STEPHEN JACOBS continues his look at the horror of premature burials in the UK. This time it’s those who didn’t survive being buried alive!
Today, we dig deeper into the 1905 book Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented with special reference to trance, catalepsy and other forms of suspended animation by William Tebb, F.R.G.S.and Col. Edward Perry Vollum, M.D. and discover accounts of those who found themselves in the preciacous situtation of being buried alive!
On July 2, 1896, the author visited the grave of Madam Blunden, in the Cemetery, Basingstoke, Hants, who, according to the inscription (now obliterated), was buried alive. The following narrative appears in The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death, by Surgeon M. Cooper, London, 1746, pp. 78, 79:
“At Basingstoke, in Hampshire, not many years ago, a gentlewoman of character and fortune was taken ill, and, to all appearances, died, while her husband was on a journey to London. A messenger was forthwith despatched to the gentleman, who returned immediately, and ordered everything for her decent interment. Accordingly, on the third day after her supposed decease, she was buried in Holy Ghost Chapel, at the outside of the town, in a vault belonging to the family, over which there is a school for poor children, endowed by a charitable gentleman in the reign of Edward VI. It happened the next day that the boys, while they were at play, heard a noise in the vault, and one of them ran and told his master, who, not crediting what he said, gave him a box on the ear and sent him about his business; but, upon the other boys coming with the same story, his curiosity was awakened, so that he sent immediately for the sexton, and opened the vault and the lady’s coffin, where they found her just expiring. All possible means were used to recover her to life, but to no purpose, for she, in her agony, had bit the nails off her fingers, and tore her face and head to that degree, that, notwithstanding all the care that was taken of her, she died in a few hours in inexpressible torment.”
A solicitor, living in Gloucester, recently informed the editor that, when first in practice, he had as caretaker of his offices an old woman who, with her husband, had been in charge of the cholera wards, erected just outside the city, at the time of the severe epidemic of 1849, when, in Gloucester alone, there were 119 fatal cases. She told him that as soon as the patients were dead they put them in shells and screwed them down, so as to get them out of the way as quickly as possible, as the small sheds (which are still standing) were so crowded. “Sometimes,” she callously remarked, “they come to afterwards, and we did hear ‘em kicking in their coffins, but we never unscrewed ‘em, ’cause we knew they’d got to die!”
The following appeared in Truth (London), on May 23, 1895; it forms but an example of many similar instances of which the writer has heard:
“The other day I gave a story showing the difficulty of obtaining a post-mortem examination after a doctor has once certified the cause of death. One of my readers caps it with a gruesome narrative of which this is the outline: A man lately died in London. The coffin had to be removed by rail, and was to be closed on the fourth day after the death. My informant, taking a last look at the deceased, was struck by the complete absence of all the ordinary signs of death at such a period. In particular, he states that there was no rigidity in any part of the body, and there was a perceptible tinge of colour in the forehead. He went over to the doctor who had attended the deceased, described all the signs that he had observed, and begged him to come and look at the body before the coffin was closed. The doctor absolutely refused, saying that he had given his certificate, and had no doubt as to the man’s death. The friend then suggested that he might himself open a vein and see if blood flowed, to which the doctor replied that, if he did so without the authority of the widow, he would be indictable for felony. ‘Whereupon,’ says my informant, who was only a friend of the family, ‘I had to retire baffled, and let matters take their course.’ Why on earth he did not take the widow into his confidence, or risk an indictment for felony by opening a vein on his own account, or even summon another doctor, he does not say. I trust that, should any friend of mine see my coffin about to be screwed down under similar circumstances, and find equal cause to doubt whether I am dead, he will summon up courage to stick a pin into me, and chance the consequences. This, however, has nothing to do with the doctor’s responsibilities. It would seem that the medico in this case was either so confident in his own opinion as to decline even to walk across the road to investigate the extraordinary symptoms described to him, or else that he preferred the chance of the man being buried alive to the chance of having to admit he had made a mistake. Which alternative is the worst I do not know.”
One person wrote of his proposed solution to premature burials:
“If people must be buried before they begin to show signs of putrefaction (which seems to be the only reliable proof that life is really extinct), why not shorten their sufferings, in case of resuscitation, by opening an artery before they are buried? There is still much prejudice against the cremation of dead bodies, although two great facts are decidedly in its favour viz., the impossibility of recovering consciousness when once inserted in the crematory oven, and the prevention of the unhealthiness which the slow process of putrefaction must entail. Yours, etc.,”
Cases like the following which appeared in the London Echo, of January 29, 1901, are sufficient to arouse alarm in any sensitive nature. This journal reports that “some workmen, opening a vault at Ghent yesterday, were horrified to discover the body of a young girl lying across the steps leading down into the vault. She was quite dead, and had evidently been buried in a trance.”
The London Globe, October 26, 1896, mentions the following case:
“A soldier’s wife was reported by a military surgeon to have died during her confinement. She was buried on his certificate of death; but about two days afterwards the baby to whom she had given birth was also reported dead. The mother’s coffin was then disinterred and opened, with the view of placing the deceased baby in it; but, horrible to relate, it was discovered by only too evident signs that the woman had been buried alive, and had recovered consciousness after burial.”
The Undertakers’ Journal, November 22, 1880, relates the following:
“An extraordinary story is reported from Tredegar, South Wales. A man was buried at Cefn Golan Cemetery, and it is alleged that some of those who took part in carrying the body to the burial-ground heard knocking inside the coffin. No notice was taken of the affair at the time, but it has now come up again, and the rumour has caused a painful sensation throughout the district. It is stated that application has been made to the Home Secretary for permission to exhume the body.”
Mr. William Harbutt, School of Art, Bath, writes to me, November 27, 1895:
“The copies of the pamphlet The Perils of Premature Burial, by Professor Alex. Wilder, you kindly sent me are in circulation. Almost everyone to whom I mention the subject knows some instances. One, a case at Radstock, twelve miles from Bath, where the bearers at the funeral heard noises inside the coffin, but were afraid to open it without the authority from a magistrate. When it was opened next day the appearance of the body showed that he had been coffined alive, and had had a terrible struggle to escape.”
Which beggars the question … how is premature cremation any better than premature burial? And this brings us to my second ‘heebie jeebie’ scene … Diamonds Are Forever. James Bond (Sean Connery) is knocked unconscious and awakens in a coffin … in the funeral oven. As he kicks out trying to get free, the flames lick the outside of the coffin. Urgh!
To conclude this shiversome subject, don’t forget to check out two other famous works on the subject: Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Premature Burial and Roger Corman’s film of the same name below.
STEPHEN JACOBS recently won the Rondo Award for Book of the Year for his authorised biography Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster. His website is here. Click here for previous Stephen Jacobs stories for The Spooky Isles.