Getting Your Research Wrong

Victorian Grave

I have come across this meme  in several places: Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter for starters. I had a little giggle at it, at first. But every time it popped up, I could not help but wonder how many people believed the caption was correct, rather than realising it was a joke. After all, it seems quite a valid reason for the cage.

However, the cage is meant to protect the deceased and not the living. Grave robbing and body snatching were big business in the Victorian era. Grave robbing is the theft of personal items from the corpse, such as valuable jewellery. Body snatching is the theft of the actual corpse, for use in dissection and anatomy study.  Those who practised body snatching were often called resurrectionists. Supplying cadavers for dissection was such a lucrative venture that William Burke and William Hare actually started killing people to keep the supply of bodies coming for Doctor Robert Knox.

Traditionally, medical schools used the bodies of executed criminals for teaching medical students about anatomy. However, there were not enough criminals executed to keep up with the demand. Medical schools would purchase the bodies from resurrectionists, no questions asked. You might wonder at the concept of reputable academic institutions dealing in cadavers with a dodgy provenance. I am certain they knew some of their specimens were illegally obtained. There were authorities who turned a blind eye because they saw the practice as a necessity to get trainee doctors a proper anatomical education.

Some of the resurrectionists would dig at the end of the site of a recent burial, digging with a wooden spade (quieter than metal). When they reached the coffin, they would break open the coffin, put a rope around the deceased person’s neck or ankles, and drag them out of their coffin. The thieves were careful not to steal anything such as jewellery or clothes as this would cause them to be liable to a felony charge, though some did commit grave robbing as well. Because the practice of body snatching was so prevalent, families began taking precautions so that the remains of their loved ones were undisturbed. Hence the cages, also known as mortsafes, around graves, and in some cases there were watch towers and cemetery guards.

Poorer families – those who couldn’t afford a mortsafe – would keep a watch over a grave day and night for several weeks, until it was certain the body was too decayed to be of any use to the resurrectionists.

This is why research is so important. The internet can perpetuate a misunderstanding just as easily as true facts. Better to take the time to make sure of your facts.

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13 Comments

Filed under Research, writing

13 responses to “Getting Your Research Wrong

  1. Excellent post, and a great reminder why you should not take everything you find while researching as gospel (especially online).

    I didn’t know about the mortsafes. It is an interesting concept, that I assume must have been a successful deterrent against disturbing the final resting place of the recently departed.

  2. Michael Pryor

    Harry Turtledove says: ‘It’s not what you don’t know that trips you up, it’s what you *think* you know.’ Spot on.

  3. Or get it wrong on purpose, in steampunk fiction, which is an alternate history. 🙂

  4. Fascinating. I would have totally fallen for the caption. The truth is almost equally creepy.

  5. Great post. I have never seen such a cave, but am currently listening to the Librivox recording of George W.M. Reynolds’ ‘The Mysteries of London’, where the ‘Resurrection Man’ and his gang of body snatchers play a vital role. 🙂

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