Mortsafes: Clearing up Misconceptions About Grave Cages

 

Mortsafes at Logierait churchyard in Perthshire (Image: Judy Willson; mortsafes in Logierait church yard, Scotland)

Every so often – usually in cemeteries that date back to Victorian times and before – you’ll come across an unsettling sight: a grave protected by iron bars forming a cage, sometimes locked. Clearly, such cages are meant to protect the grave and the person buried there. But are they keeping the dead in, or something else out?

The common explanation for grave cages – more formally called mortsafes – holds that the design  harks back to an era when decent God-fearing people were terrified that the dead would rise and walk again. After all, it was a time of vampire legends, of seances, and of contacting the afterlife, when superstition and fantasy met science in one of the most intriguing periods in history.

Mortsafes in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh (Image: Kim Traynor; mortsafes in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh)

This explanation sounds logical enough, then, but there’s little truth to the story. The genuine explanation (pdf), however, is even more gristly. The Victorians and their predecessors were indeed afraid. But in this instance they didn’t fear the dead; they feared for them.

The era was also one of scientific inquiry, and doctors furthering our knowledge of human anatomy by dissecting cadavers found themselves facing a dilemma: a shortage of subjects. An increased demand for human corpses for use in scientific research inevitably led to the rise of unscrupulous body-snatchers.

Body-snatchers and grave robbers (Image: Kim Traynor)

The ghastly process of digging up a body and then re-filling the grave could be accomplished in under an hour. Often, the shroud would be left behind, due to an urban legend of the day claiming that if the clothes and shroud of the deceased were left in the grave, those that had taken their body couldn’t be brought up on charges.

Watchtower in Dalkeith Cemetery to defend against body-snatchers and grave robbers (Image: Kim Traynor; a watchtower to defend against body-snatchers in Dalkeith, Scotland)

As more and more desperate people sold bodies to unscrupulous doctors and universities in the name of science, new ways had to be developed to combat the rising scourge of body-snatchers (and grave robbers in general). Night watchmen were hired in some cemeteries, while others built guard towers staffed by volunteers. One society in Glasgow had more than 2,000 members. In the 1820s, an American journal even suggested covering graves with alternating layers of dirt and straw in a bid to make it harder to reach the body.

Mortsafe shaped like an iron coffin (Image: Kim Traynor; mortsafe shaped like an iron coffin)

Meanwhile, more affluent citizens turned to mortsafes. Invented in 1816, the iron cages were made of interlocking pieces that slid together before being padlocked. Most were temporary – removed after the body was no longer suitable for dissection – and as a result there aren’t many left. Most are in Scotland, though two examples can be found in the Mt. Zion Cemetery in Pennsylvania. The graves belong to Rebecca Clayton and Sarah Ann Boone, cousins whose unusual grave sites have become the subject of countless urban legends.

Corpse roads: explore the eerie coffin lines and other medieval burial paths that criss-cross the landscape of rural Britain.

 
 


 
 
 

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