Embalmed Alive

Embalmed Alive Embalming set, 1790-1820 http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk

Recently a horrific news story about a young Russian woman who was killed by the accidental infusion of formalin instead of a saline IV has been been making the rounds with painful headlines of “Embalmed Alive!”

Since this blog is nothing if not topical, I wondered if, like premature burial, there was such a thing as “premature embalming.”

Of course, we’ve all heard of the urban legend tale “The Poisoned Dress” or “Embalmed Alive” about the young woman who dies after absorbing embalming fluid from a used dress. And if you’ve ever seen that noirest of films, The Loved One, based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel, you may remember Miss Aimée Thanatogenos, who embalms herself. I’m not a fan of needles or trochars so this is a subject that makes me queasy.

Thankfully the near-embalmed is not a large group, and those embalmed alive are mercifully few. Yet two cases with a remarkable similarity to the Russian tragedy occurred in Norfolk, Virginia in 1929.

On 17 May 1929, a modest notice in The Independent newspaper of Elizabeth City, North Carolina told of funeral services held for Mrs. Ruth Garrett, 36, wife of Cecil F. Garrett, “who died in a Norfolk hospital at 10:45 Sunday morning following an operation.”  She died on her birthday 12 May. But early in June, The Independent, tipped off by a confidential informant inside the hospital, began a relentless campaign to uncover the truth about Mrs. Garrett’s untimely death.

“Light is beginning to dawn on the mysterious death of Mrs. Cecil F. Garrett of this city who came to her death in a Norfolk Hospital on Sunday May 12th, 1929. Her death, following a sudden and unexpected operation, is believed to have been caused by a deadly injection for which a bungling laboratory nurse was responsible.”

That deadly injection, it soon emerged, was of formalin. Mrs. Garrett was, as the papers blared, “embalmed alive.”

As The Independent wrote,

Mrs. Garrett, 36 years old, was one of the healthiest young matrons in Elizabeth City. Her sudden death in St. Vincent’s Hospital on May 12th stunned everybody who knew her. But her husband suspected nothing wrong until weeks afterwards. Murder will out.

(Frankly, I’m surprised the newspaper got away with that kind of potentially libelous language.)

Mrs. Garrett’s personal doctor had discovered kidney disease and referred her to Dr. R.L. Payne of Norfolk, who recommended injections of an antiseptic silver nitrate solution. The first injection went smoothly, but the second caused her great pain. Despite this, she waited another two weeks to see the doctor, when it was discovered that one kidney had been destroyed and the other was badly damaged. An operation was hastily performed to remove the dead organ; the other kidney was too far gone and Mrs. Garrett died on Sunday morning, 12 May, 1929.

There the matter would have rested, with spouse and friends grieving for their loved one, but someone at the hospital decided to talk anonymously to the newspaper. The Independent asked Mr. Garrett for comment and he was stunned by what he heard. When he asked Dr. Payne for an explanation, the doctor admitted that the wrong solution had been used for the injection; he had ordered silver nitrate, but the bunglers in the laboratory had sent a mislabled bottle…. [The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 7 June 1929: p. 1]

Next, readers of The Independent were stunned to find that Mrs. Garrett’s “Death Came Fourteen Days After an Injection of Formalin Into Kidney by Dr. R.L. Payne in a Norfolk Hospital.”

The article makes it clear that Dr. Payne smelled formaldehyde when he examined the kidney which he had removed.  He “explained that he was so distressed over the death and the complications that had arisen that it never occurred to him that he should notify the coroner.”

Twisting the scalpel, the newspaper added: “No one professes to know how the pharmacist in St. Vincent’s hospital got formalin in the silver nitrate bottle.”  The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 21 June 1929: p. 1

The newspaper was on a self-congratulatory roll:

The hospital, upon instructions from Dr. Payne or for reasons best known to itself (this detail is not clear) issued a death certificate stating as the cause of Mrs. Garrett’s death “acute nephritis and heart failure.” And the public might have remained in ignorance of the truth forever if this newspaper had not questioned the mystery of Mrs. Garrett’s sudden death and forced an investigation. The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 28 June 1929: p. 5

But the newspaper was far from satisfied with the Coroner’s investigation and report.

According to Coroner McDonald Mrs. Garrett merely died of heart failure, following nephrosis. “A more evasive and innocuous document would be hard to find. All of the ingenuity and cunning of all of St. Vincent’s legal advisers could not have produced a more obvious whitewash and any high school boy could have contrived a more plausible and ingenious exculpation of the hospital staff. The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 5 July 1929: p. 1-2

As the paper kept digging, a second victim, Mrs. Leslie McLemore, was identified as having been poisoned by formaldehyde at St. Vincent. Her symptoms were identical to Mrs. Garrett’s. The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 12 July 1929: p. 1

Mr. Garrett retained a lawyer, but.

But Cecil F. Garrett, Husband of Woman Who Was Embalmed Alive, Will push The Matter To Its Limit.

A special Norfolk grand jury last week investigating the death of Mrs. Cecil F. Garrett of this city, who died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Norfolk after an operation following an injection of formalin from a bottle labelled nitrate of silver failed to find sufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone and was dismissed by Judge W.H. Sergeant in Corporation Court.

Cecil F. Garrett, husband of the dead woman, told a representative of this newspaper this week that while he was satisfied that the grand jury was composed of intelligent and conscientious men who discharged their duties the best they could and that he was satisfied with their report, considering the evidence they had gathered, he would not be content to let the matter drop. He stated that his attorneys were still investigating and that some sort of suit would eventually be started against someone.

In commenting on an article in a Norfolk paper quoting him as saying that it seemed that there was an unfortunate error in making up the prescription in the drug store or laboratory and that he held no one to blame for the unfortunate error, Mr. Garrett absolutely denies that he said anything of the kind. “The reporter just assumed that I said these words from a former statement in The Independent where I said that there had been an unfortunate error made,” said Mr. Garrett.

But there was something lacking at the hearing that grand jury. There was one Sister Evelyn Fitzsimons, who was in charge of the hospital pharmacy where the bottle labelled “Nitrate of Silver” was filled with a solution of formalin. A few days after the death of Mrs. Garrett from the fatal injection, Sister Fitzsimons’ health became bad and she had to be sent to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Philadelphia. She was not available at the grand jury investigation. Another nurse was ill from an operation and could not be present at the investigation. She was a Miss Eggleson. Had these two important witnesses been able to attend the investigation and shed what light they could on the terrible death of a woman who was embalmed alive, the report of the grand jury may have been altogether different. But they were ill and the grand jury did not wait.

The whole thing, as terrible as it was, has been hushed up by the hospital officials and by the Norfolk coroner, as best they could Mr. Garrett feels that if Coroner C.D. J. McDonald of Norfolk had fully discharged his duties in the investigation of the death of his wife, the grand jury would have had something more to work and that their report would have been different from what it was last week. “I am going to push the matter just as far as I can,” says Mr. Garrett. “Not that I can get any satisfaction in the prosecution of the guilty parties, but to fulfil a duty that I owe the general public.

Norfolk officials would probably never had done as much as they did in the investigation of Mrs. Garrett’s death had it not been for the fact that The Independent gave the case relentless publicity, presenting the facts to the public in a way that made the officials feel that they had to do something.

Mrs. Garrett was not the only one to receive an injection from that bottle of fatal formalin. The solution in the bottle was used on one other occasion before it was used in the case of the Mrs. Garrett; and that other case is believed to have been Mrs. Marie McLemore, a niece of Mrs. M.M. Spruill of this city. Mrs. McLemore died after an operation in St. Vincent’s Hospital in April [28 May, actually] and the circumstances surrounding her death were similar to those in Mrs. Garrett’s case. But the grand jury did not go into the McLemore death further than to ask a few questions and the people of Mrs. McLemore are reluctant to push the matter.

The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 16 August 1929: p. 1

While Mr. Garrett seemed to be making no headway, Mrs. McLemore’s people filed suit.

St. Vincent’s Sued for Death Mrs. McLemore

Murder will out. A suit for $10,000 filed in the Law and Chancery Court of Norfolk, Va., against St. Vincent’s Hospital last Friday, by Mrs. Ernestine Cahoon of South Norfolk… confirms the bold guess made by this newspaper last June that Mrs. McLemore was the victim of a medical blunder in St. Vincent’s….Every effort was made to conceal the facts regarding the deaths of the two young women….” The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 2 May 1930: p. 1

Mrs. McLemore’s family shared gruesome details of the unfortunate woman’s agony. Still, the paper, who had made the case against the hospital, was not sanguine about the outcome:

“Nothing much will come of the suit against St. Vincent. St. Vincent’s is a semi-charitable hospital and enjoys a certain immunity in law. Cecil F. Garrett of this city started a suit against St. Vincent’s but made no progress.

Later Mr. Garrett sought redress from Dr. R.L. Payne, Norfolk surgeon who administered the fatal injection. How Dr. Payne evaded summons in this city and fled from town with the connivance of Dr. R.L. Kendrick and Dr. Howad J. Combs, of this city, has been told in this newspaper. It was learned later that attorneys for Dr. Payne and attorneys for Mr. Garrett were discussing a compromise.” The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 2 May 1930: p. 1

And there the grim story ends. I assume that “compromise” was reached in both cases; I could find nothing more about lawsuits or settlements.

The joke about doctors burying their mistakes apparently applied to embalmers as well. Surprisingly, in early 20th century Massachusetts “under the present law an undertaker can embalm while the person is alive or bury the person before death and he commits no crime.” The Evening Statesman [Walla Walla WA] 30 October 1906: p. 3

Was He Embalmed Alive?

[Special to the Evening World.]

Rutherford, N.J., Aug. 9. Relatives of Dr. Charles Howard, who was reported to have died July 31 from an overdose of chloral, are taking steps to have the body exhumed for an autopsy, as they claim now that the doctor was alive when embalmed and death was due to the embalming fluid. Undertaker Collins officiated at the burial. The Evening World [New York NY] 9 August 1890: p. 4

But grief sometimes overtook common sense.

Anderson, Ind., Oct. 5. The attention of county officers has been called to a strange case at Summittville. It is claimed that Ed Hunter, a glassworker, was embalmed alive last Friday. Thursday evening Hunter retired with a headache. At midnight he called his wife, but before she got to him he was unconscious. The doctor who was called said Hunter was dead. The wife was not satisfied. After the embalmers had left the body she took a small glass, and, placing it over the nostrils, observed that moisture, a sure sign of life, gathered on the surface. She is almost distracted. Daily News-Democrat [Huntington IN] 5 October 1899: p. 1

The professionals were swift to comment:

Physicians and undertakers say the story is absurd. That had Hunter been alive when embalmed with a quart of the fluid of arsenic and other stuff of deadly poison it would have been out of question about him breathing 18 hours after being embalmed. The undertaker says that the veins on the forehead are filled with air, the pump having been pumping air into the veins before the fluid had started and the air in the veins caused them to feel as though they were in a normal condition. The Elwood [IN] Daily Record 5 October 1899: p. 1

There is a peculiar detail in this next story of partial embalming—that the undertaker would begin the embalming process with “weeping friends” in the room.


When the Undertaker Began the Embalming Process

Wilkesbarre, Penn., December 5. Mrs. Sarah Ramanski, the wife of a baker residing at Duryea, was taken suddenly ill on Monday and grew worse until Wednesday, when she showed signs of death. Toward evening she appeared to sink into a state of collapse and apparently died. The neighbors dispatched a message after Undertaker Koons, who took charge of the remains. Mr. Koons proceeded to arrange the preliminaries, such as tacking the crape on the door, &c., He began to inject fluid into the body, when, to his horror, the supposed corpse opened her eyes and glanced around the room at the weeping friends as if at a loss to understand the meaning of the proceedings. While her astonishment was great, that of the assembled friends was still greater, and instantly the scene was changed from one of grief to gladness. A physician was summoned and in explanation he gave it as his opinion that the case was nothing more than one of suspended animation. The Cincinnati [OH} Enquirer 6 December 1895: p. 4

It was bad enough when unembalmed persons in cataleptic trances awoke in their coffins while being transported to the graveyard. It piles horror upon horror to imagine being in a trance, able to hear what was going on, as the undertaker draws near with his needle….



East St. Louis (Ill.), January 14. Mrs. Christina Hirth awoke from a trance in the “dead-room” of the County Hospital today. Only by a slight motion of her eyelids was she able to make life manifest to the undertaker who was busy embalming her. This faint quiver was sufficient to throw a weight from her eye and thereby saved her from death by embalming fluid, or, escaping that, by premature burial.

Mrs. Hirth is 53 years old, and for three months has been suffering from a complication of ailments that have greatly weakened her. Last night it was expected that she would die, and her husband remained at her bedside all night. This morning she grew much weaker, and with a deep sigh seemingly expired.

The county undertaker was called, and the supposed corpse was taken to the “dead-room,” the body was laid out, washed, and partially bleached. Cloths saturated with bleaching fluid were placed over the face and body. The shroud and clothing in which she was to be buried were prepared.

While busy with his preparations to inject the embalming fluid, the undertaker was startled by a noise proceeding from the direction of the supposed corpse. He glanced hastily, but there was no motion in the white-sheeted figure. When he came to remove the sheet from the face, however, he noticed that one of the weights had fallen off. In replacing it he thought that he detected a quiver in the eyelids, but, attributing it to his imagination, went about preparing his instruments for the injection of the embalming fluid.

He was about to inject the fluid when again he noticed a quiver, and then, to be thoroughly satisfied, he applied the most powerful test of life known to undertakers. There was an unmistakable though faint indication of the life in the response. Assistance was summoned, the partially embalmed woman was removed to a bed and restoratives were applied by doctors. She was able after several hours to speak in a whisper and move her muscles, but weakness, caused by her illness and the terrible ordeal through which she had passed, told heavily upon her, and she could make no statement as to her experiences while in the trance. From signs it is supposed that she realized how near she was to being embalmed alive.

Her husband was thrown into a paroxysm of joy over the sudden restoration of his wife to life. Several of Mrs. Hirth’s women acquaintances believe that a miracle was performed, in answer to their prayers. Doctors are doubtful as to her ultimate recovery, though they say that she may take a turn for the better. New Zealand Herald, 24 February 1900: p.  2

If we merely took keyword frequency as an indication, we might think that being “embalmed alive” was a commonplace occurrence. But the phrase was sometimes used in the jocular sense of being drunk. And there are astonishingly large numbers of stories of people who died when mistaking embalming fluid for liquor.



Northumberland, Pa., Jan. 9. James B. Dieffenbach, secretary of the board of health and superintendent of the local water works, felt chilly and swallowed from a bottle which he thought contained whiskey. The fluid was embalming fluid or formaldehyde.

He entered a doctor’s office for relief from violent pains following the drink and soon died. Arkansas Democrat [Little Rock AK] 9 January 1909: p. 5


Undertaker’s Clerk Mistakes Deadly Fluid for Whiskey.

Paterson, N.J., Feb. 7. Mistaking a pint flask of embalming fluid for one containing whiskey, William J. Cantwell, night clerk in the undertaking establishment of Robert R. Nichols, drank enough to make “four fingers.” He was found dead in bed at 8 o’clock next morning by Nichols when he entered the rear room of his office.

The flask containing the embalming fluid stood in the cabinet alongside of one containing whiskey. Winston-Salem [NC] Journal 8 February 1911: p. 5

Finally—sometimes the choice was a deliberate one:

Says a New York dispatch: Michael Ferria, aged 24, died at St. Catherine’s hospital last night, having swallowed embalming fluid, which he obtained at an undertaking establishment in Brooklyn and drank with suicidal intent. He was discouraged, not having been able to secure work. He met a party of friends in front of the undertaker’s and went in and took a bottle which stood on a shelf and laughingly said that he would embalm himself before death. He succeeded. Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal 16 November 1892: p. 3

Other stories of death by embalming? I think I’ve just about reached my limit of grue….. 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.

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