In the first years after the American Revolution, New York City had just one medical school, housed in the newly renamed Columbia College, formerly King’s College. A prior degree wasn’t required of medical students. Some were as young as 15.
To acquire cadavers for their anatomy classes, students regularly excavated the paupers’ graveyard and the “Negroes Burying Ground,” the site of our modern African Burial Ground National Monument. Because modern embalming techniques were unknown, students started digging as soon as the sun went down after a funeral. The practice was so open and notorious that in February 1788, a group of free blacks submitted a petition to the city’s Common Council, complaining that “young gentlemen in this city who call themselves students of the physic” engaged “in the most wanton sallies of graves.” They asked the city to “adopt such measure as may seem meet to prevent similar abuses in the future.”
The council ignored the petition.
Then the students began robbing the whites-only graveyard for people with money, too. What happened next is described in “Gotham,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of early New York by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. On April 13, 1788, a white boy peered through a hospital window and observed a dissection in progress. “The medical student at work waved a severed arm at the boy and told him it belonged to his mother, who had in fact recently died.”
The boy and his father went together to the graveyard, where they found the woman’s grave freshly desecrated. Word spread. A crowd gathered around the hospital building, eventually forcing its way in. An eyewitness – quoted in a 2011 Lancet article – reported that “several human bodies were found in various states of mutilation.” Each of the bodies had been recently disinterred. The crowd reburied them.
The next day, a larger and more menacing crowd formed. Medical students and instructors took shelter in the city jail. After sundown, the crowd marched on the jail. Burrows and Wallace describe how various prominent men, including the future Chief Justice John Jay, “pleaded for restraint, only to be answered with a hail of bricks and stones. Jay, struck in the head, was carried home unconscious.”
The mayor called out the militia which opened fire on the crowd with live ammunition. “The first volley killed three rioters outright and wounded many others.” A Smithsonian Magazine article says the final death toll was “as high as 20.” The following year, the New York state legislature finally passed a law banning “the Odious Practice” of grave-robbing.
All of which brings us to Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2019 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. The chief gives his own version of what became known as the Doctors Riot: “New York newspapers reported accounts that medical students were robbing graves. … In April, the chatter gelled into a rumor that students at New York Hospital were dissecting a schoolboy’s recently deceased mother.”
Jay had begun co-writing the Federalist Papers with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton but couldn’t continue after suffering the head injury. Roberts moralizes: “It is sadly ironic that John Jay’s efforts to educate his fellow citizens … fell victim to a rock thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor.”
“Rumor,” in the chief justice’s usage, means previously attested facts verified on the spot by the dozens of people who entered the hospital and reburied the disinterred bodies. He omits all mention of the many murdered protesters.
The chief continues: “But in the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside.” He deplores the spread of “rumor and false information” in our own age, even as he himself spreads misinformation about our past.
But speaking of democracy, which institution of government is it that decreed that the people of the United States can’t impose term limits on their own members of Congress? And can’t enforce the Voting Rights Act, either, or use the courts to correct anti-democratic gerrymandering, or even convict corrupt politicians of honest services fraud? And can’t give their president a line-item veto? And can’t control the tidal wave of half-disguised bribes, some from overseas, that corrupt our campaigns?
The answer, of course, is Chief Justice Roberts’ own court. With each of these decisions, the Supreme Court drew on its constitutional authority to prevent majority rule. But none of these decisions was compelled by the actual text of the Constitution. Each represented a choice. Each time, the justices chose to transfer political power from the people to themselves. Democracy, justices of all political persuasions agree, is too precious to be entrusted to voters.
Joel Jacobsen is an author who recently retired from a 29-year legal career.