This exceptionally startling story about the blinking mummy of the Palermo catacombs segues nicely into some 19th-century tales about the moving dead. Experienced morticians know that the dead do move, sometimes in shockingly natural ways, simply due to changes in muscle tension, rigor wearing off, or internal gases. Cholera, that scourge of the century, was apparently famous for producing corpses that opened their eyes, sat up, or otherwise acted alive. There’s a famous passage in The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe: as the physician Munthe watches the Mother Superior of a cholera-ravaged convent die, he embraces a pretty young nun at the deathbed and sees the dead nun’s eyes open and stare accusingly at him.
This account comes from a longer interview with an undertaker.
“Did you ever know of a person being buried alive?” “Never, and I doubt if such a thing ever happened. I’ve heard of a body being taken up from the grave and found turned over in the coffin, but I can readily understand how the water that sometimes gets into graves would gradually fill the coffin and float the body out of its proper position. How could a man come to life all smothered up in a grave? It’s impossible. I’ll tell you what happened to me once, however. I was called in to attend the body of a man who had died of Asiatic cholera. My assistant and I had washed the body, and were preparing to put it on ice, when I noticed both hands—we had crossed them on the breast—move gently down alongside the body, just as if the man had got tired having them in one position, and wanted to change. I was a trifle startled, but I crossed the hands on the breast again more securely, thinking, perhaps they had fallen over of their own weight. Presently they went back again to the side of the body in such a natural way that I made up my mind the man was not dead. This was about two hours after his apparent death. The family were very anxious to have the body put on ice at once, but I invented some excuse for delaying it, said nothing about what I had seen and went after the doctor as fast as I could. He told me that the movement of the hands was a mere muscular action, which proved conclusively that the man had died of Asiatic cholera, contraction of the muscles nearly always occurring after death from that cause. I remember having seen since then the body of a young lady who died of cholera, and one of her feet was bent under so that the toes nearly touched the heel.” The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 19 April 1884: p. 9
Given how much dead bodies may move spontaneously, I’m not sure this is that much of a terrible mystery, but you be the judge.
Did the Dead Move?
A well-known photographer will vouch for the following facts: He was called in one day to take a photograph of a young girl of about twenty, who had died a few days before. The corpse was laid out upon a bed, with the hands clasped over the breast. Death had come very gently to her, and, except for the stillness, she lay there as if asleep. Some flowers had been strewn over the body and on the floor by the side of the bed and standing out in black relief against it, was the coffin. The photographer silently adjusted his lens and took the photograph. During the ten minutes needed for the exposure, the photographer paced up and down in the long corridor outside the room where the dead girl lay. When he returned he was that on the lid of the coffin was a flower, which was not so before. How did that flower come there? No one had entered the room; the windows were closed, and there was not a breath of air stirring. Why was the flower now lying on the coffin, when a few minutes before it was on the bed, between the hands of the corpse? The photographer listened, but he could hear no sound except the beating of his own heart. In a few minutes, however, he determined to dismiss the question from his mind, and busied himself with packing up his instrument. Then he paused—possibly the falling flower had left a trace on the negative, or, as the day was gloomy, the photograph might not be quite successful. He would try again. A second photograph was taken, and the artist returned home. That night, sitting up late in his studio, he developed the two negatives. The position of the corpse was not the same in the two negatives. The photographer strained his eyes, half disbelieving the evidence of his own sense, but there were the two negatives before him, telling in their silent, unmistakable truthfulness that between the taking of the two photographs the arm of the dead girl had distinctly moved. The mystery of the flower on the coffin was solved, but it was succeeded by a mystery more terrible still. London Tablet.
Themis [Sacramento, CA] 21 December 1889: p. 2
BODIES OF THE DEAD
Instances of Physical Activity After Death
How the Noted Dr. Spier Subdued a Corpse
The Dead Child’s Broken in a Coffin
Reflex Action – A Turner.
[San Francisco Examiner.]
That the bodies of the dead, even a long time after the moment of death, do perform actions which have all the appearance of volition, the other and more authentic occurrences related in the same article sufficiently show, without the concurrent testimony of physicians as to instances familiar to every student of medical literature. Physicians, it is true, assure us that in these movements the element of volition does not enter: and they have given to this muscular movement the name of “reflex action:” and this, apparently, we are expected to accept as a perfectly lucid explanation of a phenomenon which, without he name, would be obscure. Enlightened by the term “reflex action,” it must be a discontented and exacting curiosity that would not rest and be thankful. My present purpose is neither inquisitive nor controversial: I wish only to present in a simple, straightforth way a few more instances form my note-book. Science, I suppose, is able to take care of itself.
On the 2d of May, 1873, the little daughter of James Craven, a linen-draper of Bath, England, died of a membranous croup [diphtheria], and was buried in a cemetery a mile or two from the town—the same cemetery, by the way, which contains the ashes of “Tower-Building Beckford,” the author of “Vathek.” When the child’s body was put into the casket the hands were crossed upon the breast and tied with a white ribbon. Just before the lid was screwed down a little brother of the deceased came forward with her doll and asked permission to place it in the casket and this was done, the doll lying upon the breast and left arm of the body. Some weeks after the burial Craven sold out his business and removed with his family to Bristol. The body of the child was exhumed for conveyance to that city, and for some reason the casket was opened in the presence of the father and three or four others. The ribbon confining the hands was found broken; the right hand was clasping the doll, which lay diagonally pressed against the throat. Excepting a slight displacement of the left hand and forearm, caused by the strain upon the ribbon, no other movement had been made—not even a turning of the head. The face showed nothing but the peaceful tranquility of death.
John Hoskin, living on Mission street, in this city, had a beautiful wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. In the spring of 1871 Mrs. Hoskin went East to visit her relatives in Springfield, Il., where a week after her arrival she suddenly died of some disease of the heart; at least the physician said so. Mr. Hoskin was at once apprised of his loss by telegraph, and requested that the body be sent to San Francisco. On arrival here the metallic case containing the remains was opened. The body was lying on the right side, the right hand under the cheek, the other on the breast. The posture was the perfectly natural one of a sleeping child, and in a letter to the deceased lady’s father, Mr. Martin L. Whitney, of Springfield, Mr. Hoskin expressed a graceful sense of the thoughtfulness that had so composed the remains as to soften the suggestion of death. To his surprise he learned from the father that nothing of the kind had been done; the body had been put in the casket in the customary way, lying on the back with the arms extended along the sides. In the mean time the casket had been deposited in the receiving vault at Laurel Hill Cemetery, pending the completion of a tomb. Greatly disquieted by this revelation Mr. Hoskin did not at once reflect that the easy and natural posture and placid expression precluded the idea of suspended animation, subsequent revival and eventual death by suffocation. He insisted that his wife had been murdered by medical incompetency and needless haste. Under the influence of this feeling he wrote to Mr. Whitney again, expressing in passionate terms his horror and renewed grief. Some days afterward, some one having suggested that the casket had been opened en route, probably in the hope of plunder, and pointing out the impossibility of the change having occurred din the straitened space of the confining metal, it was resolved to reopen the casket to ascertain if this latter consideration were decisive. Removal of the lid disclosed a new horror: The body now lady upon its left side. The position was cramped, and to a living person would have been uncomfortable. The face wore an expression of pain. Some costly rings on the fingers were still undisturbed. Overcome by his emotions to which was now added a sharp, if mistaken remorse, Mr. Hoskin lost his reason, dying years afterward in the asylum at Stockton.
A physician having been summoned to assist in clearing up the mystery, viewed the body of deceased lady, pronounced life obviously extinct, and ordered the casket closed for the third and last time. “Obviously extinct,” indeed: the corpse had, in fact, been embalmed at Springfield.
At Hawley’s Bar, a mining camp near Virginia City, Montana, a gambler named Henry Graham, but commonly known as “Gray Hank,” met a miner named Dreyfuss one day, with whom he had a dispute the previous night about a pack of cards, and asked him into a bar-room to have a drink. The unfortunate miner, taking this as an overture f peace, gladly accepted. They stood at the counter, and while Dreyfuss was in the act of drinking Graham shot him dead. This was in 1865. Within an hour after the murder Graham was in the hands of the vigilantes, and that evening at sunset after a fair, if informal trial, he was hanged to the limb of a tree which grew upon a little eminence within sight of the whole camp. The original intention had been to “string him up,” as is customary in such affairs, and with a view to that operation the long rope had been thrown over the limb, while a dozen pairs of hands were ready to hoist away. For some reason this plan was abandoned, the rope was given a single turn about the limb at a suitable distance from the noose, the free end made fast to a bush, and the victim compelled to stand on the back of a horse which at the cut of a whip sprang from under him, leaving him swinging. When steadied his feet were about eighteen inches from the earth.
The body remained suspended for exactly half an hour, the greater part of the crowd remaining about it. Then the “Judge” ordered it taken down. The rope was untied from the bush and two men stood by to lower away. The moment the feet came squarely upon the ground the men engaged in lowering, thinking doubtless that those standing about the body had hold of it to support it, let go the rope. The body at once ran quickly forward toward the main part of the crowd, the rope paying out as it went. The head rolled from side to side, the eyes and tongue protruding, the face a ghastly purple, the lips covered with bloody froth. With cries of horror, the crowd ran hither and thither, stumbling, falling over one another, cursing. In and out among them—over the fallen, coming into collision with others, his direction governed by blind caprice, the horrible dead man “pranced,” his feet lifted so high at each step that his knees struck his breast, his tongue swinging like that of a panting dog, the foam flying in flakes from his swollen lips. The deepening twilight added its terror to this uncanny scene and brave men fled from the spot, not daring to look behind.
Straight into this confusion from the outskirts of the crowd walked with rapid steps the tall figure of a man whom all who saw instantly recognized as a master spirit. This was Dr. Arnold Spier, who with two other physicians had pronounced the man dead, and had been retiring to the camp. He moved as directly toward the dead man as the now somewhat less rapid and erratic movements of the latter would permit, and seized him in his arms. Encouraged by this a score of men sprang shouting to the free end of the rope, which had not been drawn entirely over the limb, and laid hold of it, intending to make a finish of their work. They ran with it toward the bush to which it had been fastened, but there was no resistance; the physician had cut it from the dead murder’s neck. In a moment the body was lying on its back, with composed limbs and face upturned to the kindling stars, in the motionless rigidity appropriate to death. The hanging had been done well enough; the neck had been broken by the drop. Dr. Spier knew that a corpse which, placed upon its feet, would walk and run, would lie still when placed upon its back. The dead are creatures of habit.
Reading [PA] Eagle 20 May 1888: p. 2
Strong stories, all three! The second of the two is a pretty standard version of the “buried-alive-in-a-trance” tale. In fact I was just proofing a similar story about a woman who refused to believe her husband was really dead because the embalming made him look so life-like. In that story, there was a weird kind of confusion, which I’ve found in other accounts of 19th century corpses: that while the woman knew her husband had been embalmed, she didn’t really understand what that meant–that life was really extinct.
As for the rootin’ tootin’ lynching story, I have to say, despite the lurid language, I was naively impressed by this (to me) previously-unknown folklore belief about a corpse placed on its feet continuing to walk. It dove-tailed so nicely with stories of the decapitated dead moving their lips or the ill-hanged walking a few steps.
Who was this eminent Dr. Spier, who was so wise in the ways of the walking dead? Alas, when I went in search of him, I found, much to my chagrin, that this was a fictional short story by–who else?–Ambrose Bierce. I should have known. Known as “Bitter Bierce,” for his jaundiced outlook, he was a master of the grim, the grewsome, and of the morbid, yet plausible description. And the Reading Eagle has embittered me by that practice, so common in the 19th-century press, of printing fiction without a disclaimer or even without the wink of a (mummified) eye.
Other moving corpses? Have them creep up on Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
For more curious stories of the dead, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, now available at online retailers and for Kindle.