The Five Strangest Riots In History

Published March 29, 2016
Updated February 15, 2018

From brawling over stolen corpses to rioting over a pile of exploding disco records, history's weirdest riots prove that some people can always be relied upon to form an angry mob.

Historical Strange Riots

A Vancouver Canucks fan takes part in a riot after the team’s 2011 Stanley Cup Championship loss. Photo by David Elop. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Both mobs and mob mentality have been around for as long as “society” has existed. The first recorded riot occurred in 44 BC, after the assassination of Julius Caesar, but you can be certain that they were already a well-established part of human life by that point.

While violence is never a laughing matter, the motives behind some riots are just plain bizarre. Ever heard the expression, “People have rioted over less?” Here are five riots that make you realize it’s completely true…

1. The Riot Over Stolen Corpses

Historical Riots Doctors

1873 illustration of the location of the Doctors’ Riot in 1788, New York Hospital. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the spring of 1788, a group of young boys were playing behind the New York Hospital, at that time located at Broadway and Pearl Street. A medical student named John Hicks was working with a stolen corpse, and decided to stick the arm he was dissecting out the window and wave it at the children below.

Hicks told one of the children that it was the arm of his recently deceased mother, a claim the boy believed after climbing a ladder to get a closer look. The boy immediately ran home to tell his father, who, upon opening his wife’s coffin, discovered that her body had been stolen (a practice that occurred with some regularity among medical students, as at the time it was considered taboo to “violate” corpses).

Historical Riots Grave Robbers

“Resurrection Men” were grave robbers hired by doctors and medical students to procure cadavers for use in medical training and experimentation. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The boy’s father quickly gathered a large group of concerned citizens, who went to confront the surgeons at the hospital, eventually breaking in and finding countless corpses in various states of mutilation. Upon finding out that these bodies were stolen from burial grounds outside the city, the enraged citizens dragged the medical students into the streets.

Here, they encountered the Mayor of New York City, James Duane, who had the medical students locked up — but only for means of their own protection.

As word spread of what had been seen inside the hospital, a crowd of approximately 2,000 people rioted and headed to the courthouse in an attempt to find medical student John Hicks and make him pay for his behavior. The rioters threw rocks at the courthouse — as well as the cavalry and militia who had gathered to suppress the crowd. At least six people were killed in the clash, with some estimates claiming the death total may have been as high as 20.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Kelly, Erin. "The Five Strangest Riots In History.", March 29, 2016, Accessed May 21, 2024.