In “The Caged Graves,” author and retired school teacher Dianne Salerni has created an historical mystery filled with intrigue, suspense, rumors and betrayals. Ultimately, it is up to newcomer Verity Brown to untangle the twisted crime that directly impacts her family’s past and her future happiness.
It’s 1867, and 17-year old Verity Boone moves from urban Worcester, Massachusetts to remote, rural Catawissa, Pennsylvania. Salerni uses her history and teaching background to good effect, and has created an historically accurate tale that is relatable and exciting for YA readers. Similar novels feature “feisty” heroines who inexplicably fight the status quo. Boone comes by her independence honestly, since May of 1850 marked a meeting of a National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester.
While independent in spirit, Boone decides to return to her father’s home; her birthplace Catawissa, Pennsylvania, after corresponding with a local farmer and accepting his proposal of marriage. Boone quickly realizes things are not what they seem, and not what she’s been told while growing up with her aunt and uncle in Worcester.
Most startling are the cages placed over the graves of her mother and aunt. This unusual structure upset Boone, and everyone she questioned. While I was not familiar with “caged graves” prior to reading the novel, Salerni came across two in the Old Mount Zion Cemetery, now called the Hooded Cemetery, near Catawissa, PA.
While caged graves are not common in the United States, they go by a different name in Europe. Mortsafes, or Mort safes, were designed in the early 1800’s to protect graves from disturbance. Medical students or paid grave robbers, called resurrectionists, disinterred bodies of the recently deceased to supply schools of anatomy. Some modern funeral practices owe their origins to 19th century funerary customs. Flowers, rocks, heavy headstones, live bushes and trees were all placed upon graves to make tampering difficult and easy to detect.
Mortsafes were frequently iron or iron-and-stone devices of great weight, like the examples found in Catawissa, PA. Sometimes they were highly decorative, at others they were merely padlocked iron contraptions of rods and plates. Since they were expensive, and beyond the reach of the working class, churches sometimes bought the cages and placed them upon a grave for about six weeks. After that, they could be moved to another site, since the deceased they protected would be beyond the point of use of anatomists. Burial societies sometimes formed to purchase them for the use of their members.
The caged graves outside Catawissa can still be seen.
For more information about Catawissa, PA and the region, please visit:
Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau