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

“Wisely they leave graves open for the dead
‘Cos some to early are brought to bed.”

The medical technologies of today provide invaluable services. We have access to effective medicines, proper diagnoses, successful surgeries, and longer lifespans. Doctors are also capable of something many may take for granted in this day and age: definitive proof a person is deceased. It may seem as if declaring one dead should be a straightforward process, however, physicians and morticians alike in the 18th and 19th centuries were practicing with less certainty than their modern counterparts. Reliance on rudimentary methods of observation such as smell and touch were the gold standard.

Following the success of Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic novel, “Frankenstein“, loved ones of the recently deceased found themselves questioning what distinguished life from death. “Taphophobia”, the fear of being buried alive, disseminated quickly and mistaken death preceding a live burial was to be avoided at all cost. The pandemic of doubt spread across Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, sparking a century’s worth of both grotesque and ingenious devices to ease the living’s mind of any doubt associated with live burials.

Frankenstein” was not the only story of reanimation to be spawned out of the live burial craze of the Victorian Era. Generations of stories passed down from families and communities only served to flame the fires of fear associated with being buried alive.

One particular story coming from the Mount Edgcumbe family tells the tale of Countess Emma. Emma married the wealthy Earl of Mount Edgcumbe in 1761. When Emma was pronounced dead, she was buried with a valuable ring. A sexton who had spied on the family while the burial was taking place, noticed the ring and returned under the cover of darkness to retrieve it. When the sexton went to snatch the ring, Emma awoke, confused and clothed in her burial shroud. The sexton, who was understandably frightened at the corpse’s reawakening, ran away never to be seen again. The Countess made the half-mile journey back to the Edgcumbe Estate, shocking everyone who had thought she was dead. To this day, the estate has ‘Countess’s Path‘, a walkway commemorating Emma’s journey from the grave back to her home. Countess Emma of Edgcumbe finally met real death in 1807.

Most of the stories have questionable accuracy. Nevertheless, the instinctual trepidation of death allowed these stories and culture of morbid scientific inquisition to flourish.

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

These are the interesting and gruesome death tests throughout Victorian history…


Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
Safety Coffins could prevent people from being left to die after being buried alive. WordPress.

Safety Coffins

Cholera outbreaks, bacterial infections causing severe diarrhea and dehydration, were prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. They left not only the communities it impacted very ill, but also very fearful of being buried alive. It was during this time clever feats of engineering sought to comfort the panicked population. One such invention was the safety coffin. The safety coffin provided its occupants the ability to escape from their newly found entrapment and alert others above ground that they were indeed still alive. Many safety coffins included comfortable cotton padding, feeding tubes, intricate systems of cords attached to bells, and escape hatches. Unfortunately, most neglected methods for providing air.

An account from 1791 explains the death of a man from Manchester, Robert Robinson, and a prototype of a safety coffin. He was laid to rest in a mausoleum fitted with a special door that could be opened from the outside by the watchman on duty. Inside Robinson’s coffin was a removable glass panel. Before his death, Robinson had instructed his family to periodically check on the glass inserted in the coffin. If the pane of glass had indications of condensation from his breath, he was to be removed immediately. However, the first true recorded safety coffin was for Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick before his death in 1792. The coffin included an air tube, a lock to the coffin lid that corresponded with keys he kept in his pocket, and a window to allow light in.

1892 saw the rise of the bell system, created by Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger. Bells housed above ground connected to strings attached to the body’s head, hands, and feet. If the bell rang, the cemetery watchman would insert a tube into the coffin and pump air using bellows until the person could be safely evacuated from their grave. However, due to the process of natural decay, a swelling corpse could activate the bell system leading to false beliefs those buried inside were alive. Despite its popular use, there is no record of a safety coffin saving anyone.

Many of the old burial customs from history resurfaced as fables and idioms we use currently. Some experts believe the idiom ‘saved by the bell‘ originated from the use of safety coffins.

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
Smoke enemas were common practice in the Victorian Era. Wikimedia.

Smoke Enemas

“Blowing smoke up someone’s arse” was not always a simple figure of speech indicating someone was being an insincere flatterer. Tobacco smoke enemas became a mainstream practice in the 1700s, treating many common ailments such as headaches, respiratory illnesses, and the resuscitation of drowning victims. The practice was thought to provide two essential elements: warming the person’s body and stimulating respiration. Richard Mead was the first known Westerner to suggest tobacco smoke enemas as an effective treatment for resuscitation in 1745.

Smoke enemas used in resuscitation became such a common practice, the enema kits were found alongside waterways, similar to the availability of today’s defibrillator. By 1774, Doctors William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, founders of The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead From Drowning, published a rhyme to help the public successfully perform the procedure:

Tobacco glyster, breathe and bleed.
Keep warm and rub till you succeed.
And spare no pains for what you do;
May one day be repaid to you.

The kits comprised of a tube, a fumigator, and bellows. The tube connected to the fumigator and bellows while the other end of the tube was inserted into the victim. Compressed smoke was then forced into the rectum. However, the aid of bellows was not always available, and other less sophisticated methods were used. One documented case in 1746 came from the resuscitation of a man’s wife who was revived by using a tobacco pipe. The stem was shoved into his wife’s rectum while he covered the other end of the pipe with his mouth and blew.

There were repercussions of using objects other than a tube a bellows. Those who used pipes would regularly be faced with the respiration of fecal matter, further exacerbating health concerns of the age. Infectious diseases, particularly cholera, were rampant during the Victorian Era.

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
Sometimes, manipulating the tongue would jolt an unconscious person and determine if they were dead or not. Haunted Ohio Books.

Manipulating the Tongue

We know the tongue is both a powerful and sensitive muscular organ. Not only is it strong, but it also provides us with a sense of taste. Manipulating the tongue either by force or by taste became an interesting method of reviving the unconscious. Forcibly pulling or pinching a tongue occurred. Another popular choice was to drop various sour, bitter or alcoholic liquids onto the tongue, such as vinegar, lemon, or brandy.

One such account by J.W. Green, a doctor, appeared in a New York newspaper, Sunnyside:

Noticing a crowd that was acting in an unusual manner by the side of the lake, I approached and inquired of one of the bystanders what was the cause of the excitement. He replied, ‘A boy is drowned’…I then pointed out to the searchers where to look, and immediately the body was recovered. I took it at once…held it reversed, in order to disembarrass it from all the water possible, then stripped it of its clothing, sent for a blanket and brandy…The skin was cold, the lips were blue. Every artery was still. With all these signs of death present, it was still obligatory upon me to persevere…A small quantity of brandy was placed upon the tongue. A little of this ran into the larynx, and the stimulation was sufficient to produce a long inspiration and then cough.

Perhaps one of the more tedious methods of insuring the dead were dead was tongue cranking. Dr. J.V. Laborde hypothesized manipulating sensitive body parts could lead to the revival of those thought dead. His hypothesis stemmed from his personal success of reviving a woman thought dead by rhythmically yanking her tongue for three hours with forceps. She later complained of the agonizing pain the tongue yanking induced. Laborde eventually engineered a tongue-pulling machine specifically for mortuaries. It was said even untrained mortuary assistants were capable of determining if the person were truly dead and ready for burial.

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
L0007024 Giovanni Aldini, galvanism experiments. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.


The inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is said to have originated from the cutting-edge science of its day: galvanism, named after scientist Luigi Galvani who declared electricity to be the force that brought life to all. As an anatomy professor, Galvani was performing his own Frankenstein experiments on frogs. He discovered that applying electricity to the frog’s body caused its muscles to twitch.

This gave way to an explosion of macabre experiments on electrified bull and pig heads. Such experiments were attended to by the public, equally as fascinated by the power of electricity as the scientists performing them. Ox and boar heads would be laid upon tables and their brains, tongues, and eyelids were connected to the electrical equipment. Scientists would activate the machinery, creating a grotesque testament to the powers of electricity. Tongues would wag back and forth. The muscles of the animal’s faces would twitch and contort. Eyelids would open and shut. It was the scientific equivalent of a sideshow.

By 1805, Christian August Struwe put forward the concept of using electrical wires attached to the lips and eyelids to check for signs of life in human bodies. The electricity would cause muscle contractions, and if the body twitched after applying the electrical charge they were deemed alive. It is not hard to see why Mary Shelley found galvanism to be a compelling subject for a horror novel. Any spectator witnessing the reanimating powers of the electrical charge was sure to be in awe.

Despite its foolproof and entertaining reputation, galvanism death tests did not become popularized. The machinery to conduct such tests proved to be too expensive. Even less appealing was the consequence of burning flesh due to the high temperature of the electricity. These factors were considered major drawbacks that halted its success.

Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It
Tools such as these would be used to shock the body with pain to see if there was life. Antique Medicine.

Shocking the Body with Pain

Although 18th and 19th century medical knowledge lacked much of the common information our medical professionals have in the 21st century, the physicians of the Georgian and Victorian Era did have a basic understanding of the circulatory system and nerve endings. Death tests involving fingers and toes became popularized, as both were understood to be body parts that provided clear indications of cardiac functioning.

If one were a living subject put to such tests, they would have ranged from fairly uncomfortable to downright excruciating. It is truly terrifying to imagine the horrors enacted on both the unconscious and the dead. It was not uncommon for severe pain to be inflicted upon those who had merely fainted, but to family and medical professionals appeared to be dead.

One test involved holding the supposedly deceased’s finger over the flame of a candle to check for circulating blood. The warmth from the candle would have produced a pulsation indicating the heart was still beating. Another far more painful test, if one were still alive, involved chopping off a finger or toe. It was said the shock from removing such sensitive body parts would instantly awaken anyone who was apparently, but not genuinely, dead.

Slicing off fingers was not the only hypothesized method of shocking one back to life. Scalding water poured over an unconscious body was commonly practiced. If the person were still alive, the scalding hot water would have created significant burns. However, an Englishman named Barnett conceived a far more thorough method. Barnett advocated burning a patch of skin on the corpse’s arm; if it blistered, the person was still alive and therefore not fit to be buried. Similarly, doctors would even recommend burning the corpse’s nose to shock the body back to consciousness.


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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