Premature Burial and The Bizarre Ways Some Sought to Prevent It

The Premature Burial, Wiertz (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

While many people today experience taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, the threat of premature burial was more real for people during the darker days of medicine. Throughout the 18th-19th centuries and into the 20th century the preoccupation with being buried while still living pervaded the minds of the still-living, leading to interesting directives to be carried out upon death written in last wills and testaments. In those days either doctors or non-medically trained people responsible for declaring someone dead often lacked the expertise to determine the difference between a corpse and a person suffering from catalepsy or a similar paralysis or someone who had lapsed into a coma.8

During the summer months when temperatures were high it was common practice to bury the body within twenty-four to seventy-two hours. This speedy burial prior to the introduction of modern embalming methods was to prevent the body from decomposing in the home where the funeral was usually held, which would no doubt create an unpleasant environment for mourners. During epidemics it was even more likely for someone to be buried accidentally because of the rush to dispose of diseased corpses. Some diseases, such as cholera, left the victim with an emaciated,  wasted-away appearance which could be mistaken for death.

The actual number of people buried alive between the 1800s-1900s remains a mystery, but there are a number of cases that were well-publicized and the gruesome details relayed about them in newspapers and via word-of-mouth were enough to fuel the trepidations of the masses. Here are a few accounts that took place in the United States.

On January 10, 1884, Anna Hockwalt of Dayton, Ohio went downstairs to the kitchen after dressing on the day of her brother’s wedding just after 6:00. She was found “dead” shortly afterwards, sitting in a chair with her head leaning against the wall. The wedding went on and her death was determined to be the result of a sympathetic heart palpitation combined with Anna’s naturally nervous disposition. Anna was buried in Woodland, but her friends feared that she’d been buried alive because her ears lacked the ghastly pallor of death. They shared their suspicions with Anna’s parents, who finally had her disinterred. When her coffin was opened, it was a horrific sight. She was on her right side, her fingers chewed to the bone, and her hair pulled from her head. Attempts were made to conceal the news of Anna’s living burial, but by early February the secret was out.9

J. Jenkins of Asheville, North Carolina, who had been ill for several weeks and finally showed the signs of death in January 1885. No pulse could be detected, he stopped speaking, he was unable to be awakened, and his skin became cold. He was buried even though people noticed that his body never became stiff. In February his family wanted to move the body to a different cemetery and when they opened the casket to see if a metallic burial case was needed for the move, they were met with a scene similar to the one of Anna Hockwalt. Jenkins’ body was turned over, his hair had been pulled out, and the inside of the wooden casket were scarred with the scratch marks where he’d tried to claw his way out. 3

Chicago’s John Burke was buried in 1890 even though noises were heard from his coffin as it was being lowered into the grave. Several days later his grave was opened to check if he had actually been dead when buried. John’s “body twisted, features distorted; tongue bitten nearly in two; finger nails imbedded in the flesh, and every indication that a struggle had taken place.” 6

Catherine Boger from the village of Morrison’s in Pennsylvania fell ill in 1893. It was believed that she had died and Dr. Willard determined that she had expired based on her no longer showing any signs of life and the “diaphanous test” in which he held an intense light to her hand to observe if there was a scarlet line. Sometime after her burial someone approached Catherine’s husband, suggesting that she had been prone to hysteria and could have been buried alive. Mr. Boger became a “raving maniac” and finally convinced his friends to dig up the grave. Upon opening her coffin they found that Catherine’s glass lid was broken, her body turned over, her hair mussed, and her skin and clothing were ripped during her struggle to free herself from the grave.2

Wealthy New Yorker James Rigely was buried at Pendleton in February 1899 after being in a “trance state” for three days.  He had taken out several life insurance policies, which prompted an autopsy request to ascertain his cause of death. “The glass covering the casket was broken and the distorted features of the corpse, the position of his hands and feet, together with a number of blood spots on his face, showed that he was buried alive.” 10

The fear of being buried alive was so intense for some that they made provisions in their wills to prevent such a burial. Author Harriet Martineau originally wanted her head removed, but later changed that directive to instead sever her jugular vein. Actress Ava Cavendish and Edmund Yates also wanted their jugular veins cut before burial.5 Hans Christian Andersen carried a card that he placed in hotel rooms while traveling which read, “I am not really dead”. Shortly before his death Andersen asked a friend to sever his arteries if he was ever declared dead, just to be on the safe side. Bishop Berkeley wanted his corpse to remain unburied for five days until it was “offensive by the cadaverous smell.” excursions Lady Burton, the spouse of the explorer Sir Richard Burton, wanted a needle stuck through her heart upon her death. 4

These special provisions to guard against being buried alive weren’t limited to public figures. One account of a private citizen with a similar request involves George Fay of New Jersey who was so troubled by nightmares about being buried alive that he asked his family to hold off on burying him until he was obviously beginning to decompose and then a dagger should be thrust through his heart and then left in his chest. His family carried out his wishes, keeping his corpse above ground for two weeks before stabbing him through the heart and burying him.1 Former Boston attorney Alfred Giles believed that death was gradual and took place over a long period of time. He created a mortuary room behind a closet in his home where he wanted his body to remain until it had decomposed, which he claimed could be forty or more days. During that time, friends and family (not just an undertaker) would tend to the corpse. 7 To read the complete article about Mr. Giles’ fear of being buried alive, visit Misc. Tidings of Yore.

This post is by no means an exhaustive study of premature burial. I plan on writing more in the future on the topic to include coffin innovations, burial reform, and steps taken by government officials and societies to prevent live burials from occurring. In the meantime, look alive!

1 “A Dreadful Doom.” The Salt Lake Herald. 22 Jan. 1891. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
2 “Alive in Her Coffin.” The Roanoke Times. 4 July 1893. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
3 “A Man Buried Alive.” The New York Times. 21 Feb. 1885. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
4 Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W.W.
Norton & Co., 2002.
5 Marvin, Frederic. The Excursions of a Book-Lover: Being Papers on Literary Themes. Boston:
Sherman, French, & Co., 1910.
6 “Premature Burial.” The Globe-Republican. 31 Dec. 1890. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
7 “Retired Boston Lawyer Fears Premature Burial.” The St. Louis Republic. 17 Mar. 1901. Chronicling 
     America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
8 Tebb, William and Edward Vollum. Premature Burial and How it May be Prevented With Special       
     Reference to Trance, Catalepsy, and Other Forms of Suspended Animation. London: Swan
     Sonnenschein & Co., 1905. 
9 “The Terrible Discovery Made by the Friends of an Entombed Maiden.” The Hickman Courier. 15
Feb. 1884. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
10 “Wealthy New Yorker is Buried Alive.” The Independent. [Honolulu, HI] 18 Feb. 1899. Chronicling 
     America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.


%d bloggers like this: