They were called resurrectionists, though today we would call them grave robbers. They were medical students at Columbia College who, seeking cadavers to study, dug up graves, mostly of African-American slaves. The practice occurred so often that in February 1788, freed slaves petitioned the City Council to intervene.
The city ignored the freedmen. But then, a few weeks later, students began digging up white graves, too. One Sunday in April, a young boy playing with friends spotted a dismembered white limb hanging in a window of a hospital on Duane Street. One of the students, John Hicks, noticed the boy and waved a dead arm. “This is your mother’s arm,” Hicks reportedly said, mocking the boy. “I just dug it up.”
By coincidence, the boy’s mother had recently died. He ran to his father, a mason working nearby, who, with friends, visited Trinity Church cemetery and found that his wife’s coffin was indeed empty. The men returned to the hospital. A crowd formed, then a mob. The hospital was raided. A witness: “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.”
The city was accustomed to mobs; in some ways the Revolution had been sparked by mobs convincing the ruling class through violent though mostly nonfatal action. But this mob was big, its members spooked and angry. About 2,000 people watched as doctors and students were dragged through the streets. Magistrates persuaded the crowd to release the students, who were taken to jail for protection. By now about 5,000, the mob marched to the jail, demanding “the odious Dr. Hicks.” Mayor James Duane called out the militia. He was accosted with a hail of bricks and stones. Soldiers were ordered to fire. An estimated twenty protesters were shot and killed.
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