The Corpse Wanted Help: The Horrors of Being Buried Alive

Thanks to Michael Robinson for the link to the illustration. 11/15/1843 Records of the Patent and Trademark Office National Archives Identifier: 595517 This is the printed patent drawing for a life - preserving coffin invented by Christian H. Eisenbrandt. Additional Details from our Exhibits and Publications: “Life-preserving coffin” The fear of being buried alive led Christian Henry Eisenbrandt to patent a “life-preserving coffin in doubtful cases of actual death.” In his application, he claimed that through a series of springs and levers, even the slightest motion of the head or hand would instantaneously open the coffin lid.

Thanks to Michael Robinson for the link to the illustration. 11/15/1843
Records of the Patent and Trademark Office
National Archives Identifier: 595517
This is the printed patent drawing for a life – preserving coffin invented by Christian H. Eisenbrandt.
Additional Details from our Exhibits and Publications:
“Life-preserving coffin”
The fear of being buried alive led Christian Henry Eisenbrandt to patent a “life-preserving coffin in doubtful cases of actual death.” In his application, he claimed that through a series of springs and levers, even the slightest motion of the head or hand would instantaneously open the coffin lid.

 We have put her living in the tomb!

-Edgar Allan Poe-

The End is near–the end of the Things That Scare Us series. Today we lift the lid on stories of burial alive and find the subject seething with maggots of horror.

“The Corpse Wanted Help,” a story from Strangest of All by Frank Edwards terrified me when young and still makes me shudder. In the story, an Italian woman who was buried alive tells in a séance of her horrifying death. When her coffin was dug up, her knees were found flexed against the coffin lid, her clothes were torn to shreds, and, most chilling of all, her finger tips were bitten off in her agony. The subject has fascinated and frightened me ever since. 

The Victorians feared premature burial almost as much as they feared the Resurrection Man. Some people left instructions that their throats should be cut or a needle be driven into their heart to ensure that they were properly dead before burial. But how much of a problem was burial alive–really?  Let us hear from a notable member of the British Medical Association, Dr. J. Stenson Hooker:

“Even if one is unwilling,” he added, “to go as far as the English investigator who estimates that 2,700 people at least in England and Wales are yearly consigned to the tomb while alive and to accept the conclusion of Le Guern who calculated the premature burials in France at two per thousand, it is nevertheless beyond question that the peril of living sepulture is an actual and terrifying menace. Aberdeen [SD] American 22 July 1922: p. 6 

Strong words, yet even allowing for exaggeration, the thousands of lurid newspaper articles about the prematurely buried and the nearly-buried, bear testimony to the extent of the fear. 

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  

This sound advice on decomposition is a common warning in the literature of premature burial. While today the boundaries of death are a shifting ethical minefield, without the benefit of modern medical technology, physicians of the past relied on the misted mirror and tell-tale heartbeat to confirm that life still lingered. In cases of coma, catalepsy, or cholera, more drastic measures had to be taken: electric shock, red-hot pokers on the soles of the feet, “irritating” powders, needles run beneath fingernails, whipping with wet towels, burning the skin to see if it blistered, and holding the hand up to the light to see if it was red with circulating blood.

Eighteenth-century physicians were well aware of the problem and had some ingenious methods of testing for life:  

There are three general Methods of discovering Latent Life. The 1st, is by the Pulse, which should not only be felt for at the Wrist, but sought for between the Thumb and the Bone near the Metacarpus, at the Temples behind the sterno-mastic Muscles, at the Groin, and at the beating of the Heart in the left Side; great Care and Diligence is to be used in this Search—yet the Absence of the Pulse is not conclusive—Dr. Brubier, of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, has proved, how the Motion in Arteries may be totally insensible, and yet exist. The 2d Method, is by the Respiration: For this there are several Experiments, as, holding a burning Candle near the Mouth and Nose, a fine clear Glass, a Feather of very fine Down, yet these are not to be depended upon as conclusive; for, tho’ the Flame continues steady, the Mirror bright, and the Feather motionless, as also the Experiment of placing a Glass of Water on the Pit of the Stomach, tho’ the Water have no Motion, yet there may be latent Life. The 3d Method is, by chirurgical Experiments, by pricking, cutting and burning; even these are sometimes insufficient to produce Signs of Sensibility, tho’ the Life still remains. If there is any Reason to presume latent Life, I would advise stimulating the Nostrils with Acids, volatile Salts and Spirits; to irritate the Organs of Feeling with a small Whip, and those of Hearing by a Shrill Noise; and wait for a Mortification, the only sure Sign of Death, in my humble Opinion. The South Carolina Gazette [Charleston, SC] 16 January 1755 

Cholera was a particularly devious dissembler of death, as those who were infected seemed to die very quickly, but might actually be in a coma. Attendants were disposed to bury first and ask questions later. Victims were often thrown into mass graves while still alive and more than one cholera cemetery is reputed to be haunted by those tortured ghosts. 

The Cincinnati Commercial gives the following from a reliable source: The body of a victim of the Cholera was placed in the vault of one of our graveyards, where it remained about 34 hours, when, in the presence of friends and relatives it was taken for burial.  Some of the relatives desiring to look once more upon the deceased [practically unheard of in cases of cholera], the sexton unscrewed the coffin, and awful to behold, the features of the corpse were found to be hideously distorted, his shroud torn, and his fingers, which were between his teeth, bitten and gnawed to the very bone. A Miss Taylor was taken sick with Cholera at St. Louis on Sunday. It was supposed that she had died. Her brother insisted that she should not be buried until the next day. On Monday while the funeral preparations were in progress, she suddenly revived and now bids fair to recover. The North Star [Rochester, NY] 13 July 1849 

While the Germans built waiting mortuaries to hold the dead until decomposition was obvious, the French, apparently concerned about that “2 per thousand” statistic, were on the cutting edge of research and resurrection, with such instruments as the necrometer.  

TEST FOR DEATH. – People who fear that they may possibly be buried alive will be glad to know that Dr. [Eugene] Bouchut, one of the leading physicians of Paris, has obtained a prize from the French Academy of Medicine for his discovery of a method by which to distinguish real from apparent death. The discovery is thus explained in one of the medical bulletins: When the temperature falls to 20 degrees above zero centigrade, or 68 degrees Fah, death is certain. Now Dr. Douchut has devised a thermometer-like instrument, which he calls a necrometer, so graduated that if when placed under the armpit of a person supposed to be dead it marks zero, then life has indeed departed beyond any possibility of mistake. Of the merits of this ingenious device, so far as any experiments or performances are concerned no account is given. The Christian Recorder [Philadelphi, PA] 21 January, 1875  

A French physician makes the remarkable statement that one-half at least of the so-called drowned persons are buried alive, and that they may be brought to life by proper treatment after having been “several hours under water.” His remedy is to get out the water, pour in and inject alcoholic stimulants, and use a whip energetically, or hot irons in bad cases. The statement has been partially Confirmed by the resuscitation of a man after he had been under water in one of the Seine baths for more than twenty minutes. Godey’s Lady’s Book [Philadelphia, PA] October 1876 

PREMATURE BURIAL. – A learned Belgian, M. Mainple, has recently discovered a very simple means of distinguishing between real and apparent death. It consists in creating a small burn if there is life, a blister is always formed even in the absence of apparent sensibility. – If death has already intervened, nothing of the kind occurs. The North Star [Rochester, NY] 13 July 1849

Fortunately, few of us will have any field experience in premature burial. But you know you’re die-curious. Let us hear, first-hand, some voices from the grave. 


The Astonishing Experience of a Wealthy Indiana Farmer.

A Trance Which the Doctors Pronounced to Be Death—How the Corpse Startled the Mourners on the Way to the Quiet Cemetery.

[Indianapolis Journal.]

On the evening of June 18, 1868, George Wellington, an Indiana farmer, had a gathering of friends at his house. He was a man of forty-two years of age and of robust health, and on this evening it was noticed that he was in particularly good spirits. After the guests had departed he remarked to his wife that he felt more like singing and dancing than going to bed. They retired about half-past eleven o’clock, and she was asleep before midnight.

The farmer was always out of bed at five o’clock, but on the morning following the party the wife awoke at six o’clock and found him still sleeping. When she attempted to arouse him she discovered that he was dead. A doctor was sent for, and he arrived in the course of an hour to pronounce it a case of heart-disease. He said the man had been dead three hours when the wife awoke. The undertaker came and prepared the body for burial. It was remarked that the corpse retained a life-like appearance, and that none of the limbs grew rigid, but the two other physicians called in vigorously combated the idea that he was in a trance and might be restored to life. Nevertheless, the wife and sons had a secret hope that death had not really come to him and the funeral was put two days ahead. During the interval the corpse was constantly watched for signs of returning animation, but nothing occurred to delay the funeral arrangements.

The burial was to take place in a country grave-yard, and most of the vehicles gathering at the house belonged to farmers. The usual ceremonies took place over the dead, and the coffin was brought out and placed in the hearse. While the procession was forming, a team attached to an empty wagon came down the road, running away. The wagon collided with the hearse, and the latter vehicle was upset and the coffin flung out. Four or five men ran to pick it up, but, before a hand had touched it, a voice was heard saying:

“For god’s sake let me out of this!”

The people at first moved back in affright, but as the voice continued to address them the coffin was righted and opened, and Wellington was found struggling to get out. With a little assistance he pulled himself out of the box and walked into the house and sat down in a chair. In half an hour he had his clothes on and was moving around among the amaze people to whom he related this experience:

“I did not fall asleep until some time after midnight. When I awoke the clock was striking five. I made a move to get out of bed, but, to my great amazement, I could stir neither hand nor foot. I had the full use of my ears, but I could not open my eyes. I argued at first that I was not yet wide awake, but when my wife shook me and called me by name, and I could not respond by even moving an eyelid, I became satisfied that I was in a trance. My mind was never clearer, and my hearing was painfully acute. I made effort after effort to throw off the great weight which seemed to be holding me down, but I could not bend a toe or crook a finger. However, it was only after the doctor had pronounced me dead that I felt any alarm. Up to that time it had seemed as if I could soon manage to get rid of the weight. Had a pistol been fired in the room I am sure the spell would have been broken. After the doctor’s ultimatum I felt that I should be buried alive. But was I alive? All of a sudden this query flashed across my brain, and I was troubled more than I can tell you. As I had never died before, how was I to know the sensations? Could the dead hear and think! Was the mind of a corpse in active operation? It was a problem I could not solve.

“Not a word was spoken near me which I did not catch and fully understand. There was a great deal of weeping, and I failed to satisfy myself as to the cause. I had died, but it did not seem as if this was a sufficient excuse. When my wife bent over the coffin, and sobbed, and grieved, and refused to be comforted, I did not feel bad with her. On the contrary, her action surprised me. When the two other doctors pronounced me dead I made up my mind that I was dead and that the end had come.

“As an instance of the acuteness of my hearing, let me explain that after I was placed in the coffin the receptacle was moved over to an open window in the parlor, where it was supported on saw-horses. Two of my neighbors took seats on a wagon box in the barn-yard, fully two hundred feet away, and for an hour conversed of my death in ordinary tones of voice. I did not miss one single word of the conversation as both afterward admitted. I could hear every tick of the kitchen clock, and much of the conversation of the women in the up-stairs rooms. On the night previous to the funeral, about half-past ten o’clock, and while the two men sitting up with the corpse were reading, I heard two men climb the fence into the barn-yard, cross the yard and enter the barn. After a few minutes they came out, and I heard the jingle of something carried by one of the pair. I could not make out what was going on, but learned afterward. The two men stole a horse from a field opposite my barn, and they entered my premises in search of a bridle.

“I heard the people assemble for the funeral, and as I caught a word from this one or that one I identified them by name to myself. I listened closely to the sermon, but when the minister spoke of me I could not take it as personal. It was as if the name and person belonged to some one I had known years before. I knew when I was carried out and placed in the hearse, and I am certain that I heard the clatter of the team running away before anybody sighted them. When the people began to call out in a fright I felt that same fear of being hurt that any live man does. I heard them trying to back the hearse out of the way to let the team go by, but they were not quick enough. As the collision came my eyes opened and my speech was restored, and from that moment I was all right.” Xenia [OH] Daily Gazette 4 August 1886: p. 4 


A curious case is related by the New York Sun of a young lady, who apparently died. When the reporter of the Sun called upon her, she was diligently engaged in sewing upon a dress; but she laid aside her work, and, going to a drawer in the sideboard, took out a silver coffin-plate, which she offered for inspection. It bore the inscription: “Clara Munce: Died June 3, 1864, aged 16 years.”

“Why, to whom does this refer?” asked the reporter.

“It refers to me,” replied Miss Munce quietly. “It was on my coffin—-at least I suppose I may call it my coffin, though I was not buried in it. I occupied it, however, for several hours, and had it not been for the intelligence of a lady who came to attend my funeral, I should have been in it now. My uncle took it to his home in Chicago, where he is fond of showing it to his friends and telling my story. I kept the plate, which I seldom allow any one to see, for the recollections it awakens are not pleasant.

“When I was a young girl I was in very delicate health. I used to fall into trances, in which I knew all that was going on around me, and I heard every word said in the room where I lay, but I could not speak or make the slightest sign of life. My body grew gradually colder, but ordinarily I aroused myself with a start within ten or fifteen minutes. The doctor said it was a form of epilepsy, and warned me that some day or another an attack might be prolonged and mistaken for death. It always affected me under the same conditions.After sleeping, as consciousness slowly returned, I found myself wide awake, but unable to speak or move.

“After the doctor’s caution, I began to grow afraid of myself. It was a horrible sensation. I dreaded to go to sleep at night, and, though drowsiness overpowered me at last, I awoke unrefreshed. During the day I was languid and tired, but I dared not lie down, for I knew by experience that if I slept by daylight, I was almost certain to fall into a trance on awaking. As a consequence of all this mental disturbance I became seriously ill, and was ordered to the country; but before arrangements could be made for me to go I was stricken down with brain fever, and my life was despaired of.”

The brain fever with which the lady was sorely afflicted was finally conquered, but she remained so very weak that she did not rally. The doctor, always cheerful, gave her friends to understand that she never could recover. She lay for days neither asleep nor awake, but not in a trance, for she could move and speak feebly. “She may go out like the snuff of a candle, at any minute,” said the doctor in her hearing, and she nearly verified his prediction by going out at once. One day— it was June 3d, 1864—she felt that she was really improving. Life seemed to be coming back to her. The doctor had not noticed it, but she knew by the unwonted distinctness with which the rumble of the Greenpoint wagons struck upon her ear that she was gaining new strength. At last she grew tired, and, for the first time in several weeks, slept soundly and healthily. • She awoke slowly, and with the rigor of limb she knew so well. An unutterable horror took possession of her as she felt that she was in a trance, and remembered the good doctor’s capacity for blundering. Her fears were well founded, for half an hour later, when the nurse came to see her, she heard her utter a quick exclamation of alarm, and hurrying away she called the patient’s mother and sisters. The doctor was summoned, and arrived when all her relatives were around her bed. The doctor felt her pulse, put his hand upon her forehead, forced open one of her eyes, and examined the pupil, little thinking that she saw him as plainly as he saw her, and sorrowfully remarked: “I feared it; she is going fast!”

Oh, the misery of that day and the night following, on the part of this young lady. On the morning of June 3d her body was cold and stiff, and, while her mind was as active as ever, she knew that she looked like a corpse. Her friends regarded her as dead, and when the doctor came they stood aside, silent

For more than two days she lay motionless on the bed. Tuberoses were strewn over her. Friends came to see her, and reminded each other of good qualities in her that neither by herself or others had ever before been suspected. She heard it all. Nobody spoke of her except as a corpse; none noticed, what she is sure must have been apparent, that her face had not lost the color of life, and on the night of June 4th she lay beside her open coffin! On the morning of the 5th she was put into it, for she was to be buried that day.

She had heard the inscription on the plate read aloud, over and over again: “Clara Munce. Aged 16 years. Poor girl! So young to be called away. But she was always delicate!” She could not even try to speak or move. All volition seemed to have died in her, and she could only pray silently that she might die, too, before the last rites were performed; but she felt that there was little chance of that, because she was full of life.

The undertaker’s men were in the room, waiting to fasten down the coffin-lid. Kisses innumerable had been pressed upon her face, and she had given up all hope of life, when an old lady, worth all of the rest of the visitors put together, elbowed the others out of her way and stood beside the coffin. She was her Aunt Jane, and she had come from Albany to see her favorite niece for the last time. Her presence seemed to calm the unfortunate girl, for they loved each other so well that she could not think it possible that she would allow her to be buried alive. The aunt was stooping to kiss her, when she suddenly started back with the very simple and homely remark: “Why, her nose is bleeding!”

It was perfectly true, though up to that time nobody had noticed it. The mental agony of the sufferer had made her nose bleed.

Now, the doctor knew quite enough about his business to be very much startled at seeing fresh blood flowing from a body that had been “dead” two days. He examined the patient’s face and said hastily, as he for the first time noticed the color: “Take her back to bed.”

The suddenness and immensity of the relief restored all her faculties, and as the men took her up she said, with hardly an effort, and in perfect natural tones: “Thank you, doctor. How are you, auntie?”

The young lady recovered very quickly, and has never had a death-trance since..The Encyclopaedia of Death and Life in the Spirit-world, Vol. 2, John Reynolds Francis, 1895 

These preceding cases illustrate two common methods for the rescue of the undead: an alert relative and the jarring of the casket. Another method was to be dug up by resurrectionists and revived at the first stroke of the dissector’s scalpel. See here for a case of a child saved from a premature grave by body-snatchers.

Two men, a US Army Surgeon, Colonel Edward P. Vollum and Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, eminent sanitary reformer and anaesthetic researcher, founded The Association for the Prevention of Premature Interment in 1895. When Dr. Richardson died in 1896, he was cremated, something advocated by the Association to prevent burial alive. Here is what Col. Vollum had to say about the Association. Note the suggestion about chloroform in the coffin. 



Owing to the absence of proper laws relative to the disposal of the dead in most places; to hastiness of burials during epidemics; to the uncertainty in the signs of death; as well as to the existence of certain states that counterfeit the appearances of death very closely, we, the undersigned, believe that there is more danger of the appearances being taken for real death, and of persons being buried alive, than is usually supposed. This, our belief, is based upon scientific demonstrations which show that even the stoppage of the beating of the heart and breathing, for a considerable time with all the other appearances of death, excepting putrefaction, do not make it certain, that a person is dead, and that the suspended activity of life may not return after his body has been interred. Therefore, we have associated ourselves together for mutual protection against such a horrible possibility. With this object in view, we earnestly advise our associates to exercise the closest vigilance (particularly with women and children) with regard to the result of the following diseases and conditions, since it is known that they are frequently the cause of a state of seeming death, that may deceive the most experienced; and we hereby mutually agree to discourage embalming, autopsy, burial or cremation in these cases, until every possible source of doubt is removed, namely, trance; catalepsy; syncope; hysteria; stroke by lightning; sunstroke; anesthesia from chloroform, etc.; coma in pregnancy; cold; asphyxia from various gases, vapors and smoke; narcotism from opium and other agents; convulsive maladies; drowning; nervous shock from gunshot; electricity and other injuries; smothering under snow, earth, grain, or in bed; strangulation; epilepsy; hemorrhages; suspended animation from excessive emotion, as horror, intense excitement, etc.; apoplectic seizures; so-called heart failures; and all other cases of apparent death that do not show ample evidence of having passed through disease of sufficient duration and severity to cause actual death.

We hold ourselves ready to question cases of alleged sudden death, unless the body has been greatly mutilated, or where some vital organ has been injured; and in the uncertainty that exists in the signs of completed death, we will refuse to accept as infallible any evidence except decomposition itself.

Furthermore, though death may be admitted by all concerned and interment seriously decided upon, yet, if decomposition has not become unmistakably manifest, we request as a final favor if autopsy or embalming has not been performed, that there shall be placed in the coffin a bottle of chloroform with a leaky stopple, in order to fill it with the vapors sufficient to last a long time; and this, as well as all other provisions in this agreement, we will to be done for each of us. We would also recommend this practice to others, as a concession to a natural and prevalent dread of premature interments.

Associations for the prevention of premature burials are easily formed privately among relatives and friends, or can be engrafted upon any club or other organization. Public opinion will grow from these, and reforms in burials will follow.

Col. Ed. P. Vollum,

Med. Dept. U. S. Army.

Note. — The above plan for preventing premature burials was prepared by Colonel Edward P. Vollum, Medical Department U. S. Army (retired), and circulated by him in most of the cities in the civilized world, especially in the United States. After long attention to the subject he had become convinced that owing to the reasons expressed in the plan a considerable proportion of the human race had always been buried alive, that such disasters were occurring frequently at the present time and that they would continue to take place, until putrefaction was regarded as the only sign of death, unless an autopsy or embalmment had been performed. Buried Alive: An Examination Into the Occult Causes of Apparent Death, Trance, and Catalepsy, Franz Hartmann, MD, 1894 

Before we look upon this scary subject for the last time, let us note that burial alive, if properly executed, could be the perfect murder method. 

Supposed to be Buried Alive. The Cincinnati Gazette of September 21, says, “There has been a rumor, current in Brooklyn, Ohio, for two week past, that a resident of that place named Powell had been buried alive. The deceased was quite advanced in years, and was buried the third day after he was taken sick. A minister, a friend of the family, who saw the body after it was laid out for the grave, said that if it was a friend of his he should not be buried. He said this because the body was still warm, and by pressing a finger upon the skin the color would come and go, as it will upon the skin of a person alive. Several persons witnessed this and others declared they saw a twitching of the muscles of the face. One of his sons was married within a week after the funeral, and the deceased, it is said, was not on the best of terms with his children. Boston [MA] Herald 25 September 1860: p. 4


Hasty interment is still a prevalent custom in Russia; and even premature burials are said to be not quite unknown. A short time previous to my departure, the following horrid circumstance was related at St. Petersburgh:

A young nobleman, who had squandered away his fortune, found his sister, to whom he applied for assistance, not the least inclined to sacrifice her patrimony to his taste for dissipation.

As he considered himself her heir, the wicked thought arose in his breast, to make himself master of her fortune. With this view he found means to give the unfortunate lady a sleeping draught. She was now considered as dead, and, with every appearance of the deepest sorrow her interment was resolved upon. The corpse was already placed before the altar, when one of her friends happening to pass the place, was informed of her sudden death. She hurried to the church, where the priest was already pronouncing the blessing over the corpse; and, in order to impress the last farewell kiss on the lips of her late dearly beloved friend, she hastened to the coffin. She seized her hand, and found it rather flaccid, but not stiff; she touched her check, and imagined she still felt some natural warmth in it. She insisted on stopping the ceremony, and trying whether her friend might not be recalled to life. But all was in vain; neither the brother nor the priest would listen to her solicitations: On the contrary, they ridiculed her as a person out of her mind. Unfortunately, she nowhere found assistance. She immediately, in her anxiety, threw herself into her carriage, and hastened to the neighbouring seat of government. Here she found a hearing: proper persons accompanied her to investigate the affair; and she drove back with speed, but found her friend already covered with sacred earth. The interment had taken place the day before; and the inhuman brother had already obtained possession of her property while priests and witnesses attested that the unfortunate person was actually dead. Among the Russians it is reckoned to be a heinous sin to dig up a corpse; and thus the desire of the generous friend for a long time experienced the most violent opposition to convince herself of the truth by ocular demonstration; till at last the Commission of Inquiry conceived some suspicion, and insisted on opening the grave; when the poor unfortunate lady was discovered to be suffocated, with her face lacerated, and the impression of her nails in the coffin lid.— The brother and the priest were immediately taken into custody, and confessed their crime. The punishment they underwent I have not heard of. La Belle Assemblée, Volume 3 1807 

Further reading:

Premature Burial, with Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson’s Signs and Proofs of Death, Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial, 1908

Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented, William Tebb, Edward Perry Vollum, Walter Robert Hadwen, 1905

Think it can’t happen today? It happened in Siberia and Argentina (with a less happy outcome) in 2012

And for premature burial and Fisk Burial Cases, see A Grave Warning About Iron Coffins.

Any personal stories of burial alive? I sincerely hope not. Chriswoodyard8 AT


You’ll find more 19th- and early 20th-century stories of ghosts, entities, and apparitions in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the PastAvailable as an e-book for Kindle and in paperback at Amazon and other online retailers. Ask your local library or bookstore to order copies from You’ll also find more stories of burial alive in my book,  The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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