Fascinating History Files – The NY Doctors Riot of 1788

This amazing story intersects two interesting historical lines: the history of New York and the history of medicine. So much of medical knowledge to this day is imparted by the study of cadavers. But how early medical students got those cadavers was controversial to many in a less ethically structured, more superstitious time.

A very large riot took place in 1788 New York, in which as many as 20 people were killed, over the collection of cadavers by the medical students at Columbia College.

The New York Doctors Riot was just one in a stream of so-called “anatomy riots” that plagued the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Medical historian Michael Sappol has counted at least 17 such incidents between 1765 and 1854, in New Haven, Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia. These riots were sparked by anger over dissections and grave-robbing, which was how most schools got their bodies, since there was no legal supply. People saw grave-robbing as an affront to the honor of the dead and the sacred nature of graveyards, and dissection frightened many Christians who believed that only complete bodies could be resurrected. Dissection also had a veneer of criminality: in England, the only legal source of bodies was executed criminals, and many saw anatomical dissection as an extra layer of punishment suitable only for the wicked.

Students generally got their cadavers from the Negroes Burial Ground outside the city proper with little controversy except for those that saw the entire business as sacrilegious; however, fear mongers of the day passed around rumors of white people’s bodies being stolen from more hallowed city cemeteries (like Trinity Cemetery in lower Manhattan where Alexander Hamilton is buried). True or not, this outraged people who didn’t much respect or understand the early practitioners of medicine anyway, and so the horrific stories spreading around the City smacked of such ghoulishness that people were outraged to riot. At the time, New York was the Capitol of the young nation (it still had that new nation smell in 1788) and such founding fathers as Alexander Hamilton (while still alive) and (soon to be first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) John Jay were involved in stemming the riots.

Fascinating stuff. To me, at least.

Totally trivial historical side note: Duane Street in lower Manhattan was named after Mayor James Duane. At the corner of Duane and Reade streets in 1960 a drug store was opened that became the largest chain of drug stores in the New York area:  Duane Reade. That chain was eventually purchased by Bain Capital. Coincidence? Yeah, totally.

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