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Our Enduring Preoccupation with Premature Burial

Hours before he died, George Washington told his secretary: “Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.” This kind of request was not uncommon. In an era when putrefaction was the only sure sign of death, many people inthe past feared being buried alive.

Indeed, Washington’s nephew was even more paranoid than the former president. He ordered: “my thumbs are not to be tied together—nor anything put on my face or any restraint upon my Person by Bandages, &c. My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides—particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place and having been kept so long as to ascertain whether decay may have occurred or not, the coffin is to be closed up.”

By the 19th century, being trapped inside a coffin was a favorite plot twist for writers of macabre fiction, such as Edgar Allan Poe, whose story The Premature Burial (1844) contributed to the public preoccupation with the subject. Anxiety about premature burial was so widespread that, in 1891, the Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli coined the medical term for it: taphephobia (Greek for “grave” + “fear.”)

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This phobia led to the creation of so-called “safety coffins.” In 1790,  Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick had built the first coffin of this kind, which included a window to allow in light, and a tube to provide a fresh supply of air. The lid of the coffin was then locked and two keys were fitted into a special pocket sewn into his burial shroud: one for the coffin itself and one for the tomb.

Many of the safety coffins that came afterward were touted as “tried and tested.” In 1822, Dr Adolf Gutsmuth consigned himself to the grave in a coffin he had designed personally. For several hours, he remained underground, during which time he consumed a meal of soup, sausages, and beer—all delivered to him through a convenient feeding tube built into the coffin. The Germans were particularly ingenious when it came to safety coffins, patenting over 30 different designs in the 19th century. The best-known model was the brainchild of Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger, and it included a system of ropes that attached the corpse’s hands, feet, and head to an above-ground bell. Although many subsequent designs tried to incorporate this feature, it was by-and-large a design failure. What Dr Taberger didn’t take into account is the fact that the body begins to bloat and swell as it decomposes, causing it to shift inside the coffin. These tiny movements would have set the bells ringing, and visitors to the cemetery running.

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The Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki’s design was an evengreater disaster than most. In 1897, he buried one of his assistants in order to demonstrate the features of his safety coffin. If the device detected movement from within, it was rigged to open a tube which would allow air to flow while simultaneously raising a flag and ringing a bell. Unfortunately, none of the features worked and the demonstration failed miserably. While the assistant survived, Karnice-Karnicki’s reputation did not.

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These unsettling coffin designs came from an American doctor named Timothy Clark Smith who was so terrified of being buried alive that he created a grave that even today intrigues and frightens visitors to Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Vermont. When Dr Smith died—aptly enough on Halloween, 1893—his body was interred in a most unusual crypt, with his face positioned at the bottom of a cement tube. This was capped with a piece of plate glass that would allow the unfortunate doctor to gaze upward in the event of his premature burial. Visitors to the cemetery used to report that they could peer down inside the grave and see Dr Smith’s decomposing head. Nowadays, all you can see is darkness and a bit of condensation.

Escape coffins were also built for those who didn’t have the patience to wait for someone to come to the rescue. One such coffin–intended for use in vaults–had a spring-loaded lid that could be opened with a slight movement of the head or hand. Another example was built by retired firefighter Thomas Pursell for himself and his family. Located at Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the ventilated vault can be opened from the inside by a handwheel attached to the door. Pursell was buried there in 1937.

If all of this seems a bit irrational to your modern sensibilities, consider the fact that safety coffins are still available for purchase today. In 1995, Fabrizio Caselli invented a model that includes an emergency alarm, a two-way intercom, a flashlight, an oxygen tank, a heartbeat sensor and a heart stimulator.  Taphephobia is far from dead and buried!

You can now pre-order my book, all about the bloody & brutal world of Victorian surgery. Pre-orders are incredibly helpful to new authors. Your support is greatly appreciated. US link HERE, UK link HERE, Canadian link HERE, Australian linkHERE. Info on other foreign editions to come.

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By | 2017-09-15T13:55:04+00:00 August 16th, 2017|BLOG|0 Comments

Everyday Heroes: A Story of Self-Sacrifice & Bubonic Plague

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On 1 November 1666, a young farmer named Abraham Morten took one final, agonizing breath. He was the last of 260 people to die of bubonic plague in the remote village of Eyam in Derbyshire. His fate had been sealed four months earlier when villagers decided to shut themselves off from the rest of the world: a sacrifice they made in order to save the lives of their neighbors in surrounding villages.

eyam-plague-plaque.jpgThe nightmare began on an unremarkable day in September, 1665. George Viccars—a local tailor in Eyam—received a consignment of cloth from London for his shop. Upon inspection, Viccars noticed that the cloth was damp. He hung it before his fire to dry, not realizing that it was playing host to fleas that were carrying the bubonic plague.

Viccars was dead within a week.

The pestilence spread rapidly throughout the village. Panic broke out as villagers began making preparations to flee Eyam for contagion-free surroundings. It was then that two local clergymen, William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley, decided to intervene in order to stop the plague from spreading to neighboring villages. In a joint sermon, the two men pleaded with their fellow townspeople to recognize that it was their Christian duty to remain in Eyam until the scourge had played itself out, and to prevent the disease taking hold in other villages. Moved by the clergymen’s words, the villagers decided to make the ultimate sacrifice: they sealed themselves off from the rest of the world.

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In order to do this, they created a stone boundary around Eyam. No one was allowed in, and no one was allowed out. People from surrounding communities brought food and clothing to the disease-ridden village. They would leave their goods on the stones and pick up their payment from a well filled with water and vinegar [pictured above], which would disinfect the coins.

dsc03368.jpgWithin Eyam’s self-imposed bounds, the plague was unrelenting, killing people arbitrarily over the next fourteen months. No one was untouched by tragedy, including Elizabeth Hancock, who inadvertently brought the disease back to her farm after helping to bury a fellow villager’s body. Within a week, all six of Elizabeth’s children, as well as her husband, had died. Not wanting to put anyone at further risk, Elizabeth took on the task of burying her entire family herself.

By August, two-thirds of Eyam’s population had died from the plague, including Mompesson’s own wife. The cemetery had become so full that the dead had to be buried in nearby gardens and fields. The dwindling congregation—which grew smaller daily—began holding services outside in an attempt to halt the rampant spread of the disease. There, in the open air, they prayed earnestly to be delivered from the suffering God had seen fit to thrust upon them.

Eyam_window.jpgBy November, the plague had finally subsided. Of the village’s 350 original occupants, only 90 had survived. However, it is not the statistics that are noteworthy in this story, as these are fairly typical of plague mortality rates during this period. Rather, it is the villagers who are extraordinary. They stopped the spread of plague by their courageous, selfless actions, and in doing so, ensured that they would not become just another set of nameless statistics generated by that horrific epidemic.

No one in the surrounding area contracted plague during this time.

 

Fitzharris_ButcheringArt_JKFIf you’re interested in learning more about the plague, check out Rebecca Rideal’s excellent book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

And don’t forget you can now pre-order my book, The Butchering Art. All pre-orders count towards first-week sales once the book is released, and therefore give me a greater chance of securing a place on bestseller lists in October. I would be hugely grateful for your support. If you’re in the US, click HERE. If you’re in the UK, click HERE. Info on further foreign editions to come.

By | 2017-09-15T13:57:19+00:00 July 6th, 2017|BLOG|0 Comments