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Issue 99 - Defending the Departed

Scotland Magazine Issue 99
June 2018


Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Defending the Departed

Eric Bryan shares grim tales of Scotland’s mortsafes

 There was a time when mortal remains newly buried in Scottish graveyards were in danger of not resting in peace for long. This state of affairs was born out of the Scottish schools of anatomy having need of cadavers for dissection. The government controlled the supply of bodies, which were usually those of executed criminals. Since there was a continual scarcity of corpses, body snatchers could make good money by selling cadavers to the schools.

The demand for corpses for dissection in Scotland traces back to a 1505 charter granted to the Incorporation of Surgeons and Barbers in Edinburgh, which required that each candidate know the complete anatomy of a human body. In 1636, William Gordon, Mediciner of King’s College, Aberdeen, formally requested of the Privy Council that he be allowed to teach human anatomy. The Council subsequently granted Gordon two bodies per annum of executed criminals. When Alexander Monteith opened Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh, in 1697, he was granted use of the bodies of those who died in ‘the correction house’ and, in return, he provided free medical care to the poor. A few years later, in 1703, Monteith conducted his first public dissection in the anatomy theatre of Surgeon’s Hall.

Because surgeons, professors and students were using cadavers for study and to achieve advances in medicine, the Scottish authorities tended to look the other way in regards to body snatching and tried to avoid publicising such events. Some cases that the public did become aware of led to riots, burial ground battles, the destruction of property, and even murder. As the number of Scottish anatomy schools increased in the early 18th Century, so did the demand for cadavers. Remote graveyards were especially vulnerable to grave rifling, so were often targeted by body snatchers. The practice was especially repugnant to the Scots, who had a tradition of reverence for the dead. Many Scots also believed in the eventual literal resurrection of the body, for which it was supposed that the remains must be whole - that is to say, not dissected.

Wealthy families could deter grave robbers because they could afford vaults, caged graves, mausoleums and weighty stone table tombs for the interment of the bodies of their loved ones. It was the graves of the poor that were most easily violated. Poor people took to arranging flowers or pebbles on the graves of their dead in an attempt to track any disturbance to the earth. Other early attempts of dissuading body snatchers included putting layers of branches and stones into the grave and then tightly compacting the soil, which made excavation difficult.

Massive rock slabs, known as mort-stones, placed atop graves were another form of disincentive. Grave robbers, however, would dig down at the head of the grave beyond the mort-stone or tunnel in from further away in order to gain access to the coffin. All of these factors led the public to seek out other methods of grave protection, which resulted in the creation of the mortsafe.

Invented circa 1816, mortsafes were made of iron or iron and stone. Some were a combination of iron rods and plates which enclosed a coffin and were padlocked together. Tellingly, examples of such have been discovered in churchyards near all Scottish medical schools. One type of mortsafe comprised an iron plate which was placed over the coffin. Iron rods with heads were slid downward through holes in the plate and formed a fence round the coffin, then another iron plate was set upon the first, thereby covering the heads of the rods. The two plates were then padlocked together, which secured the rods in place. It required two keys to open the locks, and two caretakers were assigned one key each.

Mortsafes were deployed at a grave for about six weeks, at which point the state of decay of the remains made the cadaver of no use for dissection and, thus, safe from the body snatchers. Some churches hired out mortsafes and mortsafe societies formed that charged annual membership fees and bought mortsafes to hire out. In Glasgow, a mortsafe was lent out at the rate of a shilling per day. One type of mortsafe comprised a cage of iron bars which, when put into the grave, surrounded the coffin. A stone slab was positioned on top of the cage and the whole affair buried. After about six weeks, the mortsafe was extracted for reuse in other graves. Another kind was a heavy cast iron, coffin-shaped container that was simply placed over the coffin, buried, and then unearthed for reuse at the appropriate time. Those who could afford it could purchase a mortsafe and simply leave it buried in the grave.

An alternate method of protecting recently buried bodies was the practice of grave watching. Relatives and friends of the deceased or hired men kept watch over the grave at night. The laborious and unpleasant task of disinterring mortsafes made the prospect of nocturnal grave watching seem far simpler and more appealing. The watchers were typically groups of men, sometimes equipped with firearms. The prevalence of grave watching led to the formation of watching societies, such as one in Glasgow that had 2000 members.

Watch-houses, to accommodate the watchers, were built in many graveyards in Scotland. These were usually one-room structures with a fireplace and windows that offered clear views of the surrounding burial ground. Some ornate watch-houses were constructed in the form of small towers and had two or three storeys. One such example, in the graveyard at Banchory Ternan, has its watch room (complete with fireplace) on the second floor - the elevated position providing an advantageous lookout point. This watch-house, dated 1829, also has a bell at the top which could be rung to give warning or to call for help.

Mort-houses, which evolved from the mortsafe concept, were solidly built vaults with thick walls, no windows, and heavily reinforced iron and wood doors. Bodies were stored in mort-houses until sufficiently decomposed and of no use for dissection. The scandal of the Burke and Hare crimes (the trial began on Christmas Eve, 1828) intensified the public’s fear of body snatching, though rather than robbing bodies from graves, Burke and Hare murdered people and then sold the corpses to customers such as Edinburgh anatomist Dr Robert Knox. The furore led to the use of vaults in Scotland, which were constructed through public subscription. Many in Aberdeenshire were built partially or completely below ground, while others were above-ground types.

The 1832 Anatomy Bill required that those practising anatomy obtain a licence, which was issued by the Home Secretary. The act stipulated that a person could dissect a body, with the proviso that it was acquired lawfully and that no relation of the deceased objected. It granted surgeons, physicians and students legal access to unclaimed cadavers, especially of those who died in workhouses or prisons. A relative could also donate a corpse for study in exchange for the covering of the burial expenses, which was not a small sum even in those days and could be difficult for the poor to afford.

Inspectors working under the Home Secretary kept tabs on the anatomists, who were obliged to prepare regular reports for review. The Anatomy Bill for the most part brought an end to the illicit trade in cadavers, but the threat of the ‘resurrection men’ cast a long and sinister shadow, and it took some decades for the public’s fear of grave robbing to subside. The East Anstruther Mortsafe Society of Fife, for instance, didn’t dissolve until 1869 and Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Body Snatcher’ was published in the Pall Mall Christmas Extra in 1884. Should you wish to see one of these grim contraptions for yourself, a few examples still exist and can be found in Scottish burial grounds and kirkyards, while a few others are on display in museums. 


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