Were Cages Placed Over Graves in Victorian Times to Trap the Undead?
Circulating message that features an image depicting a grave covered by a sturdy iron cage claims that the cages were used in Victorian times to keep vampires and zombies from escaping should they rise from the dead.
Image courtesy: Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons
The claim in the message is fanciful nonsense. In fact, the cages were used to stop grave robbers from stealing corpses for use by medical students and anatomists. The cages - known as mortsafes - were regularly used in Scotland in the early 19th century.
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This is a grave from the Victorian age when a fear of zombies and vampires was prevalent. The cage was intended to trap the undead just in case the corpse reanimated.
This message, which features an image of a grave entirely covered by a heavy iron cage, circulates via blogs, forums and social media posts. According to the message, the cages were used in Victorian times as a means of keeping the "undead" from escaping their graves should the corpses reanimate. Supposedly, people of that era had a widespread fear of zombies and vampires.
However, while the image itself is genuine, the explanation in the message is utter nonsense. In fact, the cages - known as mortsafes - were used to protect newly interred bodies from being stolen by body snatches. In the 18th and early 19th century, an increasing need for fresh corpses by medical schools fueled a burgeoning trade in bodies. Anatomists and medical students needed a constant supply of fresh bodies to practice on. Legitimate supplies of bodies, such as those of executed criminals, could not keep up with the demand. Enterprising people known as resurrectionists would thus dig up the bodies of the recently interred to supply this market. Because a supply of bodies were seen as vital to the advancement of medical science, authorities tended to turn a blind eye to the activities of the grave robbers. Bodies and body parts became a commodity.
Concerned family and friends of
people who had died began to take measures to protect the graves of their loved ones. Mortsafes, invented around 1816, were one such measure. Mortsafes were mainly used in Scotland. The steel cages came in a variety of designs and were intended to make it difficult for grave robbers to get to the bodies. The mortsafes were often left on graves for a few weeks until the bodies they protected were sufficiently decayed so that they were no longer of interest to resurrectionists.
The Anatomy Act of 1832 in the United Kingdom meant that bodies could be more easily procured for medical dissection, although the stealing of corpses still continued for some years after.
Thus, as is often the case, it seems that some prankster has simply invented
a fanciful tale to fit an interesting image. Ironically, as is also often the case, the real story is actually a lot more interesting than the made up one.
Last updated: April 23, 2015
First published: May 9, 2013
By Brett M. Christensen