Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Grave Torpedos

Last night’s (7/9/09) History Detectives on PBS had a segment sure to pique the interest of any cemeterian: Grave Torpedoes.

It turns out that in the latter half of the nineteenth century, largely due to the demands of medical schools for dissection subjects, the grave robbing, not for artifacts but for the bodies themselves, was a lucrative business. To deter would-be grave robbers, a variety of grave “torpedoes” were designed to blow said robbers to smithereens. A devise similar to the one exhibited was patented by a Thomas Howell in 1881, the year the law was changed to allow medical schools to use unclaimed and donated bodies, which effectively put an end to the torpedo business.

“Torpedo” in those days didn’t mean an underwater missile, as it does today, but instead included many sorts of explosive instruments. This torpedo was essentially an iron ball filled with gunpowder and a trip-hammer trigger to ignite it, should it be disturbed. Such as by a grave robber digging nearby.

The flaw, of course, was that it would also blow up if a legal grave digger happened to dig nearby.

The torpedo segment in the show is titled “Grave Alarm” rather than “Grave Torpedo,” because the current owner of the object thought that that is what he had, until research proved otherwise.