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Prematurely Buried

A recurring theme in many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reports of alleged premature burial was that the prematurely dead individuals were stated to have gnawed or eaten their own fingers, or even their entire arms. Modern forensic medicine has demonstrated that this was, most probably, due to rodents feeding on the dead body. They usually began at the fingertips and worked their way up the arms toward the torso. In 1966, there arose considerable uproar in the Austrian village of Vorarlberg, after it was believed that a groan had been heard from the coffin of an eighty-six-year-old, one-legged invalid who had died a few days earlier. The man's son insisted that a doctor be called, to open the coffin and examine the body. The discovery that the body had injuries on the face and fingers provoked an outcry that he had been buried alive and had bitten his hands in agony. The body was sent to the Forensic Institute of Innsbruck, where Professor F. J. Holzer examined it closely. He found that rats had gnawed a hole at the foot end of the coffin and had fed on the corpse's face, knee, and fingers. There was no vital reaction, proving that the man had really been dead at the time the rodents made a meal of him. Professor Holzer visited the old man's house, and although the son denied that they had rats, he found two large rat holes in the very room where the coffin had been kept. The rats had thus entered the coffin before it was carried to the mortuary. The groaning noise was presumed to have been either one of the rats squeaking or a mewing from one of the cemetery cats.' It is well substantiated from other modern observations that rats can cause injuries exactly matching those presumed to have been due to the frantic scuffle of the prematurely buried person, who gnawed his fingers and wounded his face in the desperate struggle to get free. This would almost put the mind at rest, were it not for an observation by the nineteenth-century Swedish physician Per Hedenius. Some young students had decided to walk across the frozen Oresund from Lund to Copenhagen; on their way back, however, the ice was broken by a storm. All the students were saved except one, who was found dead on a block of ice, where he had desperately tried to keep alive in the bitter cold. All his fingers were missing, and the doctor thought they had been eaten by some bird of prey attacking the body, but at autopsy their gnawed remains were found in his stomach.

But what about the cases where a "cry for help" was heard from the coffin. Under the heading "Noises from the Tomb," Tebb and Vollu reported three of these instances. The Sunday Times of December 30 1838, told the tale of a deceased Frenchman from Tonneins, who ha. been duly declared dead. But when the gravedigger threw the first shovelfuls of earth on the coffin, "an indistinct noise" was heard to emerge from it. Terrified beyond description, the gravedigger fled to seek assistance. The coffin was opened, and the man's frightfully contracted countenance was considered sure proof he had been buried alive. A doctor opened a vein, but no blood flowed; "the sufferer was beyond the reach of art." There was also a case of "smothered cries" coming from coffin put in the cemetery watchhouse in a village near Naples, an another of "moaning" emerging from the coffin of a recently buried Russian girl. But when the coffins were opened by the trembling hands of the distraught vergers, who expected to see a hideous spectacle inside, the corpses were found to be dead and still. These stories recall the screaming corpses of Garmann's miracles of the dead, and Michael Ranft's noisy cadavers that ate their own shrouds. They share a common origin in the same eerie phenomenon. In some instances, the buildup of intestinal gas inside the cadaver emerges through the throat, passing through the voice box and producing the so-called Totenlaut: a sometimes quite loud, moaning noise. It is interesting to reconsider the famous case of the prematurely buried Madam Blunden, of Basingstoke, whose moaning in her coffin was heard by the playing schoolboys. The contemporary sources state that she was very stout and that the corpse was beginning to smell foully when it was buried. Interestingly, the late eighteenth-century popular tradition speaks only about a noise or moan coming from the Blunden vault; the words "Take me out of my grave!" may well be an invention by the author of the pamphlet News from Basing-Stoak, who probably wanted to give his readers a proper fright. Confirmatory proof comes from the description of Madam Blunden's body puffing up like a bladder when the coffin was opened; this definitely supports the conclusion that putrefaction was well advanced and the buildup of intestinal gases considerable. Perhaps, with this novel information at hand, the city fathers of Basingstoke should appeal the fines imposed against them in 1660.

A Swedish case told of a prematurely buried girl that awoke in her coffin, crying out for help, and later gave birth to a child in her dark prison, before perishing in unimaginable tortures. But the groans and moans from the coffin were most probably due to the Totenlaut, just as in the cases discussed above. The buildup of putrefactive gases inside the cadaver would also result in a highly increased intraabdominal pressure, which in some instances is strong enough to expel an unborn child from the womb. There were in fact quite a few such instances in the alarmist literature: both Hartmann and Tebb and Vollum provide several, and the newspapers delighted in reproducing (and sometimes inventing) these horrible anecdotes. In 1901, a pregnant Frenchwoman named Mme Bobin died of yellow fever in a hospital in Pauillac, in southwest France, and was duly buried. A nurse suspected that the burial had been overly hasty, and Mme Bobin's father had the body exhumed. It was found that a child had been born in the coffin, and in the resulting outcry the prefect and health officers of the town were fined the equivalent of £8,000 for their neglect. This was probably just as unfair as the Basingstoke sentence 240 years earlier. The Sarggeburt, or childbirth in a coffin, was actually a well-described phenomenon in the forensic literature well before that time. In 1854, Alexander van Hasselt was called in to investigate a case of alleged premature burial, in which a woman had given birth to a child in her coffin. He was able to demonstrate that the child had been expelled postmortem.' A mid-nineteenth-century German article described a muffled explosion emanating from the coffin of a pregnant woman who had died twenty-four hours earlier. Upon investigation, it was obvious that the unborn child had been expelled from the womb with considerable force." There were other, similar observations on record, and if Franz Hartmann or Tebb and Vollum had wanted to examine the truth of the newspaper anecdotes they quoted, the facts would not have been, difficult to find. A German review from 1941 lists one hundred instances of childbirth in coffin and remarks that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of them were originally reported as premature burials.

After the Great War, the popular fear of premature burial decreased considerably. Although both medical and nonmedical writings on the subject continued to appear, the London Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial and similar organizations elsewhere declined. This was due largely to the medical breakthroughs of the time, which led to an increased confidence in the medical profession. But it does not mean that "accidents" like those recounted earlier were totally eradicated. It still occasionally happened that some presumed corpse came to life in the morgue, or even in the coffin, but the subject had lost some of its power to fascinate the public.

In the summer of 1915, Dr. D. K. Briggs of Blackville, South Carolina, was called to attend the thirty-year-old black woman Essie Dunbar, who had suffered an attack of epilepsy. He found no signs of life and declared her dead. The corpse was put in a wooden coffin and the funeral arranged for eleven in the following morning, to give Essie's sister, who lived in a neighboring town, the chance to participate. Although the ceremony was a lengthy one, with three preachers taking turns to perform, the sister had still not arrived when Essie's coffin was lowered into its six-foot-deep grave. She appeared a few minutes later, however, and the ministers agreed to dig up the coffin so that she might see Essie one last time. But when the screws were removed and the coffin lid opened, Essie sat up in her coffin and smiled at her sister. The three ministers fell backward into the grave, the shortest suffering three broken ribs as the other two trampled him in their desperate efforts to get out. The mourners, including Essie's sister, believed that she was a ghost, and fled yelling. When they saw that Essie, who had climbed up from the grave, was actually pursuing them, they stampeded into town in a state of complete hysteria. For many years, Essie Dunbar was viewed with suspicion in the neighborhood; there were rumors that she was a zombie who had returned from the dead. In later life, she became a popular local personality, and it is by no means unlikely that the story of her resurrection from the tomb was somewhat improved upon as it was told and retold, and finally appeared in the newspapers after her second and final death in 1955.

Probably the most remarkable twentieth-century instance of alleged premature burial, although dependent on newspaper evidence, is that of the Frenchman Angelo Hays, from the village of St. Quentin de Chalais. In 1937, when he was nineteen years old, his motorcycle skidded out of control; he was thrown from the vehicle and hit a brick wall head first. When Dr. Bathias, the local practitioner, attended him, he shook his head: young Hays was a dreadful sight, with a serious head injury. There was no pulse or respiration, and the doctor could hear no heartbeat with the stethoscope. Angelo Hays was declared dead and his body taken to the local morgue. His parents were not allowed to see the corpse, since the injury looked too dreadful. Three days after the accident, his body was buried; the coffin was carried to the grave by eight of his friends from the local volunteer fire brigade. But in nearby Bordeaux, an insurance firm discovered that Angelo Hays's father had recently insured his son's life for 200,000 francs. An inspector was sent to St. Quentin de Chalais to investigate the accident. A farmer confessed that his tractor had leaked oil, and that this had caused Hays's motorbike to skid out of control, but the determined inspector decided to have the body exhumed to ascertain the exact cause of death. Two days after the funeral, Angelo Hays's coffin was dug up and taken to a forensic institute in Bordeaux. When the doctor in charge removed the shroud, he felt that the body was still warm! Hays was taken to a hospital in an ambulance; after several operations and a long period of rehabilitation, he recovered completely. He had been deeply unconscious during his two days in a coffin underground. The earth had been very dry, and had not been stamped down over the coffin; it was supposed that he would have suffocated, had the head injury not led to a diminished demand for oxygen.

After his resurrection, Angelo Hays became quite a celebrity in France. For many years, people traveled from all parts of the country just to see and to speak with him. In the 1970s, Hays decided to try to make money from the fame that followed his amazing rescue from the tomb. He invented a security coffin that was something of an improvement on Count de Karnice-Karnicki's late nineteenth-century model. This supercoffin cost £4,500—as much as an automobile—and lacked nothing in luxury, being equipped with thick upholstering and a soft I pillow for the head. It was high enough for the buried individual to be able to sit up, and had a library of books the victim could read while awaiting rescue. The coffin's food locker was supplied with rations like those of the American astronauts. The controls at the coffin's dashboard maneuvered the oxygen supply from large gas tubes, the ventilation fan, the air pumps, the chemical toilet, the electrical alarm, and the shortwave radio transmitter and receiver, which worked through an aerial sticking up above the earth. Several extra gadgets, like a small oven, a refrigerator, and a hi-fi cassette player attached to the radio, were optional. Hays went on tour with his coffin and became a media star. During the shows, he let himself be buried in the coffin, to demonstrate that it was fully functional. At a demonstration in Bordeaux, 25,000 paying spectators came to see him, and the take from this and a series of other shows brought him a handsome profit, although few, if any, of his security coffins found buyers. Hays himself boasted that a wealthy, ninety-three-year-old Frenchwoman had ordered two coffins, one for herself and one for her niece; the niece presumably did not much appreciate this macabre present from her dismal tante d'heritance. At one of the shows, French television buried a camera and a microphone in the coffin with him, and the sprightly Angelo Hays sang his favorite songs to a live TV audience; although the acoustics in the narrow coffin cannot have benefited his performance, the program was a great success. The Monte Carlo television company signed a contract with him, and he recorded a series of thirteen shows with them during a five-year period. No one has doubted the amazing story of Angelo Hays, and the fact that no journalist exposed him at the height of his fame may indicate that he was really buried alive in 1937. The only inconsistency in the various accounts of his story is that one version holds that his body was exhumed owing to insurance technicalities; another, that his coffin was disinterred so that his uncle could see his body for the last time. A third version, from a notoriously unreliable source, maintains that he suffered a heart attack and actually awoke in his premature grave, before being saved after a visitor to the churchyard heard his frantic banging against the coffin lid.

Angelo Hays's security coffin was not the last one on the market. In the 1960s, the body of a man named Archibald Maclean was exhumed in Detroit, since there was a suspicion that he might have been poisoned. The corpse was found in a horrible, unnatural position, and there was much newspaper speculation that he had been buried alive. According to a German writer, the consequence of this was that more than three thousand Americans decided to make sure they were not buried alive, by requesting that their bodies be cremated or embalmed, or deliberately mutilated to safeguard against a live burial. An American firm of funeral directors could also supply a security coffin, fitted with an alarm and a seventy-two-hour supply of oxygen. The multimillionaire John Dackeney had a huge security vault built for him at a churchyard in Tucson, Arizona, fitted with an alarm and with automatic steel doors that opened for three hours every night for the first twelve weeks. After his death in 1969, hundreds of curious onlookers gathered every night to see if Mr. Dackeney would walk out when the steel doors opened, but always in vain.' In the mid-1990s, the mayor of Apareidan, Brazil, built a security vault with four airholes for ventilation.' At about the same time, a newspaper reported that the Tuscan watchmaker Fabrizio Caselli marketed a coffin equipped with a bleeping device, a telephone, a flashlight, an oxygen tube, and a heart stimulator. It sold for £3,000, and Caselli told the press that if sales were brisk, he hoped to establish three medical centers in Italy, whose sole purpose would be to respond to premature burial emergency calls.

Jan Bondeson. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear . W.W. Norton & Company. 2001.

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