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.

Grave Robbing

As a young physician in Massachusetts, Dr. Sewall was arrested, charged, 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 by Christopher

Benedetto describes the crimes in “A most daring and sacrilegious robbery.” The extraordinary story of body snatching. It’s in the New Eng Ancest, 2005, 6 (2), pp. 31+.

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 medic

Dr. Thomas Sewall
Drawings of stomachs

al department at Columbian College where he became Professor of Anatomy. The College later became George Washington University,

Incredibly, the theme of Dr. Sewall’s commencement address to the graduating medical students in 1827 was 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 distilled spirits but not from beer and wine. This reflected the myth that spirits were more alcoholic than the other beverages. However, standard drinks of beer, wine and distilled spirits all contain an equivalent amount of alcohol . Specifically, it’s 0.6 ounce per drink.

Dr. Thomas SewallA standard alcoholic drink is a:

  • 12-ounce can or bottle of regular beer
  • 5-ounce glass of dinner wine
  • A shot (1.5 ounces) of 80 proof liquor or spirits. They’re such things as whiskey, vodka, tequila, rum, etc.

Standard drinks all all the same to a breathalyzer.

With the passage of time temperance groups increasingly pressed for abstention from all alcoholic beverages. That included beer and wine. Then they pushed for the legal prohibition of alcohol 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 American voters.

See Also

Surprisingly, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many remainders of Prohibition that still continue to exist.

Resources on Dr. Thomas Sewall

  • Benedetto, C. “A most daring and sacrilegious robbery.” The extraordinary story of body snatching. New Eng Ancest, 2005, 6(2), 31. The story of Dr. Thomas Sewall’s grave robbing crimes .
  • Croggon, J. In old Washington (Dr. Thomas Sewall). Evening Star, July 1, 1909, pt. 2, p. 1. http://www.bytesofhistory.com/DCHistory/Collections/Croggon/Croggon_19100702.html.
  • Death Of Thomas Sewall. Nat Intelligencer, April 12, 1845, p. 1.
  • Dr. Thomas Sewall. Sewall Genealogy. http://www.sewellgenealogy.com/p425.htm
  • Dr. Thomas Sewall and the Medical Department of Columbian College. In Dunglison, R. Am Med Intelligencer, V. 3, p. 211.
  • Commencement address of Dr. Thomas Sewall, 1827. http://encyclopedia.gwu.edu/gwencyclopedia/index.php?title=Commencements:_Address_of_Thomas_Sewall%2C_1827
  • Kayser, Elmer L. A Medical Center: The Institutional Development of Medical Education in George Washington University. Washington: George Washington U Press, 1973. Details Dr. Thomas Sewall’s important role in developing medical education at Columbian College.
  • 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. Washington: Washington City Temp Soc, 1830.