Letting the Dead Rest in Peace


coffin torpedo grave robbers body snatchers

Grave robbery was not something that just showed up in Frankenstein stories. In the last half of the 19th century, human corpses were in high demand by medical schools, and the body snatching market grew in response. No one’s remains were considered off limits. Extraordinary measures had to be taken to protect the body of President Abraham Lincoln.  One notable person whose body was stolen was John Scott Harrison, the only man who was both the son of a US President (William Henry Harrison) and the father of a US President (Benjamin Harrison). Outrage over the theft of his mortal remains sparked the first landmark legislation to address the growing problem.

Not content to wait until the law addressed the issue, inventors put their minds toward creative ways to make sure the dead could rest in peace. In 1878 Phil Clover of Columbus, Ohio received U.S. Patent No. 208,672 for the coffin torpedo, a shotgun-like device to be placed on top of a buried coffin lid. Anyone who attempted to uncover the grave would be rewarded with a shotgun blast.

Coffin torpedo patent
Illustration accompanying Patent No. 208,672, for P.K. Clover’s Coffin Torpedo.

Clover’s invention was put to the test in 1881 in Knox County, Ohio, when three would-be grave robbers ended up needed graves for themselves after uncovering a coffin torpedo.

While grave robbery is no longer the problem it once was, it should be noted that an unknown number of coffin torpedoes are still out there, silently guarding any number of graves. Whether you have evil intent or simply go digging in the wrong spot, be aware that the next shovelful of earth you move might be your last.

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