Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Trying to stop the body snatchers with a mortsafe.

Mortsafes in Logierait kirkyard
Mortsafes in Logierait kirkyard
© Copyright Dr Richard Murray contributor to the Geograph Project and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

A look at the attempts to prevent the resurrection men taking away dead bodies.

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.

This grim invention became necessary in the early 19th-century, especially in Scotland when the medical profession's need for bodies with which to teach anatomy in medical schools created a market in dead bodies. A good profit was to be had by those unscrupulous enough to resort to digging up the graves of the recently deceased. These men, known as body snatchers or resurrection men, visited graveyards by night seeking out the recently buried.

The theft of the body was not a criminal offence. It was, however, theft if they took the shroud in which the body was wrapped or any other grave clothing. Often relatives of the deceased would discover an empty grave with the shroud or cloths scattered nearby.

In an attempt to protect the grave of the recently deceased, the rich would buy iron coffins in which to bury their dead, or graves would have iron frames or large stones placed over them, sometimes cemented into place. These were extremely heavy and difficult to move. Often a block and tackle would be required to lift them.

The fear of body snatching drove people to form mortsafe societies and they would club together to purchase a mortsafe which would be placed over the grave until the body had decomposed enough not be of any use for the anatomists. The mortsafe could then be reused by another person.

burke and hare portraits
Burke and Hare: infamous body snatchers - but there were others.
Image from a 1884 book 'The history of Burke and Hare and of the resurrectionist times'
Image courtesy of Internet Archive on Flickr NKCR

Other solutions included the building of secure watch-houses, or mortsafe house or vaults, which stored the dead body until it was of no use for dissection. They were guarded by the relatives, the gravediggers, or men paid by the mortsafe society.

It was not until the Anatomy Act 1832 which set out where surgeons could legally obtain cadavers that body snatching stopped and mortsafes were no longer required.

For an example of a case of body stealing in Essex see our article: Body snatching in Little Leighs.

More images of mortsafes on and the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

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