Until the 1830’s the only legal source of bodies for doctors, surgeons and scientists to use for medical research was the public executioner. Unfortunately for the medical fraternity, however, juries were tending to return guilty verdicts less and less frequently, Consequently, judges weren’t passing the death penalty often enough to keep the burgeoning medical profession supplied with sufficient corpses for. their research.
THE BODYSNATCHING EPIDEMIC
This left the field wide open for anyone of an “entrepreneurial” persuasion who could locate and provide a steady stream of fresh corpses for the dissecting tables of London, Edinburgh and other cities where you had large numbers of medical practitioners.
Thus body-snatching became endemic throughout the land, as the so-called “Resurrectionists” began stealing the bodies of the newly dead from churchyards and graveyards throughout the British Isles.
Bodysnatching could prove incredibly lucrative for its practitioners, with each corpse “retailing” at between £8 and £14.
SAFETY FOR THE DEAD
The prospect of themselves, or their loved ones, falling prey to these night time graveyard scavengers didn’t sit pretty with the public at large, and the battle began to provide “Safety for the Dead”, as inventors sought to dream up more and more ingenious methods to prevent corpses being stolen from their, supposed, final resting places.
One solution was the iron coffin which had a flange which engaged with spring clips in the lid.
An example of such a coffin can still be seen in the crypt of St Bride’s Church, on Fleet Street.
A PATENTED COFFIN
According to the information board by this particular coffin it:- “…fulfils the Specification of a Patent issued in 1818 to Edward Bridgman of Goswell Street Road.”
Apparently, this particular coffin, although nowadays showing distinct signs of having been eaten away by rust, would have followed the common practice of being covered with silver foil, which must have made it a truly dazzling sight at the funeral service!
THE LAW SUIT
However, iron coffins, although, no doubt, providing protection for the bodies placed therein, could prove somewhat cumbersome and, as it transpired, not all churches were fans of them.
In 1820, the Churchwardens at St Andrew’s Church, on nearby Holborn, point blank refused to allow an iron coffin to be buried in their churchyard. The body, therefore, had to be taken out and buried in a more traditional wooden coffin.
This, in turn. provoked the aggrieved relatives to bring a law suit against the church, the outcome of which was that the judge ruled that iron coffins could not be refused burial.
THEIR USE GETS LESS
However, it was also deemed that, since such coffins took much, much longer than wooden ones to disintegrate, then the churches could charge much higher fees for them to be buried.
As a result of this expense, the age of the iron coffin proved relatively short lived and their usage thereafter became less and less.