keeping corpses safe

mortsafes in Logierait churchyard, Perthshire

Considering things from a 21st century point of view it seems obvious. Few things are as safe as a dead body. Who would want to steal a corpse?Considering things from a 21st century point of view it seems rather obvious: few things in life are as safe as a dead body. Who would want to steal a corpse?

These days probably very few people.

It is nothing really you can sell anywhere and where there is no profit there is no business.

The story of the mortsafes

Things were very different in the 18th century particularly in Scotland and the mortsafes in Logierait churchyard tell their own gruesome tale. A mortsafe is a cast iron cage to keep the dead safe. And they were very much needed in those days:

A mortsafe is a cast iron cage to keep the dead safe. And these cages were very much needed in those days:

Yesterday morning, an attempt was made in open day to rob a churchyard in the neighbourhood of London. A wretch … seeing a grave dug, and a coffin already in it, broke it open, and took out the bodies (there happening to be more than one) with which he was making off; but being seen … he was seized and committed to Bridewell.

Oxford Journal, Saturday 31 March 1759

There was a lot of money to be earned with a corpse in the 18th century. a gruesome business idea

There was a lot of money to be earned with a corpse in the 18th and 19th century.

The dissecting tables in various new colleges and private schools in England and Scotland and the growing numbers of medical students demanded more study material than available. The legal way to acquire a body was rather limited since the early days of anatomy.

Surgeons teaching in Edinburgh were allocated the body of one condemned man a year for the purposes of dissection, after a charter was granted on 1 July 1505 by the Edinburgh Town Council to the Incorporation of Surgeons and Barbers.

Suzie Lennox: Bodysnatchers: Digging up the Untold Stories of Britain’s Resurrection Men. Pen and Sword History, Barnsley, 2016; page 1

Modern medicine demanded corpses, the bodysnatchers supplied them.

criminals and relatives

The dissecting tables in various new colleges in England and Scotland and the growing numbers of students needed more study material than available. The legal way to acquire a body was rather limited since the early days of anatomy.When it started to become an illegal but very lucrative trade for some, devices were used to keep the dead safe.

The mortsafe was one of those devices because now, not only convicted criminals landed on the dissecting table, it could have been anybody: fathers, mothers, children. Those who had the money wanted their dead to be safe.

to keep the bodies safe

The heavy mortsafe would be fastened around the coffin and left partly above ground partly under until the corpse was in a state beyond any use whatsoever. That took a month or two. Then they were taken off and reused again.

The mortsafe was invented around 1816 and could be found predominantly in graveyards close to medical schools.

Logierait Churchyard displays three, two adult and one child mortsafe. A chilling reminder of the dark Victorian days when even the dead were not safe.

 

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