Body snatching is the act of stealing bodies from graveyards. It frequently occurred through history but reached its peak between 1780 and 1832 when several medical schools sprang up in Europe and America.
The schools needed fresh cadavers for dissection practicals but the law only permitted them to dissect the bodies of executed criminals, which was not enough to feed the numerous schools.
Medical students and teachers started raiding graveyards to steal corpses but the task was soon left to professional corpse thieves called resurrectionists, who stole corpses from graves and sold them to medical schools.
The coffin torpedo made its entry into the US anti-body snatching market in 1878.
It could be anything from modified guns that shot upwards when a coffin was opened to landmines that exploded when a grave was disturbed.
The most elaborate of these landmines came from Thomas Howell, who made an eight-pound landmine filled with three-quarter pound of black powder.
The landmine was put on top of the coffin and held in place by a metal plate and the sand above the grave.
Any attempt to dig the grave will disturb the metal plate and activate the landmine.
The landmine was very effective. Three body snatchers were killed sometimes in 1881 when one exploded in a grave they were trying to rob.
Mortsafes were caged graves where corpses were buried until they decomposed enough and became useless for dissection. Thereafter, they were transferred to a grave.
Mortsafes was made of iron, which ran across its sides and top. In some instances, a concrete slab was added to the top for extra protection.
The first mortsafe was built around 1816 and they were common in Scotland where body snatchers operated with reckless abandon.
Churches built and rented mortsafes but the price was too expensive, so people formed mortsafe societies where they contributed money to build mortsafes to hold temporarily bodies of members when they died.
8 Patent Coffins
The patent coffin was a reinforced coffin made of iron. It was unbreakable and could not be opened from outside.
It was invented by Edward Bridgman in 1818 and is prided as the first product specifically made to deter body snatchers.
The patent coffin was so popular a man called Charles Dibden wrote a poem for Bridgman whom he called the “prince of coffin makers”.
The patent coffin effectively turned body snatching, which had hitherto been the problem of both the rich and the poor, into a problem of the poor as the rich started using it to protect their dead.
7 Mort Stones
Mort stones were heavy slabs or rocks placed on top of graves to discourage body snatchers from digging the grave. They were held firmly to the ground with iron rods and were notoriously difficult to move.
Some users also set up mort stone associations (similar to those of mortsafes), which purchased mort stones and placed them atop the graves of freshly buried members
Mort stones were not very effective in their role as body snatchers sometimes bypassed the stone by digging the graves from the sides.
In fact, the presence of a mort stone on a grave was a clear indication that it contained a fresh corpse, which made it a more likely target for body snatchers.
6 Fisk Metal Coffins
The Fisk metal coffin was invented by Almond Fisk in 1848. It was officially called the Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal though users preferred calling it the Fisk Mummy because it had the shape of a wrapped mummy.
Fisk originally made the coffin to delay decomposition, so that a corpse could be transported over a long distance or to just allow the body remain overground until it was ready for burial.
The coffin was very popular among wealthy families during the US civil war. The families purchased it to transport relatives killed at the warfront to any graveyard of their choice.
At the same time, it prevented body snatchers from stealing the bodies of the dead soldiers.
The Fisk Mummy was so good the body of Confederate Colonel William Shy who was killed in action during the US civil war in 1864, remained in almost perfect condition when it was found overground in 1977.
Sheriffs even thought the body was a fresh one and treated the case as a failed attempt at concealing a murder.
5 Mort Houses
Mort houses were small, round, vault-like bungalows reinforced with solid walls, hardened doors and heavy locks, where corpses were held until they fully decomposed.
Corpses were kept in mort houses for six weeks to three months before they were transferred to a grave.
Mort houses were usually owned by graveyards or churches. One mort house that remains standing today is the Udny Church morthouse in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It was built in 1832.
Not everyone bought reinforced coffins, joined mort stone or mortsafe groups or used elaborate defenses to protect their bodies when they died. They or their relatives just went the old way and laid curses on whoever disturbed their graves.
One of such people is famous writer, Williams Shakespeare, whose gravestone carries a curse for whoever dares to move his bones.
Shakespeare did not only fear the resurrectionists, anatomy professors and their students.
He also feared the people who stole bodies for religious rituals and the agriculturists that used human corpses for fertilizer.
The habit of cursing body snatchers and grave raiders predates Shakespeare by millennia.
Archaeologists have found a 4,000 years old Egyptian tomb with a curse that anyone who disturbed it will be eaten by a snake and a crocodile.
3 Grave Watchers
Grave watchers were people employed to keep vigilante over fresh graves until the corpse inside was fully decomposed.
A grave watcher could watch over a grave for several weeks and it was very normal for several of them to be present at a graveyard at the same time.
Some graveyards even had special sheds where grave watchers could relax. Body snatchers were often determined and many still stole bodies from graves that were being watched.
That is not to say the grave watchers were incompetent.
There is an account of several grave watchers (watching over a single grave) who engaged body snatchers in a gunfight at Glasnevin graveyard, Dublin, sometimes in January 1830.
The body snatchers were defeated and one was probably killed, yet they returned the next night and launched another failed attempt to steal the corpse.
2 Remote Graves
Some people went the extra mile to ensure they were buried in remote graves, faraway from the reach of a body snatcher.
One of such people was Johnnie Turner, who was buried at the top of the 1,300 foot tall Bennan hill in Dunscore, Dumfries, UK, in 1841.
Before his death, Turner worked as horn cutlery maker, traveling from town to town to make spoons and forks from the horns of the dead animals of his clients.
In 1839, he paid for a tombstone and requested that a grave be dug on the slopes of Bennan hill with the request that he should be buried there when he died the next year.
He returned to the grave the next year and found that the youths of the nearby village had pooped in it.
Disgruntled, he ordered that another grave should be dug further up the hill and requested to be buried there when he died the following year.
Turner died the following year as he predicted and was buried in the new grave.
1 Coffin Collar
Body snatchers did not always dig a grave to steal the corpse within.
Usually, they dug a hole down the head of the grave until they found one of the small sides of the coffin, which they broke to access the head of the corpse.
Then, they tied a rope round the neck of the corpse and pulled it out before covering the hole as if nothing happened.
Coffin collars were invented to counter just this.
They were tightened round the corpse’s neck and held securely to the base of the coffin. That way, body snatchers would be unable to pull a corpse out of the grave.