Dr. Thomas Sewall (Temperance Activist & Grave Robber)

Dr. Thomas Sewall was no ordinary doctor. And he was no ordinary temperance activist either.

Sewall was born on April 16, 1786 in Hallowell, Maine. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1812.

Dr. Thomas Sewall
Dr. Thomas Sewall

His major contribution to the temperance movement was his highly popular eight graphic drawings. He said they showed “alcohol diseased stomachs.”  Sewall made colored lithographs of his drawings. Activists then widely distributed them  to promote abstinence.

Temperance leader Edward Delavan sent a copy of the lithographs to every household in the state of New York. He also sent 150,000 copies to poorhouses, prisons, hospitals and schools.

Dr. Thomas Sewall believed that alcohol was responsible for most human illnesses. These included dyspepsia, jaundice, emaciation, corpulence, rheumatism, and gout. Also palpation, lethargy, apoplexy, melancholy, madness, and premature old age. In short, he thought drinking was bad for people.

Dr. Thomas Sewall

Grave Robbing

As a young doctor Sewall was arrested and found guilty of multiple counts of grave robbing. Two of the eight corpses were those of his own former patients. The story of the crimes is described by Christopher Benedetto. He wrote of the crimes in “A most daring and sacrilegious robbery. The extraordinary story of body snatching.”1

Dr. Thomas Sewall
Drawings of stomachs

Sewall had to leave the state because of his conviction. So he moved to the nation’s capital to re-establish his career.

In 1821 he was appointed Professor of Anatomy in the National Medical College. In 1825 he was a founding faculty member of the medical department at Columbian College. There he became Professor of Anatomy. The College later became George Washington University,

The theme of Dr. Sewall’s commencement address to the graduating medical students in 1827? It was on the importance of moral conduct. Of course, he didn’t mention of the importance of not body snatching or robbing graves.

Dr. Thomas Sewall died of tuberculosis on April 10, 1845 in Washington, D.C., at the age of 58.

Meaning of Temperance

Sewell was like like most other temperance advocates at the time. That is, Dr. Sewall called for voluntary abstention from drinking spirits (liquor). But not from beer and wine.

This reflected the myth that spirits were more alcoholic than the other beverages. Yet standard drinks of beer, wine and spirits all contain the amount of pure alcohol. That is, six-tenths ounce per drink.

Dr. Thomas SewallA standard alcoholic drink is any of these.

    • 12-ounce can or bottle of regular beer
    • 5-ounce glass of dinner wine
    • A shot (1.5 ounces) of liquor or spirits.

With the passage of time temperance groups increasingly pressed for abstention from all alcohol. That included beer and wine. Then they pushed for the legal prohibition rather than for voluntary abstinence.

The resulting National Prohibition (1920-1933) proved to be a disastrous failure. It created many problems and was rejected by 74% of voters.


    • Croggon, J. In old Washington (Dr. Thomas Sewall). Evening Star, July 1, 1909, pt. 2, p. 1.
    • Death Of Thomas Sewall. Nat Intelligencer, April 12, 1845, p. 1.
    • Dr. Thomas Sewall. Sewall Genealogy.
    • Dr. Thomas Sewall and the Medical Department of Columbian College. In Dunglison, R. Am Med Intell, V. 3, p. 211.
    • Commencement address of Dr. Thomas Sewall, 1827.
    • Kayser, E. A Medical Center. Wash: GWU Press
    • Letter of the Emperor of China to Dr. Thomas Sewall, on the merits of Phrenology. Combe, G. Notes on the United States of America During a Phrenology Visit. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Corey & Hart, 1841, pp. 377-378.
    • Testimony of Dr. Thomas Sewall. In Dorchester, D. Latest Drink Sophistries versus Total Abstinence. W. Wood, printer, 1883.
    • Sewall, Thomas. An address delivered before the Washington City Temperance Society, Nov 15, 1830. Wash: The Soc, 1830.
    1. Benedetto, C. A most daring and sacrilegious robbery. The extraordinary story of body snatching. New Eng Ancest, 6 (2), pp. 31+.