Extraordinary, terrible, and totally “true” tales of people who were buried alive

 

Antoine Wiertz painting entitled Premature Burial. Image credit: Wikipedia

Antoine Wiertz painting entitled Premature Burial. Image credit: Wikipedia

Taphophobia (taphos meaning grave and phobos meaning fear) is the fear of being buried alive and it permeated Europe and America in the 18th  and 19th centuries.  It was especially bad during cholera and small pox epidemics because people believed some illnesses could leave them in a state that mimicked death.  Americans and Europeans even purchased safety (or security) coffins and used waiting mortuaries to avoid being buried alive.

Taphophobia was reinforced by fictional stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial” and newspaper articles that were purportedly true.  Even doctors reported that they had exhumed graves of people who had been buried alive because it looked like the bodies had moved in the coffins, but this was before forensic scientists understood what happens to a corpse during decomposition.

Most of the newspaper accounts ended in tragedy, but in some stories people survived premature burial because grave robbers played unwitting heroes – probably one of the few times grave robbers were portrayed in a positive light.  Nearly all of these supposedly factual reports were based on local urban legends and unverifiable rumors from other countries.

Below are some extraordinary “true” stories of people who were buried alive, starting with one of the earliest I could find.

The Pennsylvania Gazette February 24, 1729

A Milkwoman’s Daughter at Endfield was

lately buried alive there: When she was going

to be interred, some People at the Funeral,

thought she looked fresh, and taking a Looking-

glass, and applying it to her Lips, they fancied

they perceived a Dew on it as from Breath;

but the cruel Mother mock’d and reviled them,

and swore she should be buried, and so she was;

but this coming to the Ears of a near Relation,

he got the Grave dug up, and the Coffin open’d,

when she was found with her Knees drawn up,

and the Nosegay in her Hand bitten to pieces,

struggling for Life.  A Surgeon was sent for to

bleed her, but it was then too late.

Newbern Sentinel April 3, 1819

Extraordinary Occurrence.
Extract of a letter from Bavaria

“We have witnessed a superb funeral of

the Baron Hornstein, a Courtier; but the

result is what induces me to mention it in

my letter.  Two days after, the workmen

entered the mausoleum, when they wit-

nessed an object which petrified them!

At the door of the sepulcher lay a body

covered with blood—it was the mortal

remains of this favorite of courts and prin-

ces.  The Baron was buried alive!  On

recovering from his trance he had forced

the lid of the coffin, and endeavoured to

escape from a charnel house—it was im-

possible! and therefore, in a fit of desper-

ation, as it is supposed, he dashed his

brains out against the wall.  The royal

family, and indeed the whole city, are

plunged in grief at the horrid catastro-

phe.”

 

Vermont Phoenix January 27, 1837

Terrible.— A foreign paper gives an

account of a melancholy case of premature

internment, which, we hear, lately took place

in Hermannstadt in Transylvania…

Lieutenant Colonel Elsas-

ser, Auditor General of that city, was attack-

ed with cholera, which apparently proved

fatal, and the body was soon after deposited

in a tomb, without any particular examina-

tion having taken place.   On succeeding to

his estate, his heirs missed from his person-

al effects, a valuable ring, which had been

an heir loom in the family for several gener-

ations, and accused a favorite servant of hav-

ing obtained possession of it.  The servant

denied the theft, and said that his master al-

ways wore it on his finger, and that it was

undoubtedly buried with him.  They there-

fore determined to open the tomb, to assure

themselves of the fact, but their astonishment

and horror may be imagined, when they as-

certained from the strongest evidence that the

Colonel had been buried alive; he having

afterwards turned himself in his coffin, and

had actually devoured the flesh from his

arms, through hunger, before he died a dread-

ful death!

 

The New Bloomfield, PA Times March 15, 1881     

Buried Alive.

From Bucharist there comes a remarka-

ble story illustrating an assurance which,

it is to be feared is too often the case, and

for which there is no remedy except legis-

lation of a proper character.  A young

lady died of small-pox, and according to

the sanitary laws of Roumania she was

buried at once.  As she had been recently

betrothed the presents of her lover were

buried with her, according to the Rou-

manian custom.  These presents consisted

of jewels and they excited the cupidity of

three robbers, who went to the grave at

night and dug up the coffin.  When it

was opened one of the robbers was afraid

to touch the corpse, whereat his fellows

jeered at him.  At this he gave the head

of the corpse a sound cuffing and let it drop.

At the next instant the dead woman arose

and said, “Don’t kill me, I beg you.”

Naturally the robbers fled and the unfor-

tunate girl arose and, crawling from her

grave, went home and was received with

mingled terror and joy.

 

The Wichita Beacon January 2, 1904

WAS BURIED ALIVE
Experiences of Man Supposed To Have Died

Independence, Mo. Jan. 2.— George

Hayword, a manufacturing jeweler,

died here recently.  He was 82 years of

age.  Until two weeks ago he was strong

and worked every day at his trade.

Mr. Hayward when a young man in

England was buried alive.

 

This is the story of his startling ex-

perience as told by Mr. Hayward:

 

“It was in Marshville, County of

Gloucester, England, where I was

buried.  While helping to haul straw one

day by accident I was struck in the

head with a pitchfork.  It penetrated

my skull and made me feel faint and

dizzy.  Two doctors were called.  One

of them insisted that my condition

was due to a blow on the head and the

other that I had pleurisy…

two weeks elapsed and my eyes closed

in supposed death…

Yet I was painfully conscious of

every movement going around…

 

As soon as the undertaker arrived I

knew I was to be buried alive…

 

Well the time for the funeral ar-

rived and then the burial.

Suddenly the shoveling ceased and the

silence of the tomb was complete.  I

did not seem to have the fear then that

a person would naturally expect under

such circumstances.  All I remember is

that the grave is a lonely place and the

silence of the tomb was horribly op-

pressive.  A dreamy sensation came

over me and a sense of suffocation be-

came apparent.

 

How long I remained in this condi-

tion I do not know.  The first sense of

returning to life came over me when I

heard scraping of a spade on my

coffin lid.  I felt myself raised and

borne away.  I was taken out of my

coffin, not to my home, but to a phy-

sician’s office.  I beheld the doctors who

had waited upon me at my home, dress-

ed in white aprons.  In their hands

they had knives…Both

approached the table and opened my

mouth, when by superhuman effort, my

eyelids were slightly raised.  The next

thing I hear was, ‘Look out, you fool,

he is alive.’

 

“ ‘He’s dead,’ rejoined the other doc-

tor.

 

“‘ See, he opened his eyes,’ continued

the first doctor.  The other physician

let the knife drop and a short time

after that I commenced to recover rap-

idly.  Instead of cutting me up they

took me home…I owed my

life to the doctors’ dispute as to what

ailed me during my illness.”

 

San Francisco Chronicle January 1, 1906

GHASTLY FIND IN CEMETERY
Bodies of Soldiers Exhumed at
Old Fort Hayes Indicate That
Men Were Buried Alive

Hayes City (Kas.), December 31.

—From Disclosures made this week

in the old burying ground of old Fort

Hayes it is evident that many soldiers

were buried alive there in a cholera

epidemic.  The bodies were now being

moved to Leavenworth, and the fort

is being abandoned as a military re-

serve.

 

Coffins were dug up that give evi-

dences of the frightful struggles of

the inmates for life.  Some of the

bodies had turned over; others had

the legs drawn up to the neck; others

were grasping the hair.  In the epi-

demic the health laws required thee

immediate burial of victims, and this

ghastly evidence indicates that a large

number of cholera patients were alive

when buried.



Categories: History

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2 replies

  1. My late grandfather was Police Surgeon of Nottinghamshire in the last century; he retired in around 1958 iirc. In that capacity, he attended any exhumations: he recounted that on at least two occasions there was evidence from damage to the hands in particular that the buried person had frantically tried to claw off the lid of the coffin. He always recommended that people insist on having an artery severed after death, before their corpse was buried, to avoid such a fate.

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