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The Cemetery Gun

by Hap Rocketto

I was doing a little on line research for a prominent departed military shooter’s biography and typed “Arlington” into my search engine with the intent of checking what might be said about him on the Arlington National Cemetery website. Much to my surprise what came up first in the queue was Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. As I was getting ready to close the window I noticed that the cemetery maintained something they called their “Museum of Mourning Art.” Not one to miss an opportunity to enlighten myself I opened the hyperlink and found myself looking at a photo of what looked like a large flintlock pistol mounted on a swivel which was set into a solid wooden block. Several strings attached to the gun and radiated out from it. According to the caption it was a “cemetery gun.”

This was a new one on me. I was familiar with other large and unusual firearms of the period such as the punt gun. The punt gun was a humongous shotgun used to commercially harvest waterfowl. They commonly had calibers in the vicinity of four bore, or about two inches, tossing out around a pound of shot at a time. A single blast from this gun could down four or five dozen sitting waterfowl. In the late 18th and early 19th century they were a popular tool in commercial game hunting.

They were so large, and has such enormous recoil, that they could not be hand held and fired. Hunters mounted them in the bow of small flat bottomed boats know as a punts and that is how they acquired their eponymous name. The hunter would simply pole to an area rich in game-an area he had most likely had previously seeded with corn or set with decoys, aim the gun by pointing the punt at the sitting fowl, and let fly. Obeying Newton’s Third law of Motion, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” the punt would slide back in the water a short distance and then the hunter would pole forward to pick up the floating fowl carcasses.

Market hunting was thriving business at the turn of the 20th century when the clouds of migrating birds would darken the sky making the supply seemed endless. However, bird populations began to decline at this time, in part due to both market hunting and degradation of habitat. This ecological change brought about the start of the modern conservation movement which reached its zenith in 1937 with enactment of the hunter initiated Pittman–Robertson Act. Hunters asked to have an excise tax levied on guns and ammunition the proceeds of which were earmarked for the Department of the Interior to provide funds to each state to manage game animals and their habitats.

Then there are spring guns, of which the cemetery gun is but an example. A spring gun is simply a firearm set up as a booby trap. They are unattended loaded firearms which make them very dangerous to both user and intended victim and, therefore, are illegal in many locals. In a case rising out of the employment of a spring gun the United States Supreme Court ruled, in Katko v. Briney, that a landowner has no duty to make his property safe for trespassers, but he may not set deadly traps against them. In this case Briney has rigged a spring gun in an abandoned building on his property which injured Katko, who sued for damages. Katko won. The unrepentant Briney, asked if he would change anything about the situation replied: “There’s one thing I’d do different, though, I’d have aimed that gun a few feet higher.

But for what reason would one invent a cemetery gun? Simply put, “resurrection men.” The 18th and 19th centuries saw rapid advancements in the medical arts. The rise of formal medical schools in Europe and the United States strained resources. While there were plenty of teachers, students, classrooms and books there were precious few cadavers for anatomy classes. It seems that the only available legal supply of this unusual visual aid was from the criminal and the indigent classes who died in government custody.

Alternatively anatomy instructors would turn a blind eye and pay good money for a fresh corpse with no questions asked as to its source. This caught the entrepreneurial spirit of a small group of enterprising men who quickly insured that the supply caught up with demand by simply stealing recently buried bodies. Sometimes they might not even wait until the person was buried, or even expired, as in the case of Burke and Hare.

Burke, an innkeeper, has an indebted lodger die and sold his body to an anatomy instructor for seven pounds ten shillings. Seeing an opportunity to make some big money he enlisted Hare to help create inventory. By-passing the nicety of natural death they simply accosted wayward strangers and smothered them. This method kept their product in the best of condition while having the side benefit of leaving no signs of how the subject met his fate. Ironically when they were caught Hare turned state’s evidence and got off while Burke ended up swinging from a gibbet and, upon being cut down, was turned over to a medical school for public dissection.

To prevent the desecration of the dead grieving families would hire guards to watch over the graves until it was deemed that the decedent’s remains were past the point where they might be worth resurrecting. Graves were also covered with gratings or heavy stone slabs, metal caskets were sealed shut, and then there was the cemetery gun.

Set at night by the cemetery staff the guns were charged, trip lines spread out and staked, the lock cocked after which the staff gingerly made their way to safety, closed the gate closed, and went home to dinner.

In the morning they would return to work, disarm the device, and search the grounds hoping to find an unwary, and unlucky, resurrectionist sprawled on the grass. Should one be found they would take pride in striking a blow for decency and then, more pragmatically, drag the corpse off to the local medical school, returning to work with a few welcome coins jingling in their pockets.

Category: Hap's Corner

About the Author: Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career, pronematch.com.

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