This is a watchtower in Dalkeith Cemetery, near Edinburgh, Scotland. It was built in 1827, when folks—particularly in Scottish communities near the medical schools in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen—felt a real need to have their dead protected, and those with enough money were able to do something about it.
The well publicized crimes of the Williams Burke and Hare in 1827 and 1828—men who escalated body-snatching from mere grave-robbing to actual murder—didn’t help, either. Some communities built structures called morthouses to temporarily house the dead as they made their journey from freshness to putrefaction. This one is in Udny, in Aberdeenshire:
This particular morthouse is unique because of its clever design. Inside was a sort of lazy Susan for the dead. From Geograph:
This circular stone building houses a revolving wheel upon which a coffin would be placed and kept securely under lock and key. When another body was deposited, the wheel would be turned slightly to accommodate the new coffin. Eventually, when a coffin had been rotated one full revolution, it could safely be buried because the corpse would be sufficiently decomposed as to be of no use to the body-snatchers.
Mo medical schools, mo problems.
About 200 years ago, the expansion of medical schools meant a growing need for bodies suitable for dissection. From Wikipedia:
Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who were sentenced to dissection by the courts were often guilty of comparatively harsher crimes. Such sentences did not provide enough subjects for the medical schools and private anatomical schools (which did not require a licence before 1832). While during the 18th century hundreds had been executed for trivial crimes, by the 19th century only about 55 people were being sentenced to capital punishment each year. However, with the expansion of the medical schools, as many as 500 cadavers were needed.
Before electric power to supply refrigeration, bodies would decay rapidly and become unusable for study. Therefore, the medical profession turned to body snatching to supply the deficit of bodies fresh enough to be examined.
Stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and was therefore only punishable with fine and imprisonment, rather than transportation or execution. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection, particularly as the authorities tended to ignore what they considered a necessary evil.
The mortsafe was invented in the early nineteenth century to protect graves from the so-called “Resurrection Men” who plied this trade. Mortsafes were contraptions of iron and/or stones that essentially served as re-usable, coffin-sized padlocks: to make the graves of the newly dead inaccessible for as long as it took for their bodies to putrefy past the point of medical “usefulness.” (Morbid Anatomy wrote a really good post about mortsafes a while back, by the way.)
A few mortsafes are still on display in some churchyards in Scotland. Not coincidentally, these churchyards were near medical schools.
Mortsafe (in the form of an iron coffin) in Colinton Kirkyard, outside Edinburgh. Photograph by Kim Traynor.
Mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh. Photograph by Kim Traynor.
The Shrine of St. Amandus; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Flemish, early 13th century with significant later additions. From Kathryn B. Gerry’s article on the Treasures of Heaven exhibit:
Amandus was the bishop of Maastricht and the founder and abbot of the Monastery of Elnon, near Tournai, where he was buried after his death (ca. 679). Before the end of the seventh century, he was considered a saint, and a pilgrimage cult developed at Elnon, eventually requiring that his bones be housed in a reliquary that could be shown to the faithful. In addition to being visited by pilgrims and carried in procession on feast days, the relics of St. Amandus were taken on a tour of the region around Elnon at least twice: once in 1066 to raise funds to rebuild the monastery after it was destroyed by fire, and again in 1107 to remind ambitious nobles of the monastery’s power and privileges. At least one earlier reliquary for St. Amandus must have existed, but it was destroyed or lost prior to the thirteenth century, perhaps in the fire of 1066. The figure at one of the gable-shaped ends is presumably Amandus; the other end, now empty, probably originally contained a figure of Christ. Although many such reliquaries were destroyed or sold to collectors during periods of religious reformation and political revolution, some continued to be used into the modern period: a reliquary similar to that of St. Amandus is still owned by the religious brotherhood of St. Symphorian in Belgium, and carried in public procession on several occasions during the year. Over the centuries, reliquaries such as this were likely to suffer some wear. Extensive scientific testing has shown that this reliquary was made in the early thirteenth century, but that it has been repaired and modified throughout the centuries as it continued to be used in the service of the cult of St. Amandus. The most recent modifications, however, were made by a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century art dealer hoping to “improve” the piece and make it more marketable.
I’m an Amanda, so this appeals to me greatly. However, if I were a saint, I would have preferred the tour of Flanders before dying.
This is Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. He had a way with the ladies. (Allegedly, he showed up at his own wedding with a lover as his date.)
No one’s exactly sure of the circumstances of his death, but it appears that on the night of January 29, 1889, he shot himself in the head after shooting and killing his mistress, a teenaged baroness named Mary Vetsera, in a hunting lodge. He was 30. The white bandage you see in that picture is there to cover up the gunshot wound.
Mary’s body was smuggled away and buried hastily, to avoid a scandal. Rudolf, on the other hand, lies in the Habsburg Imperial Crypt in Vienna. His father pulled some strings to get him interred there: special arrangements were necessary because his death was a suicide.
His death left his parents—Franz Josef I, Austria’s emperor, and Elisabeth of Bavaria, cousin to King Ludwig—without an heir and likely caused their already shaky marriage to collapse. His mother—whose extreme fasting and exercise regimens, by the way, remind me of the the fads of a century later—also died a violent death. She was stabbed with a needle file by an anarchist in 1898.
Image source: Wikipedia.
The reliquary is believed to have held bits of skull and breastbone purported to belong to one of the 11,000 slaughtered maiden-followers of Saint Ursula.*
Reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion of St Ursula.
South Netherlandish, c. 1520 – 1530.
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ door,
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
From 2010: CNN’s Jeanne Moos reports.
Sort-of related: When I lived in New York, I worked a block away from Time Warner Center (the building she’s standing outside of). I used to go over there to grab lunch at Whole Foods and I’d often see her standing outside interviewing people. She never stopped me, though. Sigh.
(Image via Oddity Central.)
This is Cherchen Man. He stood about six feet tall, had light hair and fair skin, and he lived about 3,000 years ago in what is today the Xinjiang region of western China. He sports facial tattoos. And the world’s oldest surviving pair of pants.
He’s among a group of mummies found in the Tarim Basin dating from between about 1900 B.C. and 200 A.D. I’ve wanted to write about them for a while.
I recently watched China’s Secret Mummies, a National Geographic video available on the Penn Museum’s website. It’s about 45 minutes long; unfortunately, more than half of those 45 minutes are eaten up by bullshit reenactment footage and suspense-making editing. But it’s still a good overview of the mummies, and it reveals what researchers from National Geographic’s Genographic Project were able to learn from their DNA.
What they found was surprising. After the mummies were discovered, their Caucasian facial features and woolen (sometimes plaid) textiles led many to speculate that they came from Europe, or—more fancifully—were Celts.
Sidenote: As a former Celticist (air quotes), I find this conclusion funny. I refuse to think of “Celt” as anything more than a linguistic designation, or something denoting a discrete genetic or cultural group. (Interesting and surprising read: The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story by Stephen Oppenheimer.)
Anyway, like I said, the DNA results were surprising. Cherchen Man and his mummy-buddies showed east Asian genetic markers, leading the researchers to revise their understanding of the Tarim people. Likely, they were a mixed group—different cultures from east and west coexisting (and sleeping together) at a crossroads—rather than a western transplant culture hanging on in an unlikely eastern outpost, as had been previously thought.
Hope to post about some of the other Tarim mummies in the near future.
Image Source: Uyghur American Association.
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