How a 16th Century King’s Decision Sort of Led to the Doctor’s Riot of 1788

How a 16th Century King’s Decision Sort of Led to the Doctor’s Riot of 1788

You can kind of — kind of — blame the craft of body snatching on King James IV of Scotland.

King James IV

James was the son of King James III and Margaret of Denmark, and assumed the Scottish crown at the ripe age of 15. He had famously been forced to attend a border dispute called the Battle of Sauchieburn. His father was killed, and James became king.

James was extremely intelligent. He spoke seven languages, and according to the great Dutch philosopher, Desiderius Erasmus, had “wonderful powers of mind, an astonishing knowledge of everything, an unconquerable magnanimity, and the most abundant generosity.” James IV was well-read and dabbled in dentistry and even minor surgery.

Under his reign were founded the famed Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, St Leonard’s College, St Andrews College, and King’s College in Aberdeen. It was a decision James made for the Edinburgh Guild of Surgeons and Barbers, however, that led, in a roundabout way, to the body snatching at the core of the Doctor’s Riot of 1788.

Just a Wee Decision

Barber Surgeon’s Hall seen from the church yard of St Giles Cripplegate, London, England. Illustration from ‘Antiquities of London and Environs’ (1791) by J. T. Smith.

Edinburgh was one of two centers for medical study in Europe, with London as the second. No doubt acquiescing to his surgeons’ requests to allow them to use dissection to teach anatomy but without a supply of legally obtained cadavers, James IV allowed the Guild to demonstrate human anatomy on certain criminals who had been hanged for their crimes.

England’s King Henry VIII did likewise, but allowed only four hanged criminals per year to be dissected. These dissections happened in public in the Barber-Surgeons Hall in London.

Dissection of a few criminals a year wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy the needs of Edinburgh’s or London’s medical schools. The result was the emergence of a new career, that of the resurrectionist. Commonly and more accurately called “body snatchers” or “grave robbers,” these scoundrels would creep into graveyards under the cover of darkness and dig up bodies and transport them to a physician eager for another cadaver to dissect.

Whose Body Should We Steal?

The growth of medical schools in the United States in the late 1700s and into the 1800s spurred an uptick in the number of resurrectionists collecting bodies for anatomy students. Bodies were typically stolen from pauper cemeteries and cemeteries catering to Blacks. Those acts were largely overlooked by the populace. When a White body was stolen, though, that’s when public anger exploded, like that in the Doctor’s Riot.

Look for more about the Doctor’s Riot in the coming months. In the meantime, please don’t blame King James IV for those heinous acts.

Poor lad.

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