A Brief History of American Anatomy Riots
One of the first riots in the United States was fought not over the living, but the dead.
On April 13, 1788, some boys playing near New York Hospital, then the site of a private medical school, saw a severed arm either hanging or being waved outside a window (accounts differ on the grisly details). One of the boys ran to tell his father; in some versions of the tale, the severed arm belonged to the boy’s recently deceased mother.
Enraged at this apparent desecration of the dead, the boy’s father assembled a group of fellow workmen who forced their way into New York Hospital, ransacking the rooms and forcing the doctors and students to flee. The group hauled teaching specimens and medical equipment into the street, setting them ablaze. They calmed down at nightfall, but the next morning, a crowd of hundreds tore apart Columbia College (today’s Columbia University) looking for doctors and corpses. Next they descended on the jail, where some of the medical students were being held for their own safety. Governor George Clinton ended up calling out the militia, and the resulting tumult led to at least six deaths.
New York’s riot of 1788 is only the most famous of about two dozen “Resurrection Riots” that took place in the United States between the nation’s founding and the late 19th century. These riots were named for the Resurrection Men, also called the “sack-em-up men” or “night doctors”—professional thieves who dug fresh corpses out of local burying grounds and supplied them to medical schools for dissection lectures.
The Resurrection Men were one of our less savory inheritances from Britain. While countries such as Germany, France, and Italy had for centuries enjoyed provisions that allowed the bodies of the poor and unclaimed to be dissected, under British (and later American) law only executed criminals could be dissected. As the number of medical schools boomed in the 19th century—from four in 1800 to more than 160 in 1900—the supply of legal cadavers proved far too few to satisfy the needs of students. At the time, a Parisian influence had convinced medical educators that dissection was the epitome of a scientific medical education. Paris, however, was supplied with a large number of corpses from a city charity hospital, while in America, students and teachers overwhelmingly turned to grave-robbing to fill their needs.
The poor were not exactly pleased. While the rich could afford protective measures—such as iron cages known as mortsafes placed over the graves, or special all-night watchmen—the poor and non-white were at the mercy of the sack-em-up men. Slave burial grounds were particularly common targets.
The poor were also sensitive to dissection’s historical association with criminality—for centuries, the only legal supply of cadavers came from executed criminals, and dissection was seen as a second layer of punishment meted out by the Crown or court. To have a family member’s body dissected when they had committed no crime was seen as an affront to individual and community honor.
Additionally, medical schools had also begun to flourish at a time when Americans were turning away from a Puritan conception of death—in which decay and even dissection could be understood as a punishment for life’s sins and a preparation for hell—to a more sentimental Victorian view. People wanted their dead to rest in peace; being dug up and dissected in front of a crowd of medical students was anything but.
In his book A Traffic of Dead Bodies, the medical historian Michael Sappol has counted at least 17 anatomy riots between 1765 and 1854, in Connecticut, Vermont, Ohio, and elsewhere. During these riots, citizens stormed through buildings, attacked students and staff, reclaimed bodies of their loved ones, and fought against militiamen sent out to restote the piece. In fact, few major medical schools escaped some kind of confrontation, and many were forced to close, sometimes permanently, or move as a result.
Here is a selection of some of the largest confrontations:
- The first recorded instance of mob violence against medical schools took place in 1765 in Philadelphia, a city long at the forefront of American medical education. An angry mob attacked the house and carriage of a Dr. William Shippen, Jr., even though he had taken pains in the press to reassure people that he only dissected bodies of suicides and executed criminals, never bodies taken from church graveyards.
- In 1788, the same year as New York’s anatomy riot, there were also disturbances in Boston and in Baltimore, where a mob invaded the anatomical school of Dr. Charles F. Wiesenthal and forced the students to give up the body of a murderer they were dissecting.
- Nine years later, a group of boys who happened to see a dissection in progress at the University of Maryland led to a mob that destroyed that school’s Anatomy Hall. The event caused the newly founded medical school there to go dark for seven years.
- Even Yale suffered. In 1824, when the grave of 17 year-old Bathsheba Smith, the daughter of a respected West Haven farmer, was found disturbed—and her body later located beneath the paving stones of the Yale Medical College building—an indignant mob of about 600 townspeople armed with pistols and daggers attacked the medical building for two days, hurling rocks and burning coals. The mob succeeded in little more than breaking the windows, and later found a scapegoat in a young medical assistant who was sentenced to nine months in prison and fined $300 (whether he actually had anything to do with the crime is unclear).
- In 1830 three New England medical colleges were raided after charges of grave-robbing; in one case the rioters carried pitchforks.
- In 1839, an inflamed group of citizens threatened the Worthington Reformed Medical College building in Worthington, Ohio, with destruction after reports that the school had desecrated local graveyards, and they succeeded in forcing officials to close and move the school.
- In 1844, the Missouri Medical College in St. Louis had all of its furnishings destroyed by an irate mob.
- In 1849, a mob attacked the home of an anatomy professor of Franklin Medical College in Illinois, firing through his door and wounding the doctor while killing one of his students.
- In 1852, a crowd carrying axes attacked the Western College of Homeopathic Medicine in Cleveland and destroyed all its furnishings and equipment, looking for the recently deceased daughter of a local man who they believed had been bodysnatched. The group were on their way to destroy the house of one of the anatomy professors when state troopers appeared on the scene and prevented them from progressing any further.
- Two years later, in Rome, New York, volunteer firemen putting out a fire at the Eclectic Medical College found dissected bodies, started a riot, threw the remains out the windows, and wrecked the schools.
Clearly, something had to be done. Laws enacted soon after the riots began either created or strengthened penalties against grave-robbing, and many also enlarged the pool of criminals who could be dissected after death—from just murderers, for instance, to burglars. But it wasn’t until states began to pass “Anatomy Acts,” starting with Massachusetts in 1831, that the tide began to shift. Such acts allowed medical students to dissect the unclaimed bodies of those who had died in almshouses (poorhouses), hospitals, and other institutions. As Sappol notes, the laws helped reassure “respectable” people that their graves wouldn’t be plundered, gave doctors and medical students the material they needed, and unburdened the profession from its association with criminality.
However, many less privileged members of society still saw the system as unfair, and anatomy-related scandals continued to make the front pages of newspapers into the 20th century. It was only once regulated programs for body donation began in the mid-20th century that medical students, and the public, could truly rest easy (most of the time) about the source of the cadavers being dissected on college tables. Today, most people who end up on a dissecting table chose to be there, and many medical schools include meaningful ceremonies of remembrance for their donated cadavers. It’s a far cry from midnight raids on the local cemetery.
About the Author
Bess Lovejoy is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses (Simon & Schuster, 2013), a digital editor for mental_floss, and a researcher for books and film. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Smithsonian.com, The Believer, and elsewhere. She is a member of The Order of the Good Death and a member of Death Salon.
- Sappol, Michael. A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. (Princeton University Press, 2004)
- Gallagher, Thomas. The Doctors’ Story. (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967)
- Edwards, Linden. “Resurrection riots during the heroic age of anatomy in America.” In the Bulletin of the history of medicine, Vol. 25 (1951) Mar.-Apr., No. 2.
- Suzanne M. Shultz, Body Snatching: The Robbing of Graves for the Education of Physicians in Early Nineteenth Century America. (McFarland, 2005)
Tags: Anatomy Riots, Autopsy, Bess Lovejoy, Grave Robbing, Mercy Street, Order of the Good Death, PBS, Season 2 Posted in: Mercy Street PBS