J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Politics of the Doctors’ Riot

The New York doctors’ riot of 1788 arose from a popular emotional response to medical students’ grave-robbing and disrespectful treatment of corpses. But it also had a clear political component.

Those students tended to take bodies from the cemeteries for the poor and powerless, particularly the Negro burying-ground and the potters’ field, both outside the city limits. When African-Americans started guarding their large cemetery at night, some historians say, the grave-robbing switched to smaller private burying-grounds, again concentrating on those for the poor. But it wasn’t until white bodies began to disappear that the city’s laboring class rose up.

Most accounts say the attack on the Columbia medical school was led by a mason who had just lost his wife—both figuratively and literally. But none preserves that man’s name, nor the names of the five members of the mob who died. All our detailed accounts come from upper-class citizens who showed more sympathy for the cause of anatomical study than for the rioters’ passions. Their narratives may not be fully accurate, but they certainly show how the elite viewed “popular rage,” and they established the storyline for future chroniclers.

One political result of the riot was a New York law passed in 1789 providing for the corpses of executed convicts to be dissected. The practice remained distasteful to many people, however, especially those whose families were too poor to benefit from medical education or the treatments that proponents of dissection promised. In 1790 some medical students responded to that social pressure by forming what became the New York Dispensary to provide free medicines to the poor; it received a legal charter from the state in 1795.

It’s tempting to ask what effect the New York riots of mid-April 1788 had on the debate over ratifying the new U.S. Constitution. The Continental Congress had left Philadelphia in 1783 because of an uprising there. The Regulation movement in Massachusetts, which authorities dubbed Shays’ Rebellion, had prompted the Constitutional Convention. And just as states were debating the resulting plan for a new government, New York City was roiled with more unrest. Did the doctors’ riot make America’s political leaders fear that they had to act quickly or the U.S. of A. would crumble into anarchy?

I haven’t found evidence of that episode having a direct effect on the ratification debate. At one point authors speculated that John Jay’s injury during the riots had kept him from writing more of the “Publius” essays with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, but it appears that those essays (now known as The Federalist Papers) were finished weeks before the riot. By June, when New York’s ratifying convention began, Jay had recovered.

The New York legislature had already decided to hold that convention in Poughkeepsie, well away from the capital. The delegates chose Gov. George Clinton to chair that convention; he’d led the efforts to suppress the riot, but he remained an Anti-Federalist, opposed to a stronger national government.

In the end, the New York convention wasn’t that decisive anyhow. After their first week of meetings in June, the delegates got word that New Hampshire had become the ninth state to ratify the new document, meaning that under its own rules (Article VII), it would take effect. Then Virginia ratified as well. New York’s opponents therefore focused on demanding a Bill of Rights and other amendments, getting the most they could out of the situation. Clinton and others abstained from voting, and the proposal passed. So instead of being a significant event in U.S. constitutional history, the doctors’ riot is recalled as a curious social incident.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chasing Down the Obnoxious Dr. Hicks

The New York doctors’ riot of April 1788, most chroniclers agree, was set off by a doctor named John Hicks making a tasteless and ill-timed joke about a corpse he was dissecting.

Identifying that man is complicated by the fact that two men named John Hicks practiced medicine in New York City in the late 1700s.

One, working out of Magazine Street, had been a “supernumerary mate” at the army hospital in 1783. On 15 Apr 1788, immediately after the riot, this “John Hicks, Sr.,” swore publicly that he hadn’t been in the hospital since that year and had no connection to any dissection. He was trying to distinguish himself from the real culprit, a medical student with a similar name.

John Brovort Hicks was born about 1768. He was actually the second person with that name; his older brother had died young, immortalized in a mourning ring. John B. Hicks was thus twenty years old during the doctors’ riot.

Hicks didn’t end up in the besieged jail with some other doctors. According to William Alexander Duer, he had fled on his own to the house of a former surgeon general of the Continental Army:
The obnoxious Dr. Hicks fled in the first instance to Dr. [John] Cochran’s, nearly opposite Trinity Church. Relying for protection upon the general respect in which Dr. Cochran was held, and that from his having relinquished practice, his house would escape search. But the mob had an intimation of Hicks’s retreat, and searched the house from cellar to garret, without success. They even opened the scuttle and looked out upon the roof, without perceiving the Doctor, who lay perdue [i.e., concealed] behind the chimney of the next house, suffering probably under a more violent sudorific [i.e., drug that induces sweating] than he ever ventured to administer to a patient.
That same story might have been what the Virginian William Heth heard when he wrote that one medical student “took refuge up a chimney.”

Young Hicks survived to complete his medical training. In 1792 he put a notice in the newspaper that he had successfully operated on a stone—a gallstone or kidney stone—at the City Hospital. The next year Columbia granted him an “M.D.” In 1796 Hicks and some colleagues got the mayor of New York to bar a supposedly unqualified doctor from practicing; Alexander Hamilton represented that other doctor and got the mayor’s order quashed.

In August 1797 Hicks and one of those colleagues had to advertise in the newspapers after dissected body parts were found in a sack in the river. They acknowledged that that corpse was a man named John Young, but since he had just been hanged for murder, under a new law he was eligible for dissection. The surgeons insisted that they had anatomized Young “in as decent and secret a manner as the nature of the business would admit of.” (As secret as any activity in what they called their “Anatomical Theater.”) But “the persons to whom the remains of the body were committed to be interred”—probably medical students—had tossed the pieces in the water and neglected to weigh down the bag.

Dr. John B. Hicks was thus involved in two public scandals involving dissected corpses within ten years. In one of those incidents, his insulting behavior had resulted in a riot. In the other, he was simply careless. And yet Hicks remained a respected physician. It probably didn’t hurt that he came from the city’s upper class: his late father, Whitehead Hicks, had been mayor of New York for the decade before the Revolution.

On 2 Oct 1798, in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic, the Daily Advertiser reported Hicks’s death. It lamented his
indefatigable zeal & pursuit to administer relief to the poor and distressed in this trying hour of distress and melancholy, and for which he would receive no compensation. But alas! he falls a devoted victim himself to the prevailing epidemic. . . . He was possessed of a truly philanthropic spirit, and his principal study was to do good. In him the poor have lost a valuable friend, and the public a useful member of society.
Hicks left a wife and at least one child.

TOMORROW: The political side of the doctors’ riot.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Child’s Memories of the Doctors’ Riot of 1788

A few days back I mentioned William Alexander Duer’s New-York as it Was, During the Latter Part of the Last Century, published in 1849.

Duer (shown here in a copy of a daguerreotype) was born in 1780, son of the British-born Patriot politician William Duer and grandson of the Continental general William Alexander, Lord Stirling.

Duer called the doctors’ riot of 1788 the “public occurrence that made the earliest, if not the deepest impression upon my memory.”

His retellings of events included details he couldn’t have been privy to at the time, and thus must have heard secondhand or taken from previous accounts. But he also described some dramatic moments that he or his family personally witnessed, recalled with the enthusiasm of a seven-year-old.

For example, the clash of an upper-class militia company on horseback and the crowd:
Never shall I forget the charge I saw made upon a body of the rioters by [Capt. John] Stakes’s light-horse. From our residence opposite St. Paul’s, I first perceived the troop as it debouched from Fair, now Fulton-street, and attacked the masses collected at the entrance of the “fields,” whence they were soon scattered, some of them retreating into the church-yard,—driven sword in hand through the portico, by the troopers striking right and left with the backs of their sabres.
And the wounding and care of Gen. Steuben:
The Baron de Steuben was struck by a stone which knocked him down, inflicted a flesh wound upon his forehead, and wrought a sudden change in the compassionate feelings he had previously entertained towards the mob. At the moment of receiving it, he was earnestly remonstrating with the Governor against ordering the militia to fire on the people; but, as soon as he was struck, the Baron’s benevolence deserted him, and as he fell he lustily cried out, “fire! Governor, fire!”

[Footnote:] Upon the occasion mentioned in the text, he was brought bleeding into my father’s house, accompanied by most of the cortege which had assembled at the gaol, and there being no surgeon to be had, my mother [Catherine Duer] staunched his wound, of which the old soldier made very light, and bound up his head. After his departure, Governor [George] Clinton amused the company by relating the above anecdote.
Duer thus left us both a delicious story about Steuben and the provenance for it: from Gov. Clinton to his mother and thence to him.

Another eyewitness, not so young, was William Dunlap (1766-1839), whose history of New York was posthumously published in 1840. He wrote that during the doctors’ riot, “The house of Sir John Temple, the British consul, in Queen Street, was with difficulty saved. It was said ‘Sir John’ was misinterpreted ‘Surgeon.’”

Temple was James Bowdoin’s son-in-law, a friendly Customs official in Boston before the Revolution, and the most likely conduit for Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s letters to Benjamin Franklin. However, I can’t find any confirmation from Temple’s published papers for his house being mobbed in 1788.

TOMORROW: What about the medical student who started all the trouble?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fight at the New York City Jail

When we left off William Heth’s account of the New York doctors’ riot of April 1788, the anti-dissection crowd had started to attack the city jail, where some anatomy teachers and students had taken refuge. Heth wrote:

The militia were ordered out, small parties were sent to disperse them [the rioters], but they instantly disarmed those attachments, broke their guns to peices, arid made them scamper to save their lives.

The evening advanced apace, and the affair became very serious. The Governor [George Clinton, shown here], after trudging about all day, first with the mob in the morning, endeavouring to pacify and accommodate, and in the afternoon to assemble a body respectable enough to preserve the goal [i.e., jail] and to restore peace and good order, advanced about dusk with a number of the Citizens, but without any kind of order or without any other than a few side arms and canes, while the Adjutant-Gen’l of the militia [Nicholas Fish], about 300 yards in his rear, led up in very good order about 150 men, tho’ not more than half with firearms, among whom were many gentlemen of the city and strangers, volunteers.

This body were not long before the goal before the bricks and stones from the mob provoked several to fire, and perhaps their might, on the whole, have been 60 guns discharged, but this is mere guess. This body made their way into the goal where a party remained all night, but a sally of 60 or 70 were defeated. Three of the mob were killed on the spot, and one has since died of his wounds, and several were wounded. One of them was bayonetted on attempting to force into a window of the prison which he saw filled with armed men, a proof of the astonishing lengths to which popular rage will sometimes carry men.

Numbers on the Governor’s side, besides himself, are severely bruised. Baron Steuben rec’d a wound just above the corner of his left eye and nose, from which he lost a great deal of blood. Mr. [John] Jay got his Scull almost cracked, and are both now laid up. Gen’l [John] Armstrong has got a bruised leg, but is able to go out.

Yesterday the militia turned out again, and made a respectable appearance, and paraded about exceedingly, both Horse and Foot, but it must be observed that the enemy were not be heard of.

In truth numbers who were in the mob on Monday evening turned out yesterday to support government.
It looks like “Gen’l Armstrong” was John Armstrong, Jr. (1758-1843), adjutant general of Pennsylvania and central figure in the so-called “Newburgh Conspiracy.” He was in New York as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and would soon settle in that state.

According to a letter from John Jay’s wife Sarah to her mother, it took a while for doctors “to decide whether his brain was injur’d or not.” While they debated, the doctors bled him, of course. Jay recovered.

TOMORROW: Treating the baron’s injury.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Virginian on New York’s Doctors’ Riot

In the spring of 1788 a Virginia planter and retired colonel named William Heth (1750–1807) was in New York, commissioned by his state as a negotiator with the young national government on ceding Virginia’s claims to western lands.

While in New York, Heth witnessed parts of the doctors’ riot that I mentioned yesterday. On 16 April he sent a private letter to the Virginia governor, Edmund Randolph, describing that event:
We have been in a state of great tumult for a day or two past—the causes of which, as well as I can digest them from various accounts, are as follows:

The young Students of Physic have for some time past been loudly complained of for their very frequent and wanton trespasses in the burial ground of this City. The Corpse of a young gentleman from the West Indias was lately taken up, the grave left open, and the funeral clothing scattered about. A very handsome and much-esteemed young lady of good connections was also recently carry’d off. These, with various other acts of a similar kind, inflamed the minds of people exceedingly, and the young members of the faculty, as well as the Mansions of the dead, have been closely watched.

On Sunday last, as some people were strolling by the Hospital, they discovered a something hanging up at one of the windows which excited their curiosity, and making use of a stick to Satisfy that curiosity, part of a man’s arm or leg tumbled out upon them. The cry of barbarity, &c., was soon spread; the young sons of Galen fled in every direction; one took refuge up a chimney. The mob rais’d and the Hospital appartments were ransacked. In the Anatomy-room were found three fresh bodies, one boiling in a kettle and two others cuting up, with certain parts of the two sexes hanging up in a most brutal position.

These circumstances, together with the wanton and apparent inhuman complexion of the room, exasperated the mob beyond all bounds, to the total destruction of every anatomy in the Hospital, one of which was of so much value and utility that it is justly esteemed a great public loss, having been prepared in a way which costs much time and attention and requires great skill to accomplish.

On Monday morning the mob assembled again, and increased thro’ the day to an alarming size. Vengeance was denounced against the faculty in general, but more particularly against certain individuals. Not a man of the profession thought himself safe. An innocent person got beat and abused for being only dressed in black.

Two of the young tribe were unfortunate enough to fall into their hands, but the Mayor [James Duane, shown above] obtained them upon a promise of sending them to gaol—a measure to which in their rage they submitted, not reflecting that sending them to goal would secure them from their violence and resentment, and therefore, as soon as they found themselves thus defeated in their furious intentions respecting their captives, they repaired to the goal and commenced their attack (with all that intemperance and folly which ever marks the conduct of people assembled in that way), vainly endeavouring to break in, when they could do nothing more than break windows, &c., which they will be taxed to repair.
TOMORROW: The jail under attack, and the militia called out.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The New York Doctors’ Riot of 1788

In January 2011 the Lancet published a brief article about protests in 1788 over how medical students in New York dug up corpses from the burying-grounds for dissection training.

Through juxtaposition that article suggests that the city’s African-American community, their petitions and newspaper letters ignored, finally rioted over the practice in April 1788. But this New York Magazine article on the same events makes clear that the riot occurred only after “students began digging up white graves, too.”

From the Lancet:
In April, 1788, a group of children playing outside the New York Hospital ventured near [Dr. Richard] Bayley’s rooms where a student named John Hicks was dissecting an arm. Hicks is said to have waved the arm out the window at the children, including one small boy who had recently lost his mother. Hicks supposedly called to the child: “This is your mother’s arm! I just dug it up!” The youngster ran home, his father enlisted help to exhume his wife’s coffin, which was found to be empty—and the riot was on.

Citizens began to mass around the hospital building. Hicks, with other medical students and professors, beat a hasty retreat. By the time the mob broke in, the hospital was abandoned except for [Dr. Wright] Post and four senior medical students, all determined to save a valuable collection of anatomy specimens accumulated over many years. But they were outnumbered, and although not harmed themselves all the specimens were taken and destroyed.

James Thacher, a physician who witnessed the riot, described it in his memoirs: “The concourse assembled on this occasion was immense, and some of the mob having forced their way into the dissecting-room, several human bodies were found in various states of mutilation. Enraged at this discovery, they seized upon the fragments, as heads, legs and arms, and exposed them from the windows and doors to public view, with horrid imprecations.”
Though the article doesn’t note this fact, most of its details about the start of the riot ultimately come from William Alexander Duer’s New-York as it Was, During the Latter Part of the Last Century, published in 1849.

Dr. James Thacher didn’t in fact witness the riot; he was home in Plymouth in 1788. Thacher wrote the passage quoted above for the section on the history of medicine in New York in his American Medical Biography (1828). That book includes the word “memoirs” in its subtitle because it contains memoirs—i.e., profiles—of eminent American physicians.

In that book Thacher described the career of Dr. Richard Bayley, in whose rooms the controversial dissection took place. Not only did Bayley train in Britain, but he returned there in the autumn of 1775 and then came back to America as a British army surgeon. Thacher wrote that taking that position had been “a step of necessity rather than of inclination,” and that Bayley resigned in 1777. Nevertheless, Dr. Bayley stayed in British-occupied New York throughout the war.

Evidently an experienced surgeon (known particularly for his treatment of the croup) was valuable enough to the community that Bayley felt he could stay in New York at the end of the war. His reputation also survived the doctors’ riot, and he became a Columbia University medical professor. Dr. Bayley died in 1801 of yellow fever. (His daughter Elizabeth Ann is better known as Mother Seton.)

TOMORROW: A real eyewitness account from April 1788.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

News from Newport

The Newport Historical Society is commemorating the city’s Stamp Act protests of late August 1765.

The society has created an online timeline of the protests, where the above clipping from the Newport Mercury comes from. The three effigies represented stamp agent (and Rhode Island attorney general) Augustus Johnston and two men who had written in favor of the law and stronger central authority, Dr. Thomas Moffatt and lawyer Martin Howard.

Today at 11:00 A.M., the Newport History Tours collaboration offers a walking tour titled “The Stamp Act Riot and the Road to Revolution,” going past some of the sites involved in those protests. That costs $15 per person; call 401-841-8770 to see if there are still spaces.

Next Saturday, 23 August, starting at 1:00 P.M., a team of reenactors will stroll the Old Quarter of Newport, chatting with visitors about the new Stamp Act. In the late afternoon those pedestrians will congregate in front of the Colony House on Washington Square, and the action will escalate into a riot. Perhaps some houses will be mobbed, as in 1765.

Attending the outdoor reenactment is free, though the society welcomes any donations. Immediately afterward, from 5:00 to 7:00 P.M., the society with host a Stamp Act party; admission to that is $25, or $20 for members, and presumably there will be no mobbing.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Legend of Mme. Jumel

Ben Carp alerted me to this gossipy Gothamist article by Danielle Oteri about Eliza Jumel, long-time owner of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. A taste:
Eliza Jumel’s New York Times obituary [from 1865] states that her mother died shortly after giving birth and that she was placed in the care of “a good woman, and many clergymen visited her comparatively humble dwelling, so that the early years of the little one were passed amid good influences.”

In fact, Eliza “Betsy” Bowen was born in either 1773 or 1775 to a mother who worked as a prostitute for a black madam in a Providence, Rhode Island brothel.

Though the means of her ascent aren’t entirely clear, Jumel left Providence in the early 1790s for New York, then a town of 60,000 people. She worked as an actress, and seems to have used her considerable wit and beauty to gain access to many of the city’s elite.

However, her obituary claims that Eliza was brought into these circles when she eloped to New York with Col. P. Croix; that she attended the inauguration of George Washington, was best friends with Benedict Arnold’s wife, and inspired Patrick Henry to fall in love with her. The obituary also claims she was present at the first session of the Continental Congress in 1774, which would have made her exceedingly distinguished for a 1-year old.
Jumel did have some genuine top Revolutionary connections. Her house, abandoned by its Loyalist owner, was Gen. Washington’s headquarters for a short time in 1776. Her second (documented) husband was Aaron Burr; when that marriage soured, she had the dramatic sense to hire Alexander Hamilton’s son as her attorney.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Furnishing Lectures in September

Next month the Paul Revere Memorial Association is sponsoring a series of lectures on “18th-Century Massachusetts Furniture: Form, Function & Fabrication,” to take place in the Old South Meeting House. Each event starts at 6:30 on a Wednesday evening.

3 September
High-Style Craftsmanship and Patronage in Marblehead on the Eve of Independence
Known more for its pivotal role in the American Revolution and its exceptional legacy of early American architecture, Marblehead also has a noteworthy but relatively unfamiliar heritage of furniture craftsmanship. Judy Anderson, Principal, Marblehead Architectural Heritage, will show how, in contrast to the clamor and boisterousness of the working harbor front, Marblehead cabinetmakers and clockmakers produced high-style furniture for a clientele that comprised more than thirty merchants in Massachusetts’ celebrated Atlantic codfish trade.
10 September
Seat of Empire: Refurnishing Boston’s Historic Council Chamber
The Council Chamber in Boston’s Town House (now the Old State House), where the Royal Governor of Massachusetts met with members of his Council, was once an important administrative center for the British Empire in North America. This historic room has recently been returned to its appearance during the 1760s, when the fate of the British Empire turned on the decisions made within its walls. Dr. Nathaniel Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History at the Bostonian Society, will describe how, thanks to an unprecedented collaboration between the Bostonian Society and North Bennet Street School, visitors can now sit in the Governor’s chair and thumb through reproduction documents at the Council table.
17 September
Restrained Elegance: Boston Furniture in the Rococo Style
Bostonians in the mid-eighteenth century only cautiously embraced the lively international “modern” style that collectors have come to call “Chippendale” and art historians the “rococo.” Nevertheless, some Boston cabinetmakers and carvers, such as George Bright, John Cogswell, and John Welch, created masterworks in this ornamental, curvilinear mode that owes its name to the Englishman Thomas Chippendale and his influential book of designs. Using objects from important public and private collections, Gerald W. R. Ward, Senior Consulting Curator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will examine Boston rococo furniture in the context of its heyday in Boston in the 1760s and 1770s.
24 September
The Best Workman in the Shop: Cabinetmaker William Monroe of Concord, Massachusetts
In June 1800, 21-year-old cabinetmaker William Munroe arrived in Concord with a set of tools and $3.40 in cash. Forty years later he proudly recorded having more than $20,000 in assets, a remarkable achievement for a craftsman. Concord Museum Curator David F. Wood will describe how, influenced by fashion and international politics and motivated by self-esteem and good food, William Munroe steered a path through the treacherous economic landscape of Federal New England and along the way helped make some of the most beautiful clocks the new nation ever produced.
All these talks are free and open to the public.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Benjamin Franklin Leaves Boston in Style

Among the first generation of leading American statesmen, Benjamin Franklin is often said to be the only one who was ever in bondage to another person. Sure, he was an apprentice with a limited time until he became free, and his master was his older brother James, but he still chafed at that status.

Paradoxically, Benjamin was formally identified as the publisher of the New England Courant, a ruse to get around the authorities’ ban on James issuing a newspaper. But James was master of the shop.

Benjamin started to talk about working somewhere else. James reportedly went to the other printers in Boston and warned them not to hire his brother. Benjamin then started to talk about going to New York instead.

In Franklin’s autobiography, he described how he made it out of Boston this way:
I determin’d on the Point, but my Father now siding with my Brother, I was sensible that, if I attempted to go openly, Means would be used to prevent me. My Friend [John] Collins, therefore, undertook to manage a little for me. He agreed with the Captain of a New York Sloop for my Passage, under the Notion of my being a young Acquaintance of his that had got a naughty Girl with Child, whose Friends would compel me to marry her, and therefore I could not appear or come away publicly.

So I sold some of my Books to raise a little Money, Was taken on board privately, and as we had a fair Wind, in three Days I found myself in New York, near three hundred Miles from Home, a Boy of but seventeen, without the least Recommendation to or Knowledge of any Person in the Place, and with very little Money in my Pocket.
Such a classy start for the future Founder.

William Temple Franklin published the autobiography after his grandfather’s death, he substituted “had an intrigue with a girl of bad character” for “got a naughty Girl with Child.” That doesn’t really address the fact that it takes two to be naughty in that fashion. Furthermore, once he settled in Philadelphia, Benjamin proved himself fully capable of doing just what his friend Collins had described him doing back in Boston.

(Collins eventually followed Franklin to Philadelphia, but their friendship didn’t last.)