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The Udny Mort House

Much of what we know about the human anatomy comes from dissecting human cadavers. The practice goes back to classical antiquity. The Greeks and the Romans carried out human dissection, and so did ancient medicine men in India. In Europe, the practice flourished in the 18th and 19th century with a new found medical interest in detailed anatomy, thanks to an increase in the importance of surgery.

Back then, and prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Executions were common in those days. Hundreds were hanged or guillotined for trivial crimes. But by turn of the 19th century, the number of criminals sentenced to capital punishment came down drastically creating a serious shortage of cadavers needed in order to study anatomy. This ushered in the practice of grave digging, where body snatchers or "resurrectionists" would dig up dead bodies and sell them to medical schools.

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Photo credit: Alan Longmuir/Flickr

Body snatching was a lucrative business, a necessary evil even, but a nuisance to the society. It became so rampant that dead bodies often had to be watched over by relatives and friends of the deceased, to prevent them from being stolen. In some church yards watch towers were built and a man appointed to stand guard over night. Some families used coffins made of iron, or graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes. Another invention was the mort house, where bodies were stored temporarily until they had decomposed so that they cannot be used for medical dissection. The body would then be buried in it’s permanent resting place.

One such mort house is located in the old kirkyard at Udny Green, Aberdeenshire, north-east Scotland. Built in 1832, Udny mort house is a windowless, granite chamber with a strong oak door and an inner iron door. Inside there is a turntable on which coffins would be placed. When another body was deposited, the platform would be turned slightly to accommodate the new coffin. When a coffin had rotated one full revolution, it would have decomposed sufficiently to be of no use to body snatchers. Depending on demand, a body would stay in the mort house from seven days to up to three months.

The mort house fell into disuse after the passing of the Anatomy Act 1832, which granted doctors, and teachers and students of anatomy the right to dissect donated and unclaimed bodies.

The mort house is now a category B listed building.

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Resurrectionists (1847), by Hablot Knight Browne.

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A mortsafe in St Mary's Churchard, Holystone. Photo credit: johndal/Flickr

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A mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Photo credit: Kim Traynor/Wikimedia

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Inside the Udny Mort House. Photo credit: Alan Longmuir/Flickr

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Udny Mort House, outer oak door. Photo credit: Sagaciousphil/Wikimedia

Sources: Wikipedia / Wikipedia / blog.kilts-n-stuff.com

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