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Anatomy of an insurrection

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2002 - Spring


Grave robbing wasn’t something a Yale man did in the early 19th century—unless he was in medical school.

Early on the morning of January 12, 1824, Jonathan Knight, Yale’s first professor of anatomy and physiology, received a startling piece of news. During the night, a body had been snatched from a fresh grave in the West Haven burying ground and the incensed townspeople were pointing fingers at the college.

Some suspicion of the medical students was justified. Grave robbing by anatomists was still common in America at the beginning of the 19th century—for contrary to the practice in Europe, there was no legal way to obtain cadavers for medical study. One reason was the deeply ingrained prejudice against the work of anatomists. The inhabitants of New Haven “were the direct inheritors of a flourishing Puritan tradition that naturally fostered strong religious feelings,” wrote Yale historian Hannibal Hamlin in his account of the incident. “Their respect for the sanctity of the sepulcher bordered on superstition. The Doctor of Physic was held in high esteem; but the dissection of a cadaver by the surgeon or anatomist was, in general, considered a nefarious and unmentionable business.”

A search began for the missing body of Bathsheba Smith, “a respectable young female of nineteen” and the daughter of a local farmer. The West Haven burough constable, Erastus Osborn, was dispatched immediately to the college. His account of discovering the corpse in the medical school building at Grove and College streets appears in a letter to his father, quoted below with its irregular spelling intact:

“We came to a place in the pavement (the Cellar being paved with large flat stones) which lookd generally like the bottom of the Cellar throughout, but appeared to have a trifle of fresh dirt lying scattered about … I scratched with the end of my walking stick and the more I examined the more suspicion was created. We soon found the earth appeared fresher between the stones & finally took up a large flat stone where we discovered a white bundle, apparently a bundle of cloathes. We examined it & found a human body doubled up in a heap entirely covered up with grave clothes. We took it out and it was immediately known to be the body of the young woman we were searching for.”

Not since the British invaded New Haven in 1779 had the townspeople been so incensed, Elizabeth H. Thomson wrote in her unfinished history of the School of Medicine. The scandal stirred up such a ferocious anger that a mob of some 600 men armed with pistols, clubs and daggers stormed the college at nightfall. The authorities read the state’s Riot Act several times, but the crowd kept pelting the building with stones and shouting “tear down the college” and “death to the students.” Those inside feared the mob would batter down the walls. Justus D. Wilcox, a medical student who witnessed the attacks, gave this account of the escalating attacks in a letter: “[At nearly midnight] the Governor’s foot guards were called out. They assembled on the green, each man provided with sword and bayoneted gun, with ball and cartridge; they marched at quick step to the Medical college inspired [by] fife and drum which beat the revelle, and sounded the notes of war.”

During the investigation, sensational newspaper headlines (“Another Grave Plundered!”) fanned the fury and gossips spun some outlandish tales about the medical school. In later years, one rumor held that the institution had been purposely sited near the Grove Street cemetery so that bodies could be easily stolen, and some even speculated that an underground tunnel linked the basement of the building and the graveyard. But in 1824, that cemetery was as yet unbuilt.

While the New Haven dissection riots of 1824 are certainly a strange chapter in the history of the medical school, Yale was by no means alone. Despite epidemics of cholera, smallpox and other diseases, the general public had little appreciation for the work of anatomists. In fact there were violent attacks at medical institutions around the country, including the deaths of seven people in the New York “Doctor’s Mob” of 1788 and riots at Wiesenthal’s School in Baltimore.

A Yale medical assistant named Ephraim Colborn was scapegoated for the plundering of Bathsheba Smith’s grave. Although there were no witnesses against him, he was found guilty of the crime, fined $300 and sentenced to nine months in jail. Soon thereafter, Connecticut passed an act that established more severe penalties for grave robbing and made it legal for the bodies of those dying in prison and those capitally punished “to be used for the purpose of advancing medical science.” This landmark legislation, well ahead of that in other states and preceding the Warburton Anatomy Act of 1832 in England by eight years, helped bring about progress in medical teaching both at Yale and in Connecticut.

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