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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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?

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