Doctors' Riot of April 1788

Submitted by FHMaster on Fri, 01/06/2017 - 23:46

"The Doctors' Riot was an incident in 1788 in New York City, where the illegal procurement of corpses from the graves of slaves and poor whites resulted in a mass expression of discontent from poorer New Yorkers directed primarily at physicians and medical students.


By the end of the American Revolution, roughly one fifth of New York City's population was Black, most of whom were slaves. The construction of New York City, under both the Dutch and the English, was accomplished largely with slave labour. Due to their low social standing, the bodies of slaves could only be buried outside the city limits. Most often they were interred in a small number of plots north of Chambers Street, across the street from the Pauper's Cemetery, often with several bodies to a grave, in a site now marked by the African Burial Ground National Monument, then known as the "Negroes Burying Ground".

Both cemeteries were located close to Columbia College, which housed the city's only school of medicine. Due to taboos associated with the violation of corpses, procuring cadavers for study was difficult, and many students and doctors would exhume bodies from the nearby graveyards due to the socially marginalized status of their occupants.

The riot

Because there was, at the time, no known method of preserving an entire corpse, resurrections were performed hastily, often in winter to slow the rate of decomposition and, in the winter of 1788, the number of corpses being exhumed by students increased substantially. The activities of medical students and physicians, who were known colloquially as Resurrectionists, in the Black cemetery were noticed by a group of freedmen who, on February the 3rd, petitioned the Common Council to take action against it. The petition was largely ignored, and no effort was made to stop the unlicensed exhumations.

During April, a group of children was playing outside the New York Hospital, next to a room where a student of the physician Richard Bayley, who was known to exhume corpses from the two cemeteries, was dissecting an arm. The student, named John Hicks, waved the arm out a nearby window, at the children, telling a boy whose mother had recently died that it belonged to her. The boy ran home and told his father of this, who, after exhuming his wife's coffin and finding it empty, amassed a group of concerned citizens who marched to the hospital and began to mass around the building. The mob eventually broke into the hospital and, after becoming incensed upon finding several bodies in various stages of mutilation, pulled Richard Bayley's assistant Wright Post and a number of his students into the street, where the mayor of New York City, James Duane intervened and ordered them escorted to the jailhouse for protection.

A crowd of 2,000 people had gathered, and news spread of the horrors seen in the hospital, leading to widespread rioting, with the few physicians remaining in New York City being forced into hiding. A large group of rioters descended upon Broadway, searching for John Hicks, who was felt by the crowd to be the main source of blame. As they assembled in front of the courthouse, throwing rocks, militia and cavalry were called in to repel them. Anywhere from three to twenty rioters died in the confrontation, possibly many more.


Public opinion of the physicians in New York stood very low for many years, and while some students were brought to trial, Hicks was not among them. A year later, a statute was finally put into law in order to codify the proper treatment of corpses, with harsh punishments imposed for those who violated it. The corpses of condemned criminals were offered as replacements, however, this did not satiate demand and physicians took to hiring "Resurrection Men" to continue to procure corpses illegally, a practice which stood for some time.

The original site of the slave burial ground was built over and unknown until 1991, when it was rediscovered. A monument now stands in its place."


Caroline de Costa, Francesca Miller. "American resurrection and the 1788 New York doctors' riot." The Lancet. Volume 377, Issue 9762, 22–28 January 2011, Pages 292-293, ISSN 0140-6736, 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60083-4. ("

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