Supposed Corpses: Almost Buried Alive

In a previous post I introduced you to several cases of people accidentally buried alive here in the United States and the fear generated by such burials. For the sad souls who were accidentally buried before they were really dead, by the time the mistake was discovered it was too late to save them. There were quite a few fortunate ones who had near-misses with being buried alive, particularly before the widespread use of embalming techniques. Such cases involve someone being declared dead and prepared for burial when they “came to life” just in time to avoid waking up in a coffin underneath six feet of soil, dead to the world. Newspapers often referred to such people as “supposed corpses” and used terms like “suspended animation” and “trance” to describe the condition of the person at the time he or she was declared dead. There are numerous accounts of people who have almost gone to the grave while still alive, here are just a few.

Lena Richmann of Black River Falls, Wisconsin was declared dead following a period of illness in 1883. After three days in a coffin funeral services began. Dr. Baxter, who was attending the service, noticed that her face didn’t look like that of a normal corpse. He requested a break from the funeral, during which time he  tried to revive her. Lena “came alive” letting out a loud shriek. The sight of the living dead girl caused quite a ruckus. Men lost the color in their faces, females fainted, and after some time the crowd settled down. Lena later said that she knew she was being prepared for burial but was powerless to do anything to stop it. If not for Dr. Baxter’s halting the funeral, she very well may have been buried alive.7

Twenty-two year old Eleanor Marks’ coffin was being taken from the hearse at the cemetery when pallbearers heard tapping noises. She later said that she was unable to move or speak while preparations for her burial were being made, but the fear of being buried alive stirred her senses at the last minute.11

In 1895, Shelby County, Kentucky resident Madie Walsh interrupted her own funeral by uttering, “Thank God” when the casket was opened prior to her interment.  Miss Walsh claimed to have been aware of what was going on the whole time she was “dead” but was unable to move or speak.9

The story of an unidentified woman nearly being buried alive in 1895 begins with the sentence, “Reprehensible conduct on the part of a supposed corpse was the cause of a serious accident to two women in the town of Heywood, England, Friday.” The woman had been measured by an undertaker the day after she supposedly died and was being watched by two friends when air from her mouth caused the cloth over her face to blow away. Her watchers were so startled that in their haste to escape the living dead they both fell down the stairwell. People who heard the screaming came to their aid but it was awhile before anyone dared to go upstairs to check on the dead woman. The watchers went to the hospital for treatment. The supposed corpse woman was able to describe being prepared for the grave, but apparently the shock was too much to handle and she really died within a few hours.12

Clara Hoppenstall of New Jersey had been suffering from typhoid fever and other illnesses when she was declared dead in 1896. The next day mourners gathered at her residence and when Charles Burton went to change the cloth covering her eyes, he was startled into unconsciousness by the sight of Clara sitting up, eyes and mouth wide open, and her lips slightly moving. Fellow mourners came to Charles’ aid and called for a doctor, who declared that Clara was in a state of suspended animation. Clara began breathing again, but the doctor did not think she would ever recover from her state.8

Alabama blacksmith James Wynn “died” after a bout with congestive chill in 1901. His death certificate was signed, he was prepared for interment (without embalming due to the cool fall weather), and for two days his body was mourned over by a number of family and friends. After giving family one last look at James’ face through the metal panel on the casket, pallbearers began lowering him into the ground. Sounds were heard from inside, which prompted the undertaker’s assistant to check James again for signs of life. His facial features seemed to be twitching and his shoulders moving in a way that made it look like he was trying to turn himself over. When the casket was opened, Wynn sat up and heaved a great sigh. He was given “restoratives” and was expected to recover.6

Many people lost their lives during the early days of railroads in gruesome and hideous manners. Dr. Nelson Call of Vermont was nearly one of these people, as he was declared dead in 1901 after being hit by a train. He must not have been struck very violently because soon after, as the undertaker was setting up to embalm him, Dr. Call  rose from his suspended animation and asked about the time, followed by him saying he thought he’d “get up,” which he did.10

In 1903 an undertaker began preparations to embalm the cold, rigid body of New York’s George Wilson. He was shocked when George rose and “objected vigorously” to the undertaker’s intentions, irritated by being handled in such an indelicate manner. After this, the coroner mandated a twelve-hour waiting period between the time of a certified death and embalming.3

C.J. Dickson of Texas caused a stir at his wake in 1906 when he “came to life” and sat up. A farmer jumped from a window, sustaining life-threatening internal injuries. C.J.’s cousin Jane was also injured when she passed out and was trampled by people trying to flee the scene. It was thought that the corpse might rally from his condition, even if the two injured mourners didn’t.5

John Regnell was nearly injected with embalming fluid in 1910 when he shocked the undertaker by sitting up and saying, “Hello, Bill.” He was just as shocked as the undertaker about his predicament even though he had tried to commit suicide a day earlier. The Minnesota resident’s will to live was suddenly restored even though his face would forever be scared by the carbolic acid he’d used to try to kill himself with.4

Here’s one final example from  Eatenton, Georgia. Fanny Warren almost broke completely through her coffin’s lid, scaring her mourners in 1911 and sending them fleeing from the scene.2 If I had been there, I probably would’ve hauled freight away from the body too, unless I was too paralyzed to move. Of course, catalepsy is one reason why people were buried alive so hopefully my legs would function properly.

While there is no doubt that there were people buried alive and almost buried alive during the olden days, some accounts are questionable. Certain details leave open enough room to wonder if perhaps a few of these tales could have actually been related to the natural biological processes associated with death. The article, “A Sigh From the Coffin”1 claims that Mme. Pessat of France was a case of “living burial.” The fifty-year-old died and two days later at the grave mourners thought they heard a sigh from within the coffin. While some insisted that she was still alive, she never again showed signs of “animation” and an hour later she was again pronounced dead. If the only proof of her being alive in the coffin was the sighing noise, that sound could have been attributed to gases escaping through her mouth.

1 “A Sigh From the Coffin.” The Weekly Messenger. [St. Martinsville, Louisiana] 27 July 1895. Chronicling America.
2 “Corpse Came to Life.” The Bourbon News. [Paris, KY] 18 April 1911. Chronicling America.
3 “Dead Man Swears.” The Minneapolis Journal. 20 July 1903. Chronicling America.
4 “‘Dead’ Man Wakes Up In Undertaking Shop.” The Salt Lake Tribune. 14 Dec. 1910. Chronicling America. Web. 7 Mar. 2013.
5 “Live Corpse Causes Lots of Trouble.” The Spokane Press. 26 Dec. 1906. Chronicling America. 7 Mar. 2013.
6 “Nearly Buried Alive.” Evening Bulletin. [Honolulu, HI] 4 Dec. 1901. Chronicling America. 7 Mar. 2013.
7 “Nearly Buried Alive.” The Middlebury Register and Addison County Journal. 2 Nov. 1883. Chronicling America. 7 Mar. 2013.
8 “Sat Up In The Coffin.” The San Francisco Call. 15 April 1896. Chronicling America. 7 Mar. 2013.
9 “She Thanked God.” The Frankfurt Roundabout. 6 July 1895. Chronicling America. 7 Mar. 2013.
10 “Surprised the Undertaker.” Akron Daily Democrat. 30 July 1901. Chronicling America. 7 Mar. 2013.
11 The Watchman and Southron. [Sumter, S.C.] 13 June 1894. Chronicling America. 7 Mar. 2013.
12 The Watchman and Southron. [Sumter, S.C.] 6 Feb. 1895. Chronicling America. 7 Mar. 2013.

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