Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Unusual Firearms: Cemetery Guns and Coffin Torpedoes

In our last post, we studied the topic of set guns and spring guns. In this post, we will look into a couple of kinds of set gun, the cemetery gun and the coffin torpedo.

First, we go to the development of modern anatomy and medicine. The early Egyptians, Greeks and Indians had done some anatomical studies more than 2000 years ago and had written books about them, but the knowledge was largely lost during the dark ages. During the 1600s and 1700s, the study of anatomy began to flourish again in Europe. Due to the lack of refrigeration at that time, bodies would decay very rapidly and so only fresh bodies could be studied. Certified anatomists were allowed to perform public dissections once a year, and the event would be performed in a public theater with medical students, art students, scientists and general public permitted to attend upon paying an entrance fee. In most European cities, the law specified that the body to be dissected had to be an executed criminal.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt
Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

In the above image, we see a painting by Rembrandt, which is dated to 1632. It shows the chief anatomist of Amsterdam, Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, giving an anatomy lesson to interested bystanders. The body in question belonged to Adriaan Adriaanszoon, alias Aris Kindt, who was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to death by hanging and executed earlier in the day. This painting was done by a young Rembrandt, who was only 26 years old when he painted this. There were probably many more spectators viewing the lesson, but Rembrandt only painted the spectators who had paid him money in advance for the privilege of appearing in the painting. This was the standard custom of portrait painters of that period. Some of the spectators were doctors as well and colleagues of Dr. Tulp. Interestingly, Dr. Tulp went on to become mayor of Amsterdam and he was also responsible for examining and signing the fitness reports of the first Dutch settlers of a little island in the new world, called Manhattan island!

As medical schools began to flourish, there began a demand for human bodies among several universities. However, only the bodies of those who were condemned to death and dissection could be used by law and these sentences were only handed out by the courts for harsher crimes. As a result, there was a shortage of cadavers to be studied. To fill this need, a rather unscrupulous class of criminal, the body snatcher or resurrectionist, was born. Shocking as it may sound, these people would steal fresh graves and sell their bodies to universities.

As it turned out, UK common law treated body snatching as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. This meant the offenders could only be charged with a fine and/or imprisonment, rather than execution or transportation to Australia. So body snatchers were very careful to not steal jewelry or clothes, in case they were caught in the act, as stealing clothes and jewelry constituted a felony offence, whereas stealing the body alone was a misdemeanor. The practice became so prevalent that friends and relatives of the deceased would often guard the grave for a few days after burial to prevent this from happening. It was soon after this that a type of set gun, the cemetery gun, was developed.

Click on image to enlarge.

These were usually large smoothbore flintlock weapons attached to a large block of wood. The block of wood could be fixed to the ground with a couple of spikes. Trip wires would surround the grave to be guarded and they would be connected to the trigger of this weapon. This type of firearm could be either used as an alarm gun by filling it with a blank, or loaded with light shot such as rock salt or bird shot to scare the intruder, or even with heavier shot with an intention to maim. An example of such a cemetery gun built in 1707 is on display at the Museum of Mourning Art at the Arlington Cemetery in Pennsylvania.

After 1825, when set guns were banned in the UK, the practice of using cemetery guns died out and iron and cement coffins started to become popular. However, over in the USA, set guns were still legal. Moreover, right after the Civil war was over, the number of medical students increased tremendously. Between 1865 and 1890, the number of medical schools in the US doubled and with that came an increase in the number of body snatching cases, especially in Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York. There was even a public outcry in 1878, when the body of Ohio congressman John Scott Harrison, son of president William Henry Harrison, ended up on a medical table in Ohio Medical College at Cincinnati, and was recognized by his son, future US president, Benjamin Harrison.

To prevent such events from happening, people in the US developed a firearm known as the coffin torpedo, which was a booby trap designed to go off when a coffin was opened. We have records of an improved coffin torpedo invented by an enterprising gentleman named Philip K. Clover of Columbus, Ohio. The two images below are reproduced from his US patent claim (#208672) in 1878

Click on images to enlarge

This was a shotgun that was designed to go off when the coffin lid was opened. A full description of the working method of his model may be viewed in his patent claim here.

With the advent of new laws that allowed medical schools to use unclaimed bodies and with the advent of refrigeration, body snatching cases became much more infrequent.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there,

    I was hoping to talk with you about using one of your photographs but I can't find an email address for you. Could you possibly email me at weapons@aboutguide.com?