Old Ways

Guardians of the Grave: Mort Safes of 19th Century Britain

Mort safes were a remarkable yet somewhat macabre invention of the 19th century in Britain, designed primarily to thwart the efforts of body-snatchers who sought to exhume freshly buried corpses for sale to medical schools.

This practice, commonly referred to as body-snatching or resurrectionism, became prevalent due to the growing demand for cadavers for anatomical study and medical research, a demand that traditional legal channels of the time could not satisfy.

The Anatomy Act of 1832 eventually curtailed the activities of the body-snatchers by providing legal avenues for medical schools to obtain cadavers, but before this, the fear of grave-robbing was palpable among the populace.

It led to various preventative measures, the most durable of which was the mort safe, an iron cage or framework placed over a grave.


The Emergence of Mort Safes

During the early to mid-19th century, the United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular, encountered severe challenges related to grave-robbing, commonly referred to as body-snatching. This disturbing practice was primarily driven by the acute shortage of legally obtainable cadavers necessary for medical research and education.

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As medical schools, particularly in Edinburgh, flourished and became leading centres of anatomical study, the demand for human bodies for dissection sharply increased. However, legal constraints of the era limited the source of these bodies strictly to those of executed criminals, a supply insufficient to meet the growing needs of these institutions.

Resurrectionists (1847), by Hablot Knight Browne. This illustration accompanies an account of John Holmes and Peter Williams who, for unearthing cadavers in 1777, were publicly whipped from Holborn to St Giles.

This dire shortage gave rise to a grim profession: the resurrectionists. These individuals specialised in exhuming bodies from graves to sell them to medical schools. Intriguingly, while the theft of personal effects from a grave was considered a prosecutable offence, the exhumation and sale of the corpses themselves occupied a legal grey area.


The law at the time did not recognise the deceased as possessing ownership rights, rendering the body technically ‘ownerless’ and thus not subject to traditional theft laws. This loophole, coupled with the substantial sums offered for fresh corpses, rendered body-snatching a highly profitable, though widely abhorred, undertaking.

Body snatching and Mort safes
Two men placing the shrouded corpse which they have just disinterred into a sack while Death, as a nightwatchman holding a lantern, grabs one of the grave-robbers from behind. Coloured drawing by T. Rowlandson, 1775.

The legal ambiguity and the lucrative nature of the trade resulted in a clandestine yet booming market for human remains. This market not only fulfilled the needs of medical faculties but also perpetuated a cycle of crime and public outrage.

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The societal impact was profound, with widespread fear and revulsion at the thought of loved ones being disturbed in their eternal rest. This fear was palpable across all strata of society, manifesting in various protective measures undertaken by communities to safeguard the remains of the deceased.


People were resolute in their efforts to protect the graves of newly deceased friends and relatives. The rich could afford substantial table tombstones, vaults, mausoleums, and iron cages around graves. In contrast, the less wealthy began to lay flowers and pebbles on graves to detect any disturbances.

Mort safes
Protected Graves to prevent Grave Robbers, Warden, Northumberland

They also embedded heather and branches into the soil to make disinterment more challenging. Large stones, often coffin-shaped and sometimes donated by a wealthy individual to the parish, were placed over new graves.

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Friends and relatives would take turns or employ men to guard graves throughout the night. Watch-houses were occasionally built to provide shelter for these watchers. One notable watch-house in Edinburgh is a three-storey castellated building complete with windows.

Watchtower built in Dalkeith town cemetery, near Edinburgh, in 1827

Watching societies were frequently established in towns, with one in Glasgow boasting 2,000 members. Many kirk session houses served as posts for watchers, yet graves were still sometimes violated.

Design and Construction of Mort Safes

The design and construction of mort safes during the 19th century in Britain represented a combination of skilled craftsmanship and community-driven innovation, born out of a pressing need to safeguard the deceased.

The primary material used in the construction of these protective devices was iron, chosen for its strength and resilience against the elements, ensuring the integrity of the graves they guarded.

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Local blacksmiths played a very important role in the production of mort safes, often finding themselves engaged in a lucrative, though sombre, market niche. These craftsmen were tasked with the challenge of creating robust protective measures that could withstand tampering and forced entry.

Mort safes
Iron coffin mortsafe in Colinton, once a village outside Edinburgh

The lack of standardisation in the design of mort safes meant that each unit could be tailor-made to suit the specific dimensions and security needs of individual gravesites. This bespoke approach allowed for adaptations in size, shape, and complexity, which could range from simple iron grids to elaborate enclosures featuring multiple layers of iron bars and complex locking mechanisms.

Padlocked Mort Safes

The detailed work involved in crafting these devices often included the forging of thick iron plates and rods, assembled into a cage-like structure. Some designs incorporated padlocked panels and additional reinforcing bars to enhance security, each feature meticulously wrought to ensure that the safe was impervious to the tools and methods commonly employed by body snatchers.

Mort safes
A Mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard
The strong iron cage was designed to deter 19th century grave-robbers who sold corpses to the city’s medical school. There’s another of a different design nearby.

This attention to detail not only deterred grave robbers but also provided peace of mind to the bereaved families, who were deeply concerned about the posthumous dignity of their loved ones.

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Despite their sturdy construction, mort safes were never intended to be permanent fixtures on the graves they protected. They were typically rented from parochial authorities or cemetery management.

Mort safes
A ‘mort safe’ in Tough Kirkyard

The rental period for a mort safe was usually between six weeks and two months, a duration considered sufficient for a body to decompose to a point where it would no longer be of value to those seeking to illegally exhume it for medical study.

Once the deemed period had elapsed, the mort safe would be carefully removed and prepared for reuse, highlighting the functional and reusable nature of these structures. This system not only made economic sense but also allowed for the widespread use of mort safes, ensuring that even those of limited means could afford some level of protection against the resurrectionists.

Burke and Hare murders

William Burke (left) and William Hare (right), pictured at Burke’s trial

The Burke and Hare murders, a series of crimes that unfolded in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, represent one of the most notorious episodes in the history of British crime. The grim saga involved William Burke and William Hare, two men who became infamous not merely as body snatchers, but as murderers who killed to supply cadavers for anatomical dissection.


The backdrop of these murders was Edinburgh’s position as a leading centre for medical education during the early 19th century. The city’s medical schools required a steady supply of bodies for dissection, yet legal avenues to acquire such bodies were severely restricted, primarily limited to those of executed criminals. This scarcity led to the gruesome trade of resurrectionism, where freshly buried bodies were exhumed and sold to anatomists.

The Partners in Crime

William Burke and William Hare were two Irish immigrants living in Edinburgh. Their criminal enterprise began somewhat by chance. Hare ran a lodging house, and when one of his tenants died owing rent, Hare, along with Burke, decided to sell the body to an anatomist, Dr. Robert Knox, to recoup the lost income. Discovering that fresh corpses fetched a high price, they embarked on a murder spree to maintain their lucrative new source of income.

The Modus Operandi

Burke and Hare developed a chilling method of killing that minimized damage to the body, thus preserving its value. Their method, later known as “burking,” involved pinning the victim down and suffocating them by covering the mouth and nose while applying pressure to the chest. This method left no visible marks, making the bodies appear unharmed and suitable for medical study.

The Murders

Over the course of about ten months, Burke and Hare killed at least 16 people, including men, women, and children. The victims were often lured to Hare’s lodging house with the promise of alcohol and shelter, only to be murdered and sold to Dr. Knox, who turned a blind eye to the dubious origins of the corpses provided to him.

Discovery and Trial

The murderous duo was eventually caught when other tenants became suspicious after discovering the body of a woman hidden under a bed at Hare’s lodging house. The subsequent investigation quickly unravelled the horrifying extent of their crimes. During the trial, Hare turned king’s evidence against Burke, testifying against him in exchange for immunity from prosecution.


Burke’s execution; from a contemporary print

William Burke was found guilty and hanged in January 1829, with his body ironically given over to medical science for dissection. His skeleton remains on display at the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School. William Hare, having turned state witness, was released from custody and disappeared, his ultimate fate unknown.

Vaults and watch-houses

Publicity surrounding the crimes of Burke and Hare greatly intensified the fear amongst the populace. It was around this time that vaults—repositories for deceased bodies—were constructed through public subscription in Scotland, their use meticulously regulated by specific rules.

Watchtower, St Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh.
This watchtower was built in 1827 at the south-west corner of St Cuthbert’s Church to defend against grave robbing which was rife at that time.

Some of these vaults were above ground, while others, predominantly in Aberdeenshire, were either partially or completely underground. In the Aberdeenshire village of Udny Green, the morthouse is a circular structure featuring a thick studded wooden door and an inner iron door.

Mort House, Udny, Aberdeenshire.

Inside, a turntable can accommodate seven coffins, which would be rotated as more were added. By the time a coffin reappeared, the body within would no longer be of any use to dissectionists.

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Communities near the Scottish medical schools in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen likely employed various methods to protect the dead. In addition to using mort safes, some also implemented watch systems.

This substantial stone building on the north side of Crail cemetery was erected in 1826 (just at the time the infamous Burke and Hare were active in Edinburgh) to keep the bodies of recently deceased parishioners safe from the activities of the so-called ‘resurrectionists’ who were at that time prone to steal corpses to sell to the medical profession.

There are watch-houses located in more remote areas of Scotland, in the Borders, and two have been discovered in the English county of Northumberland, all serving the purpose of guarding the rest of the departed.

The Decline of Mort Safes

The widespread use of mort safes declined following the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832. The Anatomy Act of 1832 addressed the above issues by allowing wider access to cadavers for anatomical study.

Under the new law, unclaimed bodies of those who died in hospitals, workhouses, and prisons could be used for dissection, unless relatives could pay for a private burial. The Act also regulated anatomy schools and required them to be licensed and inspected, bringing a greater level of oversight into how bodies were handled and used in medical research.

Mort safes
Watch house and iron mort safe in Cadder Parish Church near Glasgow

The Anatomy Act effectively ended the practice of body-snatching by providing a legitimate and steady supply of bodies for medical schools. This had a profound impact on medical education, as it increased the availability of cadavers for dissection and allowed for a more practical and thorough training of medical students.

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The Act democratized medical education by making cadavers more accessible, thus promoting advances in medical knowledge and techniques.

But it also had significant societal implications. It alleviated public fears about the safety and sanctity of graves and reduced the stigma associated with dissection and anatomy studies.

However, the Act was not without its critics, particularly as it disproportionately affected the poor, whose bodies were more likely to be unclaimed and thus used for dissection. This highlighted ongoing issues of social inequality and the treatment of the poor in Victorian society.

Locations of Mort Safes

Mort safes are predominantly found in Scotland, where the practice of using them was most prevalent due to the intense activity of body-snatchers in the area. Here are a few locations in Britain where you can find mort safes, particularly in Scotland:

  1. Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh: One of the most famous cemeteries in Scotland, Greyfriars has examples of mort safes. The cemetery itself is rich in history and infamous for stories about Greyfriars Bobby, making it a fascinating place to visit.
  2. Old Parish Church, Dalkeith: This site near Edinburgh also features mort safes, which were used to protect graves from resurrectionists in the 19th century.
  3. St. Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Edinburgh: Located near Princes Street Gardens, this churchyard is another site where you can see mort safes and learn more about their historical context.
  4. Glasgow Necropolis, Glasgow: While more famous for its Victorian architecture and monumental sculptures, the Necropolis also contains mort safes, reflecting the broader use of these structures in major Scottish cities during the period.
  5. Logierait Kirkyard, Perthshire: This less urban location features a well-preserved mort safe, offering a glimpse into the rural implementation of this grave protection method.
  6. Cladh Hallan Cemetery, South Uist: For those interested in exploring further afield, this cemetery in the Outer Hebrides features mort safes, underscoring the widespread Scottish fear of body-snatching.