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The Mortsafe: An 18th century invention, designed to protect graves from body snatchers

David Goran

In 18th century Scotland, there was a high demand for human cadavers for medical students to use in their studies. Fresh bodies were of great value to the university medical schools but, in those times, people were not as keen to donate their bodies to science and the supply of bodies for dissection was limited; usually, the bodies of executed criminals were used, donated by the Government. However, even those were often hard to obtain because of public revulsion against the practice.

Mort-safe, to prevent body-snatching. Photo Credit

Mort-safe, to prevent body-snatching. Photo Credit

 

Mortsafe in Skene churchyard, Aberdeenshire. Photo Credit

Mortsafe in Skene churchyard, Aberdeenshire. Photo Credit

Because medical schools could only dissect the bodies of executed criminals, the theft of dead bodies in England was a common occurrence in the early 19th century. Grave robbers used to dig up newly buried bodies and sell them to the schools.

Mortsafe at Oyne, Aberdeenshire. Photo Credit

Mortsafe at Oyne, Aberdeenshire. Photo Credit

 

Mort-Safe In Alloway Auld Kirk In the early 19th century. Photo Credit

Mort-Safe In Alloway Auld Kirk In the early 19th century. Photo Credit

Many people were determined to protect the graves of newly deceased friends and relatives. A Mortsafe, or Mort Safe, was an iron coffin or framework which protected a grave to prevent the body from being dug up and taken away for medical research. They came in a number of different designs, but the one thing that they had in common was their weight, which would make exhumation of the recently deceased impossible.

There were many types of these mortsafes, ranging from iron cages to heavy stone table tombstones or concrete boxes. Photo Credit

There were many types of these mortsafes, ranging from iron cages to heavy stone table tombstones or concrete boxes. Photo Credit

 

One of two Mortsafes at St Mary's Chapel, Old Kinnernie. Photo Credit

One of two Mortsafes at St Mary’s Chapel, Old Kinnernie. Photo Credit

A plate was placed over the coffin and rods with heads were pushed through holes in it. Then, another plate (either stone or iron) was placed over the first to form extremely heavy protection. This heavy iron frame was buried with the coffin and then removed when the body had decayed enough to be of no value. Mort-safes could be used over again and again.

Mortsafes at a church yard in Logierait, Perthshire, Scotland. Photo Credit

Mortsafes at a church yard in Logierait, Perthshire, Scotland. Photo Credit

 

Mortsafes in Logierait kirkyard. Photo Credit

Mortsafes in Logierait kirkyard. Photo Credit

Mortsafes now can mainly be found lying in churchyards and burial grounds, some are very broken and rusting away. One model in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard holds three spaces for coffins, has a complex padlock system with interlocking bars, and can only be opened when two locks with different keys (often given to two separate church members) are unlocked.

The Mortsafes in Cluny kirkyard date to the early 1800s and consist of a large granite slab with an iron cage.

Mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh. Photo Credit

Mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh. Photo Credit

 

Mortsafes in Cluny graveyard, Aberdeenshire. Photo Credit

Mortsafes in Cluny graveyard, Aberdeenshire. Photo Credit

Mortsafes in Cluny kirkyard. Photo Credit

Mortsafes in Cluny kirkyard. Photo Credit

The age of the mortsafe came and went within a couple of decades. The Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed and surgeons could legally obtain cadavers.

Here is another wacko story from our vault:Stealing Little Tramp: body-snatchers once held Charlie Chaplin’s body for ransom

This effectively ended the trade in body snatching. Mortsafes were no longer required and most of them were recycled or put to other uses. The few remaining mortsafes reveal just how real the threat once was.