Why some New York medical students resorted to 'body snatching' prior to cadaver research

The American Revolution sparked a growing interest in medicine. However, the reported lack of legal cadavers led some New York City medical students to exhume the bodies of deceased individuals for research purposes, according to New York Times contributor Keith Williams.

Mr. Williams is the author of The New York Times' "FYI" column, which aims to provide readers with interesting facts and anecdotes about New York City.

According to Mr. Williams, students attending New York City-based Columbia College — now present-day Columbia University — would often sneak into nearby cemeteries without permission to exhume the bodies of recently deceased, lower-class individuals for medical purposes.

However, students began openly "body snatching" the corpses of upper-class citizens in April 1788, igniting public fury and resulting in two days of riots, dubbed the "Doctors' Riots," Mr. Williams writes.

One explanation for the riots, according to Mr. Williams, is that a 15-year-old medical student waved a dismembered arm at group of boys, claiming it belonged to the recently deceased mother of one of the boys. The boy promptly told his father, who recruited colleagues to march to the nearby hospital. The mob eventually swelled to 2,000 people, Mr. Williams writes. The New York City governor at the time ordered the militia to descend upon the city to maintain order, and the militiamen eventually opened fire on the rioters. Officials confirmed six fatalities, while some publications at the time estimated up to 20 deaths.

Mr. Williams notes such "body snatching" still exists today. He cites the 2008 case of a New York dental surgeon who pleaded guilty to running a business that harvested organs from 1,000-plus corpses at funeral homes across Brooklyn, N.Y.

To access Mr. Williams' column, click here.

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