Sunday, 26 April 2015

Mort Safes, Mort Houses and Watch Towers

Mum was a nurse in Edinburgh before emigrating to Canada. I grew up listening to stories of body snatchers, anatomists and the most infamous, Burke and Hare. As such, I find the signs of this rich past in Edinburgh's cemeteries to be quite fascinating. And, perhaps, oddly comforting, in that mum wasn't just making it all up to terrify the hell out of me.

The Anatomy Act granted permission to the anatomy department of the University of Edinburgh's Medical School to be allowed to use the bodies of criminals who had been hanged or otherwise executed for the purposes of learning about anatomy. It also allowed for the homeless who had no one claim their bodies, and who then became the property of the Council, to be given over to the anatomy department.

To prevent their loved ones from being disinterred, family members of the poorer of the city's populace would take turns sitting vigil at the graveside of their dearly departed for three to five days, thinking that after this length of time, the bodies would be of no value to the grave-robbers.

The more well-heeled would pay for mortsafes to keep their loved ones safely in the ground. These two are at Greyfriar's Cemetery in Edinburgh's Old Town:

Some cemeteries such as St Cuthbert's and New Calton have watch towers, where someone would sit guard through the night, which is when the bodysnatchers would be busy plying their trade. 

Another oddity in some of the older cemeteries in Scotland are Mort Houses. These buildings housed bodies when the ground was frozen until such a time as the grounds could be worked and the graves dug. 

1 comment:

  1. George Lyon in Richmond, Ontario, Hamnet K. Pinhey at Pinhey's Point, and some of the Meriks at Merickville were buried in box tombs which appeared to have the coffin in a stone box above ground although the body was actually six feet under. This type of tomb was often used in the southern parts of the U.S. to deter body snatchers. However in and around Carleton County, Ontario it appears to have been used in the mid 1800s as a status symbol to signify that the person was affluent and influential in the community.