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Body Snatchers of Old New York

In the 1780s, medical schools used cadavers stolen from the cemeteries of slaves.

No one is sure how the new nation’s first riot began. One popular story has it that on April 13, 1788, several boys were playing in a grassy area outside New York Hospital, where a student named John Hicks was dissecting an arm. Hicks, who was probably no more than sixteen or seventeen, is said to have waved the arm out the third-floor window at one of the boys, yelling, “This is your mother’s arm! I just dug it up!” The boy’s mother had in fact recently died, and he ran down Broadway to tell the story to his father, a mason. The man exhumed his wife’s coffin, and after finding it empty, marched on the hospital with a group of angry worker friends still carrying their tools.

Colonel William Heth, writing in a letter to Governor of Virginia Edmund Randolph, described what happened when the workmen got to the hospital:

The cry of barbarity and etc. was soon spread—the young sons of Galen fled in every direction—one took refuge in a chimney—the mob raised—and the Hospital apartments were ransacked. In the Anatomy room, were found three fresh bodies—one, boiling in a kettle, and two others cutting up—with certain parts of the two sex's hanging up in a most brutal position. The circumstances, together with the wanton and apparent inhuman complexion of the room, exasperated the Mob beyond all bounds, to the total destruction of every anatomy in the hospital.

The workmen hauled bones and half-dissected bodies from the anatomy rooms into a heap on the street, and set them ablaze in a giant bonfire. Although most of the doctors and medical students had already fled, those who remained to guard the valuable collection of anatomical specimens were also dragged out into the streets. They might have been added to the bonfire too if it hadn’t been for the arrival of Mayor James Duane, the sheriff, and several others, who carried the medical men off to jail for their own safety.