The body in the water
On Saturday 19 August 1797, just after seven o’clock in the morning, New York’s Catherine Market burst into an uproar. Shoppers and traders rushed to Catherine Slip, at the lower end of the market, to witness the horror of human body parts washing ashore on the tide.
Word spread fast. Rumors swirled. Could this be the work of witches? Devil worshippers? Perhaps it was some crazed butcher, turned mad from drinking poisoned water from the Collect Pond. New York was as plagued with violent crime as any other fast-growing city of the time, but murder was unusual. In fact the city had just hanged an Englishman named John Young for the only murder that year, the killing of a sheriff’s deputy named Robert Berwick. The idea that another murderer, one who might be chopping up his victims, gripped the city.
The mystery was soon solved. The body parts that washed up on Catherine Slip in fact belonged to John Young, the man who had been hanged for murder two days before. Young, a bassoon player at the theater, had been arrested by Berwick for debt the previous June. The deputy then escorted Young about the city as he went to try and procure bail, but it soon became apparent that Young could not raise the money. When he realized he would have to go to jail, Young produced a pistol and shot Berwick, killing him instantly. His sentence included dissection, followed by burial in the Potters Field on Long Island.
Dr John Hicks and Dr Richard Kissam, who had the unpleasant task of cutting up Young’s corpse, explained how the convicted murderer’s remains ended up mixing with the fishmongers’ leavings in Catherine Slip two days later.
“In order to avoid any unnecessary injury to the persons who had assembled to see the execution, the body was conveyed to Potters Field, from whence, at a late hour of the night, it was carried to the Anatomical Theater, where we commenced and finished the dissection in as decent and secret a manner as the nature of the business would admit of. We have to regret that the persons to whom the remains of the body were committed to be interred, being apprehensive that, if buried in the yard, it might be discovered and lead to disagreeable consequences, deemed it expedient to commit the same to the bottom of the river. In their alarm and confusion they neglected to give the bag the necessary weight to sink it, in consequence of which the following morning it was found floating.”
I stumbled upon this gruesome tale in The Market Book. Containing a Historical Account of the Public Markets in the Cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. With a Brief Description of Every Article of Human Food Sold Therein by Thomas Farrington De Voe.