The fear of being buried alive is one that has troubled humankind for centuries. Plato wrote about the phenomenon in "The Republic" as early as 380 B.C. when he noted the case of an Armenian soldier who was revived two days after being pronounced dead. However, fear of a premature burial reached its height in the 19th century, when several devices designed to detect a wrongful burial were invented and marketed with some success. Chief among these devices was the safety coffin, a casket with a bell attached to it by a piece of string which might be pulled to alert people that the buried person was in fact alive.
In her book "Georgetown Mysteries and Legends," Elizabeth Huntsinger Wolf outlines some of the reasons why the fear of premature burial might have been so pronounced in the Victorian era. She points out that comas were sometimes mistaken for death and that increased awareness of the contagious nature of diseases like smallpox, diphtheria and cholera meant that victims of those diseases were often hastily pronounced dead and buried by family members. Doctors would often sign death certificates for these unfortunate people on the hearsay of relatives without seeing a dead body themselves. Even when doctors did examine bodies, the lack of stethoscopes, knowledge of various coma-like states and absence of rigorous procedure could in some rare cases lead to mistakes. At the same time, Edgar Allen Poe was frightening his readers with tales of premature burial in stories like "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846) and "The Premature Burial" (1850), while newspapers often featured tales of coffins dug up with scratch marks on the inside. Such was the fear of premature burial that a group called "The Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive" was even set up.
Early Safety Coffins
Against this background, new safety coffins equipped with bells began to spring up. Some of the earliest of these devices appeared in Germany in the early part of the 19th century. In 1829, Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger demonstrated a device which activated by a rope attached by strings to the corpse in its coffin. If the corpse moved in any way, the bell would ring. To prevent the bell being rang by the movement of the wind or any other outside influence it was housed in a protective casing. The string emerged from the buried coffin through a series of tubes which were themselves housed in protective material designed to stop water getting into the coffin and making the corpse wet. Even more bizarrely, a second tube was inserted at the foot of the coffin through which air could be pumped should the bell ever sound at a time when there was no shovel at hand to dig up the coffin.
By far the most widely used safety coffin was patented by Englishman George Bateson in 1852. Bateson's Belfry, as it came to be known, was similar to many of the earlier German devices. " Bateson's Belfry involved nothing more than drilling a hole in a coffin through which a chord was run and attached to an iron bell mounted above the grave. Ghoulishly the chord was placed in the deceased person's hand, ready to be pulled should they awake. Queen Victoria was said to be very impressed with the device, awarding Bateson a special medal for "services to the dead."
American Safety Coffins
In 1843, Christian Eisenbrandt of Baltimore patented a spring-loaded coffin lid which would spring open if the corpse began breathing before burial, but it was not until 1868 that an American inventor patented a bell-based security coffin. Perhaps spurred on by the success of Bateson's Belfry, Newark-based inventor Franz Vester took out a patent on a coffin which had a large tube inserted through the lid over the corpse's face. This tube was big enough to house a ladder which the deceased could climb should they wake up. In case they were unable to make the ascent, a chord was also run from the tube to a bell above the grave.
Despite the fact that there is no record of a safety coffin ever being used by a person mistakenly pronounced dead, there is no doubt that they were bought and used by fearful Victorians. They were not bought and installed on a mass scale, but enough people bought them to keep inventors coming up with new improved versions. Between 1868 and 1925 there were some 22 patents for safety coffins in America alone. Many more variants were tried out in Europe. The bell-based safety coffin was the most popular of these variants and it is still possible to find the occasional Victorian grave topped by a brass bell today.
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- Georgetown Mysteries and Legends; Elizabeth Huntsinger Wolf; 2007
- Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented; William Tebb; 1905
- Dear Death: Safety Coffins
- Australian Museum: Safety Coffins; October 2009
- "American Arrtifacts"; Signals from the Grave; Richard Van Vleck; July 1999
- Poe Stories: The Premature Burial; Edgar Allan Poe; 1850