On July 26, 1788, the Convention of the State of New York, meeting in Poughkeepsie, ratified the Constitution of the United States and, in doing so, was admitted to the new union as the eleventh of the original thirteen colonies joining together as the United States of America.
For New Yorkers, it had been an eventful year.
In April, the authorities were confronted with the first rebellion in the city. It broke loose outside a building later known as the New York Hospital where physician Richard Bayley provided private anatomy lessons to young students. In the winter of 1788 a number of unsettling newspaper stories had been published that focused on medical students robbing bodies from freshly dug graves at churchyards and other burial grounds.
The public was outraged at the indignity of postmortem dissections for research purposes. It took a single incident for anger to explode into violence aimed at medical practitioners and their students. Although the details of accounts tend to vary, ample attention has been given to this particular happening that became known as the “Doctor’s Riot.”
Much less focus has been placed on another, less spectacular event that had taken place a couple of months previously when a petition by a group of Black freedmen was submitted to the city’s authorities with the urgent request to halt the grave-robbing of Black New Yorkers and prevent further desecration of their graveyard.
Physician David Edwardes was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he was made a Fellow in 1524. A year later he was in Venice where he assisted the Aldine Press in publishing the works of Galen, the Greek physician and surgeon. It is likely that he spent time studying in Padua, then a center of anatomical excellence. In 1528 he moved to Cambridge and is credited with carrying out England’s first recorded dissection of a human body in 1531.
Anatomy teaching did not become standard university practice until the middle years of the sixteenth century when a public dissection was both instruction and spectacle. The occasion was the highlight of the academic term: cutting up a body signified a celebration of science. The ritual was attended by professionals, artists and the curious alike. Famously, the anatomical lesson became a theme in Dutch painting. The earliest known example by Aert Pietersz dates from 1603, showing Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz de Vrij at work in Amsterdam surrounded by twenty-eight (all male) master surgeons.
By the early eighteenth century dissection had become an integral part of anatomy studies, but its teaching was hampered by a limited supply of bodies. The 1752 British “Murder Act” prescribed a public dissection following the execution of murderers. Such extended retribution would not only serve medical science, but also overwhelm the gathered crowd with a graphic set of images that restored the deterrent element in the legal process. In the spectacle of public punishment the role of the anatomist now superseded that of the executioner.
A continuous shortage of corpses meant that academics had to improvise their teaching methods. Some practitioners carved up the bodies of family members (William Harvey dissected his father and sister). As a consequence, a clandestine trade in cadavers emerged. Dead bodies had cash value: the corpse was a commodity. Medical schools paid “resurrectionists” (those who were involved in grave-robbing) to dig up freshly interred bodies, especially in winter when the cold slowed down putrefaction.
Ordinary people were terrified of body-snatchers and determined to protect the graves of deceased relatives. The rich could afford solid tombstones, vaults and iron cages. The poor placed pebbles on graves to detect disturbances and dug heather and branches into the soil to make disinterment difficult. Watchtowers were erected, but graves were still violated.
The authorities turned a blind eye to grave-robbing because surgeons and students were working to advance medical knowledge. They kept publicity to a minimum in order to avoid public fury. Legally it was not at all clear if grave-robbing was a criminal act. As the body was not regarded as property, once deceased the corpse could not be owned or stolen.
Grave-robbers were hard at work until the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act which provided anatomists with lawful access to unclaimed corpses from the workhouses where there was an abundant and continuous supply of dead bodies. Murderers were replaced by the poor and destitute.
African Burial Ground
Colonial American medical education in the eighteenth century was based on the English model of apprenticeship that made practical anatomy an intrinsic part of the curriculum. Dissection after execution was regulated according to British law and served as a dramatic (but ineffective) warning to onlookers to refrain from violent crime.
Slave labor had been crucial to the construction of Manhattan under colonial rule. Slaves had been present there since 1626 when the Dutch West India Company “imported” eleven men from Central and Southern Africa to help construct the settlement’s earliest buildings. Two years after their arrival three female Angolan slaves arrived. The first slave auction took place in 1655 at Pearl Street.
In the years that followed, the African population expanded rapidly with slaves brought over to work the fields. The city’s economy became tied to slavery. The English sharply increased the trade in human misery and by the mid-eighteenth century enslaved Africans worked as laborers in the docks, in construction and in shipping. Many of them did domestic work (in 1703, forty-two percent of the city’s households kept slaves). By the end of the American Revolution, about a fifth of the population of the city of New York was of African descent.
Slaves were “property” and as such without rights in life or in death. They were buried outside the city limits and their bodies interred in plots north of Manhattan’s Chambers Street, across from the paupers’ cemetery. Initially named the “Negroes Burying Ground,” some 15,000 African slaves and their descendants were laid to rest here during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – but even in death no repose was found.
An Irish Pioneer
Dublin-born Samuel Clossy was trained in medicine at Trinity College Dublin and continued his studies in London under the supervision of William Hunter, physician to Queen Charlotte and Britain’s outstanding anatomist. On his return, Samuel undertook autopsy work at Dublin’s renowned Dr Steevens’ Hospital.
Clossy moved to New York in September 1763 to take up a position at a planned new military hospital. The scheme never materialized and Samuel was forced into a private career of teaching anatomy. He advertised his lectures in the New York Gazette on November 17, 1763. It proved to be a timely initiative.
Two years later Clossy was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at King’s College. Established in 1754 on the grounds of Trinity Church at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, the College was renamed Columbia University three decades later. It was New York’s oldest institution of higher education (one of nine colonial colleges founded prior to Independence). Soon after, Clossy was appointed the college’s first Professor of Anatomy.
He exported professional practices from Britain to Manhattan. In London he had witnessed grave-robbing on an industrial scale. In Dublin students at Trinity College routinely raided the pauper’s burial ground at Bully’s Acre, Kilmainham, for fresh bodies to dissect. With high mortality rates amongst its large impoverished population, Dublin’s ‘carcass merchants’ delivered corpses to London on demand. Not only did Ireland supply England with cheap “navvy” labor to help construct its infrastructure, the country also exported corpses to British medical schools to provide for anatomical lessons.
Once settled in Manhattan, Clossy found to his delight that the African Burial Ground was a short walk from King’s College. Demonstrations during his lectures were conducted primarily on the stolen corpses of enslaved blacks or mulattoes.
A Stiff Drink
After Clossy’s return to Europe, grave-robbing increased as several new medical schools were founded during the early years of the Republic. It was the “surest” way of obtaining the remains of recently deceased. Dissection began immediately after a corpse was received since decay set in quickly.
The thieves worked according to a well-established plan. They began by digging at the head of a coffin. Having broken the lid, a hook was placed around the deceased’s neck. With the help of a rope, the body was gently pulled out of the grave (graphically depicted by William Strang in 1898).
With improving means of transportation, body-snatchers started to ship corpses to anatomical centers nationwide. To preserve the body and mask its awful smell, corpses were folded into barrels filled with whiskey. Having reached its destination, a medical school officer would remove the remains and prepare it for dissection. The “rotgut” whiskey was sold on for consumption. Having a “stiff drink” literally meant drinking a stiff.
The practice of grave-robbing continued largely uninterrupted because the bodies filched from unmarked graves were those of society’s powerless and marginalized individuals, including criminals, paupers and African Americans. Limited legal barriers proved to be futile.
Affluent New Yorkers were willing to look away from grisly nocturnal activities as long as body-snatching was restricted to the repositories of the poor. Devoted to scientific and medical progress, they were immune to the pain felt by those whose loved one’s graves had been desecrated. The rare occasions when grave robbers happened to remove a corpse from a well-to-do family (“the wrong kind of body”) a public outcry would follow.
Richard Bayley was a Connecticut-born anatomist who was raised in New Rochelle, New York. As medical schools were not yet prevalent at the time of his student years, training involved an apprenticeship with a reputable physician. Like Samuel Clossy before him, Bayley traveled to London to work with the Scottish surgeon and anatomist William Hunter. He too became accustomed to the practice of body-snatching.
Having worked as a British Army surgeon, Bayley began to lecture on surgery in 1785 in a building on the corner of Broadway and Pearl Street that would later become the New York Hospital (close to, but not part of Columbia’s medical faculty). Locally, there were unconfirmed whispers about him “cutting up patients and performing cruel experiments upon the sick.”
It was, according to legend, outside this building that in April 1788 a group of children ventured near Bayley’s rooms and witnessed a young student by the name of John Hicks in the process of dissecting an arm. Irritated at the intrusion, Hicks grabbed a severed limb and waved it at the kids whilst yelling, “This is your mother’s arm! I just dug it up!”.
As it happened, one of the boys had recently lost his mother. Having told his father about the incident, the latter grabbed a shovel and exhumed his wife’s coffin to find it empty. An angry crowd gathered outside the building and some protesters forced their way in, terrifying teachers and students, and destroying Bayley’s valuable anatomy collection. The incident led to a violent riot involving a reported 5,000 people.
Medical students began their college careers at the age of fifteen before being apprenticed to physicians. Since the hospital was close to the African Burying Ground, these youngsters were allowed if not encouraged to dig up cadavers for their lessons. Dressed in (traditional) black suits, they were seemingly unconcerned about their activities or the fact that grave-robbing assumed a disturbing racial element that was to continue in medical schools for years to come.
Black New Yorkers objected to this appalling state of affairs. On February 3, 1788, several freedmen petitioned the city’s Common Council to prevent further desecration of their graveyard. In their address, they accused students of digging up the ‘bodies of our deceased friends and relatives’ under cover of darkness and pleaded with the authorities to halt such abuse. The petition was ignored and the violation of the Burial Ground on behalf of Columbia’s anatomy classes carried on.
The number of bodies available was not sufficient to fulfill the demand of medical colleges. Professional resurrection men took over the dark practice of stealing corpses. A profitable line of business, grave-robbing became rampant and continued well into the nineteenth century. In London and Dublin anatomical skills had been acquired at the expense of the poor and destitute; New York gained medical expertise on the backs of African-Americans. Scientific advance came at a high human price.
Illustrations, from above: US Constitution for dissemination in New York State, printed by Caxton & Babcock in Albany, 1788. (Gilder Lehrman Collection); The Anatomical Lesson of Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz de Vrij, 1603 by Aert Pietersz (Amsterdam Historical Museum); Phiz (real name: Hablot Knight Browne), Resurrectionists at Work, 1887 (Book illustration); The Resurrectionists, 1898 by William Strang (National Galleries Scotland); View of African burial ground in Manhattan, c. 1790; and An Interrupted Dissection, 1788 by William A. Rogers (Wood engraving).
Anita Prentice says
This is such an interesting article on a quite terrible subject – thank you for sharing it.