Mortsafes: Protecting Graves from 18th Century Body Snatchers
Introduction to Grave Robbery
If you are a fan of works of fiction such as Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or even historical mass murderers such as Jack the Ripper, you are probably familiar with the chilling tales of physicians snatching bodies from cemeteries to experiment on them to advance their medical knowledge.
But did you know all those tales were based on real events?
The practice of grave robbery is as old as the practice of interring the dead. However, for most of history, grave robbery was done simply to retrieve personal objects from the deceased, mostly jewels and clothing that had value and could be used or sold. The corpse would usually remain in its resting place.
The practice changed during The Middle Ages from grave robbery to body snatching for medical purposes. Documented cases of body snatching can be traced as far back as 1319. It is said that Leonardo da Vinci may have secretly dissected around 30 corpses that inspired his anatomy drawings.
Body Snatchers in Britain
In the 18th and 19th Centuries in Britain and the United States, there was a high demand for human cadavers from medical schools so that they could be dissected and their anatomy studied.
Resurrectionists and Night Doctors would often prowl poor neighbourhoods in search of fresh corpses they could use for experimentation. Resurrectionists were common people in need of money employed by anatomists to snatch dead bodies from their graves. Night Doctors were part of the African American folklore based on the very real body snatching of cadavers by physicians or the people employed by them.
The famed Scottish anatomist Robert Knox undertook dissections twice a day of freshly anatomical subjects while a lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Knox is credited to have “built up a formidable reputation as a teacher and lecturer and almost single-handedly raised the profile of the study of anatomy in Britain.”
A whole black market arose out of the practice of body snatching. Some corpses would even be shipped to the United States for the whole purpose of experimentation. But Robert Knox, like many physicians of his time, was not above purchasing fresh corpses from less than reputable sources. Including William Burke and William Hare. The pair made a living from different trades, including snatching bodies from freshly dug graves. They even went as far as killing their lodgers to provide fresh corpses for the medical establishments. Crimes for which they would eventually be found out and executed.
A new word was coined from the murders: burking, to smother a victim or to commit an anatomy murder, and a rhyme began circulating in the streets of Edinburgh:
Up the close and doon the stair,
Ben the hoose’ wi’ Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.
Both the British Press and the British authorities turned a blind eye to body snatching because it helped to advance medical knowledge. The public at large remained unaware of this practice until the Murder Act of 1752 (also known as the Murder Act of 1751) was passed. The Act stated that murderers should not be buried, but instead, their bodies should go to medical practitioners for dissection. It also stipulated that condemned criminals should be executed two days after their sentence was passed.
It was not uncommon to see riots during public executions, especially in Scotland where the popular belief was that the dead could not rise in an incomplete state. This belief in Resurrection also led to a lot of damage to property and even fatal attacks.
Because of this, Mortsafes, also known as Mortcages, became extremely popular around 1816. Mortsafes were iron cages put around a grave to prevent the corpse of the deceased from being stolen. The rich could afford vaults, mausoleums and heavy tombstones.
Mortsafes came in many different designs. In most cases, they consisted of a series of rods and plates padlocked together in a complex iron cage. Sometimes they could be extremely decorative. Even so, they all shared one thing in common: they were heavy.
Nevertheless, purchasing Mortcages was prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of the population, so it became a common practice to rent mort safes for 6 months. This was done because once a dead body reaches a certain level of decomposition, it becomes useless for anatomy professors and medical students alike. The device was then removed and rented to other families.
Physicians and medical students were finally able to legally obtain corpses thanks to the Anatomy Act of 1832. It was enacted in response to the public revulsion at the illegal trade in corpses that permeated Britain. The act stipulated that bodies could be dissected if they had been legally donated to medical science.