by Barry Pirro
In his short story The Premature Burial, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction. To be buried alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.”
In Poe’s day, fear of being buried alive was very real. During epidemics of plague, cholera, and smallpox, stories of people being buried alive found their way into local newspapers with increasing frequency, and public panic ensued.
A French newspaper of the time told of a young woman who was thought to have died from cholera, and she was buried the following afternoon. When the sexton started shoveling dirt into the grave, he heard a noise in the coffin, so he quickly sent for the medical officer. Upon unscrewing the coffin lid, the onlookers were horrified to discover that the now dead woman had been alive when sealed in her coffin. A terrified expression was frozen on her face, and there were deep scratches on the inside of the coffin lid from attempting to claw her way out.
In another story, a young woman died after a short illness, and the doctor who was present certified her death. He recommended that she be buried immediately due to the intense August heat, so she was laid to rest in a mausoleum just six hours after her death. Several months later, the woman’s husband decided to remarry, so the mother of his late wife decided to have her daughter’s remains removed to her native town. When the vault was opened, a horrible sight presented itself. The woman’s corpse lay in the middle of the vault. Her hair was disheveled, and the cloth that had lined the coffin was in shreds, having been torn apart by the poor woman as she fought her way out of her coffin.
The British Medical Journal ran an article about a case of premature burial that resulted in a court case. A woman from Naples, Italy, was buried after all of the proper steps were taken to assure that she was dead. Several days later the mausoleum in which the woman had been placed was opened for the reception of another body. Her body was discovered lying outside of her coffin. The clothes she wore were torn to pieces, and the woman had broken several bones as she attempted to extricate herself from the living tomb. A trial was held, and the doctor who signed the death certificate and the mayor who had authorised the interment were both found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
One of the earliest and most well documented cases of premature burial is that of Alice Bluden of Basingstoke, England. One day in 1674, Alice made herself a drink of poppy water–a type of tea made from poppy seed pods that contains morphine and codeine. Taken in small quantities, the tea acts as a sedative, but Alice must have ingested a substantial amount of poppy water that day because soon after drinking it she sank into a coma so deep that she appeared to be dead. She was examined by a doctor, but he failed to detect any breath or a pulse, so she was pronounced dead.
Alice’s husband, who was away on business at the time, asked for the funeral to be postponed until his return, but, in those days, freezers weren’t available for body storage. In addition, Alice was a large woman and obese bodies decay at a faster rate than lean ones. At the behest of the doctor, Alice’s family agreed that it would be best to bury her without delay.
Because the burial was so rushed, there was no time for a custom-built coffin, so Alice’s large frame was put into a casket that was so small that poles had to be used to force her arms and legs down so that the lid could be securely nailed shut. But Alice’s coffin wouldn’t remain closed for very long.
Two days after her burial, children playing in the graveyard heard mysterious moans and cries coming from underground. They reported this to the headmaster of their school, but he didn’t believe them. The following day the headmaster decided to check out the children’s story himself. He visited Alice’s gravesite and he too heard the strange sounds coming from underground, so he quickly had the body exhumed.
When the coffin was opened, there lay poor Alice, alive but bruised and bloody from trying to escape her coffin. She was so weak from the ordeal that she collapsed and died yet again. Unfortunately, no one thought to call a doctor to check if she was actually dead, so for a second time, Alice’s body was forced into her tiny coffin and she was reburied.
This time, the family hired a guard to watch over the grave to listen for any suspicious noises coming from underground that might suggest that Alice was alive. But sometime during the night, it began to rain and the guard headed over to the local pub to stay warm. Little did he know that amidst the claps of thunder and the rush of falling rain was another sound–muffled, blood curdling screams coming from Alice’s grave.
The next morning the family discovered that the guard had left his post, so they had the grave dug up just to be sure that Alice was indeed dead. To their horror, when the coffin was opened they discovered that Alice had revived sometime during the night. In her frenzied state, she had forced her hands from her sides and clawed at the inside of the coffin. Witnesses said that her hands were bloody and torn to shreds from attempting to escape. But this time, Alice was truly dead. She most likely suffered a heart attack brought on by the terror of being buried alive not once, but twice.
In Victorian times, fear of premature burial was so strong that a society was formed to prevent such a thing from happening. It was aptly called The Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive, and over time people devised a number of methods to make sure the person thought to be dead was actually dead. Some of these methods were… well, let’s say they were a little off-putting to say the least.
Paris physician Antoine Louis had the idea of blowing tobacco smoke into the rear ends of the dead to awaken them if they weren’t quite dead yet. Why? No one is quite sure, but it does give the expression “blowing smoke up your ass” an entirely new meaning, doesn’t it?
Other methods assumed that pain would sort the living from the dead. One involved pouring scalding hot water on the corpse’s arms. If they blistered, the body was considered to be alive. A French clergyman came up with the novel idea of thrusting a hot poker up the rear end of the newly dead. In 1854, another Frenchman invented the “pince mamelon” (nipple-pincher), a particularly strong pair of giant tweezers designed to shock the supposed-dead back to life by squeezing the nipples very hard.
But there was a much simpler way to make sure that someone was actually dead. Don’t bury them right away. The term “wake” comes from the practice of waiting three days before burying a body to make sure that it doesn’t wake up. In Victorian times, wakes were held in the parlors of people’s homes. By the 20th century, funeral services were moved to funeral homes and the home parlor took on a new name, the living room, because it was no longer used to display the dead.
Some thought that three days wasn’t enough time to guarantee that a person was actually dead, so the Germans came up with their own solution–Leichenhäusers or corpse houses, chambers designed to hold the recently dead until their bodies began to rot. The first Leichenhäuser held up to eight bodies at a time, and it was kept constantly warm with pipes that fed the room with steam to hasten the decomposition of the bodies.
Between 1795 and 1828, Leichenhäusers were built all over Europe. Heaps of flowers were placed around the building to mask the stench of decay, and professional “death-watchers” placed mirrors and feathers in front of the corpses’ faces to check for any hint of breath. The bodies were periodically stuck with pins to check for a physical reaction, and they were attached to a system of strings and bells so that any movement would be immediately detected.
After a while people actually began paying admission for the privilege of wandering amongst the bodies. In Paris, viewing the dead became so trendy that a special morgue was built as a public exhibition space. Behind glass on slanted marble tables were the naked bodies of unidentified victims of crimes, drownings, and suicides. Although the intent was to have the public view the bodies in the hope that some might be identified, the Paris Morgue instead became a wildly popular tourist attraction with thousands visiting each day.
Fear of being entombed alive eventually led to the invention of a number of patented devices known as “coffin alarms.” Some included battery-powered alarms, spring-loaded rods that would raise flags to the surface of graves, ducts to feed fresh air into the coffins, and even ladders so the not-quite-dead-yet could climb out on their own.
Poe was well aware of such accounts of people being buried alive, and he played on the public’s fear by incorporating the theme into five of his short stories: Bernice (1835), The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), The Black Cat (1843), The Premature Burial (1844), and The Cask of Amontillado (1846).
With all of the marvels of modern medicine, you would think that the possibility of being buried alive would be a thing of the past. Not so! In 1994, an 86-year-old woman was declared dead, and the examining doctor had her body sent to the morgue. Ninety minutes later, an attendant noticed that the body bag the woman was sealed in was moving. She was quickly moved to the hospital emergency room where she recovered, but she died a week later.
In 2007, a 33-year-old Venezuelan man woke up during his own autopsy when the medical-examiner began cutting into his face with a scalpel. When the grieving man’s wife arrived at the morgue to identify his body, she was shocked to find him alive and waiting for her in the corridor.
In 2014, doctors examined 91-year-old Janine Kolkiewicz and declared her dead. Eleven hours later she awoke in the hospital mortuary with a craving for tea and pancakes. That same year, 79-year-old Walter Williams from Mississippi was declared dead by a hospice nurse. The next day, he woke up at the funeral home. When asked about the experience, he said that he thought that he had just fallen into a deep sleep.
Talk about a close call! A 24-year-old man from Johannesburg, South Africa, was declared dead after an auto accident. He spent two full days inside a cold metal box in the mortuary before workers finally heard his cries and rescued him.
Poe tells us that the terror of being buried alive is “too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction”. But fiction is the place where the subject of premature burial should stay, because the reality of waking from the sleep of death entombed in a cold, dark, damp, silent box six feet underground is far too terrifying to imagine.
“Reality Meets Fiction” is a series on non-fiction, real-life stories as experienced through personal accounts and investigations conducted by Barry Pirro, a paranormal investigator known as the Connecticut Ghost Hunter. Barry has over a decade of paranormal investigation experience and will share his stories every 4th Friday of the month. Don’t forget to catch his next article on July 23rd. To learn more about the Ghost Hunter, visit http://www.connecticutghosthunter.com/.
READERS: If you have experienced or have heard a real story of being buried alive, tell us about it in the comments. Better yet, write your non-fiction story and send it to us: email@example.com (subject: Non-fiction Buried Alive Story). Your story may be picked to appear on our blog as a follow up to Barry’s.
WRITERS: Use Barry’s real-life story to inspire your creativity! Write a story on premature burial and then submit it to us for publication consideration: https://www.darksiremag.com/submissions.html.
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Until we meet again, take care!