The Deadly Riots To Stop Grave-Robbing In 18th-Century New York

Coroner Examining Body in Morgue
“Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of confinement. But fear not. All flesh decays. Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul.” —Darren Aronofsky, “The Fountain”

In A Nutshell

In April 1788, New Yorkers rioted against New York Hospital doctors and medical students who were practicing on cadavers that had been robbed from graves. The riot left up to 20 people dead and propelled the living to form “Dead Guard Men” groups to protect the dead in cemeteries. There were at least 17 similar riots over grave-robbing and dissections between the mid-18th and the mid-19th centuries. In the 21st century, dead bodies have become big business. Even bodies donated to medical schools have sometimes been stolen, stripped for parts like a car and illegally sold for personal profit.

The Whole Bushel

In the 18th century, doctors weren’t required to graduate from an accredited medical school. So some students in New York took less-formal classes at New York Hospital, which emphasized the dissection of cadavers as a training tool. Without a consistent source of bodies, however, the med students began to steal them from area cemeteries for poor people and African Americans. Although they didn’t demand that the robberies stop, both slaves and free black men petitioned the Common Council to treat the corpses of their relatives and friends with respect.

However, nothing happened until a white woman’s body was taken from a church cemetery. Then the public got mad. There are conflicting stories as to how the riot started. But most of the doctors and medical students ran for their lives. Their medical specimens were set on fire.

The “Doctors’Riot” of April 1788 left up to 20 people dead and propelled the living to form “Dead Guard Men” groups to protect corpses buried in cemeteries. There were at least 17 similar riots over grave-robbing and dissections between the mid-18th and the mid-19th centuries. These riots spurred the passage of legislation to regulate the use of cadavers and outlaw grave-robbing. However, the theft of bodies continued, just more quietly.

Grave-robbing may seem barbaric to us now. But even in the 21st century, dead bodies are big business. Almost every corpse is a potential source of profit. Obviously, hearts, kidneys, and livers can be used for life-saving transplants. But bones, cartilage, corneas, ligaments, skin tissue, tendons, and veins are also in great demand. A lot of people refuse to donate organs for transplant, so prices for body parts remain high, whether trade is occurring in the legal or illegal areas of the market. Even the body of Alistair Cooke, once the host of Masterpiece Theater, was stolen and sold for parts.

However, more than profits is at stake. These bodies and body parts aren’t treated with the proper safety protocols. As a result, unnecessary diseases can be spread to patients who receive stolen body parts. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous doctors are still engaging in the theft of dead bodies. But this time, they’re not practicing medical techniques for educational purposes, they’re selling parts for profit. (Note: This does not include Planned Parenthood. The heavily edited Planned Parenthood videos in the news lately have been widely debunked.) Some nurses, funeral directors, and others are also involved in this illegal trade. Poor people are still often the target.

Sometimes, people’s bodies have been plundered before the viewing at a funeral home. There have been cases where a corpse’s leg bones were sawed off, then plastic pipe was screwed into the affected areas before the skin was sewn up. When pants were put over the pipe legs, families couldn’t tell what had happened.

Thousands of families have sued after discovering their loved ones’ bodies have been stolen from funeral homes and crematoriums. Even bodies donated to medical schools have sometimes been stolen, stripped for parts like a car and illegally sold for personal profit.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Gory New York City Riot that Shaped American Medicine
New York Magazine: The Organ Grinder
USA Today: Illegal Trade in Bodies Shakes Loved Ones; Donated bodies sometimes are sold for personal profit
LiveScience: Chip Implants Proposed To Halt Blackmarket Cadaver Trade