mortsafes in Logierait churchyard, Perthshire
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 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
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
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.
Liked the read? There’s more here…
Scotland is a country full of history, stories and secrets. Often, the three cannot be separated. That is what makes this country so wonderful and unique. The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for Erkenbach’s blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. Her main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel. This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share the author’s passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps.
The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.
Scotland for Quiet Moments is available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.