Fieldnotes
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Caged Graves and Other Grotesque Matters

Day 11 of the MNINB April Platform Challenge called for linking to someone else’s blog post.  Seth Grahame-Smith readers and Regency fans will love this Regency/Victorian trend I discovered over at Unlacing the Victorians.

Trending: Caged Graves

Did you know that some Victorian families had cages erected over the graves of loved ones?  There are some lovely images of these iron wonders at Unlacing the Victorians.

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus (Photo credit: Tony Fischer Photography)

This burial practice actually began somewhat earlier, as it is already in use by some families as early as the Regency period (see image left).

James Monroe (1758-1831) was the fifth President of the United States.  Here his elaborate tomb with a raised sarcophagus has an iron cage.

Look at the fantastic detail work of the cage with the gothic arches that mimic cathedral windows. I love the spires with the small crosses on top.

I wonder then what inspired Victorians to build these cages as we see less elaborate versions becoming more common.  Do you have any ideas? My first thoughts ran to the horror stories of my youth.

The Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley and published anonymously in 1818.  It is the story of a doctor who brings to life an assemblage of body parts into what becomes a monster:

[A] flash of lightning illuminated the object and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy demon to whom [he] had given life (Chapter 7, pg. 60). Source.

Despite the bad reviews, the public loved the macabre story of the grave robber doctor and it went on to inspire derivative works.  Grave robbery became an unusual cottage industry in the Regency era as interest in health increased.

Tomb Raiders and Killers

University medical schools were known to accept fresh cadavers (some from less reputable sources than others) to give medical students the opportunity to learn more about human anatomy.  Money was paid for the freshest samples delivered.

Perhaps the most famous pair of grave robbers in the Regency era were William Burke and William Hare.  The Burke and Hare murders (West Port murders) of 1827-1828 began as one of Hare’s tenants died and Hare sold the body to an anatomist.  In his mind (perhaps), making a good return on some back-rent owed.

Their first murder was another tenant with a poor constitution whom they suffocated.  Over the next year, Burke and Hare became increasingly bold in their murders until their discovery in 1828. Their brazen disregard for human life eventually led to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 (source).

In my opinion, the media coverage of the murder trial may have done more to inspire the mania for caged graves than the popular literature of the time, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What do you think inspired an interest in this trend?


Special thanks to my husband, Dennis, for bringing to my attention the Burke and Hare murders and for challenging me on the publication date of Frankenstein.  You were right!


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This entry was posted in: Fieldnotes

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Lauren Miller is a Midwestern born writer with a passion for Jesus, the written word, and dogs. She has seventeen years of experience in the library field and reviews books for the Historical Novels Review (UK). Lauren is the Managing Web Editor and writer for The Scribe, a web publication of the St. Louis Writers Guild, where she also serves as their Director of Communications. She likes to spend her free time enjoying period films, discovering new reads, and being surrounded by other people’s pets. Lauren, her husband, and their wily Maine Coon (who isn’t quite a dog) live in Missouri. You can learn more about Lauren’s writing at LaurenJoanMiller.com.

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