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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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.

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