The Deadly Graveyard Weapons Of The 1800s

“They say in the grave there is peace, and peace and the grave are one and the same.” —Georg Büchner, Dantons Tod

In A Nutshell

Grave robbers were a major problem in the 18th and 19th centuries. These body snatchers made a living selling the dead to surgeons in both Great Britain and the United States. Fed up with these ghastly thefts, people started filling graveyards with weapons such as the cemetery gun and the graveyard torpedo.

The Whole Bushel

It might sound like the plot of a cheesy sci-fi flick, but just a few hundred years ago, Great Britain and the US were actually invaded by body snatchers. Only these thieves weren’t bent on world domination. They were more interested in digging up graves. Armed with shovels and spades, these “resurrection men” snuck into cemeteries, crept off with corpses, and sold them to mad scientists. During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was quite a demand in the medical community for the dearly departed. Anatomists were keen to discover what made the human body tick, and to do that, they needed, well, bodies. The problem was they could only cut up the corpses of executed criminals, and as such, there was a kind of shortage in the cadaver department. And that’s where the grave robbers came in. It was supply and demand at its most macabre.

However, most people weren’t wild about the idea of ending up in Frankenstein’s laboratory. Cemetery keepers had to step up their game and defend their plots, and their response was simple, creative and bloody. They filled their graveyards with booby traps. The first weapon to appear was the cemetery gun, a primitive yet effective trap that was originally used to defend camps against wild animals. A flintlock firearm set on a swivel mechanism was mounted on a wooden block and rigged up to multiple tripwires. If a clumsy thief stumbling around in the dark stepped in the wrong spot, he’d end up on the wrong side of a load of rock salt, pepper, or even actual ammunition. After being shot at a few times, the body snatchers started sending in spies during the day. Their scouts pretended to be grieving widows, and these women would scope out the grave sites and report back to their bosses, letting them know where the tripwires were located. Eventually, the cemetery keepers caught on to their little game and began setting up their weapons after dark. However, the British government outlawed the traps in the 1820s, probably because cemetery guns couldn’t really differentiate between body snatchers and late-night mourners.

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A second weapon that promised to provide eternal security was the graveyard torpedo. The initial version was pretty crude and consisted of a sawed-off shotgun set inside a coffin, business end up. Eventually, Thomas N. Howell made a slightly more sophisticated (only slightly) explosive full of black powder. This bomb was placed on top of the casket, and if an unsuspecting grave robber ignited the percussion cap, he’d end up decorating the tombstones with his intestines. While it was good at deterring thefts, the graveyard torpedo was even better at attracting buyers with its crazy marketing campaign. Savvy madmen of the 19th century penned a little ditty that was sure to grab the attention of any citizen worried about ending up beneath the surgeon’s blade. “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.” They don’t make advertisements like they used to.

Show Me The Proof

Slate: The “Cemetery Gun”: One Defense Against Grave Robbers
Cemetery Guns and Grave Torpedoes

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