Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It

Alexa - December 23, 2017

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
An illustration of a needle flag used to determine life. Wikimedia.

Needle Flag

We know today the importance of a healthy, functioning heart. In the 19th century, the idea of listening to a heart to diagnose illnesses was gaining traction. It was not until 1816 that the first stethoscope was created and put to use. The first stethoscope was invented by René Laennec at the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris and looked much different than it does today. The original stethoscope was a simple monaural wooden tube, meaning the heart could only be listened to by one ear. The idea came to Laennec because he felt uncomfortable placing his ear against a woman’s chest.

In 1837, a leading toxicologist in France, Professor Manni, offered 1500 gold francs to the French Academy of Sciences for whoever discovered a foolproof death test. Eugène Bouchut, a young doctor who was fond of using the stethoscope to diagnose respiratory and heart diseases, began using the stethoscope to declare one dead. While this approach may not seem novel or cutting edge, it was a technique worthy of an award for its time. Bouchut was awarded the 1500 gold Francs in 1848, eleven years after Professor Manni first offered the prize.

However, once it was discovered a beating heart or lack thereof, could differentiate between life and death, sordid iterations came about creating controversy and news garnering attention. Middeldorph, a German scientist, engineered the needle flag test. The test involved thrusting a needle into the chest. The needle was attached to a small, fabric flag that was said to wave if the person’s heart was still beating.

In 1893, a doctor at Grande-Miséricorde children’s hospital, Séverin Icard, used the procedure on a female patient whose family were concerned she was not yet dead. Icard had already declared the woman dead, yet the family had lingering doubts. The doctor plunged the needle into the woman’s heart, and after no movement from the flag, declared her dead again. Unfortunately, the family, who had already been unsure of her death at its first proclamation, accused Icard of killing the woman from the procedure. The press harassed Icard and the needle flag lost its popularity.

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
Waiting mortuaries prevented premature burial and provided morbid entertainment for onlookers. Wikimedia.

Waiting Mortuaries

The initial definition of the word morgue comes from the French word morguer, or, “to stare”. By the late 1800s, the Parisian morgues became public spectacles, analogous to seeing a play at the theater. People would flock by the thousands just to see the unidentified bodies laying on slabs behind large glass windows while those waiting to catch a glimpse could purchase an array of goodies such as toys and pastries from vendors capitalizing on the people’s morbid and voyeuristic obsession. Eventually, the macabre spectacle of viewing dead bodies became taboo and morgues would become a place of quiet sanctuary for the dead and mourning observation for their loved ones.

Late 19th century Germany was possibly the best place for one to perish. The waiting mortuary was popularized in the 1880s. Most were located in Munich, known as the Munich Leichenhaus. These establishments allowed corpses to lie on zinc trays until putrefaction, the process of decomposition, began. The zinc trays were filled with an antiseptic to reduce the chance of infection or delay putrefaction and the areas around the trays were decorated with fragrant flowers to disguise the inevitable smell of death. This is likely where the custom of decorative flowers at funeral services originated. Often, the mortuaries were divided by class; the richest families had their own section.

Much like the system used for safety coffins, morgues were staffed 24 hours a day by attentive caretakers. The corpses were rigged to skillfully crafted bell systems that would alert the staff of a corpse’s reawakening. The bloating process of putrefaction caused many false alarms. Although Franz Hartmann, a researcher who collected more than 700 claims of live burial, insisted premature declaration of death was a common problem, most medical professionals maintained their skepticism of it ever happening.

Dr. Brouardel, the author of “Death and Sudden Death” written in 1902, was especially skeptical of the claim that a third of people were buried alive after being falsely announced as dead. It is not known if the waiting mortuary actually prevented premature burials. One source states that between 1822 and 1845, 465,000 people were taken to waiting mortuaries and none were found to still be living. However ineffective they may have been at preventing live burials, waiting mortuaries were still one of the most popular death testing methods.

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
Many would wait to see if bodies would emit gases to reveal invisible ink- therefore confirming death. Flickr.

Gases Released by Corpse to Reveal Invisible Ink

The interesting history of invisible ink can be dated back over 2,000 years ago starting with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The first known record comes from Pliny the Elder in his book “Natural History” by using the milk of the tithymalus plant to create the invisible ink. These inks have consisted of various ingredients, including urine, vinegar, lemons, diluted blood, and saliva. The intrigue and mystery of these hidden inks still capture our attention today.

Invisible inks were mainly used during wars to conceal messages from foes. The Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1775 to 1783, saw an increase in the use of invisible inks on both the British and American side. Riding on the coattails of the war’s many successful invisible ink concoctions came a clever idea to use the ink as a way of indicating whether the presumed dead were truly dead. The concept seemed almost magical.

By using acetate of lead to create an ink, the phrase “I am really dead” was written on a piece of paper. The paper was then placed under the corpse’s nose. The body’s release of sulfur dioxide, the consequence of putrefaction, would activate the ink. If “I am really dead” appeared on the paper, the corpse was officially decided dead.

False positives were an occasional problem. Dentistry, as it is known today, did not exist. Common problems like tooth decay and tonsillitis would also cause the emission of sulfur dioxide leading the infamous ink to test positively for one’s death. Although invisible ink tests were as fascinating as they were cunning, its unreliability ultimately led to its abandonment for other more dependable means of testing.

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
Plants with thorns would be used to rub over bodies. Pateek.

Rubbing Prickly Bushes Over the Body

Human bodies have fives stages of decomposition: fresh, bloat, active decay, advanced decay, and dry decay. Decomposition is a process that takes place over days to years, depending on the circumstance of one’s death and the conditions the deceased’s body is subjected to. Weather, moisture, temperature, and oxygenation all contribute to how quickly a body decomposes, but all human bodies go through all stages of decomposition.

The body begins the process of breaking down around 4 minutes after death. The initial process of decay is indiscernible to the human eye; the heart has stopped, thusly blood has ceased to flow. Blood is the mechanism by which oxygen is carried to the cells of the body. When death occurs, oxygen ceases to be carried to the cells, and the cells begin to break down. Observations of the corpse a few hours later would allow some indication the person is dead. Rigor mortis, the stiffening of the muscles, can be observed around four hours after death.

Changes in the skin’s appearance are also notable. A pale complexion due to lack of circulation is observable, but even more disturbing are the blisters that appear on both internal organs and the skin’s surface. The blisters were also combined with an eerie sheen across the surface of the skin.

Although the natural process of decay allowed 18th and 19th century doctors and morticians to be fairly certain the bodies they pronounced dead were fit to be buried, doubts lingered still. The doubts led to the creation of The Prix d’Ourches, a macabre contest put forth by the French Academy of Sciences. The Academy announced they would award 20,000 gold francs to whoever invented a foolproof death test. Professor M. Weber, a forensic specialist from Leipzig, Germany, entered the contest with his own testimonial account. Weber had deduced rubbing prickly bushes over certain parts of a corpse’s body would create a parchment like texture. If the texturing was present, the body was sent for burial. Unfortunately, Weber did not win the grand prize. The prize commissioners attempted to replicate Weber’s findings, but found the test unreliable. Weber was awarded 5,000 gold francs and an honorable mention. A deceased body’s complexion will acquire the paper thin sheen Weber observed, and it was likely coincidence his prickly bush experiment was successful.

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
Illustration of ear. Wikimedia.

Sticking Corpse’s Finger in Ear to Hear a Pulse

At this point, knowledge of the circulatory system was well known. Death tests had gone through many iterations of cardiac-related techniques. Doctors knew the chest was not the only source of detecting a still beating heart. A pulse can be palpated at any point a major artery lies, such as the neck, groin, wrist, ankle, or knee. Despite the lack of major arteries, fingertips were prime points of circulation.

A French doctor by the name of Leon Collangues found that when he put the finger of a living human being in his ear, a vibrating pulsation could be heard. This led Collangues to believe this technique could pioneer the murky waters of detecting death. While this was a somewhat legitimate, and arguably far more humane, method of death testing, the technique did not gain much traction within the medical community. Other methods involving the use of the stethoscope were viewed as more reliable, and sticking a corpse’s finger in one’s ear became a small footnote in Victorian history.

Collangues did not stop with death testing. He believed the vibrations caused by the living human body could be counteracted by external vibrating sources to prevent illnesses and diseases. Regrettably, his research on vibratory sciences led virtually nowhere.


Sources For Further Reading:

Smithsonian Magazine – People Feared Being Buried Alive So Much They Invented These Special Safety Coffins

Medium – The Widespread Fear of Being Buried Alive

Gizmodo – Coffin Technologies That Protect You From Being Buried Alive

Atlas Obscura – Death as Entertainment at the Paris Morgue

VOX – Afraid Of Being Buried Alive? These Coffins Are For You

History101 – Evolution Of Safety Coffins For People Accidently Buried Alive

Gizmodo – “Blowing Smoke Up Your Ass” Used to Be Literal

Science Magazine – The Horror Story That Haunts Science

Atlas Obscura – The Real Electric Frankenstein Experiments of the 1800s

Science Friday – The Real Scientific Revolution Behind ‘Frankenstein’

Withings – The History of the Stethoscope

Mental Floss – 11 Historical Uses for Invisible Ink

BBC – The Macabre Fate Of ‘Beating Heart Corpses’

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