Cemetery Guns And Coffin Torpedoes


This unusual-looking gun, now on display in the Museum of Mourning Arts at Arlington Cemetery, once kept body snatchers away from cemetery grounds and discouraged them from digging up bodies. The gun would be installed beneath the grave and when triggered a series of tripwires would rotate the gun in the appropriate direction, and fire at the unsuspecting thieves.

The need for such elaborate arrangements for the protection of the dead arose in the 18th century when medical schools were in great demand for cadavers but in short supply. At the time, the only legal supply of corpses were those sentenced by the courts to death and dissection. This was not a problem in medieval times, when hundreds of people were hanged from ropes for minor crimes such as providing a supply of cadavers to medical students and surgeons to study anatomy. But as times changed and barbaric methods of justice were gradually abandoned, the number of criminals sentenced to death decreased drastically, leading to a severe shortage of dead bodies. Some people saw this as an opportunity and started digging up bodies from cemeteries and selling them to medical schools.

Cemeteries responded by hiring men to guard graves. Sometimes the families of the dead buried in the cemetery paid for these guards. Eventually they discovered that instead of spending night after night in cold, wet, and miserable conditions, they could booby-trap the tombs with guns and explosives.

Spring-loaded guns, which fire at any intruder when triggered by a tripwire, have been around since at least the 15th century. They can be armed and kept active as long as the powder remains dry. The gun which became popular in cemeteries was designed by Mr. Clementshaw. It consisted of a large-bore, bell-faced flint stuck to a piece of thick wood. The guns had iron pintles or swivels mounted on the bottom, and had sliding trigger bars instead of the traditional hook-shaped gun trigger that fired when the gun was pulled forward, not backward. This allowed the forward motion of the tripwire to pull the trigger and fire the gun. There were usually three iron rings in front of the bar, to which up to three tripwires could be attached to the trigger.

The gun would be loaded at night and left armed with the cemetery keeper. In the morning, it will be removed so that people visiting the cemetery during the day do not come upon it. Many cunning grave robbers would send women disguised as mourners into cemeteries and report on the condition of pegs to which strings would be attached. Cemetery keepers defeated this by waiting until sunset to install the guns.

From the 1860s to the 1890s, body snatching became a major problem in the United States, and cemetery guns developed as a more lethal defense to combat this threat. One design invented in 1878 called for placing an armed gunman inside the coffin. When the lid was lifted, he fired a volley of lead bullets directly into the thieves' faces. Another invention, called the "coffin torpedo", was basically a landmine placed under the coffin. When the coffin was disturbed, an explosion occurred, blowing the grave robbers to pieces, including the body they were trying to save. At least three people were killed when a similar device exploded in a cemetery near Gaines in Knox County, Ohio.

While things like "graveyard guns" and "coffin torpedoes" are often seen as artifacts of a bygone era, body snatching as a business has not completely died out. A network of body snatchers is still active in India, who remove skeletons from cemeteries and sell them to universities and hospitals abroad. For the past two hundred years, India has been the world's primary supplier of bones used in medical studies around the world, including the United States and Britain. According to a report in Wired, the country is famous for producing specimens "cleaned of a pristine white layer and equipped with high-quality connecting hardware." Even China or Western Europe cannot produce such high quality samples. This trade is illegal and the Government of India has banned it, but as long as there is demand for skeletons, the business of body snatching will continue.

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