Saved by the Bell - The Surprising History of Safety Coffins
Modern medicine is full of wonders and lifesaving, revolutionary methods - many of which are taken for granted. But if we were to look back in time, we’d quickly realize that even death was uncertain, in a period full of strange tales and unsettling occurrences.
These grim times would fit perfectly into some Victorian horror novel, a “Penny Dreadful” magazine filled with tales of the unexplained… and of being buried alive. And the tale we tell today will take us dead-center into those exact times, as we uncover a very unique history of safety coffins – a once-popular safety measure that was meant to dispel the phobia of live burial and help those unlucky few that might find themselves in a dark and suffocating grave – way before death called.
It happens that recent history is rife with well-documented cases of premature burial, in which unlucky patients would be pronounced dead – only to be discovered still alive in their confined, dark resting place. Only a few were lucky and saved – most were sentenced to a gruesome ‘second’ death that is frightening and difficult to imagine. Let’s dive deep into this morbid part of history - when horror tales were frighteningly close to reality!
Taphophobia: The Prelude to Safety Coffins
“What if in the tomb I awake!” - Says Juliet in Shakespeare’s most popular play, and perfectly reflects a very real fear of being buried alive – a fear that ran rampant in the era before modern medicine. The very thought of it can send shivers down your spine and it remains a very common phobia.
Its scientific name is taphophobia – and it signifies a fear of being placed in a grave while still alive. But as it turned out, this fear was in no way irrational. During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in particular, numerous accidents occurred with patients falsely proclaimed dead.
The recovery of supposedly dead victims of cholera, as depicted in “The Premature Burial” by Antoine Wiertz, helped fuel the demand for safety coffins. Source: Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain.
These cases fortified taphophobia as a recurring fear, with several popular figures of the time publicly claiming to be afraid of premature burial. Some of these persons included Hans Christian Andersen, who wanted his veins cut open upon his death, George Washington, Alfred Nobel, as well as the popular composer Frédéric Chopin, who demanded that his heart be cut out once he was dead – to ensure he stayed that way.
Stuff of Nightmares: Premature Burial
Immurement, entombment, vivisepulture – premature burial has many names, but they all signify one thing –a very cruel and gruesome way to perish. Accidents aside, history teaches us that being buried alive was a method of execution in many cultures around the world – a particularly cruel one, in fact. During the rule of China’s Qin Dynasty, several reports of mass burials are written of and these cruel methods are reflected in many other places as well.
But even when not intentional, the number of people buried alive was rising to an alarming height – and some estimates were simply amazing. In 1799, Henrich Köppen claimed that as many as one third of mankind got buried alive.
This outrageous claim was subsequently lowered, with numbers getting more reasonable with time. John Snart claimed in 1817 that perhaps one person in a thousand was consigned to an early grave.
But whether accidental or not, premature burial is by far one of the worst ways to go. Extreme panic, dehydration, and slow asphyxiation are only some of the factors contributing to death. And with reports of such accidental burials increasing, it was no wonder that the 18th and 19th centuries saw a crucial focus on this macabre subject.
Fictionalized accounts in literature, early horror fiction, and the rising urban myths, all saw the onset of an era with an overpowering fear of being buried alive. And to counter this fear, clever minds gave birth to a series of crafty patents and inventions – the safety coffins.
Waking Up Below: Born From Necessity
Some of the earliest serious safety measures against premature burial date to the mid 1700s and mostly involved a glass pane over the deceased person’s face. In case of life, the glass would fog up from the breath, and give the clue to anyone who could see. With time though, the designs for safety coffins got more and more elaborate, always trying to ensure the best possible chances for survival and quick signaling by anyone still living below the ground.
Patent drawing for Krichbaum's safety coffin using glass that was supposed to fog up if the buried person was alive. (Licorne37 / Public Domain)
One of the first well documented safety coffins was created on orders of Ferdinand, Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg, shortly before he died in January of 1792. His creation was full of innovative solutions, including a small window, an air tube, and a special lock in the coffin itself, which could be unlocked by a key in his pocket. Needless to say, the late prince didn’t get to use that key.
And in the decades to follow, new features followed - fresh designs that tried to move the boundaries of ingenuity. One of the basic features that almost all designs shared was the bell. By installing a bell above ground, connecting it with a rope down to the coffin, designers hoped to give the entombed a chance to raise the alarm, letting the night watchmen know that the dead were not so dead after all.
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This design of a safety coffin employed a bell as a signaling device. (Mikkalai / Public Domain)
Alas, this seemingly simple method soon proved to have its faults. When tying the rope to the body, the designers overlooked the natural movements caused by decomposition. This resulted in a lot of false alarms and gave way to further, imaginative designs.
Intrigued by Interment: A Funeral Extraordinaire
Several designers stood out during the 19th century, seemingly vying for the title of the wackiest funerary solution, with construction becoming complex and expensive. In 1822, a German doctor, Adolf Gutsmuth, went one step further and demonstrated the efficiency of his invention by getting buried alive in his creation.
Gutsmuth spent several hours in his underground confine and even enjoyed a rich meal. This was delivered by a feeding tube which was a part of the design and it also included air ways, as well as signaling and viewing methods. He emerged unscathed and his fear of immurement was completely conquered.
But not every design was a success. Perhaps the most notorious such invention belongs to an unlikely designer – the one-time chamberlain of the Russian Tsar. In the 1899 gathering of the famous Medico-Legal Society, a Parisian lawyer, Emile Camis, revealed his latest pamphlet: “ Premature Burial and Its Prevention”.
Eisenbrandt’s life preserving coffin – an elaborate safety coffin. (Licorne37 / Public Domain)
The focus of this pamphlet was the latest invention by Camis’ esteemed client – the Tsar’s chamberlain, Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki. His invention was, according to Camis, a device that would once and for all deal with the uncertainty of establishing death and save all those buried prematurely.
But Karnicki’s design was far from a success. Over the years, the count became slightly obsessed with safety coffins, and at last patented his unique contraption, four years after designing it. Its centerpiece was an elaborate flag-and-bell mechanism, intended to signify life in the grave. The concept was a success at first, until the time came for a demonstration.
A young assistant was buried alive in Karnice’s famous safety coffin, only for the signaling systems to fail. The demonstration turned into a near-catastrophe with the young assistant barely escaping death. The event spelled doom for Karnicki’s design and his reputation as well.
Over the following decades, safety coffins never truly ceased to exist, with patents popping up from time to time. Furthermore, the concept survived well into the modern times, with patents from the 1990’s that included intercom systems, alarms, heart monitors, and breathing assistance.
Horror Made Real: The Story of Anne Lee
Accounts of premature burial always shook society during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the more popular instances served to pave the way for the emerging of safety coffins. One such account relates to a famous, prominent woman from Virginia, United States – Anne Hill Carter Lee.
Born into one of America’s unquestionably wealthiest families of the era, Anne Lee was an exemplary woman of her time. But her poor health led to an occurrence that causes skepticism and debate among historians even to this day.
Anne Hill Carter Lee was buried alive, her plight helped pave the way for safety coffins. (Muhranoff / Public Domain)
After a period of failing, fragile health, Anne Hill Carter Lee was pronounced dead – after the doctor repeatedly failed to detect a heartbeat or any sign of life. Her death came as a crushing loss, and soon after, Anne was laid to rest in the rich family’s vault.
But soon after the funeral, a sexton visited the vault and, to his utter shock, heard muffled screams. Further inspection revealed that Anne Hill Carter Lee was far, far from dead – she was exhumed in perfect health.
The event shook the wealthy Lee family and remained a controversial topic for many generations to come. But nonetheless, Anne Lee survived and thrived, and thirteen months after her untimely funeral, she gave birth to a son – a son that would grow up into one of history’s well known figures – Robert E. Lee.
Burial Slang – It’s a Dead Ringer
With the rich history of safety coffins – a history that was present in every layer of society – it’s no wonder that several expressions have remained firmly implanted in emerging dialects of the time. And, no doubt, you’ve come across them many times.
‘Dead Ringer’ – an expression that’s very popular in the English-speaking world, it is used to signify anything that is ‘an exact duplicate’. In popular opinion, this term was born with the rise of the safety coffins and their bell mechanisms. But, sadly, the professional opinion states that the idiom stems from 19th century horse racing slang. A horse with a false pedigree was often called a ‘dead ringer’.
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Bell device in safety coffin, for warning of premature burial. (Juulijs / Adobe Stock)
Another interesting, far more popular idiom is ‘saved by the bell’. With seemingly obvious ties to safety coffins, many think that it came from the iconic bell mechanism that would save the life of those prematurely interred. But, yet again, professional minds are there to burst our bubble. According to them, the term originates in boxing. It relates to boxers on the brink of defeat, who were ‘saved by the bell’ at the end of a round and thus remained in the fight.
Which claims are more plausible? You decide.
William Tebb and the London’s Strangest Association
At one time, premature burials and safety coffins were so common, that they gave rise to some peculiar organizations and people. One such important figure was William Tebb – a British businessman and social reformer. Born in 1830, Tebb dedicated his whole life to several very important movements, such as the Vegetarian Society, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and National Canine Defense League.
But it was only later in his life, that William Tebb co-founded a rather peculiar organization – the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. He led numerous campaigns and fought for reforms that would ensure that buried persons were 100% deceased.
In 1905, Tebb published the recent accounts of premature burials, which he collected – he reported some astonishing numbers: 219 cases of near live burial, 149 actual live burials, 10 cases of live dissection, and 2 cases of awakening while being embalmed. His dedication and the publication of such alarming numbers certainly helped to further popularize the implementation of safety coffins.
The Tales of Poe: Fact or Fiction?
One of the world’s most renowned literary figures, and the leading figure of Romanticism in the United States - Edgar Allan Poe - had another, slightly more obscure title – he had an interest in premature burial.
For some an iconic author of early horror stories, Poe and his themes often strayed into quite macabre paths – decomposition, reanimation of the dead, immurement, and more precisely – being buried alive. Several of his popular short stories deal with premature burial.
“The Cask of Amontillado”, published in 1846, tells a story of a nobleman who exacts his revenge on a friend by immurement – he entombs his friend alive inside of a wall. The story was a great success.
Another of his classics, the famous horror story “ The Premature Burial” talks of a protagonist with an unhealthy fear of being buried alive. The story delves deep into the dark corners of taphophobia.
The story “The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allan Poe contributed to the desire for safety coffins. (Midnightdreary / Public Domain)
These stories and their success are great examples of how popular and important the question of premature burial was at that time. Edgar Allan Poe exploited the ever-growing fear in society and wrote these stories – another fact that ties in into the long lasting story of safety coffins.
Treading slightly too close to paranoia, the story of the safety coffin is a very important glimpse into a society before the rise of modern medicine. It’s a story of human ingenuity, a compassion that signifies just how gruesome and unimaginable death by premature burial actually was. Try and imagine waking up in a coffin, six feet below the ground, and you will quickly realize exactly the reason for such great popularity of safety coffins in the 19th century.
And just like that, we get to realize that the horror stories we all grew to love - have an all too real inspiration from reality.
Is that a bell I hear ringing?
Top image: The fear of being buried alive is taphophobia. (Sergey Nivens / Adobe Stock.)
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