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America's first riot (1788)

Body theft was a major problem in the 18th century. The rich posted guards around their family plots to discourage thieves.
Body theft was a major problem in the 18th century. The rich posted guards around their family plots to discourage thieves.
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Doctor’s and medical students needed cadavers to learn their trade. However, most people viewed dissection as desecration and opposed allowing the research. In response, medical practitioners resorted to stealing bodies. In 1788, a mob discovered the macabre practice and rioted throughout the streets of New York. The controversy and violence eventually led to tougher laws against body snatching and regulations governing the use of bodies.

Dr. Richard Bayley dug up corpses for study. One day, a group of children were playing outside his office at a hospital when Bayley’s student, John Hicks, took a partially dissected arm and waved it at the kids. He told one boy that the arm belonged to the boy’s recently deceased mother. Hicks taunted the youngster with the appendage and threatened to “smack” him with it. The boy believed Hicks since his mother just passed. Traumatized, he ran home to tell his father of the incident.

The father kept a level head at first. He gathered his friends and marched to the cemetery to investigate. To their horror, the grave had been dug up and the body missing. Word spread quickly through the city and hundreds stormed the hospital. They blocked the exits and searched for doctors to lynch. The sheriff arrived to take a doctor and three students into protective custody while the mob destroyed everything in sight.

While the mob ran wild in the streets, John Hicks hid in his attic. They searched his home, but missed the attic. Hicks escaped because the mob did not conduct a thorough search. Meanwhile, the crowds grew larger and marched to Columbia University. Alexander Hamilton tried to calm the rabble, but to no avail. John Jay also tried to calm nerves, but was rendered unconscious by a rock. The people destroyed anything medical related they could find.

The authorities lost control of the situation. Even Revolutionary heroes could not calm the storm. Governor George Clinton called in the militia to quell the rioters. A third Revolutionary hero, Baron Friderich Von Steuben, led the force, but was also incapacitated by debris. The militia opened fired without their commanding officer. Eight died,several were wounded, and the insurrection extinguished. Ironically, the doctors they wanted to lynch treated their wounds.

In the wake, several doctors and students were tried for body snatching. Interestingly, Hicks avoided prosecution. Meanwhile, politicians passed tougher laws against harvesting bodies. They also provided the remains of condemned criminals, but demand remained high. Body stealing remained a problem into the 19th century. People with means hired armed guards to defend their loved ones graves.

America’s first riot occurred over the macabre practice of harvesting body parts. Doctors needed corpses for study and procured them illegally. One day, a medical student imprudently frightened a young boy with a severed arm. The ensuing outrage led to a riot that could only be stopped by force. In the aftermath, the practice continued despite reforms and tougher laws.