An explanation…

We’re all guilty of it at some point I guess. Talking about our favourite subject and presuming that the person you’re talking to knows exactly what you’re on about. I found myself in this situation recently, so I thought I’d share a few bodysnatching references with you, this time, concentrating on the preventative methods used by parishioners to ensure they weren’t the ones who ended up on the dissecting room table.

Lets begin simply. Perhaps the most basic of deterrents was to mix either straw or stones in with the soil when refilling a grave in an attempt to make the bodysnatcher dig elsewhere. That’s it, I said it was simple. Hannah Heesom‘s father tried this in 1828, but to no avail.

Eckford watch-tower

An equally simple method was ‘the watch’ who could be employed to do just that, watch over the graveyard.  Small groups of men could be employed  to keep watch over the recently interred. The watch may have been relatives of the deceased, the gravedigger carrying out extra duties or hired men, paid by the parish to keep a look out for the lowest criminals in society, the bodysnatcher.

The men employed would perhaps keep a closer watch if they were also kept warm and dry during their vigil.In some parishes we find watch-houses or more elaborate watch-towers located in the corner of graveyards with windows facing out over the graves. From tiny towers in Eckford to grander affairs like the watch-tower in the border town of Peebles,  the shelter provided by these buildings would have been very welcome indeed.

Unknown source

A little more money given to the parish burial club may provide you with the use of a mortsafe. An iron structure that would have been lowered over the coffin during burial. Due to its weight, special tackle was required to lift it into place – you just needed to remember not to store this where a bodysnatcher could find it!

William Inglis, Surgeon 1792

Those in the upper levels of society, or surgeons terrified of being dissected themselves, may have gone to the extreme of a caged lair. An impenetrable fortress.

An alternative to a mortsafe would be a mortstone. A heavy slab that would have been put into the grave whilst if was being refilled, or placed on top of the grave once all the soil had been replaced.

The more macabre devises can be found in the coffin collar; the iron bar was literally clasped around your neck and the wood subsequently nailed to the base of the coffin. The trip gun or cemetery gun; one false move and the resurrectionist standing over the freshly dug grave would be peppered with lead shot, and probably ending up on the dissecting table himself!

Coffin Collar

Not to be forgotten, are the variety of coffins that had been tinkered with and marketed to a terrified public. The most widely known is the iron coffin (the name says it all really), once in this contraption, there was no way you were coming out. However, you had to be buried first, and this was not something every vicar was keen on – iron doesn’t rot like wood, and our graveyards were filling up fast.


If none of the above were of interest, you could persuade the sexton to perhaps dig the grave a little deeper, or try to drum up enthusiasm for the church to build a higher wall around its perimeter. The wall around Belford church in Northumberland has certainly been altered. This, as well as having a watch-house located in the graveyard, hopefully ensured that no more surgeons and their apprentices would visit as they had done in 1792. Likewise, the sexton in Anderston kirkyard dug a grave so deep that he had to be rescued after the sides collapsed in on him!

Finally, I leave you with one father’s homemade method of ensuring the body of his recently buried son did not fall foul of the anatomists knife. In 1823, a child was buried in a Dundee churchyard. Attached to the coffin however, was a small box containing gun powder. The father had set a series of wires running from the box to the coffin lid. As soon as the coffin lid was tampered with …

4 thoughts on “An explanation…

  • wow, we didn't know people went to such great lengths to prevent being victims of body snatchers. Thanks for the fascinating blog post. We love reading your tweets about the places you visit. We've learned so much!


  • There are some new-to-me methods. What really cracked me up was your segues into the methods…If I had a nickel for every time I killed a party conversation by sharing to much of my hobby or interest assuming that everyone was not only knowledgeable but interested as well…..

    There was the time, at a Frank Lloyd Wright house fundraiser, when I described, in a bit too much detail, the murder of Wright's live-in girlfriend and her children with an ax. The table was dead quiet for a few beats before I realized the silence was my fault. LOL.


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