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Sailor's Riot of 1765

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“Methinks I see a mob of sailors rise— Revenge!—revenge! they cry—and damn their eyes— Revenge for comrade Jack, whose flesh, they say, You minced to morsels and then threw away.”

Francis Hopkinson, Oration… to the Students in Anatomy, 185x.

In retrospect, Dr. William Shippen Jr., of 238 S. 4th St, should have seen the group coming. For the last several years he had taken to the papers to quell those he saw as “persons opposed to anatomic research”, the subject of which he was the official expert at the newly minted University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Despite his repeated advertisements in the local Philadelphia Papers claiming to have only used the bodies of criminals from the Walnut Street Jail and the occasional pauper, resentment, suspicion, and anger grew steadily in the city of Philadelphia.

 

Philadelphia in November 1765 was an intimate town. While it was one of the most important and quickly growing cities in the British colonies, it had the flavor of a small town where “almost everyone knew what was going on in it” (Horner). So when frustrations and suspicion over the origins of the bodies used in Dr. Shippen’s anatomical lectures were vocalized over glasses of ale or hot chocolate, over docking ships in the Delaware ports, emotions boiled over.

 

The night in question, Dr. Shippen was about to leave his residence on fourth street when the “mob” descended. No stranger to the occasional rock thrown at a window or the odd threat hurled his way on the public streets, Shippen hesitated to leave out the front door, probably pausing inside, peeking through a handmade curtain to ascertain the crowd outside. Eventually, as the crowd descended on his coach and driver, who managed to just make off with the horse alive and coach somewhat intact, Shippen slipped into the alleyway behind his home and made his escape in the dark, Philadelphia streets, leaving the angry crowd outside to assault his home, break his windows, and shoot musket ball into his foundation.

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We will never know the number of people, nor their demographic makeup, nor their official slogan or demands. They are lost to history, relegated as mere opposers to scientific discovery and medical advancement. The event became known in popular memory as the Sailors’ Mob, due to the fact the only identifiable figures were likely docked sailors. What did sailors have to do with anatomy? Why is this event, for being the earliest documented group resistance against human dissection in the British colonies, so unknown?

 

 The first printed references to the riot, despite a proliferation in Shippen’s desperate defenses of his bodies in Philadelphia newspapers, begin in anatomical lectures in the 1800s at the University of Pennsylvania. Shippen’s professional descendants – Horner and Wistar – invoke the events when covering the history of anatomy for their students. Anatomists had to contend with a lot of misguided and ignorant opposition to their craft, was the overwhelming reflection from practicing anatomists and medical professionals.

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