Early Monday morning, January 12, 1824, Dr. Jonathan Knight, the first Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the not-yet-fifteen-year-old Yale School of Medicine, was visited at his home by two men: a prominent local attorney and the village constable of West Haven. They had come on official business, armed with a search warrant, to determine whether Dr Knight or any of his anatomy students had recently engaged in the heinous and despicable practice of body-snatching –– specifically, whether they had stolen the body of a recently deceased 19-year-old West Haven woman, Bathsheba Smith.
Suspicions had been aroused in the early hours of Sunday morning when, between midnight and 2 a.m., the occupant of a home on a quiet street next to the West Haven burying ground heard the unusual sound of a wagon passing by. A visit to the cemetery the next morning revealed that a grave –– that of the recently interred Smith girl –– had been dug up, the casket broken into, and the body taken. A crowd of outraged relatives and neighbors, led by Smith’s distraught father, soon gathered. Shocked and angered, they called on authorities to find the perpetrators. And they had a good idea where to find them.
Bathsheba Smith’s grave was not the first New Haven area burial vault to experience such desecration. Siince the Medical College had opened, other graves had been violated and other bodies had disappeared. (The New Haven Pilot’s first newspaper account of the story was headlined, “ANOTHER GRAVEYARD PLUNDERED.”) It was widely known that students at the medical college learned anatomy by dissecting human corpses, and also that there was no legal way of obtaining anatomical cadavers. Community standards abhorred “body-snatching”both in principle and practice, though citizens may, in the interest of science, have looked the other way when the bodies of paupers or transients were involved. Bathsheba Smith, however, was from a respectable Orange family, and her grave-robbing was beyond the pale of human decency.
For that reason, Dr Knight and his students were the authorities’ prime suspects, and the reason the constable, attorney and warrant arrived at Knight’s home before breakfast. The constable, Erastus Osborn, reported that the three men headed to the Medical College immediately, before word of their presence had spread. Guided, no doubt, by Professor Knight, “We search’d from bottom to top,” reported Osborn. “Found just as I suppose usually to be found at such Institutions and concluded further search would be unavailing.”
But Osborn was “determin’d to be thorough.” Calling on a half dozen West Haven and New Haven men to join him, they continued their searc. At length, in a small, low cellar, they noticed the tiniest clump of fresh dirt on the paving stones. Osborn poked at the area with his walking stick and grew more suspicious. The men dug up the floor, lifted a large flat stone and discovered a white bundle of clothes. Then they “found a human body doubled up in a heap.”
The men cleaned and dressed the body and arranged for a wagon to carry the corpse back to West Haven. As church bells tolled, murmuring crowds collected to view the passing cortege. Soon, the constable reported, “they were wrought up to a great pitch.”
Fearing what would come next, the medical students shut themselves inside their dormitories, as a “besieging army” of New Haven and West Haven residents amassed outside. Every night of the following week, an angry community protested and made violent attacks on Yale medical buildings, breaking every window and in some cases the window frames. By the weekend, the militia was called out to help keep order.
The body-snatching riots ended only when a medical student named Ephraim Colborn was arrested for the crime. Three students were suspected, but the other two left the school and town before being apprehended. Colborn pleaded not guilty – and in fact, it would seem impossible to have convicted him on testimony, since there were no witnesses to the crime. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to nine months in jail and a $300 fine, a scapegoat, perhaps, made in the interest of restoring peace.
There was one positive outcome of the New Haven body-snatching riots. Finding Connecticut law lacking on the subject, the Connecticut General Assembly passed, that same year, “An Act to Prevent the Disinterment of the Bodies of Deceased Persons,” hoping to avoid such grisly matters in future. The law not only criminalized grave robbing, it provided a legal way in the future for the medical school to obtain its much-needed cadavers.
Hannibal Hamlin, “The Dissection Riot of 1824 and the Connecticut Anatomical Law,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine
“Anatomy of an Insurrection,” Yale Medicine Magazine
“An Act to Prevent the Disinterment of the Bodies of Deceased Persons,” May,1824 Connecticut Statutes (page 51)