Gabriel von Max, ‘Der Anatom (The Anatomist)’, 1869
In the context of the Doctors’ Riot of 1788, this is quite the image:
One spring Sunday in 1788, a small boy climbed up a ladder behind New York Hospital and peeked into the dissecting room where doctors were studying the anatomy of corpses. To shoo the child away, so the story goes, a doctor went to the window, brandished a human arm and severely declared: “It’s your mother’s!”
Whatever actually happened, the frightened child’s babbling was followed by the famous, bloody Doctors’ Riot. It was described last week to the New York State Medical Society meeting in Manhattan by Dr. Claude Heaton of Bellevue Hospital in relating the difficulties of early medical research. By an unfortunate coincidence, the boy’s mother had recently been interred in Trinity Church Yard. When a crowd of infuriated citizens opened her grave, they found it empty. For the rest of the day the mob ranged through the town, ransacking the doctors’ houses for the body.
Most of the town’s physicians took refuge in the city jail, where Governor George Clinton (uncle of De Witt) protected them by ordering out the militia (18 armed men). Statesmen John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, who tried to calm the mob, were stoned. So was Baron von Steuben, who, while pleading with the Governor not to use force, got hit by a brickbat and fell bleeding to the street. Changing his mind about pacifism, he cried: “Fire, Governor, fire!” At the first volley five people were killed, seven or eight wounded.
As a result of the riot, said Dr. Heaton, a law was passed the following year prohibiting “the odious practice of digging up … dead bodies” for dissection. In its stead there sprang up a bootleg body-snatching racket run by ancient gangsters who did not hesitate to make their own corpses when none were available. It was not until 1854 that a New York law was passed granting unclaimed bodies in public morgues to medical schools. Body snatching in some other parts of the U.S. persisted until the 20th Century, by which time laws similar to New York State’s were generally adopted.