Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear by Jan Bondeson, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear

Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear

by Jan Bondeson
     
 
An engrossing and witty history of the fear and the facts of being buried alive. Readers of Edgar Allan Poe's tales—just think of The Premature Burial—may comfort themselves with the notion that Poe must have exaggerated: surely people of the 1800s could not have been at risk of being buried alive? But such stories filled medical journals as

Overview

An engrossing and witty history of the fear and the facts of being buried alive. Readers of Edgar Allan Poe's tales—just think of The Premature Burial—may comfort themselves with the notion that Poe must have exaggerated: surely people of the 1800s could not have been at risk of being buried alive? But such stories filled medical journals as well as fiction, and fear in the populace was high. It was speculated, from the number of skeletons found in horrific, contorted positions inside their coffins, that ten out of every one hundred people were buried before they were dead. In the extensively illustrated Buried Alive, Jan Bondeson explores the medicine, folklore, history, and literature of Europe and the United States to uncover why such fears arose, and whether they were warranted. He looks at the bizarre nineteenth-century security coffins with bellropes or escape hatches, and the macabre waiting mortuaries for decaying corpses. Finally, he questions whether our criteria for determining if someone is dead today are truly reliable. 30 illustrations.

Editorial Reviews

Salon.com
A weird and wonderful little tome.
Lingua Franca
Bondeson weaves a strange disturbing, and weirdly enthralling tale. Cremation never sounded so good.
Patrick McGrath
A most useful and entertaining book....Deserves a place on every bedside table in America.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"The huge modern textbooks on forensic medicine... choose to ignore the fact that less than 150 years ago many medical practitioners freely admitted to being uncertain whether their patients were dead or alive." As the author (whose excellent The London Monster was published in December; see Forecasts, Nov. 20, 2000) shows in this engrossing yet disappointing book, the fear of accidentally being buried alive reverberated throughout 18th- and 19th-century Europe and the United States, and even continued into the 20th century. Hundreds of stories about people being discovered buried alive circulated in medical journals, literature (from the medieval Decameron to Edgar Allan Poe) and popular lore. This fear spurred doctors to debate when life ends, and motivated Germany to create mortuaries in the 1800s in which corpses rotted for days before they could be interred. In 1822, another German invented a "security coffin," in which a person buried prematurely could breathe through a tube by triggering a mechanism. The subject is fascinating, and Bondeson, a medical doctor, is thorough in discussing the alleged cases. The "shameful past of medical science with regard to the certainty of the signs of death" was, indeed, a real problem. Yet he readily acknowledges that the numbers of those buried alive were "exaggerated." If that is true, as by his own account it appears to be, then a book that studied the fear itself and what factors affected this deep-rooted dread might have been more fruitful. The few pages where Bondeson does this--where, for instance, he discusses the impact of the coffin's development in the 17th and 18th centuries--are where his subject truly comes, well, alive. 30 illus.. (Mar.) Forecast: It worked for Poe and it'll work for Bondeson. This book, cleverly rich with illustrations, will not only sell well in hardcover but could prove a hit down the road in trade paperback. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Except for tabloid reporters and fans of Edgar Allan Poe, few Americans today give a thought to an obsession that haunted their ancestors, the possibility of premature burial. Expanding a chapter in his recent A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities (LJ 10/15/97), Bondeson, a physician with a Ph.D. in experimental medicine, explores this terror and the facts behind it. Fear of premature burial as a public concern emerged in Europe in the late 18th century, as religion yielded to rationalism and physicians realized that there was no infallible indication of death except decay. Alarmists asserted that as many as one in ten bodies was buried alive, and well-publicized panics waxed and waned for two centuries, emerging most recently in response to "brain death" as a new medical standard for the end of life. As late as the 1970s, an entrepreneur marketed a security coffin, perfect for librarians, that included books to allow the newly revived to pass the time constructively while awaiting the welcome scrape of a rescuing shovel. Thankfully, Bondeson concludes that, except in sensational journalism and Gothic fiction, mistaken burials were actually extremely rare. Although claustrophobics should beware, readers in most libraries will find this book both unusual and fascinating.--Kathy Arsenault, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Edgar Allan Poe did not invent the premature burial. In fact, as this history shows, 19th-century medical journals as well as fiction contained accounts of people buried alive, and fear of such a fate was common enough that security coffins were sold with bell ropes or escape hatches. Bondeson (U. of Wales) explores medicine, folklore, history, and literature to uncover why such fears arose and whether they were warranted. A physician as well as a spritely writer, Bondeson has carved out a specialty for himself in unraveling strange histories of peculiar events and beliefs; his previous books include , , and . Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
Grave matters are treated with wit and erudition in this study of premature burial throughout Western history, from physician Bondeson (The London Monster, 2000, etc.). When one 18th-century French proponent for burial reform wrote that"Death is certain, since it is inevitable, but also uncertain, since its diagnosis is sometimes fallible," he was living in a time when feather quill tickling, urine mouthwashing, and tobacco smoke enemas were all advocated as instruments in the precise diagnosis and certification of death. Bondeson's macabre study begins in European antiquity and moves swiftly through the medieval superstitions and Renaissance legends. The bulk of the text deals with the period from 1750-1900 in Europe and America, years that correspond with the development of Western medicine as we know it. The author, a doctor himself, exhumes some fascinating material from the history of the German Leichenhauser (waiting mortuaries where bells were tied to the fingers of corpses should they bestir and shake themselves back to life) to the literary and philosophical overtones of the French debate on accuracy in death certification. Quacks, eccentrics, and charlatans run as rampant as earnest medical reformers throughout Bondeson's account, while the forces of ambition and greed are as constant as those of fear and humanitarianism. He follows the history of premature interment up to the present day (yes, Virginia, cases of premature burial still occur), and one digressive chapter deals with the depiction of premature burial in art (particularly books and movies) from Edgar Allan Poe to Roger Corman. The impressive medical history uncovered by the author'sthoroughgoing research iswell-presented and somewhat better than his argument (which falls somewhat by the wayside) that the fear of premature burial was ever as widespread as he suggests. A necrobibliac classic (in the tradition of Nancy Mitford's American Way of Death) it may keep you up all night—not from fear but from fascination.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393049060
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
03/01/2001
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 8.67(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Miracles of the Dead


In our graveyards with winter winds blowing
There's a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing
But can it be said
That the buried are dead
With their nails and their hair still growing?
Anonymous nineteenth-century limerick


In classical antiquity, the absence of a heartbeat was the accepted sign of death. The heart was the seat of life: the first organ to live and the last one to die. Breathing was considered just a regulator of the heat of the heart. There was an awareness that the brain influenced reason and sensation, but the brain's actions were still deemed dependent on the existence of a functional heart. Aristotle taught that a person was an integral combination of body and soul; the soul could not exist without a body, and the death of the body meant the death of the soul. He recognized three parts of the soul with different actions: the vegetative soul regulated bodily vitality, the animative soul controlled motion and sensation, and the rational soul, or the mind, governed the higher mental faculties. The rational soul might die without affecting the vitality of the body; indeed, animals could subsist their entire lives without one. The death of the vegetative soul always caused bodily death, however. Relatively little is known about what criteria of death were actually used in classical antiquity: one would presume that feeling the pulse had a central part, given the emphasis on the action of the heart as the divider between life and death. Immobility, coldness, andincipientputrefaction probably also played a role. Actually, when the classical physician spoke of "signs of death," he meant the physical signs in Hippocrates' Prognostikon that death was inevitable; the presence of these signs indicated that the doctor's work was done. According to the Hippocratic medical ethics, a doctor should then forecast the impending demise, collect his fee, and withdraw from the case. The actual diagnosis of death was left to the nonmedical attendants, often the patient's own family and relations.

    There is evidence that already in classical antiquity some observers were aware that the criteria of death might sometimes be fallible. The seventh book of Pliny's Natural History contains a section on the signs of death among the Romans. Rather pessimistically, Pliny wrote that the signs of death are innumerable, but that there are no signs that health is secure. Although many in number, these death signs were not always reliable. Shockingly, the consul Acilius Aviola and the praetor Lucius Lamia had both awakened on their flaming funeral pyres after being falsely declared dead, and the attendants could save neither of them from a most horrible death. Another Roman worthy, Gaius Aelius Tubero, managed to show signs of life while actually on the pyre, fortunately before it was too late. Pliny also mentioned several instances where people had been carried out on a bier to be buried, but returned on foot. He concluded, "Such is the condition of humanity, and so uncertain is men's judgment, that they cannot determine even death itself." Plutarch told of a man who had fallen from a precipice and who lay motionless for three days before returning to life as his friends carried him to the grave. In Plato's Republic can be found the tale of an Armenian soldier named Er who was slain in battle. Ten days later, the surviving soldiers returned to bury the dead and were surprised to find that even though all other bodies were corrupted, that of Er was still intact. This finding did not weaken their conviction that he was dead, however, and they put him on a funeral pyre, where, to the great surprise of all those present, he returned to life and was saved. The very influential Greek physician Galen recommended great caution in certain diseases, like hysteria, asphyxia, coma, and catalepsy, since the signs of life could be suspended for weeks without affecting the chance for recovery. In his De locis affectis, he commented on a case report given by Heraclides of Pontus, concerning a woman who had collapsed from "uterine suffocation" and was without a perceivable pulse or respiration for thirty days, before reviving. Galen was also aware that some people who died from excessive joy or grief were known to recover; moreover, he considered it unwise to consign to the grave too hastily those who had died from intoxication with alcohol or soporific drafts. In his De medicina, the influential Roman physician Aurelius Cornelius Celsus agreed, stating that the art of medicine was conjectural, and the signs of death not always totally reliable. As evidence, he repeated the tale of Asclepiades of Prusa, who discovered that the "corpse" carried along in a funeral cortege was not really dead. But he also wrote that a sign should not be rejected if it was deceptive in just 1 out of 1,000 instances, if it held good in the other 999 patients. This controversy will recur again and again in the debate about the uncertainty of the signs of death. Celsus knew of cases where medical attendants had deserted their patients, after making a gloomy prognosis, only to find that the patients had recovered without their help. It was rumored, he wrote, that some people had even shown signs of life when carried to their funerals. There exists a manuscript of declamations attributed to Fabius Quintilien, but which is probably by a later Roman author, which contains some interesting observations concerning the reasons for delayed funerals in ancient Rome. The pseudo-Quintilien wrote, "For what purpose do you imagine that long-delayed interments were invented? Or, on what account it is that the mournful pomp of funeral solemnities is always accompanied by sorrowful groans and piercing cries? Why, for no other reason, but because we have seen people return to life after they were about to be laid in the grave as dead."

    Some interesting information about how the ancients viewed the reliability (or lack of it) of their procedures for declaring people dead can be found in some ancient Greek and Arabic novels and stories. In the anonymous Greek novel Apollonius, Prince of Tyre, a physician finds a floating coffin with the corpse of a young woman in it. Some money has been put in the coffin, with a note stating that half of it should be used for a decent funeral pyre for the corpse, and the other half as a fee for the individual who found the coffin. The physician orders a funeral pyre to be prepared, but one of his apprentices actually manages to revive the presumed corpse by rubbing her body with ointment and oil; she makes her resurrection known by saying, "Doctor, please do not touch me in any way that is not proper. For I am the wife of a king and the daughter of a king." She turns out to be the wife of Prince Apollonius of Tyre, who was mistakenly buried at sea; it was equally fortunate and unrealistic that the coffin was not submerged by the waves. In a medieval Arabic tale, a baker eats a large meal of apricots and hot bread and falls lifeless to the ground shortly thereafter. The local doctor declares him dead from overeating, but fortunately the famous doctor Yabrudi passes by as the funeral procession is on the way to the burial yard. Yabrudi examines the baker and demands to know exactly what caused his death. He then prepares a powerful laxative, which soon has the desired effect; after a volcanic emptying of the bowels, the gourmandizing baker revives and is able to walk back to his shop.

    A very long-lived and powerful literary motif, which will be encountered many times in this book, is that of the heroine who is buried alive, but saved by a robber. The first incarnation of this legendary figure is to be found in the novel Chariéas and Callirhoé, by Chariton of Aphrodisias, a Greek writer active between the first and second century A.D. The heroine Callirhoé one day annoys her jealous husband, Chariéas, who is ungallant enough to kick her so violently in the stomach that she falls unconscious. She presents all signs of death and is promptly buried in a vault. Poor Callirhoé awakens in the tomb, however, breaks free from her shroud, and cries, "I am alive! Help me!" But no one can hear her, and she laments, "Alas, what misfortune! I am buried alive, through no fault of my own, and I will die a very long death!" But some pirates have decided to break into the vault to plunder it; they save Callirhoé and later sell her as a slave. The same theme recurs in the novel The Ephiesians, by Xenophon of Ephesos, a Greek writer active at about the same period. The heroine Antheia is to marry a certain Perilaos, but she considers this a fate worse than death and procures poison from a physician. On the morning of her supposed wedding day, she swallows it. The physician abided by the Hippocratic oath enough to be unwilling to participate actively in the suicide of one of his patients, however, and substituted a sleeping potion for the poison. Less valorously, the elderly practitioner did not mention this substitution to anyone, and when Antheia awakens, it is in the tomb. At that moment, however, a band of robbers breaks into the vault to steal her valuable jewelry, with which she has been buried, and she is saved from her premature burial and later reunited with her husband. These stories certainly imply that the fear of being buried alive, after having been mistaken for dead in a comatose state, and of awakening in the tomb, is a deep-seated one; the tale of the prematurely buried Callirhoé, and her pathetic lamentation in the dark and lonely vault, must have been listened to with a frisson of horror.

    Much of the medical knowledge of antiquity was forgotten in medieval times, and there are fewer sources pertaining to the signs of death, and to the concerns about premature burial, from this period. A remarkable anecdote tells that King Louis IX (Saint Louis) of France fell ill in 1244 with some kind of enteritis: he was severely weakened by the incessant diarrhea, and his doctors considered him to be dead. But when mass was said over the king's dead body, he moved and gave some other signs of life. Louis IX recovered completely, and in order to give thanks for what he regarded as a divine intervention to save his life, he equipped and led a crusade to Egypt. Another curious story of uncertain origin (and doubtful veracity) tells that Thomas à Kempis, who died in 1471, was denied canonization because splinters of wood from the coffin lid were found embedded underneath his fingernails when the coffin was opened; why, if he had been worthy of becoming a saint, had he made such desperate efforts to postpone his meeting with his Maker? The fact that some fourteenth-century English aristocrats, like Elizabeth de Burgh and John, duke of Lancaster, made bequests stipulating that their bodies be left above ground for several weeks without being embalmed, has by some observers been attributed to a fear of premature burial, but this was not mentioned in any of the actual bequests as the reason for these extraordinary delays. It has also been suggested that uncertainty about the moment of death, and fear of a live burial, caused some medieval funerals to be long, drawn-out affairs, and that the religious custom of holding a candle near the mouth of the person in extremis was a crude test of death, since a breath would cause the flame to flicker. Quite a few excavations of early cemeteries show that the most common burial positions were either with the arms by the sides of the body, the hands over the pelvis, or the arms crossed over the chest. But there are both Danish and British examples of skeletons found in gruesome, contorted positions, suggesting that the person was either killed violently and dumped into the grave face down or buried alive by accident or as a punishment.


The seventeenth century was the age of the old monster medicine, a time when medical science was immersed in a rich subculture of pagan myths, religious legends, and popular superstitions. Death was defined as a state where life was extinct and the soul had left the body; a person could be either dead or alive, and no concept existed of a process of dying. Death was regarded as a wholly supernatural, obscure phenomenon, outside the limits of rational analysis. The resemblance between death and sleep was stressed: in both these states, the soul was considered to be concentrated outside the body, thereby capable of communicating with God. Another important observation concerned the mummies, which were believed still to have elements of life within them as long as the embalming preparations preserved them from corruption. Life was thus an exception from nature: a mystic force that could be retained in a cadaver by artificial means. The seventeenth-century scholars who wanted to study the phenomenon of death more closely did so by collecting observations concerning the dead body. They often preferred the popular, superstitious belief that the cadaver still had some degree of life and sensibility to the Christian dogma that the union and separation of body and soul accounted for creation and death.

    At this time, curious anecdotes, legends, and folklore about the dead body abounded. Why did the body of a murdered man start to bleed profusely when the murderer entered the room, and why was a ghostly rattle of the bones from the tomb of Pope Sylvester II always heard just before the death of a pope? Why did the hair and nails of some cadavers keep growing after death, and why did some of them even cut new teeth? Who are the more happy, the dead or the living, and are all humans, even the most hideous monsters, resurrected in heaven? These were some of the questions addressed in Dr. Heinrich Kornmann's curious book De miraculis mortuorum, a treatise on the miracles of the dead, first published in 1610. Among the sections on incorruptible saints, screaming corpses, speaking skulls, and jumping specters in Kornmann's book is to be found a brief note concerning a certain Cardinal Andreas, who died in Rome and was to be buried in a cathedral, where the pope and a body of clergy attended a service to honor his memory. But during the service the cardinal groaned and sat up in his coffin. This was looked on as a miracle and ascribed to the influence of Saint Jerome, to whom the cardinal was greatly attached. Another note describes the death of Archbishop Geron of Cologne, who was prematurely buried in a tomb in his own cathedral, and expired in the most lamentable manner; his sad fate was deemed just as miraculous as the phenomena discussed earlier.

    Another view of the miracles of the dead is given in the German medical practitioner Christian Friedrich Garmann's similarly titled treatise De miraculis mortuorum. Like many other seventeenth-century doctors and scientists, he was immensely erudite and preferred the compilation of numerous quotations from the classical literature, and the ancient repositories of curious medical anecdotes, to actual observations by himself or other contemporaries. The first edition of Garmann's book appeared in 1670, but he kept compiling more and more miracles, so the ultimate version of his book, posthumously published in 1709, was an encyclopedic work of more than twelve hundred pages. It provides a veritable dictionary of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century observations, beliefs, and superstitions about the dark underground world of cadavers.

    The theme of the still-living dead is even stronger in Garmann's book. Garmann gives examples of corpses that grew in size, moved, laughed, or wept, corpses whose facial expression changed, and even corpses whose hearts kept on beating. He cites instances of living children delivered from a dead mother by means of cesarean section, so it could be concluded that corpses could give birth. He also reports many observations of corpses with an erect penis. Indeed, when the corpses of dead soldiers were once undressed after a fierce battle, Garmann writes, many of them were in a state as if the engagement had taken place in the bedroom. The concluding forty-five pages of his book deal with the miracles of resuscitated and resurrected corpses. Garmann had read about a certain Zoroaster, who revived on the funeral pyre twelve days after being considered dead, and a boy described by a certain Dr. Valvasor, who came to life when his coffin was put into the grave. The learned Velschius told a story that was well known at the time: when grave robbers dug up the coffin of a recently buried woman in Cologne, she revived as they cut her finger to steal a valuable ring; exactly the same story was current about a young lady from Bohemia. Nowhere in Garmann's treatise is it concluded that these latter instances should perhaps prompt more careful scrutiny of individuals presumed dead to prevent the interment of still-living people; the events are interpreted as miraculous resurrections rather than as actual rescues from the tomb.

    Another eerie phenomenon was the masticatio mortuorum, the ability of cadavers to eat their shrouds, or even their own fingers and arms. Garmann devoted an entire chapter to these matters: typically, a groaning sound is heard from the tomb, along with a loud smacking and chewing as the cadaver eats away. A dead woman had eaten her hands, and a man had devoured his entire body. There was no question that these noisy cadavers were actually still alive, and Garmann quoted observations where people had actually dug up the coffin in question and found that its groaning and chewing inmate had been reduced to a loathsome heap of putrefaction. The masticatio mortuorum was considered to be a bad omen, a warning that famine or disease was imminent. In 1734, the German doctor Michael Ranft published an entire "Treatise concerning the Screaming and Chewing of Corpses in their Graves." He agreed with Garmann that this phenomenon was a supernatural one, which could not be explained by medical science.

    The concept and application of the signs of death did not change much from the time of Celsus until the mid-seventeenth century: the heartbeat and arterial pulsations were the central criteria, but various crude tests for respiration and sensibility also existed. Many people were not seen by a doctor during their final illness, nor were they examined after death; the practical application of the signs of death was thus often left to laypeople. Some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century physicians were aware of the dangers of hasty funerals. Already the old Salmuth recommended caution in these matters; in particular, the bodies of women known to be of a nervous and hysterical disposition should be left above ground for three days before burial. Petrus Forestus, another sixteenth-century medical writer, agreed, since he actually knew of cases where women "buried during a paroxysm of the hysteric passion" had returned to life in their graves. In 1670, the Germans Theodorus Kirchmaier and Christophorus Nottnagel pointed out the difficulty in distinguishing real from apparent death, and the wisdom of delaying the funeral for some days when there was any doubt. Cessation of heartbeat and respiration, coldness and insensibility were but uncertain signs of death and should be judged with caution. They had spoken to a man from Wittenberg named August Schwenske, who had been mistaken for dead when just three years old, but had been rescued and was now a grown man and a father. They quoted the opinions of some learned contemporaries with approval: Amatus Lusitanus had observed a girl from Ferrara who had been presumed dead from apoplexy, but her mother was so distraught that she let no one bury her. On the third day after the apoplectic attack (probably a lengthy epileptic seizure), she revived. The most famous instance of premature burial involved the soldier François de Civille, who was said to have been thrice declared dead and as many times rescued from the tomb. He had been born by caesarean section to a dead mother exhumed from her coffin. He became an army captain. Later he was severely wounded in the siege of Rouen in 1563 and buried alive in a common grave on the battlefield. His servant, who had wanted to dig his master a more fitting grave, discovered that he was not dead. While François de Civille was recovering from his wound, a troop of hostile soldiers burst into the house and threw the convalescent into a dung heap, where he remained buried for three days until dug out a third time, and nursed back to health. According to a gravestone in Milan, François de Civille was finally buried in the graveyard of that city; he had died at the age of 105, from a chill contracted while "serenading the lady of his heart all night long."

    Giovanni Maria Lancisi, first physician to Pope Clement IX, had once seen the presumed corpse sit up in his coffin during the funeral mass in a church in Rome, and this naturally made him doubt the current principles for declaring people dead. In a treatise on sudden death, published in 1707, he pointed out that errors such as this one were due not to deficiency of the medical art but to the carelessness of certain practitioners, who abandoned their patients to the mortuary bearers too early. He suggested an impressive list of tests to be used in situations when there was uncertainty whether life was extinct: smelling salts, sneezing powder, tufts of wool to be put into the nostrils and a dry mirror put before the mouth to test for respiration, and a full goblet of water on the chest to test for motion of the diaphragm. The pulse was of paramount importance as a sign of death, but the physician should take care not to feel his own pulse by mistake, and thus declare a corpse to be still living.


The first evidence Of any concerns in England over the signs of death and the risk of premature burial appears in Sir Francis Bacon's Historia vitae et mortis. He knew that the famous philosopher John Duns Scotus had been liable to some obscure kind of fits, during which he became surprisingly deathlike. When he was staying in Cologne, he was declared dead and buried after a fit, but his servant came up and said that the wretched man had probably been buried alive. He, the servant, had been instructed to prevent this at all costs, but he had taken a detour and arrived too late. When Duns Scotus's coffin had been exhumed, it was seen that the corpse's hands were torn and the fingers gnawed, from which it was concluded that the servant's apprehensions had been only too valid. For many years, Duns Scotus's tomb had a plaque with a Latin inscription, which was translated as follows:


Mark this man's demise, o traveler,
For here lies John Scot, once interr'd
But twice dead; we are now wiser
And still alive, who then so err'd.


    The seventeenth-century medical and scientific literature provides little additional evidence that the English people of this time worried about premature burial. The subject of people buried alive occurs in some popular pamphlets, but these publications were notoriously fanciful and should not be taken as proof that the fear of apparent death and premature burial was widespread at this time. One of them, The Most Lamentable and Deplorable Accident, tells the sad tale of Lawrence Cawthorn, a butcher in Newgate Market in London, who suddenly fell ill sometime in 1661. His wicked landlady, eager to inherit his belongings, saw to it that he was hastily buried. But at the chapel where Cawthorn was buried, the visiting mourners were horrified by a muffled shriek from the tomb and by a frenzied clawing at the coffin walls. When finally disinterred, Cawthorn's lifeless body was a horrid sight: the shroud was torn to pieces, the eyes hideously swollen, and "the brains beaten out of the head." It was concluded, "Amongst all the torments that Mankind is capable of, the most dreadful of them, and that which Nature most shrinks at is to be buried alive," and the covetous landlady was roundly accused of having deliberately put the butcher living into the tomb. According to another pamphlet, entitled A Full and True Relation of a Maid Living in Newgate Street, attempts at rescue were similarly futile when a sixteen-year-old girl was heard to groan and cry from her four-day-old grave in a London cemetery. No seventeenth-century pamphlet was complete without a moralistic conclusion: the poor girl's master and mistress had abused her so horribly that she had been overheard to pray that she would rather be buried alive than live in such misery; the Almighty did not tarry long before fulfilling this imprudent wish.

    Much more sinister, and also more truthful, than either of these two pamphlets was News from Basing-Stoak, published in 1674, which heralded what was considered one of the most celebrated cases of premature burial of all time. Madam Blunden, a native of Basingstoke unflatteringly described as "a fat gross woman who liked to drink brandy," one evening felt indisposed and ordered some poppy water from the apothecary. She drank most of it and fell into a deathlike stupor. Her servants sent for the apothecary who had prepared this decoction of opium, and after surveying what was left in the bottle, the apothecary pronounced that she had taken enough not to wake up for forty-eight hours and would therefore never rise again. Madam Blunden's relations and servants were convinced by this dubious deduction on the part of the obtuse medical attendant. Her husband, the wealthy maltster William Blunden, one of the leading citizens in Basingstoke, wanted to defer the funeral until he could return from London, but the vile smell from Madam Blunden's huge body was so overpowering that her relations unanimously decided to have her buried the day after her presumed demise. As the coffin was set down between two stools, one of the pallbearers was heard to joke that they had probably made Madam Blunden's coffin too short, since he had clearly seen her stir because she could not lie easy. The man was rebuked for his levity.

    Two days after the funeral, some schoolboys were playing in the burial ground near the Chapel of the Holy Ghost, when they heard a hollow voice emanating from the earth near Madam Blunden's grave. Coming nearer, they could hear the plea "Take me out of my grave!" intermixed with "fearful groans and dismal shriekings." Terrified, the boys ran to fetch their schoolmaster, but the brutal pedagogue took no action except to reproach them severely and to thrash some of them for telling such obvious lies. The morning after, the boys were back in the churchyard and heard the same ghostly voice from underground. This time, the usher did not resort to his birch rod, but uneasily suspected that there might be something in this extraordinary story after all. He went to ask the verger to have Madam Blunden's grave opened, but this individual refused to do anything of the kind without permission from the churchwardens. This body met the same afternoon and discussed the matter at length; not until the evening was Madam Blunden finally exhumed. The body being lamentably bruised and beaten, it was presumed that the injuries were self-inflicted during the horrid struggle underground. No signs of life could be detected, but the churchwardens nevertheless posted some custodians to stand watch over the grave during the night. It was a wet night, however, and these custodians left the body in the coffin, put the lid on, and went indoors. The next morning, it was seen that Madam Blunden had again revived: the winding sheet was torn off, and she had scratched herself in several places and beaten her mouth until it was covered with blood. A doctor was called, but he could only confirm that all life was gone, this time for good. There was of course an inquest after these almost unparalleled atrocities, and several individuals were held responsible for Madam Blunden's death. But after a physician of the town {perhaps the same unwise apothecary who decanted the poppy water in the first place) had testified under oath that he had applied a looking glass to her mouth without being able to discern any breath coming from her, they were let off. The town of Basingstoke was made to pay a large fine, however, for this neglect.

    In 1819, the independent Minister Joseph Jefferson made inquiries in Basingstoke whether any person alive could remember the dreadful fate of Madam Blunden. Two old ladies recalled that their ancestors had been among the schoolboys involved; they both used to say that they had heard a noise in the vault and that the bruises on Madam Blunden's face and the dew inside the coffin had led people to conclude that she had been buried alive. Mrs. Paris, the local midwife, was blamed for having persuaded Mr. Blunden to bury his wife too hastily; the servant maid Ann Runnegar, who had handed her mistress the fatal poppy water, had lost her reason on account of the dreadful event. The ancient Holy Ghost Chapel in Basingstoke was in ruins already in Jefferson's times, but these ruins are still standing. It is known that Madam Blunden was finally buried in the Liten burial ground close to the chapel. In 1896, the burial reform propagandist William Tebb visited the Blunden vault, which he was in some way able to identify although the inscription on the gravestone was completely obliterated. When I made the same pilgrimage to these interesting old ruins in September 1999, I was less fortunate in this respect, since all remaining older gravestones have been defaced by the combined actions of time and the elements. It is interesting to note that there is still a local tradition in these parts that, a long time ago, a woman was buried alive in this cemetery and that the place is haunted.


It is easy enough to quote the seventeenth-century medical works on the subject of the uncertainty of the signs of death, but more difficult to determine what impact the learned and obtuse discussion in these dusty tomes really had on the attitude of laypeople. There are some interesting French data concerning this, however, gleaned from studies of early wills. After all, it was a natural thing for people fearing premature burial to insert a clause in their wills to make sure they escaped this dire fate. The earliest example of this is offered by Princess Elizabeth of Orléans, whose will dated March 1, 1684, explicitly requested that she not be shrouded until twenty-four hours after death and that the body then be cut twice under the soles of the feet with a razor. The will of the parson Jean Poitevin, dated 1705, was even more elaborate. The parson desired that, at the chosen hour for God to call him up to his Heavenly Kingdom, his dead body be well taken care of. It should be carefully determined that he was really dead, however, by means of the most certain tests of death (he made no suggestions himself). This was not, he stressed, because he was greatly attached to being alive, but because he had read about people being buried alive and knew that this had happened to one of his ancestors. The wills that specified any fears of premature burial were a small minority, however. An investigation of one thousand Parisian wills from 1710 to 1725 turned up only two that had clauses about avoiding premature interment: again, a townswoman requested to be cut under the soles of the feet before burial, and the widow of a marquis asked to be kept above earth for twenty-four hours before burial and to have her chest opened so that the heart could be seen, thus making a live burial impossible.

    In the seventeenth-century, many physicians were aware of the risk of fatal errors in declaring people dead during plague or cholera epidemics. The epidemics of the time usually caused mayhem: the carnage of victims was almost unbelievable, and the authorities often tried to limit the spread of the disease by burying the victims quickly. These conditions did not allow for any careful scrutiny of each dead (or perhaps not so dead) body that was hurled into the mass graves. The chronicles of Simon Goulart tell that when the town of Dijon was ravaged by the plague in 1558, people died so quickly that they had to be buried in plague pits instead of individual graves. The supposedly dead body of a woman named Nicole Tentillet was thrown into one of these pits. She revived the morning after and made efforts to climb out, but the weight of the corpses above her held her down. Four days later, the gravediggers brought more corpses and fortunately observed Mme Tentillet's predicament; she was taken back to her own house, where she recovered completely. The influential papal physician Paolo Zacchia saw a young man who had twice been believed dead from the plague in Rome in 1656, but both times recovered. Zacchia presumed that several people had been erroneously buried alive during this epidemic. He recommended that initial decomposition and a fetid smell, heralding initial putrefaction, should be awaited before burial in doubtful cases. In his treatise on the plague, the Dutch physician Isbrand van Diemerbroeck agreed. He had once seen a peasant named Pierre Petit, from the village of Bommel, not far from Nijmegen, who had been declared dead in a plague epidemic, but revived after several days of a deathlike stupor. Van Diemerbroeck wrote that it was very likely that people had been buried alive in plague epidemics, particularly because it was customary to bury people just a few hours after death.

    The great plague of Marseilles raged from 1720 until 1722 and claimed about fifty thousand victims, half the city's population. The streets were cluttered with corpses, and mass graves were dug all around the town. One of them, at the Observance monastery, was excavated in 1994 when a housing development was being built. The excavation process brought a curious discovery: in two of the corpses discovered, an inch-long bronze pin was found in contact with the big toe, in a position as if it had been deliberately driven underneath the nail of the big toe. Pin implantation under the toenail as a means of verifying death had been suggested by both Zacchia and Lancisi in the books previously quoted, but this is the first historical evidence of the actual use of this method.

    England saw similar concerns about premature burials during the 1604 and 1665 plague epidemics. Persons believed to be profiting from the disease incurred much hatred and distrust, and doctors as well as keepers of the sick were accused of killing people or deliberately burying them alive. In the 1665 epidemic, a butcher in Newgate Market thought to be dead was not taken away from his room, because of the negligence of the corpse bearers. He returned to life during the night, came downstairs, and complained to a little girl that he felt cold. Another story tells of a poor simpleton piper who had passed out in the street after having had too much to drink in a public house. When the corpse cart came by to pick up a corpse from the house next door, the men threw the piper's lifeless body onto the cart as well, believing him to be yet another plague corpse. One version of the tale has the piper make his resurrection known by playing his instrument! Daniel Defoe spoke to the man who drove the cart, however, and found out the truth. The unconscious piper, buried under a heap of corpses, had suddenly shouted, "Hey! Where am I?," when the cart was unloaded at the Mount Mill plague pit. The men were frightened, believing that he was a ghost, but one of them said, "Why, you are in the dead-cart, and we are going to bury you!" The simple piper replied, "But I an't dead though, am I?," which made them laugh. The poet William Austin spoke for many when he wrote,


Wisely they leave graves open for the dead
'Cause some too early are
brought to bed.


One out of trance return'd, after much strife,
Among a heap of
dead, exclaims for life.
One finding himself as some maid hard lace't,
Or as a
watch for pocket, straightly case't,
Equaly terrifi'd with
pain and fear,
Complains to those can neither speak nor hear.

Meet the Author

Jan Bondenson, M.D., is professor at the University of Wales College of Medicine. He is the author of A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, The Feejee Mermaid, The Two-Headed Boy, and The London Master, among other works.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >