As science shifted from the “exact sciences” pushed forward by the church and based not on observation but on theological premise toward “empirical sciences” focused on observation, experimentation, and challenge, new problems arose. Throughout antiquity, doctors need not sully themselves with knowing the form and structure of the body, they delt in elegant theories like the “Balance of Humors” which prescribed treatments irrespective of the patient’s real disorders. In the late 18th and early 19th Century, however, the study of anatomy, specifically human anatomy, took on a new urgency. There was just one problem. Where do you get subjects for the necessary dissections? Medical schools needing dissection material acquired corpses the best way they could—by sending janitors, students, and medical doctors out to rob fresh graves. This brought some enterprising gentlemen into the market who were happy to deliver corpses to doctors under cover of darkness and no questions asked.
They were called body snatchers and grave robbers, but those are such ugly words. So, the euphemistic title of “resurrectionists” was used for these entrepreneurs. Of course, their occupation had nothing to do with resurrection in the Biblical sense; but the moniker stuck. The practice, of course, was illegal.
The ghoulish trade was not considered a big offence to social norms and those caught doing it were subjected to fines or a short prison sentence. Medical schools paid good money for a fresh corpse so any penalty inflicted by the law was simply a cost of doing business. The tariff for a good-quality stiff was between seven and ten pounds, roughly worth between $700 and $1,000 in today’s money.
Typically, the robbers dug a shaft next to the grave at the head end. When they got to the coffin, they pried off the end and pulled the body out. They then back-filled the excavation so it was difficult to tell that anything untoward had happened.
People, of course, didn’t want THEIR dearly departed disturbed so some enterprising inventors took to enforcing the laws against body snatching with more malice – one might even say “extreme malice”. An arsenal of grave-protecting devices began to hit the market, including the “cemetery gun.” Locked, loaded and located near the foot of a grave, this device was essentially a conventional firearm on a swiveling based. Triggered by tripwires, it would spin and shoot would-be robbers approaching under cover of darkness. Since the problem was mainly limited to fresher corpses, families or friends could rent these weapons for a period after burial and then return them.
Of course, these gadgets had their limitations — being above ground, they could be spotted and avoided or disabled. Thus, the “coffin torpedo” was born, initial versions of which were essentially small shotguns aimed upward and triggered by the opening of a lid. It’s unclear how successful or widespread these various weapons really were, though some did manage to maim or kill would-be thieves.
Other less-lethal options were available too, like “mortsafes.” Coffins were set inside of these, at least long enough for decomposition to set in to foil medical-oriented thieves (also useful for those wary of vampires and zombies). Meanwhile, a number of factors together made this defensive arsenal obsolete. New laws helped make more bodies available to the medical community and some states also passed laws prohibiting the burial of valuables with loved ones, addressing another common motivation for grave robbery.
So, all you little ghouls and goblins out there tonight, be very careful in the cemetery! The graves might just be armed!