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Why Was There a Need for “Coffin Torpedoes” in the 1800s?

In the 1800s, grave-robbing was rampant, driven by the demand for cadavers in medical science. To deter thieves, inventors devised "coffin torpedoes," lethal devices ensuring a grave's sanctity. These macabre deterrents reflect a time when the dead needed defending from the living. What does this reveal about past medical ethics and societal values? Join us as we unearth the story.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

It may sound like something out of a sci-fi or horror film, but the "coffin torpedo" was a real invention – and it served a useful purpose.

Illegally exhuming newly-buried corpses routinely occurred in the 19th century, with grave robbers selling the cadavers to medical schools that required them for anatomy lessons and dissections. As it was almost impossible to obtain a cadaver through legal means, the illicit trade of dead bodies became a serious problem.

In the late 1800s, several inventors created coffin and grave “torpedoes” to deter would-be bodysnatchers.
In the late 1800s, several inventors created coffin and grave “torpedoes” to deter would-be bodysnatchers.

With this issue – and the public's fear – in mind, a Columbus, Ohio man named Philip K. Clover created an ingenious device – the torpedo coffin. He received a patent in 1878 for a shotgun-like mechanism that fired out lead balls from the coffin lid if it was opened. A few years later, a judge named Thomas N. Howell (also in Ohio) patented the "grave torpedo," which was essentially a landmine wired to the coffin that would detonate if grave robbers disturbed it.

However, although these explosive devices received a lot of attention in the newspapers of the time, they don't seem to have been widely manufactured or used. Other deterrents, such as locking mechanisms and sealed vaults, were probably more common.

Hands off that coffin!

  • Clover described the objective of his invention as "prevent(ing) the unauthorized resurrection of dead bodies." Howell's product was advertised in far more poetic language: "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."

  • Perhaps the most famous incident involved deceased Ohio congressman John Scott Harrison, the son of US President William Henry Harrison and the father of President Benjamin Harrison. In 1878, John Harrison became the victim of body snatching – his remains were later found at the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnatti in an incident that became known as the "Harrison Horror."

  • The need for any kind of grave robbery prevention had pretty much evaporated by the 1910s, as medical schools gained increased access to unclaimed bodies. Advances in X-rays, microbiology, and surgery also meant that dissection became less important to the study of medicine.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • In the late 1800s, several inventors created coffin and grave “torpedoes” to deter would-be bodysnatchers.
      By: mbruxelle
      In the late 1800s, several inventors created coffin and grave “torpedoes” to deter would-be bodysnatchers.