16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Trista - January 28, 2019

It is 1750, and you’ve just died from one of the many communicable diseases of the era. Without the modern conveniences of electrocardiograms or electroencephalograms, the medical men of the time have no surefire way to determine that you are well and truly dead, rather than just unconscious. Not wanting to bury you alive, they decide to test your body for signs of life. One of the medics wants to slice your foot with a razor blade to see if you react, while another has heard tales from Germany about a coffin equipped with a bell that can be rung by a thought-to-be-dead person who awakes. Keep reading to learn about other methods that could help 18th-century doctors determine if you are truly dead.


16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
An illustration of a shocked corpse awakening. Wikimedia.

16. Smelling Salts

Smelling salts, which release a small amount of potent ammonia gas, have been used to revive the fainted for centuries. Smelling salts are typically comprised of the crystalline solid, ammonium carbonate. Modern solutions are mixed with water. The Romans wrote of using ammonia-based compounds to wake the fainted, while medieval alchemists used ammonium derived from antlers to revive the fainted with a potion called the spirit of hartshorn. Smelling salts were particularly popular during the tightly corseted Victorian era, with women routinely fainting onto their couches due to restricted breathing. Through the World War II era, smelling salts were trendy and recommended items in first aid kits.

Smelling salts revive fainted people by stimulating the inhalation reflex. When the body senses ammonia gas, the mucous membranes immediately become irritated which triggers rapid inhalation. This rapid inhalation counters the slowing of respiration and the heart that typically accompanies fainting. For cases of mild unconsciousness due to fainting, smelling salts would bring about a miraculous reversal. However, for someone in a coma or with a severe head injury, the smelling salts alone would not be able to prove that a body was indeed dead.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A hand over a light. Gowerlabs.

15. Holding a Corpse’s Fingers Over a Candle to Look for Blood

While 18th-century medical practitioners didn’t truly understand the nature of the human body or the circulatory system, they did recognize that blood circulation was a required element for life. Checking pulses was not yet widespread or standardized, but there were ways of testing for blood circulation that were widely practiced, even by barber-surgeons of minimal education. The most common method of checking for blood circulation in presumed dead bodies was to hold a finger of the deceased over a candle. Not only would the heat of the flame possibly produced a reaction, but the light shining through the finger would show if blood were circulating or pooling.

In a genuinely dead body, blood pools in the extremities. Since the heart is no longer beating and circulating blood, it pools in extremities and low lying areas. If a dead body’s finger were examined over a candle and no pain response was produced from the flame, and blood appeared to be pooling in the fingertips making them darker than normal, an 18th-century doctor could be relatively sure that the person was dead. Of course, we know now that some diseases and conditions can cause blood to pool while still alive, but the medical arts of the period wouldn’t have saved someone in that condition anyway.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A thanatometer, or corpse thermometer. Wikimedia.

14. Sticking a Thermometer In a Corpse’s Stomach

One of the more ingenious methods of determining death in the 18th century was the use of a thanatometer, literally meaning death measurerer. Christian Friedrich Nasse designed this long thermometer in 1841 as a tool to more accurately gauge if an unconscious person was indeed dead. Aside from the obvious reaction that could be obtained by inserting a massive thermometer into someone’s stomach, the device also cleverly checked to ensure that the core body temperature was consistent with being dead, not just externally measurable temperatures. This method was likely beneficial for cases in which the limbs had gone cold, but the vital organs remained working and generating body temperature.

While normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a dead body will steadily lose heat until it reaches equilibrium with the ambient temperature of its surroundings. In modern forensic science, complicated formulas that take age, weight and other factors into account are used to help calculate the time of death based on a body’s temperature at the time it is found. While we no longer need to take a stomach’s temperature to determine death, Nasse was clearly onto something since a corpse’s temperature is still useful today.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A diagram of a patented emergency release coffin. Ranker.

13. Using Coffins With Emergency Release Mechanisms

Christian Eisenbrandt, an inventor, created an elaborate safety coffin in 1843. Instead of hinges, the casket was designed with a complicated system of levers and pulleys attached to a ring that would be placed on the deceased’s finger. If they awoke to find themselves in a coffin, their simply shifting in fear would spring open the top of the casket. It also had a mesh lid, so the deceased would be able to see through the top if they woke up. This design raises several questions: if the lid is mesh, why would the presumed dead need a ring to open it? Wasn’t the cover so light they could just open it upon waking? Also, again with mesh, wouldn’t the presumed deceased be able to yell through the mesh opening for help? Moreover, if the dead awoke paralyzed, the ring certainly wouldn’t do any more good than the mesh lid.

Questions and modern criticisms aside, the casket likely gave mourners a piece of mind. It also functioned, in reality, much like a waiting mortuary as Eisenbrandt counseled families to leave the deceased in their safety casket until decomposition began, at which point they could be safely buried.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
An illustration of a corpse. Wikimedia.

12. Inserting a Heart Flag

In a scene reminiscent of Mia Wallace’s resurrection in Pulp Fiction, one popular German method of death testing was jamming a long needle with a flag on one end into the hearts of the recently deceased. Unlike Mrs. Wallace’s iconic uttered “something,” corpses, in this case, wouldn’t say anything at all, instead the flag would reportedly unfurl and wave if the heart was still beating, at least according to the test’s inventor, German physician Middeldorph. It isn’t entirely clear how Middeldorph thought the mechanical beating of a heart would unfurl a flag attached to a dull needle, but regardless the test was put into practice and used in the latter half of the 19th century.

There is well documented 19th-century evidence of this test actually being used in at least one case. In 1893, a physician named Séverin Icard used the heart flag on a young woman whose parents were convinced she was about to be buried alive. Icard implanted the heart flag, which did not unfurl and wave, as proof that she was dead and her parents had nothing to fear. Instead of listening to reason, they accused Icard of murdering their daughter with the very same heart flag and caused a scandal in the press.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
An old church door. Wikimedia.

11. Waiting for the Body to Rot

Of all of the 18th-century death tests, this is undoubtedly the simplest and shows an abundance of common sense. Not sure if someone is dead? Just wait a couple of days, especially in summer! While it seems crass, given the lack of technology and medical knowledge at the time, just waiting a few days before burial was the most credible and specific way to ensure death. If a body showed no signs of rotting, which are unpleasantly noticeable, especially in a warm place, then there was a good reason to believe the person wasn’t dead.

This practical idea led to the establishment of waiting mortuaries in Germany, where a nurse would watch over an entire ward of corpses to make sure they rotted as they should. While this was effective, it was not terribly popular as nurses didn’t much care for watching over an entire room of slowly decaying bodies. Despite packing the waiting mortuaries full of flowers in an attempt to mask the smell, it wasn’t beneficial. Loved ones and mourners also didn’t care for funerals featuring rank bodies that had been left out untended for several days. So, while sensible and practical, the practice of waiting mortuaries still left a great deal to be desired for mourners in the 19th century.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
An illustration depicting how to rig up a corpse bell. Wikimedia.

10. Leaving the Corpse a Bell

A German physician, Johann Taberger, patented a coffin with emergency release mechanisms that would allow those buried alive to ring a bell from within the casket that would alert graveyard caretakers that someone had been buried alive. Earlier models of “safety caskets” only included a key that would allow the buried to unlock the casket. It isn’t clear how they were then supposed to deal with the feet of dirt piled on top of their unfortunate resting place.

Taberger’s model had one fatal flaw: dead bodies were capable of ringing the bell too. As dead bodies begin to decay, they bloat and swell from the gases caused by decomposition. This swelling would cause bodies to trip the bells. Imagine being the poor grave caretaker and hearing the ring and assuming you’d just buried some poor soul alive. You quickly excavate the grave expecting to find an angry yet live person, only to see a rather gross decaying corpse. It isn’t clear that Taberger’s device ever saved anyone, but one could imagine that quite a few grave caretakers had several years taken off of their lives by false alarms.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
Invisible ink spelling out “can you read this?” Momo’s Tree House.

9. Using Invisible Ink and Corpse Gas

French physician Séverin Icard was not content to merely rest on his laurels after the scandal of his questionable heart flag test. In a test more fitting for the pages of a spy novel, Icard devised a system in which he wrote “I am really dead” on a piece of paper in invisible ink made of acetate of lead. He would then place this paper by the deceased’s nose. One of the gases produced by the decomposition process is sulfur dioxide. When acetate of lead is exposed to sulfur dioxide, it causes the acetate to discolor and become visible on the page. While this was certainly a dramatic way to “prove” death, it is unfortunately extremely unreliable.

First, sulfur dioxide can be exhaled by living humans with some dental diseases or tonsillitis. Second, not all corpses reliably produce sulfur dioxide in quantity near the nose to trip Icard’s test. An English doctor attempted to recreate Icard’s method and found that only one out of every six corpses triggered the “I am really dead” message. So, sadly, the most fashionable and cinematic method of determining death was a bust. However, one must genuinely applaud Séverin Icard’s determination to develop weird and new ways to certify death.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
Anatomic illustrations of an ear. Wikimedia.

8. Sticking the Corpse’s Finger In Your Ear

In the same vein as Dr. Séverin Icard, Dr. Léon Collongues decided to make a name for himself by inventing a new manner to test for death. Collongues’ method involved putting the corpse’s finger in your ear. Seriously. Collongues argued that the involuntary muscle movements in a living person’s finger would create a buzzing sound in the ear of a trained physician. It seems like listening for a heartbeat or feeling for a pulse would be far more accessible and reliable, but kudos for originality.

As if sticking a dead person’s finger in your ear weren’t strange enough, Collongues eventually expanded on his theory and argued that listening to fingers could also be used to detect certain diseases. Being a true academic, Collongues also went on record saying that his corpse finger test was superior to the trials of other leading physicians at the time. As if the idea of dying of untreatable 19th-century diseases weren’t bad enough, or the idea that you might be buried alive, imagine living with the idea that your best hope to survive being buried alive was that a man would listen to your unconscious body’s finger.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A botanical drawing of a prickly bush. Wikimedia.

7. Brushing the Skin

A professor by the name of M. Weber created a death test so revered he won 5,000 French Francs for his work. Professor Weber argued that a corpse should have a patch of skin vigorously scrubbed with a brush a few hours after death. If the skin looked irritated, the person wasn’t dead. If the skin took on a parchment-like appearance, then they were confirmed to be deceased. One imagines it must have been far easier to be a scientist in an era where brushing a corpse awarded you with a lavish lifestyle and academic esteem.

Commoners and barber-surgeons used a more practical, yet irritating, version of the test: rubbing the skin with annoying or thorned weeds. Anyone who has encountered stinging nettle would agree that the plant likely would raise a person from the dead, especially if rubbed all over the chest or back. The reasoning behind this layman’s test was similar to Professor Weber’s. If the skin on a body responded to the application of an irritating plant, it would stand to reason that the nervous and circulatory systems were still working in some way. It was also possible that the irritation would raise someone out of a stupor.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A French illustration of shocking a corpse. Wikimedia.

6. Trying Electric Shocks

Galvanism, or the science of producing muscular movement through electricity, was invented by Italian scientist Luigi Galvani at the end of the 18th century. His discovery would ignite popular imagination, ultimately inspiring Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which a cadaver is given new life through electricity. In more practical terms, scientists quickly realized that using galvanism to test for muscular activity could be a new way to check for the certainty of death with Christian August Struwe first implementing the idea in 1805.

Research at the time indicated that galvanism was indeed a rigorous test for proving death. Sadly, the machinery was so expensive at the time that few hospitals could afford to use it. However, galvanism went on to have an illustrious career in pseudoscience as a panacea for countless illnesses, including mental illness. The 19th century saw the rise of galvanic baths as a treatment for the fashionable and wealthy. Special galvanic baths just for the extremities were even invented to allow high-class ladies to be treated without having to disrobe. However, galvanism simply never caught on for proving death.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A painting of medical professionals experimenting on a corpse. Wikimedia.

5. Yanking the Tongue and Nipples

Dr. J. V. Laborde wrote an entire treatise on resuscitating dead people by yanking on their tongues. While, in theory, tugging on a tongue could help clear the airway of a choking person, it isn’t going to do much for someone in a coma beyond being irritating. However, Laborde was so devoted to his method he went on to invent a device specifically for yanking on tongues that he would gladly sell to mortuary workers. He claimed that if a tongue was yanked on with his invention for three hours and the corpse didn’t revive, it was truly dead.

Not to be outdone by mere tongue yanking, Jules Antoine Josat decided that pulling on the nipples was the right way to determine mortality. He invented the lovely sounding pince-mamalon, which means nipple pliers in the much rougher sounding English. Josat’s rather horrifying methodology involved applying clawed clamps (because regular clamps aren’t painful enough) to the deceased’s nipples and repeatedly yanking on them. It is hard to argue with his logic that this would surely wake someone out of a stupor, but his test was widely disputed and ridiculed, even in his own time.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A diagram of the nervous system. Wikimedia.

4. Burning the Skin

Burning the skin was used in numerous ways to test for the presence of actual death. In the most popular form, scalding water was dumped on part of the presumed deceased’s body. The belief was that the shock of boiling water would be so hot it would surely wake someone out of a non-lethal stupor. Other doctors burned the tip of the nose with the similar goal of shocking the presumed decease out of a coma-like state, if possible.

An English scientist by the name of the Barnett took a more scientific approach to burning and determined that if the skin didn’t blister when exposed to heat, the person was indeed dead. Barnett’s method involved using scalding water on the skin of the presumed corpse’s arm. No blistering was a sure sign of no life. It isn’t clear what he said one should do if the arm blistered but the presumed deceased still didn’t wake up. One also wonders how this method squared with the knowledge that bodies could burn, which was doubtless known due to house fires, burning of witches and heretics, and so on. Blistering is also a part of the natural decomposition process, which certainly could have complicated Barnett’s methodology.

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16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A print diagram of a smoke enema device. Wikimedia.

3. Blowing Smoke Up Someone’s A**, Literally

In an era where nicotine was still viewed as a wonder drug and often prescribed to asthmatics and pregnant women, it is perhaps no considerable surprise that tobacco smoke enemas were considered a valid medical treatment. First devised as a treatment for drowning, tobacco smoke enemas were believed to warm the body of a drowning victim while also stimulating the instinct to breathe. Unfortunately for the mouth to…. you know, bum, respirators, the very act of performing artificial respiration could easily infect the medic with cholera, which was rampant during the 18th and 19th centuries.

However, the dangers of cholera couldn’t stop the juggernaut of the smoke enema treatment. Billows were invented merely to replace the need for human ventilation. With this safety device in place, the use of smoke enemas was expanded to testing for mortality. It was believed that someone only in a stupor would be, as in the case of drowning, warmed and driven to breathe by both the billows action and the stimulant effect of nicotine. This treatment likely killed far more people than it saved thanks to cholera, and it wasn’t an effective method to test for death either.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A painting of an arm. Wikimedia.

2. Cutting Off a Finger

One cannot imagine a more dispiriting event: you are in a coma in the 18th century, and no one knows how to rouse you. So, they cut off your finger. You miraculously can wake from your coma. Now, you are still likely to die to the poor medical treatment of the time, but you’re also missing a finger. Given the lack of antibiotics in the 18th and 19th century, it’s also entirely possible that even if you weren’t dead before, you would quickly succumb to sepsis thanks to bacteria entering your bloodstream through a severed finger. Talk about adding insult to (a likely fatal) injury.

Sadly, this test wasn’t even grounded in particularly good science. Practitioners weren’t looking for a slowed, coagulated, or even a lack of blood streaming from the wound. No, they were keeping their fingers crossed that the shock of having a finger chopped off would jolt the presumed deceased back to life. While other finger tests, like holding a finger above a candle, did look for signs of circulation, the finger-chopping test was an extremely simple and brutal method.

16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries
A print of various razor blades. Wikimedia.

1. Practicing Foot Torture

Early forensic scientists were not content to chop off fingers or electrocute of the recently deceased. One of the most common and widely practiced death tests throughout Europe was foot torture. As bad as it sounds, the actual practice might be even slightly worse than one imagines. Standard techniques used to create pain in the hopes of jolting the recently deceased awake included shoving large needles under the toenails and slicing the sole with razor blades. The belief was that the pain and shock of hurting the extremely sensitive foot was the surest way of bringing someone out of a deep faint or stupor.

The common element of burning found in other tests was also incorporated into the foot tests, including heating the soles of the feet with red hot irons. In many areas, the “foot test” was all that was needed to conclude that a corpse could safely be buried. After reading all of the methods used to determine death in the 18th and 19th centuries, perhaps it was for the best if all of these folks indeed were dead. One likely wouldn’t want to wake up after an overly zealous forensic scientist performed the foot test!


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“14 Bizarre 18th-Century Methods For Making Sure A Corpse Was Really Dead” Genevieve Carlton, Ranker. n.d.

Zander, Richard M., ed. Death: Beyond Whole-Brain Criteria. New York: Springer Publishing, 1988.

“Smelling salts” Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. January 2019.

“9 Weird and Unreliable Ways to Avoid Burying Someone Alive” Lauren Davis, io9. October 2013.