Charles McKnight, buried at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, was a revolutionary war surgeon and, at times, physician to George Washington. Was Alexander Hamilton among the founding fathers who protected him from an anti-grave robbing mob in 1788?
You can read several letters to and concerning McKnight on Founders.gov, the National Archives site that makes letters of Washington, Adams, Jay, etc. available. Get ready to squint trying to make out their handwriting!
The Doctor’s Mob, 1788
In April of 1788, America experienced what some have called its first real riot. Passions had been inflamed against grave robbing by a series of letters to the editor between an emancipated slave who called himself Humanio, a medical student, and an anonymous citizen. The fascinating series of letters alludes to a private burial ground for black citizens operated by one Scipio Gray; it was probably near St. Mark’s church, but if it weren’t for the letters, we’d know nothing about it.
Based on the affidavit he published in the New York Daily Advertiser, we can assume that Charles McKnight was one of the doctors who had to hide in the jail while a mob roamed the city, harassing doctors and looking for cadavers and specimens they could bury.
A lingering question is whether Alexander Hamilton was among the group that tried to protect the doctors from the mob – his son’s biography says he was (and even adds that he privately sympathized with the “righteous mob”), and so does a biography of John Jay, who was definitely present, written by his son. However, none of the dozen or so first-hand accounts of the mob mention Hamilton. I assume he was present based on a few things:
- His son, John Church Hamilton, said he was there. His bio occasionally did rely on heresay, but he was in a position to know something like this. His mother had collected material for the biography for years, and could have told him about it. The same can be said of John Jay’s son, who also put Hamilton there.
- It was right in his neighborhood, and he wasn’t the sort to sit out of a mob.
- Several people he knew were involved. A list of members of the Society for the Manumission of Slavery contains most of the named participants.
- A letter to a New York newspaper commenting on the mob sounds like it may be Hamilton’s work, sympathizing with the mob but criticizing their methods. I’ve transcribed that here as well, so people know Hamilton’s writing better can comment on whether it might have been him!
- Though he didn’t write about it personally, neither did any of the other notable founders who were involved.
- The X-factor, which may have kept him home, was that his son James was born the day of the mob. It’s fascinating to me that no biography has noticed that detail before. If you or I helped battle an anti-grave robbing riot on the day our kid was born, that’d be it. That’s our epitaph. With Hamilton it doesn’t even merit a mention in thousand page biographies! In any case, it makes me think that Eliza Hamilton would have remembered the day well, and spoken about it to John now and then.
Some bonus material:
I tried to find every account of the Doctor’s Mob. Here’s my index of them.
Here I’ve transcribed the April, 1788 letter to a New York newspaper commenting on the mob. It was unsigned, but I suspect it might be the work of Hamilton. Eager to hear thoughts from people who’d recognize the style better!
MUSIC AND CREDITS
Other voice credits:
Anatomy Room Description 2, Epitaph and Obit: John Piotrowski
Charles McKnight / Mystery Letter Writer: S. Montgomery Pris
Advertisement: John Kajander
Baron Von Steuben / Anatomy Room Description 1: Jonah Hardenbrook
Trinity Church ad: John Kajander
Additional Music by The Advent Chamber Orchestra