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A “Doctors Mob” letter – could it be by Alexander Hamilton?

As discussed in Episode 2 of Cemetery Mixtape, Alexander Hamilton is often said to have taken part in the Doctor’s Mob of 1788, helping to put down an anti-grave robbing riot. Though first hand accounts don’t mention him, it’s likely he at least put in an appearance, and his son later wrote that Hamilton privately sympathized with the rioters, calling them a “righteous mob.”

Shortly after the riot, an anonymous letter commenting on the mob was published in the Daily Patriot Register and a few other papers;  I give the following reasons for suspecting that Hamilton was behind it:

  1. It’s clearly the work of an eloquent New York lawyer (or someone with a good understanding of the law, particularly the quirks of laws related to living in a new nation whose constitution wasn’t yet ratified)
  2. The sentiment matches up with what John Church Hamilton said were Alexander’s sentiments about the mob.
  3. The basic idea that we do still have laws roughly lines up with some of the Federalist Papers Hamilton was writing at the time, particularly a letter than summer stating that just because the new constitution doesn’t specifically mention a given law or right doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
  4. Hamilton WAS known to write pseudonymous letters to the Journal and the Patriotic Register.

Working against the theory that it’s Hamilton, though, is the fact that the tone doesn’t seem quite right to me; it’s slightly more down-to-earth than his usual style, and uses some turns of phrase that I don’t find in his other writings. Still, the style may be a reflection of the intended target audience (a barely-literate mob). But, though I’ve read a number of Hamilton’s letters and writings over the years, I’m not familiar enough with his style, or writing of the era, to tell whether this seems like a match. Most of my research is in Chicago, which didn’t have any 18th century newspapers!

I welcome comments from experts who know Hamilton and his work better than I do; while I’ve let myself fantasize that this may be a newly identified Hamilton letter about grave robbing (my favorite topic!), I’ve had plenty of experience being contacted by people who think they’ve found something new about one of my own areas of expertise and who simply won’t take no for an answer, eventually descending into conspiracy theories about “so-called experts.” I don’t want to be one of those guys!   Whether by Hamilton or not, the letter gives us some interesting insight into life in the pre-constitution United States, and some idea of how ordinary people perceived the laws and government at the time (or, at least, how the writer thought they did).

Without further commentary, here’s the letter. It was published in a few papers, though all copies I have say they’re reprinting from another paper; one says it was originally in the Daily Advertiser, though I couldn’t find it in that paper. The 4/19/1788 New York Journal copy, which I’ve used here, says it came from the Daily Patriotic Register.  I’ve added a paragraph break or two to make it more readable to modern readers.

An excerpt is read by Scott Pris on Episode 2 of Cemetery Mixtape

THE LETTER

Mr. Greenleaf:

Please to insert the inclosed in your useful paper, and you will oblige many who love

ORDER, DECENCY, JUSTICE & PEACE

All popular tumults are justly dreaded by every peaceable citizen, and should, if possible, be discouraged and suppressed, as a train of consequences highly injurious to society frequently attend such irregular commotions. But the conduct of some physicians, in this city, has for many months past made such deep impressions upon the public mind, and so harrowed up the feelings of the people, that the present violent proceedings are not matter of surprise, but have been actually expected and foretold by many who were acquainted with the cause, and could easily prognosticate the consequence; the savages protect their dead, and it is no wonder that those whose sensibility is more refined should resent every outrage committed upon their burial grounds.

It is true that the faculty must sometimes dissect, in order to teach their pupils and make such preparations as may, in various cases, prove beneficial to mankind – but these great ends, have always heretofore been answered by such prudent and cautious methods, as have never alarmed the minds of the people, either malefactors, whose bodies were forfeited to the community, or some forlorn corpse, to which non claimed connection, were privately made use of, and it is well known, that with care and proper delicacy, one, or at least two subjects, are abundantly sufficient to answer every purpose of anatomical dissections for a whole season – but the business has been conducted here in such a shameless and wanton manner, as to raise a tumult of passions, before unknown among us. Mourning families are brought into new and very singular distress; many have been robbed of their dead, or forced to watch the graves of made horrid searches to see if the corpse was yet in its coffin – there never was, perhpas, in a well-regulated society a great outrage deliberately and frequently committed; nor the feelings of a whole city more impudently insulted, by unprincipled youths or some of their imprudent masters [Some only, for all the physicians are not guilty; many of them, it is well known, are worthy and eminent men, and execrate these proceedings as much as any of the inhabitants can do; and they deserve and will certainly receive protection and respect.

It is no wonder the spirit of the citizens is aroused, it is not only the vulgar, but all ranks join in condemning these scandalous enormities; and there is no doubt but this specimen of the public resentment will fully check the practice of stealing the dead, and prevent the hospital from being any longer a shocking shamble of human flesh.

But in order effectually to quiet the fears of the people and persuade the citizens to desist from all disorderly proceedings, it is proper to remind them, that the laws have not left us altogether unprovided with a sufficient remedy, and there is no necessity of appealing to personal violence, and disturbing the peace of the city in the present instance. The common law of England is adopted as one of the principles of our jurisprudence, and what is practiced there, in similar cases, is also, for the most part, law with us.

Such practices cannot be better illustrated than by reciting a case which was adjudged in London on July 4, 1755, and me be found in the Gentleman’s Magazine , vol xxv, page 328, and is as follows:

“John Sims and Francis Coy were convicted at Hick’s Hall of stealing out of the burying ground of St. James’s Cathedral the corpse of a male infant, and were sentenced to be whipt from Porters-Block to the end of Swan-Alley, in John Street, and to suffer one years imprisonment in New-Gate” 

The crime of Mr. Sims and Mr. Coy was exactly the same with which those, who are now the objects of public resentment are said to be chargeable.

And the citizens may rest assured, that as our laws can take cognizance of the offense, so our magistrates will exert themselves for that purpose; the grand jury may soon investigate the matter, and if proof can be obtained, justice will certainly take place, and tranquility be restored to the public mind.

Back to Cemetery Mixtape: Episode 2: Charles McKnight, Alexander Hamilton, and the Doctors Mob