians, who were known colloquially as Resurrectionists in the Black cemetery, were noticed by a group of freedmen who, on February the 3rd, petitioned the Common Council to take action against it. The petition was largely ignored, and no effort was made to stop the unlicensed exhumations.
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 John Hicks 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. The mob eventually broke into the hospital and, after becoming incensed upon finding several bodies in various stages of mutilation, pulled Richard Bayley’s assistant Wright Post and a number of his students into the street, where the mayor of New York City, James Duane intervened and ordered them escorted to the jailhouse for protection.
A crowd of 2,000 people had gathered, and news spread of the horrors seen in the hospital, leading to widespread rioting, with the few physicians remaining in New York City being forced into hiding. A large group of rioters descended upon Broadway, searching for John Hicks, who was felt by the crowd to be the main source of blame. As they assembled in front of the courthouse, throwing rocks, militia and cavalry were called in to repel them. At least three rioters and three militiamen died in the confrontation; some estimate up to 20 dead. The protesters also destroyed all the available human specimens.The riot lasted a few days, ceasing when Governor Clinton sent the militia to patrol the streets until a calm environment was ensured.
In the days that followed, local newspapers stopped running their ads for doctors and medical classes. People regularly went to the cemeteries to inspect the graves of their loved ones, and formed armed groups known as “Dead Guard Men” to protect the cemeteries. Several of the city’s most prominent physicians, including Bayley, published notices saying they had never robbed any cemetery in the city, nor asked anyone else to do so. The key there was “in the city”—the Negroes Burial Ground and potter’s field had been established outside the city. A grand jury investigated the riot, but there is no record of anyone being convicted.
Public opinion of the physicians in New York stood very low for many years, and while some students were brought to trial, Hicks was not among them. Post-mortem dissection was considered an indignity to the dead and the city fathers even forbade using bodies abandoned in the rougher parts of the city. A year later, in January 1789, a statute was finally put into law in order to codify the proper treatment of corpses, with harsh punishments imposed for those who violated it. 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 be injured by preventing the dissection of proper subjects”. “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. Throughout the 1700s, British law considered dissection as a worse punishment than death.
To discourage dueling, the Massachusetts General Court also imposed dissection as a threat by ruling that anyone who died as a result of a duel would be sentenced to post-mortem dissection and dismemberment. Dissection was seen as perhaps one of the worst things that could happen to a person after death.
But the riot did have other, longer-lasting effects. It led to one of the earliest medical licensing systems in the colonies, in which would-be doctors had to apprentice with a respected physician or attend two years of medical school in addition to passing a rigorous government exam. No longer could medical students simply attend a couple of classes and hang out their shingle in a small town upstate. Nevertheless, memories of the opportunistic “students of the physic” persisted for years, and it took a long time before being a doctor was considered an entirely respectable profession in the city.