The various and sundry means, manner, and context of riots throughout history, including corpse snatching, plunder, murder for profit, Welsh genderbending, toll gates, silenced bells, and the medical establishment…
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1. Does it get grimmer than food riots? Apparently yes: how about cholera riots, and, for that matter, the fact I need to pluralize “riot” in that sentence. Riots in response to cholera outbreaks—or, more specifically, harsh quarantines and lack of public assistance during cholera outbreaks—have occurred in Russia (1830, 1909), Great Britain (1831), Germany (1893), and Zimbabwe (2008).
Then there’s Moscow’s plague riot of 1771, which is somehow even more ghastly a concept. That riot ignited when the match of store closures and a highly restrictive quarantine met the powder keg of “everyone around me is dying of the black death.” More than 1000 people stormed the Kremlin. The riot was “successful” inasmuch as food stores were reopened and public services were restored, but on the other hand 165 people and one bell were convicted of various riot-related crimes. About that bell: Catherine II ordered the church bell which rang to signal an alarm be silenced. Which it was, for three decades.*
*The legal concept of in rem jurisdiction allows for cases to be brought against, or by, inanimate objects. Ulysses—the book, not James Joyce himself—was “tried” for obscenity in US v. One Book Called Ulysses, leading to a victory for free expression: “[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisia.” Joyce scholars everywhere agree.
Other inanimate objects that found themselves party to US court proceedings include: Quantity of Books, Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola; One Package of Japanese Pessaries (case brought when Margaret Sanger tried to import contraceptives); 11 ¼ Dozen Packages of Articles Labeled in Part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo-Fly Powders for Drunkenness; Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls; RMS Titanic, Inc.; The Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel RMS Titanic (the last two sued each other, as best I can tell); $124,700 in US Currency; Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins; One Tyrannosaur Bataar Skeleton.
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2. Britain’s cholera riots were not against quarantines specifically, but were an outlet for public distrust of the medical community more generally. In Liverpool, for example, the rumor was that cholera victims were being killed at local hospitals, where there bodies could be legally dissected for anatomical study.
That likely was not happening, but cadaver theft was a real and long-standing concern. Tension between anatomists’ need for bodies to study and the public’s desire to maintain the sanctity of corpses headed for the afterlife dates at least to 1752, when the Murder Act was passed. The law assured that the bodies of executed murderers would be turned over for use medical schools—this was both a “get tough on crime” measure, as dissection was considered a fate worse than death, and a gift to the powerful vivisection lobby.
There weren’t enough murders to satisfy the body-demand of the burgeoning field of anatomy. Most schools relied on grey-market operators called Resurrectionists, who delivered corpses and assorted body parts with no questions asked about their provenance (technically, most grave robbing wasn’t illegal then, even if was considered deeply evil). That practice continued throughout most of the 19th century; for example, in 1826 a ship at the port of Liverpool was found with 33 cadavers stowed aboard, ready to be shipped to the medical school at Edinburgh.
And so when the cholera epidemic hit, the public had good reason to question the medical establishment. And besides the history, they had another more concrete reason: the rallying cry of the rioters was “Bring out the Burkers,” with “burke” having entered the lexicon about a year earlier to describe the act of body-snatching and/or smothering and/or murder for profit. It was named for the public spectacle of the Burke and Hare murders.
William Burke and William Hare ran lodging houses in Edinburgh. When one of their tenants died still owing them rent, they loaded his coffin with wood and spirited his remains to the medical school, where the comically evil-looking Dr. Robert Knox paid them for the stiff. They turned a tidy profit, but renters did not die fast enough for a reliable income source, so the pair resorted to smothering their tenants—or whomever else they could lure into their homes—and selling the bodies. They pulled this trick sixteen more times before someone spotted a dead body under the bed and told the police.
Forensic science being virtually nonexistent at the time, there was actually precious little evidence against them. Faced with a classic prisoner’s dilemma, Hare turned state’s evidence in exchange for immunity. Burke was very publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 25,000, many of whom paid for window seats at local apartments. His body was then sent for public dissection—also attended by everyone who could squeeze into the auditorium—which was one of the last such dissections before 1832 Anatomy Act removed provisions for handing over executed prisoners to be vivisected. Things got yet more vindictive: Burke’s skeleton was preserved and is still on display, and his skin was tanned and used to bind a surgery text, also still on display. For weeks, wallets said to be made from his skin were sold on street corners. Hare, meanwhile, was set free, as were the pair’s wives, whose role in the proceedings are unknown.
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3. America’s version of these events was the Doctor’s Riot of 1788 in New York. This was not a riot of doctors but a riot about them: the scurrilous lot of corpse-thieving reprobates had been, in “wanton sallies of excess,” surreptitiously plundering local pauper and slave cemeteries, fearing no reprisal from marginalized people. Their scheme was laid bare when—and I can still scarcely believe this—an anatomist picked up the arm he was dissecting, waved it out the window at some loud children, and told them it was their mother’s arm. The family went to the cemetery and found an empty grave, whence an angry horde descended on the medical school, ransacking it and finding a literal charnel house in the anatomy department.
Many of the faculty and students had fled in terror, but three students and one teacher stayed behind and were dragged out to the town square while the rest of the group went door-to-door searching for hiding doctors. The mayor, George Clinton (note: different George Clinton) intervened to stall what seemed to be an inevitable lynching, but not before at least three rioters and three militia members were killed (tallies are in dispute; John Jay of treaty fame was amongst the fighting and was brained with a rock). The cemetery they plundered is now a national monument; read more on the doctor’s riots here.
Here’s the thing: that was just one of at least seventeen “anatomy riots” in the US through the mid-1800s, resulting in all manner of legislation regarding the illegality of grave-robbing. All of which is a great reminder of how shady, underhanded, devious, and untrustworthy were doctors for great swaths of history; the general esteem with which they are held now is a mostly recent invention.
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4. On sporadic occasions between 1839 and 1843, Welsh farmers attacked and destroyed toll gates, at a time when more than 8000 toll booths dotted the Welsh and English countryside. The government had handed control of the turnpikes to private concerns who, in the spirit of free enterprise, promptly raised the tolls to extortionate rates while not actually maintaining the roads the farmers needed to haul fertilizer to their fields. When the tolls, among other taxes and levies, did not budge even after years of famine-level harvests, farmers attacked the most accessible totems of their oppression: the toll gates.
These acts of civil disobedience are known as the Rebecca riots. Why? Because the farmers dressed in women’s clothing when they gathered to destroy the gates. Oh, wait, does that not answer the question? There’s actually no one explanation for the crossdressing thing. One theory holds that they seized on a bible verse referencing Rebecca (who talked of possessing ‘the gates of those who hate them’) and, I guess, decided to dress like her. Another holds that the chief instigator of the first riot borrowed clothing from a local woman named Rebecca, but then that doesn’t really answer the question either, does it? Wikipedia suggests that “the wearing of women’s clothes was an established part of traditional Welsh justice,” but as best I can tell it was meant as public shaming for adulterers, not being donned by the mob itself.
So that remains a mystery, but in any case the farmers would dress up and perform a mock call-and-response ceremony featuring a “blind old woman” asking for help removing this obstacle from her path. Then they’d smash the gates. A combination of three things brought the riots to a halt: increased army presence at tollbooths, laws passed in 1844 to rein in the turnpike trusts, and most weirdly, roving bands of criminals that donned the “Rebecca” gear as a disguise, lending bad PR to the whole campaign—perhaps an early example of the counterintelligence ‘agitator’ tactics.
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5. Did you know that Randy Rhoads, of Crazy Train fame, was a founding member of Quiet Riot? Or that Quiet Riot was their third name, after Mach 1 and Little Women? Their hit album Metal Health was released in 1983, knocked Synchronicity from the top spot on the charts, and sold more than six million copies. The follow-up, Condition Critical, sold half that and earned this review from Rolling Stone: “Condition terminal.” Their postmodern stance on grammar and spelling conventions that began with “Cum on Feel the Noize” on the first album reached its apogee with “Mama Weer All Crazee Now” on the second. Actually, both were covers of Slade songs, and weird spelling was the least of what Slade had going on: