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Cemetery guns

Each month we choose an object from our collection to explore. For the month of December, Jonathan Ferguson, Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, has chosen an unusual gun with a morbid history.

In the early 19th century, as medical science’s demand for cadavers  increased, so did the dark trade of body snatching. Grave robbers known as ‘resurrection men’ capitalised on the increased need for corpses, illegally digging up recently buried bodies to sell to medical schools.

students posing in a classroom next to three cadavers and a skeleton

United States, ca. 1910. Photograph. National Library of Medicine

Many different methods were adopted to try to stop such body snatchers, such as coffin-torpedoes, and cemetery guns.

patent drawing of a coffin torpedo

‘Coffin torpedos’ were another form of protection similar to the cemetery gun. They were attached to the coffin lid in order to “prevent the unauthorized resurrection of dead bodies”.

What are cemetery guns?

You may have come across unusual trap guns online, where they are sometimes called ‘alarm-gins’ or ‘cemetery guns’. In reality though, these weapons were known simply as ‘spring-guns’ and were used as far back as the early 17th century to protect all kinds of property. They probably saw much more use in game reserves, deer parks or private land than they ever did in graveyards. In fact, all modern references to the practice refer back to the same source; surgeon Bransby Blake Cooper, of whom more later.

Nonetheless, it seems likely that many a groundskeeper would have recourse to such a deadly weapon in their efforts to prevent the raising of the dead. Their purposeful yet exotic appearance and undoubtedly grim purpose also fit that Gothic image of a misty graveyard, jutting headstones, and ghoulish figures with spades.

The anatomy of a ‘spring-gun’

Looking at the guns themselves, we find that those from the late 18th and early 19th century are mostly of a similar kind; simple flared blunderbuss style barrels and flint-fired musket locks mounted to an unusual wooden casing. Originally, a cover was fitted over the lock to protect against weather and dew, although no gun would survive being left loaded for more than one cold, damp British night.

The guns are fitted with iron pintles or swivels underneath, and have sliding trigger bars instead of conventional hook-shaped gun triggers. This allows the forward motion of a tripwire to pull the trigger forwards, not backwards, to fire the gun. At the front of the bar are usually three iron rings, allowing the gamekeeper — or graveyard sexton — to set up between one and three tripwires.

Setting the trap

At its simplest, the trap could be set with the gun pointing in a fixed position, with a single wire run across the surface of the ground for the unsuspecting victim to step on. Alternatively, three wires could be strung above the ground in an arc — tripling the chance of a passer-by setting off the gun. The gun could be set into a wooden base, post, or tree-stump, allowing it to spin freely. By walking into the wire, cord, or string, the gun’s muzzle would be tugged in the direction of the target, almost like a primitive sentry gun. The next step was to load, prime and cock the gun as normal. One of our guns has a simple pivoting safety lever that prevents the bar from moving forward when in place. Both are missing their vent-prickers, usually mounted to the right side on a chain, but one still has a rammer fixed to one side, with a ‘worm’ on the end for removing loaded shot. The projectiles used were usually small shot, but stones are also documented, as is rock salt, for a less-lethal option. Finally, the angle of the gun could be set using a simple iron locking lever that exerts pressure on the pivoting plate on the gun’s underside, allowing one to undo the lever, adjust the gun to shoot in the direction of a victim’s legs, body, or even head, and then lock it in that attitude. Of course, even a wound to the lower legs could prove fatal in the days before effective medicine.

How to avoid them

Of course, these traps were quite difficult to conceal. Our sole source for the use of these guns in cemeteries comes to us from surgeon Bransby Blake Cooper, who relates the two main methods used to defeat them:

“Spring-guns were often set in various directions in the church-yards, but these never answered the purpose intended by them. If a Resurrectionist proposed to work where these instruments of danger were used, and when he was not intimate with the grave-digger or watchman, he sent women in the course of the day into the ground, generally at a time when there was a funeral, to note the position of the pegs to which the wires were to be attached. Having obtained this information, the first object of the party at night would be to feel for one of these and having found it, they carefully followed the wire, till they came up to the gun, which was then raised from the surface of the grave mound, (its usual position,) and deposited safely at its foot. I have been told that as many as seven bodies have been taken out of one grave in the course of a night, under these circumstances. The grave being filled up and restored to order, the gun was replaced precisely in the spot it had previously occupied.”

Life of Sir Astley Cooper, p.379-380.

Wherever guns were kept set, anyone straying into their path might be hurt or killed by them. Did people deserve to be shot at, hurt, or killed for the simple and common crime of trespass? This disregard for human life and the belief that, if firearms were to be used in the defence of property, a human being should be ‘in the loop’, gave rise to significant controversy. In June 1775 a spring-gun became the catalyst for revolution in the American colony of Virginia. As the Firearms History blog explains, the British governor of Virginia had appropriated stocks of gunpowder from the town of Williamsburg and stored them in a warehouse that was guarded by a spring-gun. Two local youths tripped the gun on the night of June 3rd, 1775, ironically enough triggering the so-called ‘Gunpowder Incident‘ and with it, Virginia’s entry into the war on the side of the Patriots. Rebel resistance in the state was led by Patrick Henry, who had that March already declared “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”.

The movement to ban cemetery guns

two spring guns side by side

It was not until the 1820’s that the movement to ban hidden guns gained momentum. Landowner and sportsman Edward Harbord, 3rd Baron Suffield took up the cause in 1825, remarking drily that ‘poachers are almost the only persons who escape being shot by spring guns’ and relating a case where criminals had disarmed and re-set a gun on a public road, nearly killing a young girl. Lord Suffield went so far as to introduce a bill to ban the guns in 1826, but this failed. In the same year however, a high-profile case rang the death-knell for the spring-gun, at least as an anti-personnel weapon. As The Preston Chronicle put it:

“A youth, named William Lloyd, employed in the factory of Messrs. German and Co. and whose labour was the chief support of a widowed mother, went into Car Wood during the dinner-hour, and coming in contact with the hidden snare of a spring-gun, was dreadfully wounded about the legs. Some of the shots with which the gun was charged have been extracted, but others remain in the flesh and about the bone, which it is impossible to draw out ; and should the wounds finally heal up, it is greatly feared that the youth will be a cripple for life. If neither humanity, nor a sense of what is due to the outraged feelings of the public, are to have any effect in procuring the abolition of these murderous instruments, perhaps the fear of legal consequences may, in the end, lead to their disuse. If death were to ensue in any of these cases, we know not by what process of legal subtilty any juryman could reconcile it to his conscience to bring in a verdict of justifiable homicide. We take it, that if any person were to shoot another by hand, merely because he happened to tread upon a certain spot in a field or wood, no law of trespass would save him from the punishment due to murder or manslaughter ; and he must be a clever casuist indeed, who could point out the moral difference between this mode of destroying a fellow creature and that of so placing a deadly instrument as to produce the same effect with equal certainty.”

– reprinted in The Examiner, Issue 934, Part 87, 1826, p.29.

The following year saw spring-guns banned following the death of a man called Guthrie in Scotland at the hands (indirectly of course) of a James Craw. In Scotland the standing homicide law was deemed to already legislate against such an act, but English law demanded a specific new piece of legislation, namely:

“An Act to prohibit the setting of Spring Guns, Man Traps, and other Engines calculated to destroy human Life, or inflict grievous bodily Harm.” [dated 28th May 1827.]

The Public General Acts, 1827, p.11.

This act included anyone who knowingly allowed a trap to be set, and therefore rendered landowners liable for the efforts of their staff. An exemption for hunting and vermin was included, but the days of the classic spring-gun were numbered. Later equivalents tended to fire blank charges as an alarm and deterrent rather than a life-or-death hazard, culminating in the modern bird-scaring gas guns that you can hear in the fields today.

So, the next time you take a walk in the countryside, just imagine it’s 200 years ago, and there’s a hidden self-aiming blunderbuss concealed nearby, just waiting to spit horror from the undergrowth.

To learn more about this gun and others like it in our collection, visit our collections online.

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