27 October 2019

Nice Body You Got There



Sorry, but this article has nothing to do with 6-pack abs, working out regularly, nor plastic surgeons, although it does involve doctors. So, in the spirit of Halloween, ghouls, skeletons and the walking dead (well, these corpses do get around, even if it's not under their own power), here's the not so distant past.

At the beginning of the 19th Century (that's the early 1800's for those of you who like to convert), there was a high demand by surgeons for cadavers to dissect in order to figure out what the heck was really inside the human body and how all those systems were connected. Most of these fresh cadavers came from murderers who had been hanged.

Unfortunately, at the period of time we are concerned with, only 55 murderers took the trip to the scaffold, whereas 500 cadavers were needed to teach new surgeons how to best operate. Since good money was being paid for fresh corpses, local entrepreneurs, known as resurrectionists, soon stepped forward to fill the gap. Fresh holes began to pop up in cemeteries where the recently deceased had been buried. More on this in a minute.

SIDE NOTE: While most resurrectionists plied their trade in the church graveyard, there was one grim pair of partners who took the occupation to a new level. In Edinburgh, Scotland, William Burke and William Hare became best known for their innovation of creating their own fresh corpses via the lure and murder method. Their system for increasing inventory was quickly adopted by a group later known as the London Burkers. Poor Mister Hare, even though equally as infamous as was Mister Burke, did not get equal billing with the London Burkers. I guess that the London Burkers as a name had a better sound bite in the media than the London Hares would have had. In any case, Burke was hanged for his crimes, subsequently dissected (nice of him to have provided one last fresh cadaver on his way out), and his skeleton preserved in the Anatomical Museum at the Edinburgh Medical School. Hare, who had turned Queen's evidence, got a walk. After testifying in Burke's trial, Hare left town under duress (sticks, stones and several different angry mobs). He then disappeared into the world at large. Unless of course, a more surreptitious mob found him walking on the road to England.

Mort safes in a Scottish cemetery
We now return to the problem of fresh cadavers who couldn't seem to remain in their graves. The solution for the more affluent relatives and loved ones of the recently deceased was to have some way to guard the body from body-snatchers. This led to hired watchmen, mort safes and mort houses.

A mort safe was a contraption of various designs built over the grave to deter anyone from digging up and removing the coffin. The so-called safe was usually constructed from thick interlocking metal rods or bands in an accumulative weight so heavy as to make it too difficult  for a grave robber to get at the coffin while trying to work in quiet secrecy during the dead of night. Several examples of these mort safes still exist in some Scottish graveyards.

Udny Mort House
One example of a mort house can be found in the old kirkyard at Udny Green, Aberdeenshire, in northeast Scotland. This house was built in 1832. Its construction costs were intended to be paid for by subscription, however, not enough people signed up, as a result of which the services of the mort house could then be purchased on a body by body basis. The house itself was a circular building with a conical roof covered with slate. The outside door was made of heavy oak and the inside door was iron. Inside the building, and using the same general concept of a lazy-Susan, was a revolving, wooden floor about three feet above the ground. When someone died, their coffin constructed of 7/8ths inch fir boards would be placed on the revolving wood floor, along with any other coffins in the mort house, to set for approximately 90 days each. At the end of this time, the body was considered to have decomposed sufficiently to be safe from body-snatchers. The floor was then rotated, the proper coffin removed and the remains were interred in the appropriate church graveyard. As security for the mort house, four of the initial subscribers were designated as holders for the door keys. All four key holders were required to be present any time the doors were to be unlocked and opened.

The use of mort safes and mort houses gradually fell into disuse a few years after The Anatomy Act of 1832 when other methods of obtaining fresh cadavers, other than grave robbing or executed murderers, became legal. The Udny Mort House itself ceased business in 1836 after its last meeting of the board.

Since grave robbing as an occupation these days has taken a great decline, you can probably now rest in peace, assured that your remains are not likely to be sold at a back alley door to some cutup in the dark of night.

So, sleep well and pleasant dreams this Halloween.

Although, you might want to lock all the doors and turn on the security cameras just to be sure.

8 comments:

Lawrence Maddox said...

Ghoulish and informative, R.T.! I’m truly shocked The Resurrectionists hasn’t been snapped up as a band name. Or Mort House as a bar name. You’re sitting on a goldmine of names in this blog, R.T. A cool Halloween read.

Paul D. Marks said...

Personally, R.T., I'd like a pyramid, but then they get robbed, too.

You might also want to check out the Boris Karloff movie "The Body Snatcher," which is about this very thing.

janice law said...

I had never come across a mort safe or the mort house- interesting. How much of medical progress has depended on human and animal suffering and skulduggery!

Eve Fisher said...

I've read about Burke & Hare, and other resurrectionists, but the mort-house is a new one on me! Happy Halloween indeed!

R.T. Lawton said...

Thanks for chiming in. May you all get more treats than tricks this Halloween. Have a good one!!!

Leigh Lundin said...

Like the others, I've never head of a mort house or mort safe. How weirdly fascinating.

I think a radio play or two were based on body snatchers who weren't particular about fogging mirrors.

Happy Halloween, RT.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Just got the internet working. Storm knocked out electricity and internet.
Nice article.
Learned some new stuff again.

Anonymous said...

Clearly you haven't read all those stories about mortuaries harvesting parts from dead bodies to sell- removing bones and replacing them with metal rods to make the body look okay at viewing. We have a new brand of body snatcher out there and a different kind of black market. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-bodies-suspension/colorado-shuts-down-funeral-home-operated-by-body-parts-broker-idUSKCN1FX2W7