On 14 November 1848, Almond D. Fisk patented his “air-tight coffin of cast or raised metal.” The patent contained the further suggestion that “the air may be exhausted so completely as entirely to prevent the decay of the contained body…or…the coffin may be filled with any gas or fluid having the property of preventing putrefaction.”
Retailers of Fisk Burial Cases rhapsodized over their ability to preserve the body and their aesthetic qualities:
The idea of preserving the features of the dead unchanged—of staying the execution of the sentence, “dust to dust,” is a beautiful one, and had its origin in the gentlest affections of our nature.
The hand that cherishes the flower above the low bed of the dreamless, and bedews its leaves with tears, would, if it could, preserve the form from mingling with the elements, that the share of the ploughman might not rend it—that the winds of heaven might not strew it.
We love to think that the Corinthian column sprung from the tribute of memory to the dead—that the votive basket wreathed with Acanthus, and placed upon the grave of some dear lost one, suggested to the sculptor, that most elegant of all the orders that grace the temples of the world.
But the houses that shall “last till dooms day,” aside from the associated pall, and knell and tear, and clod and silence, offend the eye from their want of all symmetry and beauty. No matter of what material composed, how richly lined or how rarely adorned, they are repulsive still. A sense of oppression comes over us, as we look at them—those windowless apartments—those cold and gloomy boxes for the dead to lie in.
Fisk’s Metallic Burial Cases are not liable to these objections. While they preserve the forms we love, in something more like a pulseless slumber than a dread decay, they have the appearance of rich and heavy folds of drapery, thrown over the form, adapted to the shape, and realizing the line of “Thanatopsis.”
“Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Many a heart, whose kindred heart beat, but afar from home, will bless him who has thus devised and disposed a mantle beneath which that heart may be borne by ship and shore, to sleep amid the dust that once throbbed symphonious with its own.
Specimens of these Burial Cases may be seen at W.T. Woodson and Co’s, 232 Lake Street. To those who admire beauty of proportion and elegance of design, so far from there being anything chilling or repulsive, one of them might appropriately enter into the imagery of a morning dream from which we grieve to wake.
Chicago [IL] Daily Journal 29 May 1851
To my critical eye they look grotesquely like diving suits, but they obviously struck a throbbing, symphonious chord with the bereaved. Sometimes they even did what it says on the tin: there are reports of bodies shipped long distances arriving in excellent condition and the faces of the dead, unearthed a century after burial and seen to be incorrupt through the coffins’ plate-glass windows, testify to the Fisk’s effectiveness. Iron coffins were also advertised as a deterrent to body-snatchers:
A Ypsilanti burial case company propose to beat the resurrectionists, by means of armor plated coffins. Jackson [MI] Citizen 22 February 1876: p. 6
Obviously a sealed iron coffin was more difficult to open and it was impossible to follow the usual protocol of the resurrectionist of digging down to the head of the wooden coffin, breaking it open, and dragging out the corpse by the neck. Their use as a kind of personal, rather than parish, mort-safe was yet another of the advantages touted for the metallic burial case, but there was a darker side to the cast-iron coffin. Human decomposition did not always follow the predictable, desired path, particularly when a dead loved one had to be shipped a long distance. Air often needed to be pumped out of the Fisk or a corpse might need to be embalmed to ensure a better outcome. Even so, I’ve seen reports from, for example, a man called in to paint the blackened face of an iron-coffined corpse, so it would look presentable for a few hours through the little window. Ideally the cast-iron coffin would protect the body from decay and grave robbers. The reality might be rather different and horrifically inaccurate conclusions might be drawn from that reality, as we will shortly see.
By way of introduction to the article issuing a grave warning about iron coffins, here is the back-story of the burial alive in New Orleans mentioned in that article’s first paragraph. This particular, heart-rending article had a huge circulation over several years and the way it spread and changed, suggests an urban legend. True or not, it is a reflection of the horrified fascination that premature burial held for the public.
I have just heard of one of the most horrible, heart-rending, and yet, perhaps, unavoidable affairs which it has ever been my lot, as a newspaper correspondent, to record. It is nothing more nor less than the frightful reality of being buried alive. A most estimable lady, named Mrs. Crane, whose husband is a book-keeper in Flemming & Co.’s drug store, on Magazine Street, in this city [New Orleans, LA], died very suddenly last July, of what was pronounced sun-stroke. She was a school teacher in one of our most popular public schools, and resided, if I am not mistaken, on Dryades Street. It was in the afternoon, after school was out, that she went to visit a neighbor on Felicity Street and just as she entered her friend’s house, she fell insensible to the floor and expired, to all appearance, in about two minutes, a doctor pronouncing it sun-stroke. Her body was interred the next day, at ten o’clock, and her mother, an old lady about fifty years of age, and her husband and one little son, went home almost broken-hearted and have since been nearly distracted, being at times unable to sleep, and, in fact, leading a most miserable and disconsolate life; and well they might, as the sequel will show, had they known what they had done. Well, one night last week the mother, after passing a most distressing day, fell asleep late at night and dreamed that her daughter had been buried alive. She jumped up in a frantic state and rushed to her son-in-law’s chamber crying, “My daughter is buried alive! Oh, my daughter is buried alive! What shall I do!” To sleep any more that night was out of the question; she still crying that her daughter was buried alive, whenever her son-in-law would try to quiet her. At length the proposition was made to have the body disinterred just to satisfy her. So, early the next morning the grave was opened and the coffin raised. Oh, what a horrible sight met their view. Pen is powerless to portray the scene which followed. The body, which had been placed in a metallic coffin, was turned over, the glass covering the face was broken to atoms, the ends of her fingers being beaten and battered all to pieces; her hair torn out in handfuls and her shroud torn in many places—all presenting the appearance of one of the most desperate struggles to free herself from her terrible misfortune.
If any of your readers could have seen the relatives of this unfortunate lady, when the condition of what they supposed was the perpetually silent tomb had been brought to light, it would have forced a tear from the most stolid and adamantine heart. It was one of the most distressing affairs ever recorded in this State and I sincerely hope it will be the last I am ever called upon to record.
I have not seen this affair mentioned in any of our city papers, but as far as the truth of the matter is concerned, I can vouch for it having occurred, as I have it from parties intimately connected with the unfortunate family and whose veracity I cannot doubt. The husband and mother, it is now said, are almost entirely bereft of their reason, and it is feared they will go permanently deranged; and, indeed, they have sufficient reason.
This should be another warning to all who read this of the uncertainty of death until the body begins to decay. It is generally conceded by physicians that as long as there is a possibility of returning life the body will not show any signs of decomposition. Therefore, in warm weather, when a body does not commence to decompose immediately it is a sure sign that the life has not left it, and the body should not be buried. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 December 1868: p. 2
The motif of the glass window being broken outward, as well as the distortion and damage to the body appear in many stories of premature burial. Given the clearance in the form-fitting Fisk, there does not seem room for a revived corpse to break out a window, which also was made of quite thick glass. But is there a logical explanation?
Their Effect Upon Dead Bodies
Correspondence of the Cincinnati Commercial
Washington, D.C., January 11. I read in the Intelligencer—it will be in the Chronicle next week—a frightful statement of burying alive that is said to have occurred in New Orleans, and is now going the rounds of the press, to the intense horror of all sensitive people.
The mother of the unfortunate, it is claimed, was informed of the horrible event, through a dream, and insisted upon having the body disinterred, for investigation. On opening the grave the horrible fact was manifested. The glass over the face was broken, the face was mutilated, and the fingers wounded.
Now, it would be well to let this pass as a warning to the thoughtless who hurry dead bodies into their graves, before positive assurance that life is extinct. But the case is so horrible that it is better to know the truth. The corpse had been encased in an iron coffin—called casket—made iron-tight. The consequent is that the gases generated by the decaying body produce the most frightful disfiguration, and in some instances shiver the glass over the face.
I know all about this, for I had a case come under my immediate observation—the death of a friend, in the country, caused by an accident, so sudden and unexpected that few of the friends and relatives could be called to the funeral within the ordinary time incident to such occasions. An iron coffin was procured, the body placed in it, and the lid sealed and screwed down in the usual manner with a thick glass plate over the head. To those who watched the loved face through tears, there soon appeared a singular change; the veins of the forehead began to swell, and soon stood out like cords. Then the face began to swell and soon the eyes partly opened and the lips fell apart, giving to the face a wrathful, horrifying expression that was painful to look upon. These changes continued until the dead seemed to be striving to breathe and speak, and strange noises were heard inside. Women shrieked and fainted, and at last a cloth was thrown over the glass, and persons were forbid looking in. During the night of the second day (if I remember correctly), an explosion occurred, accompanied by the sound of broken glass, and it was found that the plate, over the face, was shivered, and the room filled with the most sickening stench. The dead body was horrible to look at, and it required no active stretch of the imagination to believe that life had returned and a struggle ensued.
I doubt whether one could return to life from the counterfeit condition that had been mistaken for death, while sealed up in one of these iron cases. Such return must, of course, be slow, uncertain, and feeble. How long the air of the coffin would continue pure enough to strengthen the lungs, so as to start the circulation, I am not prepared to say, but I should think not long—certainly not a sufficient length of time to enable the subject buried alive to make much of a struggle.
Memphis [TN] Daily Appeal 20 January 1869: p. 1
One doesn’t know whether to be reassured or appalled at the idea that burial alive was unlikely if interred in a cast-iron coffin. The author makes a convincing case for the sealed case producing all the dreadful signs of premature burial. Similar stories that I’ve collected contain many of the same details as above; this was a far from isolated incident. It was said that sextons who noticed a swelling lead coffin would tap it and burn off the gases.
Do you have a personal favorite exploding coffin/corpse story? Break the glass window to relieve the pressure and notify Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.