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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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.

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