29. John Jay in the Doctors’ Riot
Medical research and education in the 1700s relied heavily upon corpse dissection. However, there was a snag: few would donate their loved ones’ remains. So doctors stole them from fresh graves, or paid grave robbers to do so. In the 1780s, doctors from New York’s Columbia University got their fresh corpses from a plot known as the African Burial Ground, where slaves and freedmen were buried. The doctors, would simply head there at night, dig up the freshest graves, and steal the corpses. The relatives’ petitioned the authorities to do something about the grave robbing, but nobody listened. Then one day in April, 1788, some boys peeped through the window of New York Hospital, where a doctor was dissecting a cadaver. To amuse the kids, he waved her severed arm at them. Unfortunately, the woman being dissected happened to be the recently deceased mother of one of the boys.
The kid ran home and told his father, who gathered a mob to attack the hospital. When they broke in, they encountered a nutty scene of horrors. Numerous corpses were strewn all over the place, one of them boiling in a pot to ease dissection. As the doctor on duty hid in a chimney, the mob gathered the cadavers and burned them outside. Over the next few days, thousands of New Yorkers attacked doctors’ homes, and even the city’s jail, where the authorities had moved the doctors for their own protection. As the mob bayed for blood and shouted “Bring out the doctors!“, the militia gathered to resist them. In the fighting that ensued, about twenty were killed. John Jay, who served in the militia, was struck with a rock that cracked his skull. In the aftermath, laws were finally passed to prohibit and punish grave robbing.