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STRANGE COFFIN TORPEDO - 1878 PATENT ISSUED TO KILL GRAVE ROBBERS!

Bizarre contraption that was used to deter 19th Century grave robbers by exploding when the lid was pried open.

Medical researchers needed bodies to conduct research and did not yet have access to unclaimed dead bodies in the 1800s.

They turned to grave robbers, or 'resurrection men,' to steal corpses from graves.

Entrepreneurs devised ways to stop grave robbers; two such people - Philip K Clover and Thomas N Howell - created devices called 'coffin torpedoes'.

Clover's model functioned like a sort-of shotgun - while Howell's invention was like a landmine.

By Forrest Hanson For Dailymail.com

July 4, 2017


Grave-robbing was such a dire concern in the post-Civil War United States that people took to building weapons to protect the deceased. The dreadful thought that the dead body of a loved one might be stolen from its grave, sold to a doctor and dissected for medical purposes prompted entrepreneurs to consider how to injure or even kill would-be robbers.

State laws were passed from the 1880s to the 1910s, allowing medical personnel to use unclaimed dead bodies – including those of people whose families could not afford proper burials – for dissection and analysis. Before such laws, graveyards were the Wild West of medical research.

Medical schools required corpses to learn more about the human body. With no easy way to get bodies back in the day, they turned to the black market for dead bodies. Robbers known as ‘resurrection men’ would therefore enter graveyards to exhume recently buried people and sell their bodies to medical researchers. In other cases, robbers exhumed bodies for ransom.

Two men developed violent contraptions called ‘coffin torpedoes,‘ which would maim or kill would-be grave robbers. One resembled a shotgun, and another resembled a landmine.

State laws passed from the 1880s to the 1910s allowed medical researchers a legal means of claiming unclaimed dead bodies and using them for medical research. Before this, they turned to the black market of grave robbery. Pictured: Grave robbers lifting a coffin from the ground

Perhaps the most famous victim of grave-robbing was John Scott Harrison, an Ohio Congressman who was the son of President William Henry Harrison and the father of President Benjamin Harrison. Harrison, who died at the age of 74, was discovered hanging named in the Medical College of Ohio +10
Perhaps the most famous victim of grave-robbing was John Scott Harrison, an Ohio Congressman who was the son of President William Henry Harrison and the father of President Benjamin Harrison. Harrison, who died at the age of 74, was discovered hanging named in the Medical College of Ohio

In the aftermath of the Civil War, dead bodies were numerous and ripe for the taking. Most victims were the poor or homeless. African American people and recent immigrants were heavily affected, as well. But in a particularly high profile case, the body of Ohio congressman John Scott Harrison was taken from its grave and sold to the Medical College of Ohio.

Harrison, the only person to have been both the father and son of a US president, was buried on May 29, 1878. His family members noticed, on the day of his funeral, that the body of a young and recently deceased tuberculosis sufferer had been stolen the previous week. Harrison’s son John, perhaps worrying that his father’s body would suffer a similar fate, visited the Medical College of Ohio nearby to investigate the disappearance.

At the college, John found a naked male body hanging from a rope. But the body was not young and emaciated; in fact, it was healthy and old. John looked at the man’s head and found himself face-to-face with his 74-year-old father, who was stolen overnight.

The college, when confronted with the subsequent outrage, did not seem bothered and cited the realities of medical research. The Harrisons filed a lawsuit against the college, though its outcome is not known, as the courthouse with the case’s record burned down.

Family members of the dead across the country, therefore, turned to various protection methods such as bodyguards and cast-iron cages surrounding coffins. For a brief period, even more violent measures were in vogue.

Philip K Clover, an artist and inventor from Columbus, Ohio, was the first to patent a version of a ‘coffin torpedo’. In his patent published October 8, 1878, he wrote: ‘My invention has for its object to provide a means which shall successfully prevent the unauthorized resurrection of dead bodies.

‘And with this end in view, my invention consists of a peculiarly-constructed torpedo, adapted to be readily secured to the coffin and the body of the contained corpse in such a manner that any attempt to remove the body after burial will cause the discharge of the cartridge contained in the torpedo and injury or death of the desecrator of the grave.’

Clover’s ‘torpedo’ was attached to the top lid of the inside of the coffin and was wired to the corpse. It functioned as a sort-of shotgun that would be triggered upon opening the lid. The would-be robber would be pummeled with 36-caliber lead balls – either killing or gravely wounding the thief.

For his patent, Clover drew a body in a coffin showing a wire attached around one arm up to the lid and down to the feet that would have been connected to the shotgun-like torpedo
For his patent, Clover drew a body in a coffin showing a wire attached around one arm up to the lid and down to the feet that would have been connected to the shotgun-like torpedo

But how to stop a group of robbers? While Clover’s design seems perfect for a lone wolf, a collective could easily send one particularly unlucky member to pry the coffin open first and die by coffin torpedo. The individual’s martyrdom would allow other members of the gang to then take the body.

But a patent for a different form of the ‘coffin torpedo’ appeared to solve this issue. Thomas N Howell, a probate judge in Circleville, Ohio patented his own version on December 20, 1881.

Howell’s patent was for a torpedo that functioned as a sort-of landmine. A shell was to be buried above and near to the coffin, which would be protected by a metal contraption. The shell, filled with almost one pound of black powder, would ignite at a physical disturbance. The metal contraption would act as both a shield and weapon and direct the force of the blast at the grave robber. The body of the deceased would remain unharmed, while the ‘resurrection man’ would emerge at best with some burns and - at worst - dead .

An advertisement for the landmine-style device read: ‘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.’

There is little evidence to suggest that coffin torpedoes were ever widely used, but they do shed light on a morbid fascination with death in the 19th century. An 1899 edition of the Topeka State Journal suggested that the grave of an extravagant Mrs Whitney, whose dead body was allegedly adorned with jewels, had some rather aggressive safeguards.

The report, the veracity of which is not known, sets the scene: ‘Under the wealth of hothouse flowers adorning Mrs William C Whitney’s grave on a hilltop overlooking the Little Neck Meadows, the freshly turned earth is sown with powerful torpedoes. The coffin is hemmed about with them, and the ghoul who undertook to strike his space beneath the surface would invite swift destruction.’

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
Advertisement for the 1881 landmine-style 'coffin torpedo'

And one night in January 1881, three resurrectionists were thwarted in their attempt to snatch a body from a cemetery in Mount Vernon, Ohio. One of the grave robbers was, for better or worse, sent to his own grave.

‘The story goes, that while excavating the grave, the picks came in contact with a torpedo, which exploded, killing one of the ghouls, named Dipper, and mangling the leg of another,’ reads a report from the Stark County Democrat. The third individual, who fortunately for him served as watchman, was not believed to have been hurt and saved his mangled comrade.

The weapon itself was buried above and separately from the coffin. The weapon would be filled with black powder and would explode at the sign of a physical disturbance +10
The weapon itself (pictured) was buried above and separately from the coffin. The weapon would be filled with black powder and would explode at the sign of a physical disturbance

Coffin torpedoes were not the only method of protecting graves. Some families hired armed watchmen who stood rapt at attention near graves or in watch towers built in cemeteries. Cemetery guns were popular in Europe and were generally above-ground weapons that were either loaded or unloaded and were scattered around cemeteries attached by wire to various points in a cemetery. If triggered, a blank shot would spook a potential grave-robber, or a loaded shot might kill him. The guns were unloaded during the day for mourners. Mortsafes, or iron cages adding an additional layer of protection to a grave, were popular in Europe, too.

Sheer force was an occasional deterrence to grave-robbing as well. Before the invention of the coffin torpedoes, there were at least 17 ‘Resurrection Riots’ across the United States, during which incensed citizens stormed medical colleges to reclaim stolen dead bodies.

By the early 1900s, anatomy laws in the US providing legal means for medical colleges to claim the bodies weakened the black market for dead bodies. And with the weakened black market came safer resting for the dead. But in a time when the bodies of loved ones could be snatched on a whim, coffin torpedoes perhaps provided a sense of security. And ironically, of course, such weapons killed whoever might have had the audacity to mess with the dead.
 

STRANGE COFFIN TORPEDO - 1878 PATENT ISSUED TO KILL GRAVE ROBBERS!






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