The resurrection of a mortsafe

The theft of dead bodies in England was a common occurrence in the early 19th century because medical schools could only dissect the bodies of executed criminals, which were in short supply.  As medical schools expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, and more people attended universities, the need for cadavers far exceeded the supply of condemned prisoners, so anatomy lecturers had to resort to doing business with unsavory resurrection men.  Resurrection men, or body snatchers, would sneak into graveyards at night and exhume the bodies of people who had just died and sell them to medical schools.  It was important that the cadavers were fresh since the anatomy lecturers needed to dissect the remains.

Body snatching became so widespread that people came up with ways to deter resurrection men from stealing the bodies of family members.  Relatives would guard a body before burial, some cemeteries installed watchtowers to discourage body snatchers after interment, and some families purchased iron contraptions, called mortsafes, in which to bury their dead.

One of two fine specimens of mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard.  Photo from Wikipedia.

One of two fine specimens of mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Photo from Wikipedia.  Another example of a mortsafe can be seen here.

The mortsafe, invented around 1816, was a reusable iron device that had rods and plates that were padlocked together.  It was a kind of safety deposit box for the dead.  A coffin was placed in the mortsafe for a couple of months, then removed when the body had decomposed.  Since body snatchers would dig at the head end of a burial then wrap a rope around the cadaver and drag it out, these iron cages would prevent the theft of the corpse inside.

In January of 2013, archaeologists, excavating a 19th century cemetery in West Bromwich, England, unearthed a mortsafe with a body still inside.

Sandwell Council’s Museums Manager, Frank Caldwell said: “The body protected by the mortsafe belonged to a young woman who we found suffered from a disfiguring skin and bone disease.  It meant that her remains would have fetched a premium for the body snatchers and that would be why her body was protected by the mortsafe – her family were concerned that it would be stolen.”

Image of the skeletal remains of woman who was buried in a 'mortsafe' in the 19th century. Credit: Sandwell Council via ITV

Image of the skeletal remains of woman who was buried in a ‘mortsafe’ in the 19th century. Credit: Sandwell Council via ITV

Archaeologists also found empty coffins and one coffin filled with scrap metal.  They also discovered an unusual brick coffin that had two bodies inside, where the body on top hid a false bottom with the remains of another person underneath.

In 1829 the most infamous body snatcher William Burke was executed for murder.  Burke, and his accomplice Hare, were much too lazy to dig up graves and pull bodies from coffins, so they murdered people and sold the bodies of their victims to the medical school in Edinburgh.  The Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed in response to the panic that gripped the United Kingdom in the wake of Burke’s execution.  This new law allowed medical schools to study unclaimed bodies and those donated to science.

References:

Archaeologists in West Bromwich find grave robbing evidence.  (2013).  Retrieved on February 22, 2014 from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-21044770

Evidence of grave robbery found in the Midlands.  (2013).  Retrieved on February 22, 2014 from: http://www.itv.com/news/central/2013-01-17/hf/

The Rise of the Mortsafe. (2012).  Retrieved on February 22, 2014 from: http://morthouse.com/post/18070055332/the-rise-of-the-mortsafe

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Categories: Archaeology, History

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Brittius.com and commented:
    That’s right… Call me, and I’ll show up with a portable welder. Weld up those bars like they were in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Serious welding.

  2. I highly recommend “The Diary of a Resurrectionist”, a book published in 1896. It contains a facsimile of the notebook kept by a professional grave robber who was active in 1811-12, and a comprehensive history of the practice. It is available to read free online here

    Also, I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to our hostess for keeping this wonderful blog! I just don’t know what I would do without my daily dose of Strange Remains.

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