America's First Riot - The Doctor's Mob of 1788 Part 2

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

Only by early morning did the mob seem to have expended its hate. Meanwhile Gov. George Clinton had called out the militia and many city doctors had left town. Clinton and Mayor James Duane were quite sure that they had the situation well under control. When the riot began again at daybreak, the 2 officials were dumbfounded.

The mob had increased substantially and was hurrying toward Columbia College. There they attacked the building, looking for more anatomical specimens. Curious onlookers were assaulted. Alexander Hamilton faced the rioters and tried to persuade them to go home. That evening, in front of the city jail, it became apparent that the mob could not be dispersed without resorting to force. John Jay, soon to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was knocked unconscious by a rock. Another onlooker, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a hero of the American Revolution, pleaded with Governor Clinton not to order his troops to fire. Many would be killed, he insisted--try to curb the mob with words, not bullets. Yet, even as Steuben spoke, the rioters surged forward and the baron got hit on the head with a brick.

The baron quickly changed his mind. "Fire, Clinton, fire!" he shouted, and the governor gave the order.

The militiamen fired, and felled 20 men. Eight rioters were killed. Many more were seriously wounded. Not till morning was the "Doctors' Mob" finished, and doctors could tend the injured rioters.

No one ever identified the corpse that had incited the "Doctors' Mob," and the husband who avenged the desecration of his wife's grave remains anonymous to this day. The riot was completely in vain. Although New York's legislature soon passed a law authorizing the dissection of the bodies of persons executed for burglary, arson, and murder, it was a long time before body snatchers stopped escorting their nights' work from Long Island to Manhattan via ferry, purchasing tickets for "drunken friends," who more than repaid their kindness at $100 a body. The era of the "resurrectionists" or grave robbers lasted until almost the middle of the 19th century and spawned such characters as the infamous Englishman William Burke, who killed--by "burking" or smothering his victims--in order to supply the demands of the anatomists.

The "Doctors' Mob" was not nearly so violent as the mob uprisings that were to follow in its wake. Nor was the cause of the uprising more unjust than most--many riots in the 1st half of the 19th century were directed against newly arrived immigrants, and often were led by groups not too long here themselves. On the other hand, the "Doctors' Mob" did not arise out of real grievances like the Bread Riot in 1857 and the labor troubles throughout 1877, when economic conditions forced people into the streets to demand food and work. Only one other uprising seems quite as senseless as the "Doctors' Mob"--the riot in 1849 when English actor W. C. Macready was driven from the stage of the Astor Place Opera House, and eventually from the country, by a mob that gathered in response to the anti-English demagoguery of American actor Edwin Forrest. But few accurate comparisons can be made among these disturbances. The "Doctors' Mob" is similar to most mob uprisings in America, or anywhere else, only in that it destroyed much and accomplished little, especially for the people involved.

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