Brooklyn Law Review, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Summer 1972), pp. 350-369


The "heroic age of anatomy" in America was that era, prior to the general enactment of laws legalizing the procurement of cadavers for medical purposes, during which students of medicine (as well as profit-seeking professionals) resorted to the illegal practice of "body-snatching" in order to obtain dissection material for medical studies. This period, which extended form the late seventeenth to well into the nineteenth century, was marked by frequent riots resulting from a deep-rooted public hostility towards grave-robbing and dissection. This hostility was rarely tempered by any understanding of or sympathy for the purposes for which the "resurrectionists," as they were called, sought their human corpses. Illustrative of the public attitude towards the medical colleges, to which the responsibility for the desecration of human sepulchres was not unfairly attributed, is a resolution adopted by a group of enraged citizens who convened on the courthouse steps in Painesville, Ohio in 1845 to protest the activities of the medical students:

Resolved, That we most solemnly believe that those who have no regard for the dead can have but little respect for the living, and those who respect neither dead or living should never receive the confidence of the public.

Resolved, That the depravation of morals consequent upon the disinterment of bodies, and the annihilation of the better feelings and sentiments that usually follows a long familiarity with the horrid dissection room, renders it no very doubtful question whether the medical college are not productive of more mischief than benefit to the country.

Despite such public indignation, the body-snatchers were not deterred, and grave-robbing incidents were reported late into the nineteenth century.

In New York City in 1788, the "ghoulish" practice as apparently rampant--at least until the so-called New York Doctors' Riot of that year. In the aftermath of the riot, the New York State Legislature enacted a statute which provided, inter alia, for the delivery of certain cadavers to surgeons for purposes of dissection. The legislation represents one of the earliest efforts in this country to provide a legal source of human anatomical material for medical purposes and almost certainly was the model for comparable federal legislation enacted shortly thereafter, which has survived, practically unchanged, in our current statutes. The narrow purpose of this article is to explore the legal background of and the legal response to the New York Doctors' Riot of 1788. While the riot and the response it generated undoubtedly represent one of the less celebrated chapters in American legal history, they nevertheless provide a brief but illuminating backward glimpse at the reaction of our legal institutions to a specific societal conflict.