Show & Tell: An 18th-Century Cemetery Gun

Arlington Cemetery Company
Arlington Cemetery Company / Arlington Cemetery Company

A special breed of ghoul stalked the cemeteries of North America and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries: the Resurrection Men. Despite the name, their terrors were physical, not spiritual—these men were bodysnatchers paid by doctors or medical students to dig up the cadavers used in dissection classes. Human dissection was, and is, a key component of medical school, but until donating one’s body to science became an accepted practice during the latter half of the 20th century, corpses were often hard to come by. To compensate for the shortage, a shadowy trade in dead humans flourished for several centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Families employed a range of weird technology to guard against unwanted disinterment of their loved ones. They built wrought-iron cages known as mortsafes above graves, set up cemetery torpedoes, and in some cases bought (or rented) cemetery guns to be installed near the graves. As Rebecca Onion explains in a Slate Vault post, “cemetery keepers set up the flintlock weapon at the foot of a grave, with three tripwires strung in an arc around its position. A prospective grave-robber, stumbling over the tripwire in the dark, would trigger the weapon—much to his own misfortune.”

On Friday (January 22), Sotheby's is auctioning off a very rare steel and wrought iron cemetery gun from the 18th or early 19th century. Though made in New York, the gun spent at least part of its life in England, and currently belongs to the Museum of Mourning Art in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. The museum, as Allison Meier explains in Hyperallergic, is the only one in the nation devoted exclusively to mourning art and ephemera—a bigger deal than you might imagine.

The museum recently temporarily closed following the death of its founders, but the administration hopes to re-open it again in another form. As Meier notes, “How the museum will appear in the future depends on what objects are sold” in the auction. The hundreds of items up for sale—not all of which are mourning-related—also include funeral invitations, mourning embroidery, and mourning jewelry. But the cemetery gun has "long been a museum favorite," Meier says.

Despite the best efforts from families, grave-robbers kept up with the challenge offered by cemetery guns. Onion explains, “Some would send women posing as widows, carrying children and dressed in black, to case the gravesites during the day and report the locations of cemetery guns and other defenses. Cemetery keepers, in turn, learned to wait to set the guns up after dark, thereby preserving the element of surprise."

Unfortunately, bodysnatchers tended to prey on the poorest graves (because they were least likely to stir up trouble by complaining)—which means that families who could afford cemetery guns and similar items were the least likely to need them. 

[H/T Hyperallergic]