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Picture of a 'Grave Cage'


As posted on Facebook, Oct. 24, 2012:
Grave Cage

Netlore Archive: Were iron cages placed over graves during the Victorian era to prevent vampires and zombies from returning from the dead?

Via Facebook

Description: Viral image
Circulating since: 2012
Status: False (see details below)

Photo caption:
As posted on Facebook, Oct. 24, 2012:

This is a grave from the Victorian age when a fear of zombies and vampires was prevalent. The cage was intended to trap the undead just in case the corpse reanimated.

Analysis: The photo above is presumably authentic, but the caption is entirely false. The wrought-iron "cage" covering the gravesite is actually known as a mortsafe, and was invented in the early 1800s to keep graverobbers out, not the "undead" in.

This description of mortsafes and their intended function is from an issue of the British medical journal The Hospital dated Dec. 19, 1896:

It is now more than sixty years since the Anatomy Act was passed, and there are probably few who remember, except as a tradition, the horrors of the preceding time, when the medical schools were supplied with subjects for dissection chiefly by men who stole corpses from the grave. These men were called body-snatchers, or, in a slang phrase, "resurrection men." Respect for the dead made the idea of this violation of the grave horrible to the survivors, and various means were devised to secure that the bodies of the beloved dead should remain undisturbed. The iron coffin, instead of the usual wooden one, was so intended. A heavy iron cage, called a "mortsafe," was another. Mortsafes were of various kinds. Some formed almost a house of iron bars, with a locked gate to it. Others lay flat on the grave, and consisted sometimes entirely of iron, and sometimes of a border of strong masonry with iron bars on the top.

Mortsafes rendered obsolete by Anatomy Act of 1832

Alas, these extraordinary measures — though "probably highly effective" in protecting graves, according to Dr. Martyn Gorman of the University of Aberdeen — were only available to the rich. The scourge of body snatching continued in England and Scotland until public outrage drove Parliament to pass the Anatomy Act of 1832, which legalized the use of donated or unclaimed bodies for anatomical dissection and rendered the stolen corpse trade superfluous.

Vampires and zombies

As for vampires and zombies, the notion that a fear of the "undead" was so rife in Victorian England that folks would have taken extraordinary measures to protect themselves is not merely wrong, but wrongheaded to boot. Many Britons were familiar with the concept of vampirism via literary sources and scholarly discussions, but in the main it appears they regarded it as a superstitious belief peculiar to certain foreign countries. The word zombie and its associated superstitions were all but unknown in the English-speaking world until the early twentieth century.

See also:
Buried Alive!
For Sale: 19th-Century Vampire Killing Kits
The Z-Word: On Zombies & Popular Culture
Zora Neale Hurston on Zombies
Swine Flu + Zombies = Global Ghoul Pandemic!

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Sources and further reading:

Greyfriars Cemetery Mortsafes
Atlas Obscura

The Resurrectionist of Old
The Hospital, 19 December 1896

The Diary of a Resurrectionist, 1811-1812
London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1896

An Introduction to Grave Robbing in Scotland
University of Aberdeen, 2010

Body Snatching - A Common Practice 200 Years Ago
Daily Mail, 30 October 2012

The Anatomy Act of 1832
Science Museum, London

Last updated 05/18/13

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