During the eighteenth century medical schools increased in number and the education of doctors became more “scientific.” Learning about the anatomy of human beings meant studying and dissecting human bodies, consequently the demand for cadavers grew. In Britain those who had been condemned to death and executed were legally subject to dissection. Soon however, the shortage of bodies led to grave robbing, and body snatching became a lucrative business; its practitioners were called “resurrectionists.” The famous pair, William Burke and William Hare, went a step farther, murdering people to supply fresh corpses to doctors and students.
Body snatching also began to flourish in the United States to supply recently established medical schools, especially in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York. Public graveyards and potter’s fields were robbed: those disinterred included the poor, African Americans and Indians. Trafficking in dead bodies disturbed many; efforts were made to protect the graves of the dead and to enact legislation governing the acquisition of cadavers. Public outrage and resentment often led to mob actions.
At City Hospital in New York, on April 13, 1788, a group of boys playing near the dissection room window claimed to have recognized one of the cadavers. An angry crowd attacked the hospital but was somewhat mollified when the police rounded up the medical students and doctors and put them in jail for their safety. When the mob reassembled and threatened to storm the jail, the militia was called out, but only a few responded. The authorities fired on the crowd and three rioters were killed. Several prominent citizens joined the militia in this action, among them Governor George Clinton, Baron von Steuben, and John Jay. Serving as minister for foreign affairs for the new nation, Jay was living in New York City. His wife Sarah wrote of the incident to her mother.
New York April 17, 1788My dr. Mama,
On Monday, the evening preceeding the day on which we expected a large company to dine, just as we were going to tea, Genl. Clarkson call’d in to know if we could lend him a sword, for says he the rioters are proceeding to the Jail & are determined to open the doors & liberate the prisoners as well as to tear in pieces the Doctors who are confin’d there, & if they effect their plan confusion, murder &c. may be the result. Mr. Jay ran up the stairs & handing Clarkson one sword, to my great concern arm’d himself with another, & went towards the Jail which the Citizens determin’d to defend.
Just as he was going up the steps of the jail, a stone thrown by one of the Mob (for it was too dark to discern which) took him in the forehead & stunn’d him so that he fell. Clarkson & Rutherford who were near, carried him into the Poor-house & fetch’d [Doctor] Charlton & then brought them both home together in the Carriage. The stone must have been large as it had made two large holes in his forehead. Judge Mama of my feelings when I saw him hurried from the Carriage to the Chamber by the Dr. & other gentlemen.
The Dr. immediately examined his wounds, & to my unspeakable relief pronounced that there was no fracture. After dressing the wound he bled him & gave him some drops that he said wd. compose him; it did not however make him sleep, but still his head felt better the next day tho’ his eyes were much swell’d & discolor’d, & indeed remain so yet. He is quite out of danger, but suffers vast pain from his neck & shoulders which we think must proceed from a cold he may have taken that rainy evening that he receiv’d his blow. …
I cannot quit the Chamber except to wait upon Mr. Jay & therefore beg that my dr. Mama will excuse my not having purchased the things for her. …
Remember us all to Papa & believe me my [dear] Mama to be sincerely Yr. dutiful Daughter
Sarah’s letter can be found on page 180-81 of Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay. The portrait of John Jay (in thumbnail) is by Gilbert Stuart c. 1784.