America's First Riot - The Doctor's Mob of 1788 Part 1

About America's first riot, the Doctor's Mob of 1788 involving suspected grave robbing and a big misunderstanding.

America's 1st Riot--the Doctors' Mob of 1788

"In a spirit of medical humor," one chronicler of the period wrote, a medical student, John Hicks, Jr., picked up the arm of a corpse he had just dissected and pointed it at the youngsters peering in through the window. "This is your mother's hand!" he shouted. "I just dug it up! Watch out or I'll smack you with it!"

The children scattered into the dark, but one frightened boy took Hicks at his word. By a strange coincidence his mother had died recently. The boy repeated Hicks's threat to his father, who gathered some friends and hurried toward the local cemetery. There, by another strange coincidence, he found his wife's grave quite empty indeed. Whoever had robbed it hadn't even bothered to refill the hole. The exposed coffin was broken apart, and the enraged spouse vowed to make someone pay for its desecration. He led his friends through the streets of lower Manhattan, others joining them, and a mob of hundreds soon stormed toward the New York Hospital and its unsuspecting staff. The mob had heard too many stories about young interns, stealing bodies from private cemeteries and now they had "proof." The "Doctors' Mob" of April 13-15, 1788, America's 1st riot, had begun.

Soon the frenzied mob reached what are now Worth and Duane streets where the hospital was located. Men with brickbats and torches encircled the large building, blocking exits and screaming for all the doctors to come out. They howled for blood and might have lynched the entire staff if the doctors hadn't escaped out rear windows. With no time to spare, those doctors on duty--with one exception--slipped past the mob.

The hospital was empty now, except for Dr. Wright Post and 3 students who had stayed to protect the valuable anatomical specimens--to no avail. After the unthinking rioters had spent themselves, the inside of the hospital was bare and broken. Glass was strewn about the floor; surgical instruments were bent beyond recognition; the collection of important anatomical specimens was ruined, and Dr. Post and the 3 students had been put in the city jail by the sheriff in order to protect them. They were joined there later by the professor of anatomy, Dr. Richard Bayley.

The mob had understood nothing in its path and everything was destroyed, but despite the ruins at its feet, its appetite for vengeance wasn't sated. Out the mob flowed into the city, searching for doctors. A number of strange incidents occurred. At the home of Sir John Temple the rioters stopped and entered for apparently no reason at all. Temple wasn't a doctor, but the mob completely destroyed his house, almost leveling the building, without ever realizing that "Sir John" did not mean "surgeon." Luckily, no one was killed, but a few narrowly escaped with their lives. Hicks had taken refuge in the home of a prominent physician. The crowd entered the house looking for him. It was Hicks's good luck that they looked no farther than the attic, for when he had seen the mob coming he had hidden behind the chimney on the roof of the house next door.

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