strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Do Dead People Have a Right to Bear Arms?

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 11, 2012

This is a bit outside my usual territory, but it is undeniably strange behavior.  Call it posthumous territoriality.  The web site (also not on my usual reading list) reports on the nineteenth-century practice of deterring grave robbers by booby-trapping  coffins and cemeteries with heavy artillery.

The golden age of body thefts in the United States was just after the Civil War. From 1865 and 1890, the number of medical schools in the country increased by over 100%. These students needed cadavers to train their budding surgeons in anatomy and physiology. At this time, practically the only bodies available were those of condemned convicts. This led to a cottage industry in grave robbery for recent, fresh corpses. It was during this period that John Scott Harrison, the son of former President William Henry Harrison and the father of President Benjamin Harrison, was stolen and later found at a medical college in Cincinnati.

In 1878, a number of “Coffin Torpedoes” hit the market. One design by Phil Clover of Columbus, Ohio was for an abbreviated shotgun that rested just inside the coffin lid. Once the lid was raised, the gun would fire directly into the face of the violator, discharging a number of 36-caliber lead balls.

Another inventor, Thomas N Howell, perfected two different “Grave Torpedoes.” Each was more like a landmine than any firearm. Borrowing Civil War technology, Howell’s device weighed 8-pounds and carried a charge of more than .75-pound of black powder ignited by a percussion cap. Buried atop the coffin with a protective plate above the torpedo, if disturbed the metal plate would help serve as a shape charge directed right at the would-be grave robber. An advertisement for the weapon declared that it would allow one to, ““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.”

In 1881 at least three men were killed when one such device ignited during a late night traipse through the cemeteries near Gann in Knox County, Ohio.

O.k., these were clearly businesses that took the Second Amendment right to bear arms seriously.  No doubt it was all about maintaining a well-regulated militia of the undead.


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