Geek Trivia

In 19th Century England, Families Would Bury Their Dead In What To Protect Against Body Snatching?

Sealed Lead Caskets
Church Basements
Unmarked Graves
The Only Location In The United States That Still Receives Mail Via Mule Delivery Is In?

Answer: Mortsafes

Long before it was possible to simply donate your body to science, there was a bit of a shortage of bodies available for medical students—typically only the corpses of those executed via capital punishment were legally available to students.

The shortage was so severe, in fact, that there was an entire underground profession of “resurrectionists” (or “resurrection men”) who specialized in clandestinely exhuming corpses to sell to medical schools. Because of the necessity of the corpses for study and the advancement of medical science, the authorities typically did very little to pursue and prosecute the resurrectionists, but the public, as you can imagine, had a much different opinion on the matter. Rather than sit by and worry about men in the night absconding with the bodies of their loved ones, people employed a wide variety of techniques to keep the grave robbers away.

Wealthy people would generally build tombs with heavy stone walls and slab doors to keep the bodies of loved ones secure. The poor employed more modest techniques, like back filling graves with rubble and branches to make exhuming bodies such a hassle as to deter the resurrectionists. Watch societies were also formed in many towns to guard cemeteries from resurrectionists. Eventually, a middle ground technique was invented with the advent of the “mortsafe” in the early 19th century. These devices were large iron cages or combinations of iron and stone, and designed to encapsulate the grave in such a fashion as to make it far too much effort to exhume the body.

For people who couldn’t afford to purchase a permanent mortsafe for their loved ones, there was even a cottage industry of mortsafe rentals wherein the grave would be secured with a temporary mortsafe just long enough to ensure the body was decomposed to a stage that it would not be desirable for use in medical school training. Then the mortsafe would be removed, rented by a new family, and placed on a fresh grave.

The practice fell out of favor by the 1830s as a series of murders committed by two men, William Burke and William Hare, came to public attention. The two men murdered 16 people to sell their bodies to medical schools. This was not an isolated practice and with the very dark underbelly of the corpse trade brought to light, the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed, allowing for legal procurement of corpses for educational purposes. The passage of the act quickly ended the illegal trade and securing graves with mortsafes was no longer necessary.