If you saw this week’s Tuesday Teaser, you know that mortsafes played a significant role in The Sinner by Amanda Stevens. I had heard of these contraptions previously, but reading this book prompted me to learn more about them.
01. Mortsafes were designed to protect graves from disturbance, particularly from body snatchers, who provided anatomy schools with fresh corpses from the early 1700’s.
02. It was necessary for medical students to learn anatomy by attending dissections of human subjects, but there was a low allowance of dead bodies allowed by the government—mostly criminals or the homeless who died with no known relatives.
03. Authorities turned a blind eye to grave robbing, as it advanced medical knowledge, and tried to keep publicity to a minimum so people would not know what was happening. Lonely country graveyards were particularly vulnerable. Grave-snatchers were paid to dig up and transport bodies—sometimes even across the sea.
04. Revelations led to public outrage, especially in Scotland, where the dead were revered, and where there was a literal belief in the Resurrection. It was believed by many that the dead could not rise in an incomplete state.
05. Knowledge of grave robbers led to finding ways of protecting one’s friends and relatives. The poor dug heather, branches, and rocks into new graves to make it more difficult to dig them up, and also set people to watch graves at night, when such activity was most likely to occur. Watch societies formed, with one in Glasgow registering 2,000 members.
06. The rich, however, could afford more extravagant measures such as vaults, table tombstones, mausoleums and iron cages around graves.
07. The mortsafe was invented around 1816, and were heavy iron or iron-and-stone cages that fit around graves.
08. Mortsafes were a complex design of heavy iron rods and plates that were padlocked together, and fit over the coffin. They could only be removed by two people with keys, and were kept in place for at least six weeks, by which time they deemed the body to be adequately decayed that it was no longer of use to medical schools.
09. Churches sometimes bought a number of mortsafes which were then rented to parishioners.
10. Similarly, watch societies would also buy several of the contraptions with membership dues, and hire them out to non-members.
11. Examples of mortsafes have been found close to all Scottish medical schools, as have watch towers used to watch graveyards for any nefarious activity.
12. Vaults—or morthouses—were built both above and partially below ground to protect the dead. A unique one in Aberdeenshire consists of a circular building with a thick studded wooden door and an inner iron door. Inside there is a turntable to accommodate seven coffins. A coffin would be moved round as further ones were added and by the time it reappeared the body would be of no use to the dissectionists.
13. There are only two known mortsafes in the United States, in Catawissa, Pennsylvania. This pair of mortsafes is more decorative than those traditionally found in Scotland and parts of Great Britain.
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