Ah, the contemptible Mr. Hicks. Little is known about John Hicks, the perpetrator of the act that led to the Doctor’s Riot of 1788. Hicks is said to have looked out a window of the anatomy lab on April 13 and seen some children playing outside. He waved the amputated arm of a cadaver at the students, apparently telling one child, “This is your mother’s arm! I just dug it up!”
The child ran home in tears. His father, a bricklayer, immediately went to his wife’s grave and found her body gone. Furious the man gathered some friends to find Hicks and, one can assume, beat him senseless. Word in the neighborhood spread quickly, and soon a number of others had joined in.
Most of the students and instructors, seeing the growing mob descending on the school, immediately fled. Apparently one instructor, 22-year-old Wright Post (right), and four of his students remained to protect the lab. The mob at that point probably numbered a few dozen citizens. They broke into the school, forced Post and his students to take flight, and started breaking lab equipment and destroying or pilfering a number of valuable anatomy specimens.
Word about the body snatching kept spreading, and on Tuesday April 15 a mob of about 2,000 descended on the city jail. Officials had sequestered medical students there for their own safety.
New York Governor George Clinton called out the state militia to deal with the disorderly throng. Alexander Hamilton had tried quelling the crowd’s anger, as had John Jay (right), one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the Prussian officer who had famously turned the ragtag soldiers at Valley Forge into an effective fighting force.
Mobs being mobs, none of the men’s assurances defused the crowd’s anger. Jay was hit in the head by a brick or stone and knocked unconscious. Baron von Steuben was also struck in the head. He cried out to Gov. Clinton as he fell, “Fire, Governor! Fire!”
Clinton immediately gave the order into fire into the crowd, an act that stopped the mob from storming the jail. The crowd dispersed, and the riot was over.
The Doctor’s Riot led to new laws designed to reduce the robbing of graves to supply cadavers to medical schools. Unfortunately grave robbing continued until the 1900s, so desperate were medical schools to train physicians and surgeons in their practice.
Look here for more on this crucial event in American history in the coming weeks and months.
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