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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Protection from the Body-Snatchers

Most of my life, I have been pretty fascinated with some of the most morbid points of human history.  I grew up watching Discovery Channel WWII Documentaries about Nazi Concentration Camps with my grandfather, and old Black & White horror movies with my mother. So it's no wonder that as an adult I have continued to be drawn to the darker side of humanity.  I have a slight obsession with The Phantom of the Opera and I've been reading my kids the many great works of Poe since they were too little to remember.  So of course when I came across photos of these "mortsafes"... well, lets just say my interest was peaked...

Before we get to the photos however, here's a short (but interesting) history lesson for those who are interested in why such devices became necessary in the first place.

Today, Medical Schools have the ability to access cadaver bodies through a number of legal means. However, prior to the Anatomy Act in 1832, these schools had just two ways to get these much needed bodies. The fist was through the Murder Act of 1752 which allowed them the ability to purchase the bodies of executed murderers. The second, however, was the illegal purchase of bodies of the recently passed locals.

Because the common religious beliefs of the time taught that the physical body was necessary for resurection, there was a great fear associated with dissection.  So even if it had been legal, it would have been extremely rare that a family would have donated the body of their recently dead loved one for study. However, it was this same belief which lead to the Murder Act, as it was believed that the dissection of an executed criminal's body was a continuation of their punishment.

This need for fresh corpses and the desperate belief in a need for a physical body clashed and lead to two profitable fields of business. The first was the business of stealing the recently interred bodies and selling them to Medical Schools for study.  The men who engaged in this "business" were often referred to as "resurrection men" or simply "resurrectionists."

The second of these businesses was the protection of the recently dead from "resurrection."  For the poorest of society this could mean guarding a person's grave against robbery.  In some cases entire families would have taken turns staying with the grave day and night, until the corpse was too old and decayed to be of any value.  In some areas Churches created "watch-houses," which were essentially manned guard houses meant to protect the cemetery.  Some of these watch houses, like this one in High Bradfield, are still standing over 18th century graves.  Other churches built vaults where bodies could be kept until they began to decompose and were able to be safely buried.


However, the most interesting form of grave protection was that of the "mortsafe" or "death safes."  These metal and stone devices were normally used only until the body was past the point of the very, at which point the device could be removed and used for fresher graves. Numerous styles were used, to varying success. Some of these devices are still visible in the many grave yards of Scotland. Because the Medical Schools in need of remains were in the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, however, the cemeteries closest to the cities are the most common places to find such devices, as moving corpses long distance risked, not only the uselessness of the corpse upon arrival, but the risk of arrest.

The following photos are of remaining (and restored) mortsafes from the cemeteries of Scotland and England.

This plaque is attached to the above mortsafe. (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Location: Greyfriars Cemetery
Location:  Unknown cemetery in Scotland
Below are individual Coffin covers. Unlike the above shown mortsafes which are left above ground. The blow pictured covers were often placed over a coffin and buried in place.  They were not usually moved after decomposition. But they were also not able to be scene above ground, allowing for a more traditional view of the grave for mourners.

Location: Perthshire, Scotland
These above ground iron & stone options served, not only as a safety device, but also as a headstone or grave marker.


Location:  Cluny Kirkyard
A Mortstone, served the same purpose as more costly mortsafes, but instead of being placed around the coffin, were simply placed on top of the grave. The theory was that they would simply be too heavy to be moved by most resurrectionists, and the graves would thus be passed over for easier targets. 
Location:  Inverurie Graveyard
Finally, there was the rare option of using an Iron Coffin, which was, for obvious reasons usually reserved for the richest of the rich, and of course, most of those which were used remain in the ground. This means that we have very few examples of these rare coffins, but it's easy to see why they were chosen.  These coffins were either used alone, or with a more traditional wooden coffin placed inside. Some of these coffins featured locks, others simply relied on the weight of their lids to deter theft.   The below examples are now both featured in England Museums. 



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