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May 16, 2013

Caged Graves, Mortsafes and a Mystery in Catawissa, Pennsylvania

Posted by tbrliz

How do authors find inspiration for their stories? Sometimes, it can be taking a stroll through a graveyard and finding something interesting. That's what happened to Dianne K. Salerni when two peculiar caged graves inspired her to write THE CAGED GRAVES, which follows a teenage girl as she tries to uncover the secrets behind why her mother was buried in "unhallowed ground." In this blog, Salerni gives us some background about the inspiration behind her historical mystery.

A mortsafe is a metal structure built to protect a coffin from grave robbers, especially medical students looking for practice cadavers.

When I first saw a photograph of one of the caged graves in Catawissa, Pennsylvania, I had never heard of a mortsafe. By the time I finished investigating why anyone would cage a grave, I knew the history and purpose of mortsafes --- but I didn’t buy that explanation for these particular graves.

In the early 19th century, fresh bodies were in great demand for medical schools, where students practiced dissection to learn anatomy. The lack of any legal way to acquire bodies led to grave-robbing, which became a terrible problem near places with medical schools.

Ugly iron cages over graves started appearing near Edinburgh, Scotland around 1816. (Edinburgh was the home of some prominent medical schools.) The general practice was to remove the mortsafes after six weeks or so, when the bodies were no longer…fresh. Nevertheless, some forgotten mortsafes still survive in various cemeteries around the UK.

Mortafes were not common in the United States. In fact, the pair of lovely iron cages over two graves in Catawissa, Pennsylvania are believed to be the only existing examples on this continent. They are very different from the ones in Scotland, and a bit of a mystery surrounds them.

First of all, they’re decorative, which suggests they were meant to stand more than the usual six weeks --- and in fact, they’ve been there for 161 years! Second, Catawissa was nowhere near a 19th century medical school. Why would anyone think this cemetery would be targeted by grave-robbers? And why only these two graves?

The graves belong to two young women, Sarah Ann Boone and Asenath Thomas. They were sisters-in-law, and they died within a couple days of each other in June 1852. The cause of each death is not recorded, and although they were both married, there are no graves for their husbands nearby. Their husbands must have been buried somewhere else.

Why were these women buried away from their family members? Who were they in life, how did they die, and why were their graves covered by cages? I can only assume something very unusual happened in Catawissa, Pennsylvania during the summer of 1852. Speculating on what might have happened is what inspired my novel, THE CAGED GRAVES. My story is fictional, but I wonder how close to the truth I came.