April 5, 2017

Coffin Torpedos

Victorian ‘Coffin Torpedoes’ Blasted Would-Be Body Snatchers

Keeping the dead buried was a matter of grave concern in 19th-century America. As medical schools proliferated after the Civil War, the field grew increasingly tied to the study of anatomy and practice of dissection. Professors needed bodies for young doctors to carve into and the pool of legally available corpses—executed criminals and body donors—was miniscule. Enter freelance body snatchers, dispatched to do the digging. By the late 1800s, the illicit body trade was flourishing, and salacious accounts of grave robberies peppered local papers across the country.

 Grave Robbers Tewksbury---

On the night of January 17, 1881, a would-be body snatcher by the name of Dipper was killed by a blast in a Mount Vernon, Ohio cemetery. The attempted grave-robbery was a three-man operation, according to the Stark County Democrat. The explosion broke the leg of the second thief. The third—tasked with keeping watch—was allegedly left unscathed and hoisted his wounded friend into a sleigh.

Another win for the coffin torpedo. ......Philip. K Clover, a Columbus, Ohio artist, patented an early coffin torpedo in 1878. Clover’s instrument functioned like a small shotgun secured inside the coffin lid in order to “prevent the unauthorized resurrection of dead bodies,” as the inventor put it. If someone tried to remove a buried body, the torpedo would fire out a lethal blast of lead balls when the lid was pried open.

Fortunately, technology and not explosives proved to end the practice of grave-robbing.

By the early 20th century, the controversy around resurrection men and the body trade had died down considerably—though not due to “grave ghouls” going out with a bang. Anatomy laws gave medical schools access to bodies of the poor in most states by 1913, curbing the black market for cadavers. Improved refrigeration technology also allowed corpses to be stored and preserved in medical institutions, so there was less of a premium on the newly deceased.
Posted by Jill Fallon at April 5, 2017 12:44 PM | Permalink