Sunday, 12 August 2012


The Anatomy Act of 1832 was intended to end illegal ‘methods’ previously employed to
procure bodies for medical research.

Physicians, surgeons and students who intended to practice anatomical examination/dissection
were required to obtain a licence from the Home Secretary which gave legal access to
unclaimed corpses – for example those who died in prison, poor or work houses or
a body being donated by their next of kin.

Prior to the Anatomy Act, the Murder Act of 1752 stipulated that only the corpses
of executed murderers could be used for dissection.

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) body-snatchers were Burke and Hare
although the case of body-snatching was never proven – they appear to have
preferred to murder their victims after realising what a lucrative trade it could be!

The theft of a body in itself was not considered a criminal offence, but this did not include
any shroud, wrapping or other ‘burial-clothing’ so this would account for stories of
grieving relatives finding an empty grave with shrouds etc., left behind.

It was during this time, the early 1800’s, Mortsafes were invented as an attempt to
prevent the recently buried from being dug up and their bodies being used for medical research.

The following photographs show just a few of the mortsafe styles used in Central Scotland.

Cadder Churchyard

Aberfeldy Churchyard

Linlithgow (St. Michael’s) Churchyard

Mainly made from iron, these devices and came in a huge variety of different designs.
Some were rods and plates which could be padlocked together, others were ‘iron-coffins’
in which the wooden coffin would be placed (until the body became sufficiently decayed
not be of any use for the anatomists/medical students)
whilst the more common took the form of an ornamental ‘cage’.

Bothwell Churchyard

Ramshorn (St. David’s) Churchyard

Ramshorn (St. David’s) Churchyard

Glasgow Cathedral  ‘Old’ Burying Ground

Glasgow Cathedral  ‘New’ Burying Ground

Cadder Churchyard

Other solutions to body-snatching included the building of secure watch-houses,
mortsafe houses or vaults in which the dead body could be stored until
it was of no use for dissection. These were guarded by relatives, gravediggers
or men paid by the mortsafe societies.

Cadder Churchyard Watch-house

Cadder Churchyard Watch-house

It should be noted that many ornamental/decorative railings were erected
and although may appear similar in style to a mortsafe, they would not
have prevented access to the lairs.

No comments:

Post a Comment