Protecting the Dead – The Story of the Iron Mortsafe.

There wasn’t a blueprint for them and there certainly wasn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to them. While coffins were made by the local carpenter, mortsafes were the domain of the local blacksmith. He didn’t have a prototype to follow, he had probably never even seen one in which copy, but he knew what he had to do .

The mortsafe over the grave of Maria Macaulay 1849 – Glasgow Cathedral

The purpose of these things was obvious from the start. Thwart the advances of the resurrection men and put them off digging before they’ve even started. Because of this, a number of different designs emerged, all with their unique story to tell. 

The mortsafes that we see today are two types, those commissioned by individuals and the parish mortsafe, hired out to subscribers for a number of weeks until the corpse of your relative was no longer an attractive proposition for the surgeons. The designs which grace the graves of the more eminent members of society were certainly more elaborate as the example above in Glasgow Cathedral shows (although note the late date) and it is often these that we think about when we think of this type of bodysnatching prevention. 

A 'How To' guide ...
A ‘double mortsafe’  from the infamous Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

There are a number of mortsafes in situ that look like mini caged lairs, those pictured above and the more elaborate examples at Logierait, which since discovery have now been set in cement into their current position. 

Logierait, Perth & Kinross.

Other mortsafes comprised of two halves which would have fitted around the coffin and bolted together. There are superb examples of these mortsafes dotted around Scotland, the finest examples being in Ayr Kirkard, in the old ruined church at Auld Alloway Kirkyard in Ayrshire and in Bolton, East Lothian. 

The Ayr mortsafe, which I use in my logo, is one of the finest examples of a mortsafe of this type and dates from 1816. It has been painted to within an inch of it’s life in an attempt to preserve it and to show off all its finery. Hanging proudly in the lych gate of Ayr church this is a grim reminder that the resurrection men regularly visited the kirkyard. 

Still visible are the holes in which iron rods would have been threaded to clasp the two halves together.

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Lower half tof Ayr Mortsafe showing fixing holes.

Many people will have visited the kirkyard at Alloway but not I Suspect to see the mortsafe. Alloway Auld Kirk is where the father of Robert Burns is buried and while this may be a lure for some, I have to hold my hand up and say that I ALWAYS head for the bodysnatching ephemera first – headstones later.

Auld Alloway mortsafes

But perhaps the finest of all mortsafes to have survived is one which hangs in the church porch in Bolton, East Lothian. Complete with iron rods and specially designed nuts we can see first hand how the mortsafe worked. 

Special spanners were made to fit these nuts exactly, adding yet another level of security to the devise. In all, 30 rods were driven in to the ground after the mortsafe was placed on top of the coffin after burial. The rods covering the side of the coffin to prevent access, although in reality, once the bodysnatchers saw a mortsafe in situ, they would have looked elsewhere for their prey. Only two of the three spanners have survived, each one having been specially made to fit the nuts you see in the pictures. 

All this hammering of bolts into the ground around the coffin is one thing, but how did they go about placing one of the more lair like designs of mortsafe in place.  For the larger deterrents like the unusual upside down mortsafe at Luss, mortsafe tackle was used with a team of men maneuvering the iron frame over the coffin once it was in situ. This example shown here is from Inverurie and used to be kept under 24hr surveillance in the local bakers.

L0012145EA Mortsafe tackle at Invererie, Aberdeenshire.
Inverurie Mortsafe Tackle courtesy of Wellcome Images

I also stumbled across this excellent sketch on the internet showing how a mortsafe would be placed into position. Unfortunately I have been unable to find out a source for it and I would be grateful for any information anyone may have to point me in the right direction. Mortsafe Tackle

Not every parish had a mortsafe. The battle to beat the bodysnatcher was tackled differently even by neighbouring parishes – one would have a mortsafe whilst the other a more simple affair such as high walls. 

The examples I’ve chosen to show you here are just a snippet of what remains. There are simpler mortsafes that I have yet to visit that consist of just three iron bars which would have clamped around the coffin until decomposition of the inhabitant had set in. These type of mortsafes were for the poorer or perhaps smaller parishes where there would be fewer parishioners to contribute to the subscription fund. 

But for now, I leave you with the more elaborate designs of mortsafe. The examples that proudly grace the lych gates and porches of the nations churches, visiting the more rudimentary and not so well preserved examples next time.