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Historical Insights The Doctors’ Riot of 1788

Grave robbers, also known as resurrectionists, did most of their work under the cover of night. Without a way to preserve bodies, it was best to exhume corpses during the winter months when they were already frozen. Bodies were then sold to medical schools and hospitals where they were dissected and used as teaching tools.Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Doctors’ Riot of 1788

Tensions between the world of medicine and society came to a head during the Doctors’ Riot of 1788, when the common practice of grave robbing came under scrutiny.

In the late 1700s using cadavers for scientific research was highly taboo but done by doctors nonetheless. Within blocks of New York City’s only medical school were two graveyards: one for African American slaves, the other for paupers. Bodies were buried in shallow holes, making them easy targets for grave robbers. On April 13, 1788, the clandestine practice was discovered when a boy playing outside of the New York Hospital spotted a medical student dissecting an arm. The man waved the arm, joking that it belonged to the child’s mother. The boy told his father, who dug up her coffin and found it empty. News of the grave robbing spread, inciting a riot. A mob of 2,000 gathered and forced most doctors into hiding or to flee. A few days later, after peace returned, strict laws were passed to punish physicians who stole corpses, but they continued to rely on grave robbers for decades to come.