Sarah Albee: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

From: Sarah Albee
October 12, 2012 at 04:10AM

Warning: This entry contains some disturbing images toward the end of the post.

There are quite a few pictures floating around the internet that show Victorian-era graves covered with iron cages set in concrete. According to these internet sources, the cages were constructed to protect the living, just in case the dead person should turn into a vampire and try to sit up and stagger away from the grave in search of victims. Here’s one example from wikimedia:

Pinterest has a zillion repins of this zombie-cage. I can’t post the actual photo here because I can’t find the original photographer to clear permission, but it’s worth a click-through so you can see I’m not kidding about the zombie explanations.

But the vampire/zombie explanation is urban legend–and a good lesson to you if you’re a kid and don’t get why your teacher says not to believe any old fact you find online. In actual fact, such bars, known as “mortsafes,” were meant not to keep the undead from getting out, but to keep grave robbers and body snatchers from getting in. Body snatching was a serious problem in England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here are a few other examples of mortsafes:

I guess you can understand why grave robbers would do what they do—a lot of wealthy people were buried with valuables, and those valuables could be sold. But why would someone want a plain, shrouded dead body?

During the heyday of bodysnatching, most of these mortsafes were found close to medical schools. Back then, nobody donated their body to science. People believed in a literal interpretation of resurrection. Your chances of entering the Kingdom of Heaven were slim to none if your body, or that of your loved one, was cut up into bits after death. So about all that was available legally to the anatomists at the medical schools were executed criminals.

But medical students needed cadavers–lots of them–to study and practice upon. So a cottage industry cropped up–people who procured freshly-dead cadavers and sold them to the medical schools.

And the medical students didn’t want any old corpses; they wanted fresh ones, that hadn’t yet decomposed (much). Not surprisingly, perhaps, some unscrupulous body procurers realized they could make even more money if they created fresh corpses themselves. Instructors at the British and American medical schools tended not to ask too many questions about where bodies came from, thereby wittingly or unwittingly sanctioning murder in order to procure enough cadavers. Alcoholics, down-and-outs, and poorhouse inhabitants, whose number may not yet have been up, began to disappear.

According to Mary Roach’s fascinating book, Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, many churches began building “dead houses,” which were locked buildings where bodies could be left to decompose until they were in such a state that they were no longer desirable for medical study. And I’ve read several accounts where poor families left dead loved ones inside their homes until the corpse was in an advanced state of decomposition, for fear of the body being snatched and sold to anatomists by unscrupulous undertakers. (And it won’t surprise you that medical dissection labs did not operate during the warm summer months. Imagine the smell.)

Governments at last changed the laws and allowed medical schools to experiment not just on executed criminals, but also upon unclaimed bodies from hospitals, poorhouses, and prisons.


Yes, these are unnerving pictures to look at, but they do drive home the sheer number of bodies needed by medical schools (and these pictures were taken a hundred years ago). I have checked off the “organ donor” box on my driver’s license. If you’re old enough to drive, I hope you’ll consider doing the same thing. Uncomfortable as it is to think about, it’s a really important way you can help advance the cause of medical knowledge.

St Edmund’s church – barred grave photo by Evelyn Simak via Wikimedia
Mortsafe, photo by Mary and Angus Hogg, via Wikimedia
Mortsafe photo by Judy Willson via Wikimedia Commons
Mortsafe photo by Martyn Gorman via Wikimedia Commons
Department of Anatomy at Cambridge University, 1888/93, with thanks to Tuesday Johnson’s Historical Indulgences site:
1900, Sky-lit anatomy lab at Rush Medical College, Wisconsin Historical Society with thanks to Tuesday Johnson’s Historical Indulgences

Posted on October 12, 2012, in Sarah Albee and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Sarah Albee: Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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