Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

An interrupted dissection

The increasing interest in teaching anatomy by dissecting the human cadaver had a sordid side—the practice of body snatching, the illegal removal of corpses from graves, often by organized gangs of so-called resurrectionists. Body snatching was first recorded in Italy as early as the fourteenth century and as the centuries went on it became widespread in the Old World as well as the New. The image of an interrupted dissection shown here is a representation of the 1788 riot in New York City, where most bodies used for dissections at Columbia College were exhumed by medical students from cemeteries for the poor and for the city’s free and enslaved blacks. There had been several protests about this issue and petitions had been repeatedly ignored. As graphically recounted by Bess Lovejoy in her 2014 article, rioting appears to have been sparked by some boys playing outside New York Hospital and telling their parents they had seen something that had upset them, including a severed arm hanging out of the hospital windows to dry according to one version, or bodies and body parts inappropriately displayed in the anatomy department. It resulted in several days of swelling mobs ransacking the hospital and especially the anatomy department, even setting fires, as well as pursuing the doctors and medical students who had to flee for their lives and seek police protection. Some twenty people died in those riots and similar incidents later occurred in other cities, leading eventually to legislation and regulations about how bodies were to be obtained for dissection and outlawing the robbing of graves.

1788 illustration of an interrupted dissection. A group of students push against a door while a mob presses to get in.
An Interrupted Dissection by William Allen Rogers, 1788.


Bess Lovejoy, “The Gory New York City Riot that Shaped American Medicine,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 17, 2014. https://smithsonianmag.com/history/gory-new-york-city-riot-shaped-american-medicine-180951766/.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Highlighted Vignette Volume 13, Issue 2 – Spring 2021

Fall 2019



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