Grave Guns, Coffin Torpedos and Other Methods of Protecting Your Bones From Thieves

Nosferatu, the first movie vampire! via FICG on flickr

Nosferatu, the first movie vampire! via FICG on flickr

Grave robbing isn’t always about stealing artifacts or grave goods, nor is it just a thing of the past. A couple weeks ago, police discovered that the crypt of F.W. Murnau was being used for occult ceremonies. Wax drippings confirmed that the crypt was being used by the living, and the cemetery caretaker confirmed that it had been broken into a number of times over the past few decades. Breaking and entering wasn’t the only crime- police soon discovered that the skull of F.W. Murnau, as well as a number of other skeletal elements, had been taken. Why F.W. Murnau? He was the legendary German artist who created “Nosferatu”, the first vampire film and horror movie that has set the template for many films today. The skull hasn’t been recovered, and no one knows exactly why these individuals selected Murnau as their target. This isn’t the only story of bones of the famous being taken as trophies, relics or memoirs. Bess Lovejoy’s Rest in Pieces contains dozens of stories of missing heads and other body parts taken from the famous dead, demonstrating that what happened to Murnau isn’t all that unusual (Check out the book here).

What can you do to protect your mortal remains? How can you prevent your own skull from becoming part of an occult ceremony? Well, lucky for you I have a couple great solutions.

1. Get a Grave Gun

During the 16th through 19th centuries in Europe, grave robbing was a major issue as medical schools and doctors clamored for more corpses to practice dissection on. One of the responses of this was the creation of cemetery guns. These are a type of gun known as a set-gun, which is mounted to a fence and fires when a wire is tripped. It was an easy solution for keeping out wild animals or grave robbers. A gun was loaded and primed, planted securely in the desired area, a wire was run along the space where the intruder might enter, and when they tripped over the wire the gun would fire. These guns were often mounted to blocks of wood so that they could be easily placed anywhere in the cemetery. Mourners and visitors to the cemeteries were well aware of these guns and wires, which were often disabled during the day. However, clever cemetery watchmen would move the guns at dusk to varying locations so that potential grave robbers would know where they were placed. If you’d like to see what they looked like, check out this example at the The Museum of Mourning Art at Arlington Cemetery.

2. Get a Coffin Torpedo

Coffin Gun patent by Clover, via Chris Eger

Coffin Gun patent by Clover, via Chris Eger

If you don’t want to leave the protection of your body up to the cemetery, there are more personalized ways to protect your specific grave site. The coffin torpedo was developed by Philip K. Clover of Columbus, Ohio in 1878 to “prevent the unauthorized resurrection of dead bodies.” The device was like a shotgun that was placed on the inside of the coffin. If a grave robber lifted the lid, the torpedo would fire several lead balls at the intruder. A similar device was developed by Judge Thomas N. Howell of Circleville, Ohio (grave robbing must have been a real problem in Ohio during the 19th century) in 1881. This weapon is more like a land mine than a gun.  The weapon was buried on top of the coffin, with a metal plate protecting the body of the deceased. If the metal plate was disturbed, the device would be triggered and explode, injuring the intruder. The advertisement for the weapon stated: “sleep well sweet angel, let no fears of ghouls disturb thy rest, for above thy shrouded form lies a torpedo, ready to make minced meat of anyone who attempts to convey you to the pickling vat.”

3. Buy a Mortsafe

Maybe you want to protect your body without actually killing or maiming anyone in the process… you could always get a mortsafe. The mortsafe is a large iron grate that was placed over the grave to prevent thieves from digging up the coffin. The cage is partially buried within the grave and surrounds the entire coffin. After a suitable amount of time, allowing for decomposition, the mortsafe was removed. Another version lacks the grating and is made completely of iron plates. Most found are simple single coffin shaped grates. Although some of the mortsafes seen throughout Scotland are quite elaborate with the ability to hold multiple coffins. One model in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard holds three spaces for coffins, has a complex padlock system with interlocking bars, and can only be opened when two locks with different keys (often given to two separate church members) are released. The family could either purchase a mortsafe or they could rent them from the church or cemetery. While they were extremely effective in preventing disturbance of graves, they were a hassle to put in and remove. They were popular in the 19th century throughout Great Britain and Europe, and because they were a hassle to remove, many still remain in place! (For more on the Mortsafe, click here)

7 responses to “Grave Guns, Coffin Torpedos and Other Methods of Protecting Your Bones From Thieves

  1. I’d like to have my body set up to catapult out of my coffin at someone if they tried to open it. The only downside is, I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t get to see the look on their faces as they crapped themselves and ran screaming from the cemetery. .

  2. Greyfriars is a must for any reader of this blog who visits Edinburgh.Lots of some really fascinating grave architecture here. Then grab a pint in the Greyfriars Bobby pub

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  5. So grateful to you, Katy, for all your insights and research which have become a good resource for some novels I’m writing about a former mortuary archaeologist…will be acknowledging you of course…more later. Thank you.

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