Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Great Cadaver Riot of 1788

The current scandal regarding the illegal "harvesting" of body parts by
"tissue banks" ain't nothin' compared to the brouhaha in 1788, when it was
discovered that medical students and doctors were robbing graves in order
to obtain cadavers.

At that time doctors had neither refrigeration nor embalming to keep the
bodies which they studied ....errrrr..... fresh. So, there was a great need
for new cadavers by hospitals and medical schools. So, they employed
hospital staff to recruit study subjects from local cemeteries.

Needless to say, the public was not pleased to learn of this. In addition
to the anger which one could be expected to experience at learning that a
loved one's remains had been snatched, there was also the prevailing
superstition of the day, which held that people who were not properly
interred could not "rest in peace," and would come back as ghosts. As word
spread of the practice, a huge mob invaded New York Hospital, snatching all
the cadavers and taking them back to the cemetery for proper burial. They
also captured many of the medical students and doctors.

The civil authorities of the day were somewhat accustomed to rioting; it
was a fairly common occurrence, and in this case they sympathized with the
crowd's outrage. After a time they negotiated with the mob to have the
medical personnel turned over to them, so that they could be imprisoned.
This was done, but the people were still furious. They demanded (and got)
the right to search academic institutions and even the doctors' houses for
more corpses. Following this, the growing crowd besieged the jail, intent
upon inflicting frontier justice on the doctors. Eventually a large militia
was brought in, and the crowd disbursed, but not before three rioters were
killed. On the defender's side, those attacked included NY Governor
Clinton, General von Steuben (yes, the parade's namesake) and future
Justice Department chief John Jay.


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