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 27, 2014

“Rat-trap Adams’s argumentation”

(I keep finding mid-nineteenth-century stuff about Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, putting off my promised discussion of his youth in the Revolutionary period. But I’ll get to that topic eventually.)

In changing their form of government from a town to a city in 1822, Bostonians deprived political orators without office like Samuel Adams of a forum. (In fact, that might have been one goal of the change.) But he could still speak at other gatherings, or outdoors.

For decades Bostonians remembered Adams and some other town-meeting regulars. In fact, in 1842 he became internationally known with this stanza from the parodic “Rime of the Ancient Pedler” published in The Great Western Magazine in London:
And then burste out a thundering shout;
I thought the earth was quaking.
Such a clatter sounds in Funnell-Halle
When rat-trap Adams tries to bawle,
And the cits for funne immensely squalle,
Their sides with laughter shaking.
Ten years later, James Spear Loring published The Hundred Boston Orators, which profiled most of the town’s statesmen from the Revolutionary and Federalist periods. The Boston Transcript published a response by “A Friend of Neglected Genius,” claiming to make the case for two more well-known orators. That essay was reprinted in the 23 Oct 1852 Cambridge Chronicle, which has been digitized.

The “Friend” wrote:
A perfect book is an impossibility. It is not surprising, therefore, that the able and industrious Editor of “The Hundred Boston Orators” has overlooked two of our public speakers who have high claims on the admiration of posterity. He has exhumed from the grave of the past many orators whose efforts were forgotten in a month after delivery; but he has neglected to mention two gentlemen who during the last half century have often delighted the “solid men of Boston” with their exquisite fancy, and instructed them with their profound wisdom. As I write the names of William Emmons and Samuel Adams, (not the “Sam Adams” of revolutionary fame,) what a throng of recollections rise to my memory! I seem once more to hear the walls of Faneuil Hall echo with the stirring eloquence of the one, and to catch upon the breeze that floats across our beautiful Common the silver tones of the other. . . .

When the roguish boys in the streets impolitely shouted “There goes old Rat-trap Adams,” they unconsciously did reverence to that extraordinary force of logic which in his public efforts attracted and surrounded as with a net-work of iron, whosoever came within the sound of his voice. Like a rat within a trap, the auditor could find no escape. It was easy to enter within the magic circle of his oratorical power, but impossible to escape from its thraldom. . . .

the calm steady flow of Rat-trap Adams’s argumentation [suggested that he had]…fasted for a day and a night that his mind might be clear and calm. . . . the ponderous logic of Adams, like the two-handed sword of the Lion hearted Richard, crushed whatever came in its path. . . .

My memory runs back to the days of my boyhood when I sometimes had the privilege of enjoying the private discourse of Mr. Adams. In the moments which were not devoted to public affairs he indulged the mechanical turn of his mind so far as to amuse himself by manufacturing divers articles of wire-work. He had a peculiar fancy for making rat-traps of that material. One of these dangled as a sign in front of the shop in which, for the accommodation of his fellow-citizens, he caused the products of his skill to be vended. This shop was kept in the first story of his mansion, in Federal street, near Milk street; a building which has long since been razed to the ground. For the benefit of the youth who were partial to piscatory pursuits, Mr. Adams constantly kept an assortment of canepoles in his yard; and I well remember often visiting his establishment after school hours and negotiating for the purchase of a fishing-rod.

Upon such occasions the venerable man (for Mr. Adams has seen the snows of ninety winters) was wont to address us urchins on the political topics of the day. My comrades, as well as myself, were more fond of achieving some practical joke at the good man’s expense than at profiting by his lessons of wisdom; and I have never forgiven myself for the levity which prompted me one warm summer afternoon to place a piece of cobbler’s wax upon the chair, just as he was taking his favorite seat. The consequences, when he endeavored to rise with his subject, were exceedingly embarrassing to Mr. Adams; and his feelings were still further wounded by the personally facetious comments of my thoughtless companions.
Cobbler’s wax was notoriously sticky in that circumstance.

It’s striking that the “Friend” shared those reminiscences when Adams was still alive. He didn’t die until three years later. On 30 Mar 1855 William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator ran a small piece headed “Death of a Veteran.” It said of Adams:
He was a participant in the Boston scenes of the Revolution. He has always been a radical in his political ideas, and an atheist in his religion. Latterly he has been associated with Mrs. Abby Folsom, and his venerable form has been conspicuous in spiritual and other conventions. He was a skilful and industrious mechanic, says the Post.
Most Abolitionists didn’t see associating with Abby Folsom (c. 1792-1867, shown above in a political cartoon) as a plus. She had become notorious in the 1840s for interrupting gatherings, including church services, anti-slavery meetings, and public debates about the new Mormon church, with long, semi-coherent speeches followed by complaints that her freedom of speech was being abridged. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Josiah Quincy, and others thought she was damaging to the cause, as well as personally annoying. Even after trying to see past the entitlement of Victorian gentlemen, I can’t help but suspect that Folsom was a bit mad. According to Kathryn Griffith, Adams wanted Folsom to have his “Liberty Tree Flag.”

As for the “spiritual” conventions where Adams had lately been “conspicuous,” Spiritualism had spread from upstate New York alongside reform movements and other religious ideas. Adams’s interest suggests that he wasn’t really “atheist” but just not interested in any existing church.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams on Samuel Adams.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Wire-Worker Adams at Boston’s Last Town Meetings

The wire-worker Samuel Adams was a prominent character in nineteenth-century Boston, as Kathryn Griffith described in her recent profile for the Bostonian Society.

He started the century as town crier before going into the business of manufacturing screens and other wire objects. Later he became an indefatigable voice on the political left.

In 1884 James Mascarene Hubbard delivered a paper to the Bostonian Society about Boston’s transition from town to city in the early 1820s. His description of a town meeting in Faneuil Hall over the turn of the year 1822 offers glimpses of this Samuel Adams, as filtered through the Daily Advertiser:
[On whether to relabel Boston as a city.] Finally a hearing was obtained for Mr. Samuel Adams, wire-worker, that is, a maker of rat-traps, and late town-crier, who made a characteristic speech amid malicious “cries of Louder” although the orator appeared to labor excessively at his lungs. His opening words were, “Fellow citizens, you must consider me as on the brink of an eternal world,“ [Adams was then in his early sixties, but he would live three more decades] and the burden of his speech was, “Names is nothing. Only let us have Boston, and I care not what you call it.” Later on in the debate, which from this time took a more serious turn, he “rose and moved that the word ‘Boston’ be added to the word ‘city,’” to the great merriment of the assembly. . . .

[On what to call the new city’s top official.] Mr. Adams made a fresh appearance in the character of a New England Dogberry. “He was opposed to the term Mayor. A mare is a horse, and he had as lief be called a horse or an ass as a mare. He preferred the name President. There was dignity in the sound. He should count it an honor to be called President, but had he the wisdom of Solomon and the riches of the East, he would not accept the office to be called a Mare.” . . .

[On whether to hold elections in the neighborhoods or at Faneuil Hall.] As the irrepressible Adams puts it: “Many persons can’t attend here. For instance a journeyman who is in your employ. They feel so delicate in your employ, they are afraid of offending you. They are the sinners [sinews] of the State.” . . .

On the clause authorizing the City Council to sell or lease the property of the city,…Mr. Adams [was heard] to say, among other things, that “a new set of men might get together under the capacity of selling city property.” . . .

Our final quotation shall be from a speech by Mr. Adams, whose office as Town-crier seems to have given him a power and persistence of lungs which no cries of “Question” could overcome. “I would examine the act,” he exclaimed; “Like David of old, I would not give sleep to my eyes nor slumber to my eyelids until I had pondered it well. I have done it, have lain awake all night ruminating on these here things.”
Hubbard suggested that Adams belonged in a group he called ”mushroom town-meeting orators, and weak heads.” He showed more respect for upper-class figures, including such men as Benjamin Russell, William Tudor, James T. Austin, future mayor Josiah Quincy, and S. A. Wells, descendant and biographer of the other Samuel Adams.

Boston’s business elite had been pushing to incorporate the town as a city like New York since the early 1700s. The populace had long pushed back, preferring the town-meeting form of government, which didn’t turn over power to just a few elected men.

Wire-worker Adams appears to have been suspicious about concentrating power, to judge by his support for neighborhood elections and poorly expressed worry about a conspiracy to sell public property. But he also seems to have been fairly resigned to the change. Boston had grown to more than 40,000 people, nearly three times its size when he was a boy, and a city charter may have seemed necessary.

Ironically, by 1835 the term “wire-worker“ became a synonym for “wire-puller”—someone who manipulated politics or government from behind the scenes. Samuel Adams was a real wire-worker, and he never seems to have held significant power, despite all his efforts.

TOMORROW: What did this Samuel Adams do in the Revolution?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Samuel Adams the Wire-worker

In two postings on the Bostonian Society’s blog, Kathryn Griffith just profiled Samuel Adams the wire-worker, source of the striped cloth in the society’s collection that’s become known as the “Liberty Tree Flag.”

Harris wrote about this man:
Samuel Adams was born in 1759, reportedly in the North End, to a book-binder named Benjamin Adams and his wife Abigail. Samuel had an older brother, Abraham, who became a leather-dresser and a well-respected citizen. Samuel married Catharine Fenno in Boston in 1781. They had 8 children together, including a son named for Benjamin Franklin, and a daughter, also Catharine, who married William Fenno, and through whose descendents the flag passed to John Fernald.

Adams moved around quite a bit according to the Boston city directories and the advertisements he placed in newspapers. He had several occupations during his lifetime; in fact it seems he came late to wire-working. In the 1790s Adams owned a wharf at the end of Cross Street from which he sold various goods. In the early 1800s he became the town crier, and printed a number of interesting advertisements announcing things he had found throughout the town. As a wire worker, his business was known as the Sign of the Flying Man and Fender Manufactory, and his advertisements included beautiful designs of his work. His work in wire also earned him the nickname, “Rat-Trap Adams,” by which he was known affectionately (or not, depending on the source).
Because Adams was a minor public figure, his nineteenth-century life is fairly well documented. Indeed, his death in 1855 was reported across the country. One California newspaper ran this notice:
Death of a Veteran Citizen.—Mr. Samuel Adams, one of tho oldest inhabitants nf Boston, died at his residence on the 21st March, at the advanced age of about 96 years. The Traveller says: “He was a witness, and no doubt sometimes a participant, in the many exciting street scenes which occurred in Boston previous to the actual commencement of hostilities. He had in his possession as a relic of those glorious days, a flag which was hoisted on the liberty pole near Essex street, and which has of late been frequently displayed in this city. Mr. Adams was a mechanic—a wire worker by trade, and followed his business until within a few years. In religious matters he was an atheist, and in olden times a close attendant upon all town meetings and public gatherings, where his rather ultra democratic sentiments caused his opponents to taunt him with being a ‘French Jacobin.’”
Unfortunately, this Samuel Adams’s eighteenth-century activities, and his connection to Liberty Tree, are much less certain.

TOMORROW: Young Samuel Adams.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What Will Happen with the Sawin House?

Back in 2012, I noted that there was a discussion about tearing down the Sawin House in Natick.

The oldest parts of that building are said to date back to 1696 and the first English settlers in that town, which was originally set aside for Native American converts to Christianity. The building also has a connection to the Lexington Alarm, though that’s more tenuous.

The house is now inside a MassAudubon wildlife sanctuary, and that organization says that preserving the structure is not within its mission.

This past week Brian Benson reported for the local newspaper that the Natick selectmen had deadlocked over competing proposals and would probably turn the question over to the full town meeting.
The Historical Society has proposed taking materials from the Sawin House, which is on South Street in MassAudubon’s Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, and reconstructing in Shaw Park on Rte. 16 a section of the home resembling its appearance when Europeans settled the area.

But, the proposal has sparked controversy with some people arguing the society’s plan would take the home out of its historical landscape and take away open space. Others have said it would help showcase the town’s history and protect part of a building that could otherwise continue to deteriorate.
The plan to move the house would alter the use of Shaw Park and alter the historic structure from how it exists today, and those changes would require approval from various levels of government. That’s unlikely to happen unless the community reaches a consensus on what it wants. But it doesn’t appear to be an easy question.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Half a Million Steps Along the Freedom Trail

Big congratulations to Charles Bahne for reaching the “half a million copies in print” milestone with his Compete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail!

This paperback is not only a thorough and affordable little guide to Boston’s most famous historic sites from the Revolutionary and Federalist eras, but it’s also a fine example of micro-publishing. Charlie saw the need for such a book years ago while instructing tourists about the Freedom Trail, and he created the first edition before computers and the internet and print-on-demand made self-publishing as easy as it is today.

Now in its fourth edition with color illustrations, The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail has survived into the world of smartphones and apps. Of course, it’s very light, has a larger reading surface than a phone, and needs no electricity. The book is available through Boston shops, the big online booksellers, and this local website.

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.