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Joseph Taylor's Account

In the first week of May 1788, a young, healthy thief, whose name was sometimes Joseph Taylor, wept inside a prison cell. Joseph and his accomplice, Archibald Taylor (no relation), had robbed a butcher and were now waiting to be hanged. There wasn't much to do in prison, and nothing to be happy about, so Joseph was surprised when Archibald "came to me with money in his hand, and so smiling a countenance, that I thought he had received it in charity. But he soon undeceived me, telling me with an air of gaity, that it was the price of his body; and then added a shocking speech which I sincerely hope is blotted out of the book of God's remembrance against his poor soul."

Archibald's "shocking" happiness was brought on by a doctor who needed a human corpse for dissection. Grave robbing was an old favorite, but that had recently proven riskier than previously thought. The Doctors Mob Riot took place in New York 13-15 April 1788, just a couple weeks before Archibald's bargain. The New-York Packet of 15 April 1788 gave one of the first reports; Information had been given to some persons in the city, that several subjects for dissection had been dragged out of their graves and carried to the Hospital for the purpose - a long practice, which, 'tis said, some of the young doctors are charged with, which has been the cause of loud complaints against them for some months past: Last Sabbath afternoon, a number assembled and broke into the Hospital, where, 'tis said, some mangled bodies of the dead were found - in consequence of which, a considera~le dust was kicked up, and sundry doctors and others were considerably mauled.

The news traveled to Boston quickly; The Massachusetts Gazette printed this account (Boston, Friday, April 25. Extract of a letter from New-York, April 15): Last Sunday afternoon, about 4 o'clock, a number of the inhabitants, about 600, entered the hospital, where the Doctors had made it a practice to take up 6 or 8 bodies in a week, out of the different burial places in the city, dissect them, and then send them to different parts for sale, to France and to the Indies. The mob detroyed all the utensils which had been made use of in the hospital, and put four of the Doctors in jail. By the persuasions of the Mayor, and his promising to have what bones remained of the dissected bodies buried, the mob dispersed. All this is a fact, I was an eye witness to it. On Monday morning the mob again assembled, and searched all the Doctor's houses in the city, and found in some of them the skeletons of men, women and children. In one house several were found unfinished. These things so enraged the mob as to induce them to go to the jail and demand the prisoners; being refused, they proceeded to break open the apartments where the Doctors were confined. Upon this, the military were ordered out, and their appearance occasioned a skirmish, in which four of the mob were killed, and several of the militia were wounded. It was expected the matter would have been worse, but it begain to rain pretty briefly, and the Mayor promising that the prisoners should be punished, the affair ended.

Later reports, in the 8 May 1788 Massachusetts Spy, added "The interments not only of strangers, and the blacks, had been disturbed, but the corps of some respectable persons were removed." Now that graverobbing was a problem for everyone, and not just "strangers, and the blacks," bargaining with the condemned seemed a safer course of action. But acquiring Joseph's corpse would prove more difficult. Here's Joseph's response to the news of Archibald's decision to sell his body to science:

This was the first time since my condemnation that I tho't what it was to die. The shock was terrible, and Taylor increased it by telling me that the Doctor had desired him to bargain with me for my body also. The tho'ts of my bones not being permitted to remain in the grave in peace, and my body, which my poor mother has so often caressed and dandled on her knee, and which had been so pampered by my friends in my better days, being slashed and mangled by the Doctors, was too much for me. I had been deaf to the pious exhortations of the Priests; but now my conscience was awakened, and hell seemed indeed to yawn for me.

What a night of horror was the next night; - When the Doctor came in the morning to bargain for my body, I was in a cold sweat; my knees smote together, and my tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth. He perceived the agony of my soul, and asked me some questions respecting my state of mind. I found utterance, and poured out my heart to him. He seemed affected with my distress, especially as my conduct was so different from that of A Taylor's: And after pausing he left me without mentioning the sale of my body, and said he would call again the next day.

When the doctor returned, he made a remarkable suggestion, one that made the coins he offered Archibald look paltry. "He communicated his design of attempting to recover me to life, if my body could be carried, immediately after I was cut down, to some convenient place, out of the reach of the people; assuring me, by all that is sacred, that if he failed in his attempt he would give my body a Christian buriel."

The story that follows is fantastic, but its use of specifics is convincing: Joseph asks two friends "to carry my body from the gallows to the place provided." A convincing ruse was developed: it was common knowledge that resurrectionists often bribed hangmen and other officials to obtain the bodies of the executed; they needed to keep his body safe from "the Doctors." Additional details about the boat hired, the person who owned the boat, the number of masts the boat had, and the location of the mooring, seem too good to be true, remembered as they were by a man who was about to be executed: Joseph himself admits, "The state of my mind after my conversation with the Doctor, until the day of execution, is impossible for me to describe." The doctor's assistant brought this note to the jail on the morning of his hanging (Thursday Morning, May 8, 1788):

Taylor, everything depends on your presence of mind - Remember that the Human Machine may be put in tune again, if you preserve the spiral [sic] muscle from injury, and do not dislocate the Vertebrae of the neck: as the Colli Spinalis is deduced from the transverse process of the Vertebrae of the throat, and is laterally inserted into the Vertebrae of the neck, its connexion with the whole human frame is material; so that you must endeavor to work the knot behind your neck, and press your throat upon the halter, which will prevent the neck's breaking, and likewise the compressions of the Jugular, and preserve the circulations in some degree. Keep up your spirits.

That final injunction offers more kindness in four words than the condemned would have seen since his capture; the science-y details seem to have given him something more concrete to focus on than his own death, and what he believed was likely to be an eternity in Hell. Later that day Joseph's experience was colored by the contents of that note. "It is true, when I mounted the stage I dreaded the pain of hanging as I should any other bodily pain equally severe: But the far greater distress of meeting an offended, and inexorable judge, and being confined to endless misery, was done away: For the nearer the time of execution approached, the more my reliance on the Doctor increased ...I preserved my presence of mind; and when the halter was fastened remembered the Doctor's directions, and while the prayer was making I kept gently turning my head so as to bring the knot on the back of my neck."

Joseph Taylor's devotion to his body when considering his hanging, his fondness for the flesh that his mother caressed and his friends treated so well, is paralleled by his attention to detail when reporting on the sensations of being hanged. "When the trap fell I had all my senses about me; and tho' I have no remembrance of bearing and sounds among the people, yet I believe I did not lose my senses until some minutes after. My first feelings after the shock of falling, was a violent strangling and oppression for want of breath; this soon gave way to a pain in my eyes, which seemed to be burned by two balls of fire which appeared before them, which seemed to dart on and off like lightning; settling over and anon upon my shoulders as if they weighed ten hundred tons; and after one terrible flash, in which the two balls seemed to join in one, I sunk away, without pain, like one falling to sleep."

These experiences - in prison, with the doctor, on the scaffold, and after his hanging - began appearing in newspapers in the 4 November 1789 issue of the Vermont Journal, on the front page. Shortly afterward, a pamphlet was published, the full title of which is God's tender mercy and infinite compassion surmounting man's severity: In a remarkable and surprising manner exemplified, in the following curious and very extraordinary narrative of the revivication of young Joseph Taylor, who was supposed to have been hanged to death, (in company with that notorious highwayman, pickpocket and housebreaker, Archibald Taylor) on Boston-Neck, on Thursday, the eight of May, 1788, for a violent assault and robbery on the highway, committed on the person and property of Mr. Nathaniel Cunningham, butcher, in October, 1781. :In a letter from said Joseph Taylor, to his kind friend and countryman, Mr. Phelim Donance, in Boston. :With attestations of the truth of the facts, by said Donance, &c. : Many other interesting particulars, relating to this very extraordinary and memorable transaction.

In its conclusion, Joseph speaks directly to Donance: What followed after I was turned off you know, as I was informed you kindly assisted my other friends in taking the body down as soon as you were permitted, and conveying it across the Salt-works to the small boat: I was from thence carried on board the two-mast boat to the Doctor, to all appearance dead; for O'Donnell (who was directed by the Doctor to cut and loosen my clothes, and rub me, throwing water on me) could perceive no life in me, but told the Doctor it was too late. But the Doctor was not discouraged, and in one hour and twenty two minutes after I was bro't on board the boat, making two hours and forty three minutes after I was turned off, he perceived signs of life in me, by a small motion and warmth in my bosom; in twenty minutes after I gave a violent deep groan.

While Joseph Taylor's account does not provide much detail about the steps taken to revive a hanged man in colonial America, history backs up the notion that a hanged man could be revived. Hanging is inexact; sometimes heads come off, sometimes people choke to death instead of getting their necks snapped, and sometimes people survive, with a little rope burn, long enough for the executioner to try again. Ropes break, or are too long; hangmen are inexperienced or careless or drunk. It's possible that Joseph did recover, not from death, but from a slapdash hanging. While the story is fantastic, there are a number of details that make it seem real. The doctor's anonymity cuts both ways. The text also provides some specific historic accuracies, such as the involvement of apothecaries as middle-men in the secret work of cadaver-procurement. And the detail about working the knot around to avoid breaking the neck seems like a good piece of advice to keep in mind in case of emergencies.

Still, the charm of this narrative, the heart of it, the part that sold enough copies for it to remain in dozens of libraries around the world, is the attention to sensual detail, to the feeling of hanging, and the physical and emotional sensations of getting another chance.

Here description fails! - I cannot describe the intolerable agony of that moment. Ten thousand stran glings are trifling to it! The first confused thoughts I had, were, that it was the moment of my dissolution; for I had no knowledge of my removal from the gallows, but was quite insensible from the time I first lost myself, to that in which I recoveredexcept some faint glimmerings of a sence which faint and confused as they were, I shall never forget (but which I feel impressed upon my heart I ought to communicate to no man living.) I was soon after this violent anguish made sensible where I was; the Doctor's stuff and sight of my friends restored me in a great measure to my sense. The Dr. would not allow me to talk much; but feeling fatigued he permitted me to lay down, having two persons by me to rub me with a brush while I slept. When I awoke it was dark. I felt yet somewhat lightheaded and confused, from the dreadful scene I had passed through. All hands being called, a solemn oath was taken by all present, not to tell any thing which had happened until they should know that I was safe out of the country; and then not to discover the Doctor, his friend or his apprentice.

I am engaged to go to Gottenburgh in Sweden; and shall soon sail to-morrow in a ship which is now coming down the river from Philadelphia. I shall take my family name and return to my parents, a prodigal son indeed. God grant, as I have severely eated the husks, that I may soon eat bread in my earthly parents house; and be prepared for such food as the saints in glory love, and such as Angels eat in that house which is not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

The moving spirituality of this conclusion is undercut slightly by the intriguing injunction that Donance should "inform the Doctor that the numbness in the place he mentioned went off the third day all at once, after a violent burning, as if a thousand pins were stuck into me." In spite of the popularity of the pamphlet containing this letter, or perhaps because of it, the Western Star sought to debunk the narrative in its 2 February 1790 issue: "a few persons, in order to satisfy themselves and others, went to the spot where his body had been deposited, and after digging a short time found the same. This being the true state of the case, the Editor of this paper, has thought proper not to add to deception, by republishing the remarkable account above referred to." Still, it's difficult to spend any time with Joseph Taylor and not forgive him his thefts, and hope he made it back to Ireland, to his earthly parents' house, to eat his mother's bread by a peat fire. Maybe he went on to live a long and virtuous life, telling his story again and again to anyone who would listen.

Jill McDonough. Back From the Dead: The Revivication of Joseph Taylor. History Magazine. June / July 2007.


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