"Coffin Torpedoes” Were Invented During The 19th-Century's Wave Of Grave Robberies


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist


Public Domain via Google Patents

Grave robbing was a bit of a problem after the American Civil War. Weirdly enough, most of these body-snatchers were not just looking for riches and jewels. Often, medical schools were looking for fresh cadavers to dissect and research.

Fortunately, a couple of inventors had a solution. Philip K Clover of Columbus, Ohio, developed a device he called the “coffin-torpedo”. His invention even received a patent in 1878 (below). In his words, it was a device created to “prevent the unauthorized resurrection of dead bodies." 


It involved a system of triggers and springs that detonates an explosion of lead balls if the casket lid is opened after burial. Despite its name, the coffin-torpedo is more comparable to a landmine than an underwater missile.

Eager to jump into this expanding market, other budding entrepreneurs followed Clover in developing their own renditions of the device. Judge Thomas N Howell advertised his revision of the coffin-torpedo with the catchy slogan: “Sleep well sweet angel, let no fears of ghouls disturb thy rest, for above thy shrouded form lies a torpedo, ready to make mincemeat of anyone who attempts to convey you to the pickling vat.”

 Philip K Clover's patent for his bizarre invention. Public Domain via Google Patents

However, it doesn't appear that these devices were frequently used. Atlas Obscura chatted to anthropologist Dr Kate Meyers Emery, who said: “For the most part, these devices seem to have been used very little. They were definitely oddities designed to make money off of the widespread fear about body snatching.”

But the question remains: Why was there such a spate of grave robbers during this time?


Despite anti-robbing laws implemented in multiple states, dozens upon dozens of these crimes occurred in the late-19th century, especially in Ohio. The most famous of which was the son of the former-US President William Henry Harrison and Ohio Congressman John Scott Harrison.

Following the Civil War, medical schools were beginning to become more widespread, with an increasing demand for dead bodies to dissect. This cadaver black-market was eventually resolved when a law was passed allowing doctors to collect and dissect unclaimed bodies from the workhouses where the poor were sent. Arguably, that's even grimmer. 

The extent of the snatchings might be overstated, as newspapers were quick to jump on the sensationalist stories, prompting a fair amount of public hysteria. However, as you've seen, there were also a fair few inventors keen to jump on the bandwagon and earn a few pennies.

[H/T: Atlas Obscura]


  • tag
  • death,

  • weird,

  • dead,

  • grave,

  • dissection,

  • 19th century,

  • ohio,

  • bodies,

  • medical school