Coffin Collars & Cemetery Guns: Fortifying the Dead against Bodysnatchers

Two men placing the shrouded corpse which they have just

Great Yarmouth, England. 1827.

Thomas Vaughan, a former stonemason, rents a house near St Nicholas Church. He and several other men begin ‘resurrecting’ bodies from the local cemetery on the orders of the famous London surgeon, Sir Astley Cooper—who also happens to be the vicar’s son. Over the next two months, Vaughan and his cronies manage to steal as many as 10 bodies from the small churchyard. In order to avoid detection, they stuff the rotting corpses in cases shorter and narrower than coffins, full of sawdust, until they can be sent by stagecoach to London some 117 miles away.

Then one day, Mr George Black—a local baker—visits the cemetery and discovers the body of his recently deceased wife is missing. What follows is utter mayhem:

[T]he Church-yard became thronged with People who employed themselves in opening the different Graves of their deceased friends or relations. This extraordinary scene continued during three or four days, the result of which was, the discovery of the exhumation of a number of bodies… [1]

0Digging up the graves of one’s loved ones may seem like an extreme reaction even for the 19th century; however, incidents like the one in Great Yarmouth were far from unusual. Thirty-two years earlier, in 1795, three men were apprehended in the vicinity of Lambeth burial ground. They had been caught carrying sacks containing the remains of 5 corpses.

As news spread, a mob descended upon the cemetery demanding entrance to the burial ground. Parish officers attempted to hold the crowd at bay, but in vain. Eventually, the angry horde broke through and began frantically digging up the graves of family and friends. The Vestry records state:

Great distress and agitation of mind was manifest in every one, and some, in a kind of phrensy, ran away with the coffins of their deceased relations. [2]

0The thought of people running off with coffins may seem comical to our modern sensibilities; and yet, it does illustrate the extent to which people feared the dissection table in the past.

During the ‘Era of the Bodysnatchers,’ a human corpse did not legally constitute property, and therefore punishment for stealing one was not nearly as severe as the general populace thought it should be. In 1832, two medical students in Inversek—a village just outside Edinburgh—were caught trying to steal a body from a local churchyard. After being kept in a private house over night, they were moved to a prison at their own request because they believed it was a ‘place of greater security from the threatened vengeance of the outraged citizens.’ The next day:

…a crowd of several hundreds assembled round the gaol, provided with axes and other implements to break it open, and do execution upon the offenders, who … had been previously remitted to the sheriff. [3]

0The general population abhorred bodysnatchers and the surgeons who employed them, and went to great lengths to prevent their loved ones from ending up on the dissection table. Coffin collars, like the one seen on the left, were invented to thwart the inexhaustible efforts of the resurrection men. These was fixed around the necks of a corpse and bolted to the bottom of a coffin, making it nearly impossible to remove the body from its grave.

0Cemetery guns, as well, were designed to keep bodysnatchers at bay. These were set up at the foot of a grave, with three tripwires strung in an arc around its position. Those unfortunate enough to stumble upon one in the dead of night may find themselves in a grave of their own.

As ingenious as these devices were, they only protected the dead whose families were wealthy enough to purchase them. It is not a surprise, then, that many of the bodies that ended up in the hands of the surgeons were those of the poor. Making the jobs of the bodysnatchers even easier was the fact that many paupers were buried in pits which would remain open, sometimes for several weeks. One resurrectionist wrote:

I like to get those of poor people buried from the workhouses, because, instead of working for one subject, you may get three or four; I do not think, during the time I have been in the habit of working for the school, I got half a dozen of wealthier people. [4]

Historian Ruth Richardson points out that the depth of pits varied ‘depending on land available, soil type, and the pecuniary interests of those involved in graveyard “management.”’ [5] Some pits were as deep as twenty feet. In St Botolph’s, Aldgate, two men died at the bottom of one such pit from asphyxiation after stumbling into it in the 1830s. [6]

074 years after the apprehension of Thomas Vaughan—and 69 years after the passing of the Anatomy Act which made bodies more readily available for dissection—another scandal broke in Great Yarmouth. According to a local newspaper, the body of Frank Hyde—a middle-aged man who died in Yarmouth workhouse on 11 April 1901—had gone missing from the local cemetery. The editorial alleged that the ‘body was sent to Cambridge for dissection’ by the Master’s clerk, who made 15 shillings off the corpse and staged a fake funeral when the pauper died.

An investigation ensued, and it was discovered (much to the townspeople’s horror) that 26 paupers had succumb to a similar fate between 1880 and 1901. [7]

Yet another example of the debt medicine owes to the bodies of the poor.

 

1. Qtd in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1987), p. 84. I am greatly indebted to Richardson’s research in the creation of this article, and highly recommend her book for those interested in a more in-depth analysis of this subject.
2. Ibid., p. 78.
3. True Sun, 29-5-1832. Originally qtd in ibid., p. 85.
4.Qtd. in ibid., p. 60.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. For more on this subject, see Elizabeth T Hurren, ‘A Pauper Dead-House: The Expansion of the Cambridge Anatomical School under the late-Victorian Poor Law, 1870-1914’, Medical History 48:1 (Jan 2004), pp. 69-94.

13 comments on “Coffin Collars & Cemetery Guns: Fortifying the Dead against Bodysnatchers

  1. […] Coffin Collars & Cemetery Guns: Fortifying the Dead against Bodysnatchers […]

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  4. […] Coffin Collars & Cemetery Guns: Fortifying the Dead against Bodysnatchers […]

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  6. nightsmusic says:

    My second novel deals with body snatching so anything I find that gives me more great info is a plus and I always know I’ll get that here. I love your blog. And YAY on what you’ve raised so far! nm

  7. D Connors says:

    In the spirit of the cemetery gun–Habenstein and Lamers in their The History of American Funeral Directing (1955) speak of the coffin torpedo: “This device, made of iron, about an inch in diameter and six inches long, contained a charge of explosive and a mechanism set to go off with the tampering of any coffin which had properly been prepared. One such type of coffin torpedo was actually put on the market by the Clover Coffin Torpedo Manufacturing Company of Columbus, Ohio, and described fully in 1878 in an issue of The Casket.”

  8. Amardeep Singh Sadhra says:

    This is fantastic a great post Dr Death 🙂

  9. Hal says:

    incident = an event
    incidence = proportion

  10. Just started reading Quintessence by David Walton, which begins with the snatching of a most unusual body, so it was fascinating to read this entry. It also brought to mind some research I did into the numerous ways that people tried to avoid being buried alive–another uneasy fear about the dead.

  11. mirkinfirkin says:

    This post immediately brought to mind the part in the Pickwick Papers where Benjamin Allen and Robert Sawyer, as poor medical students, were discussing which parts of a corpse they could afford for dissection class. Even though the series was published about 4 years after the Anatomy Act, I can imagine the stir it caused – undoubtedly what Dickens intended.

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