Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 27, 2018 15:34:11 GMT -5
Premature Burial in America
George Washington so feared premature burial that while on his deathbed in 1799, he instructed Tobias Lear, his personal secretary, to make certain he was dead before he was buried. “Have me decently buried and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead,” he directed.
Washington ushered in an era of taphophobia, or fear of premature burial. During the 19th century, popular books and magazines promoted the idea that many people were buried alive. They reported tales of bloody shrouds, gnawed fingers and horribly contorted bodies inside their coffins. It was during the 19th century that a man named C.A. Read of Newton, Mass., left in his will $500 for his physician to cut off his head. The reason? To prevent the horror of premature burial.
“Less than 150 years ago, many medical practitioners freely admitted to being uncertain whether their patients were dead or alive,” wrote Jan Bondeson in Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, published in 2002. According to Bondeson, taphophobia peaked in the mid-19th century and was centered in Massachusetts and New Jersey. In Boston, publishers churned out books and stories of children restored to life after apparently drowning, women giving birth in their coffins and bodies exhumed with signs of struggle to escape their graves.
In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe capitalized on the pervasive fear in his short story, “The Premature Burial,” about a man terrified of being buried alive. He had such a hit on his hands he wrote four more stories about premature burial, including “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Moore Russell Fletcher, a doctor in Cambridge, Mass., fanned the flames of taphophobia in 1884 when he wrote a treatise on premature burial: One Thousand Persons Buried Alive by Their Best Friends, after collecting stories from newspaper accounts around the world. Some described premature burial, others premature preparations for burial.
In 1855, Fletcher recorded that the wife of the Rev. Mr. Wells of Woodstock, N.H., seemed to die of consumption on a Friday and her body was prepared for burial. “On the following Monday the lady revived and conversed freely with her friends,” he wrote. “She told them that she was conscious and had heard all that was said about her, but was not able to speak or make the slightest motion.” Fletcher also reported that in June 1870, a Dr. Stroinski stopped at George Chandler’s house between Nashua, N.H., and Tyngsboro, Mass. His daughter Susan had died and was placed in a coffin. The doctor examined the girl and declared she hadn’t died, but only fallen into a fit. He revived her and “the next day the girl voided a tapeworm of unusually large size.”
Then on March 13, 1875, a young man in Vassalboro, Maine, died of consumption. “Friendly hands prepared the poor, emaciated body for burial,” Fletcher wrote. But then, “it was discovered that the heart had begun again to make its slow and measured beats, the pulse throbbed, the young man arose in his death-shroud, and spoke clearly and distinctly to those who stood appalled about him in the chamber.”
Was Mary Howe Buried Alive? In 1882, in the small town of Damariscotta, Maine, Mary Howe, a popular medium whose séances drew believers from far and wide, went into a trance. This wasn’t unusual, for during her communications with the dear departed, she often fell into a state akin to suspended animation, a phenomenon common among 19th century mediums. One summer day, Mary went into a trance and Edwin Howe, her brother, gently laid his sister on a living room sofa and invited the public to observe her trance-like state. But after the second week, some began to speculate the lady might be dead. Accordingly, Dr. Robert Dixon visited the Howe residence and declared the woman was indeed deceased and the authorities issued an order that she be buried.
But not everyone was convinced. Harold W. Caster, whose aunt had known Mary Howe, later described the event in Yankee Magazine: “From all appearances her heart had stopped beating; respiration had ceased entirely. But although she had lain there two weeks or more, there was not the slightest indication of rigor mortis. Her cheeks remained warm and flexible. Edwin continued to insist she was simply in a trance.” Additionally, although it was warm and there were heated stones surrounding the body, “there was no evidence of odor, swelling or discoloration.” (Contrary to popular belief, rigor mortis – the stiffening of the corpse – is temporary. Under normal conditions, a body usually begins to stiffen at three to five hours after death and once rigor is “set,” it begins to disappear. Accordingly, had the lady been dead two weeks, rigor would have come and gone.)
However, poor Mary never came out of her trance and was eventually buried in the local cemetery over the protests of her brothers. But was she dead? Authors, genealogists, ghost-hunters and other interested parties have been pondering this question for years and there have been numerous attempts to locate Mary’s grave. Thus far, her final resting place remains a mystery.
The old Howe house, now converted into apartments, is still standing in downtown Damariscotta and many residents have reported paranormal activity. Is Mary Howe unable to rest because she was buried alive?
Safety Coffins. People began to invent devices to counter the possibility of live burial. Inventors were granted patents for safety or security coffins. One such inventor patented a safety coffin that allowed the person entombed to move feathers or ring a bell notifying those above ground he/she wasn’t dead. Another patented coffin featured an air tube and signal device that sent up a red flag when hit with the head of the prematurely buried victim.
In New Haven, Vt., Timothy Clark Smith had a window installed above his grave site (above), “six feet above him and centered squarely on his face,” hoping if he awakened in the grave, someone would see him. Today, the window is clouded over, but Clark was laid to rest in 1893, so it probably doesn’t matter.
In 1868, U.S. patent number 81,437 was issued for a security coffin. It included a rope attached to a bell and a ladder. If a “dead” person revived in his coffin, he could ring the bell. But if no one was around to come to his rescue, he could attempt to ascend from the grave via the ladder.
Still with Us. The fear of premature burial is still with us. A safety coffin that allows the prematurely buried to ring a bell was patented in 2014. Roger Corman based his 1962 movie, Premature Burial, on Poe’s short story. Two additional films called Buried Alive were released in 1990 and 2007.
And the peak year for taphophobia is closer to the 21st century than it is to Poe’s era. According to the Google Ngram, which measures how often phrases appear in books, “buried alive” peaked in 1952.
But all these live burials were in the distant past ... Advances in modern medicine ensures such things no longer happen, so those of us in the 21st century have nothing to worry about ... do we? Before you relegate premature burial to the stuff of horror stories and macabre movies, think about this: In July of 2010, White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, Calif., pronounced Maria de Jesus Arroyo dead. The woman was placed in a body bag, transported to the morgue and shut away in a drawer. After her corpse was prepared for viewing at the funeral home, family members noticed bruises and lacerations, which the undertakers indicated they had been unable to conceal. The family retained a lawyer who filed a lawsuit on their behalf. A medical expert hired by the plaintiffs confirmed the lady had been bagged and placed in cold storage alive and the injuries were the result of her vain attempts to claw her way out of the drawer and/or attract someone’s attention. Her official cause of death was hypothermia: She froze to death in a dark, cold cadaver drawer in the morgue.
Sources: New England Historical Society, October 25, 2018; Mysterious New England, edited by Austin N. Stevens, 1971; Greg Latimer, "The Mystery of Mary Howe," The Lincoln County News, October 31, 2014, and Andrew Lopez, Hetty Chang, Jason Kandel and Jonathan Lloyd, KTLA, April 4, 2014.