GRAVE ROBBERY IN AMERICA:
Today, people often make arrangements to donate their body to science after they die. We accept the fact that medical students need cadavers to learn about human anatomy. But this was not always the case.
Until the mid-1800’s, the only way for medical students to get practice cadavers was to steal them from graveyards! As a result, professional body snatchers, called “Resurrectionists,” “sack ‘em up men,” or simply “grave robbers,” sold stolen bodies to anatomists, hospitals and universities.
Sometimes, the medical students themselves were the grave robbers!
As you can imagine, no one wanted the body of a beloved family members snatched from its grave, and not simply because it was disrespectful. At this time, many people believed they needed their physical body intact for the second coming of Christ. Amputees might even bury their limbs so they could retrieve them on Judgment Day. The idea of donating your body to science was frightening because it might possibly rob you of a chance for eternal life.
People found the idea so distasteful that from 1785 to 1855, there were at least 17 riots by the American public in response to medical schools’ use of cadavers.
One horrific example dates to 1852, when an Ohio family discovered their daughter missing from her grave. Shortly afterwards, the father heard a rumor that the body parts of a young woman had been found in a medical school’s cesspool. As the father and his friends confronted medical students at the college in Cleveland, an angry mob gathered outside. Things escalated when the father recognized his daughter’s hand in a pile of human body parts. A riot broke out and the building was set on fire!
One way to combat grave robbers was to erect heavy metal cages over fresh graves. Called “mortsafes,” these devices first appeared in Scotland in the early 1800’s. Why Scotland? Edinburgh featured several prominent medical universities, so Resurrectionists were very active in the surrounding area.
Mortsafes were often rented by the family from either the church or the cemetery for a brief period. Medical students needed fresh corpses to dissect, so after three to six weeks, the cage would be removed and used by another grieving family. Since mortsafes were not meant to be permanent structures, very few remain standing today, even in Scotland.
It does not appear that mortsafes were used much in the USA. Instead, those who could afford it might simply hire night watchmen for the first few weeks after burial, or even enlist the help of their friends and family to hold vigil. Others used elaborate burglar-proof coffins. Some caskets were even wired to blow up if disturbed.
Another tactic for preventing grave robbery involved adding several layers of straw to the dirt during burial. This simple strategy made it difficult for shovels to get through the earth. Since grave robbers had to be speedy, it was hoped that a straw lined burial would cause them to move on.
One more defense against Resurrectionists in America was to leave the body in what’s called a “receiving vault” for several weeks. Medical students required fresh cadavers, so if you waited long enough, you would keep the body of your loved one safe.
When you visit a historic graveyard, pay attention to its storage buildings. Older buildings that now house lawn mowers and other tools may actually have once been used to store bodies. Receiving vaults had other uses than protecting against grave robbers. In winter months, they provided a place to store bodies until the ground thawed enough for burial.
The only two remaining examples of mortsafes I could find in the USA are in Catawissa, Pennsylvania. Known locally as “hooded graves,” these burial sites feature elaborate metal cages on top of them. One clue that these are mortsafes is that the cages are locked. This suggests they are meant to keep out humans, and not simply animals.
As mentioned earlier, mortsafes were not mean to be permanent structures, so it’s odd that the graves in Catawissa still have them. In fact, in this particular case, some speculate that the metal cages were placed there to keep the dead inside the graves rather than to keep the living out!
(For more about Tui’s book: click here. To see a 30-second book trailer for Understanding Cemetery Symbols: click here.)
About the Author
Snider's writing and photography have been featured by a variety of outlets, including Coast to Coast AM, LifeHack, Tarleton State University, the City of Plano, Fort Worth Star Telegram, and more.
Tui lectures frequently at libraries, conferences, and bookstores. She recently taught a series of classes based on her books at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Her bestselling books include Paranormal Texas, The Lynching of the Santa Claus Bank Robber, and Unexpected Texas.
Tui has worn a lot of hats in her life – literally – and is especially fond of berets. She enjoys connecting with writers and readers all over the globe through social media (@TuiSnider), her private newsletter, and her website: TuiSnider.com.