Monday, August 16, 2010

Grave Bells and Bombs

Taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, is common fear today, though often classified as irrational. Outside of murder and perhaps even the Lazarus Effect, there is little risk of premature burial in the era of modern medicine. Such was not the case in earlier centuries. Cases of premature burial range back to the 13th century and were exacerbated in the 18th and 19th century, where the prevention of such a grisly fate became an area of industry.

Historians credit the repeated cholera pandemics of the 19th century as compounding people’s fears about premature burial. Some of the earliest designs of preventative burial techniques, or safety coffins, were created in the late 18th century, and early 19th century. These early designs fitted coffins with signals attached to the corpse, a bell or a flag, that could be used to alert those above ground that the grave contained a live person. Many of these designs were imperfect, neither taking into account how decaying bodies shift and can set off the signal, nor providing oxygen to the person. Should someone be mistakenly buried, they weren’t likely to live long.

Those living in the 19th century had little left to the imagination when it came to the prospect of premature burial. Historic accounts of 13th century Johannas Duns Scotus, whose disinterred remains were found outside his coffin with evidence of clawing and torn fingers, and the imaginings of Edgar Allan Poe, whose work showed a particular preoccupation with the subject, easily fueled the public’s fear. Living in an era of mourning (One of Queen Victoria’s deepest influences on the period) and less than modern medical advancements, Victorians lived fairly closed to death. Poverty increased this familiarity in Europe and America. In the East End of London (notably during the reign of Jack the Ripper), approximately 50% of children died before the age of five. The many cholera pandemics of the 19th century caused such frequent and supposed “sure” deaths that many where buried alive, put in wooden coffins so expediently that they could be heard kicking to get out, and often left to die.

Industry and redesigns to prevent being buried alive ran through into the 20th century. Aristocrats and wealthy businessmen often financed elaborate devices to save them from the terrible fate. Safety coffins also spawned special burial vaults that could be opened from the inside by those trapped within. One created for businessman Martin Sheets of Indiana in 1910 was wired with a telephone inside, so he might call his relatives to open the vault should he be mistakenly entombed. The coffins themselves developed varied designs throughout the period, including ones where a tube leading down to the casket could deliver air to the imprisoned beneath and the smell of decay to the local pastor, who would be obliged to check for evidence of death. Other designs included a window and trapdoor that would give evidence of decay, and then drop the corpse down into the grave.

Though the fear is diminished today, there are still commercial solutions within the funerary business to allay the fears of any customer. If you are worried about being buried before your time, arrangements for an alarm system, probably more automated than its ancestors, can be installed.

While Victorians were concerned with being trapped in the grave, equally disturbing was the need to protect what was in the grave. Grave robbing, or more accurately, body snatching, was a problem in the 18th and 19th century. The burgeoning medical field needed a supply of study cadavers, but cutting up the human body was sacrilegious and decidedly illegal. Body snatchers, or ressurectionists, could make a good living off supplying medical schools with the dead for dissection. Demand and methods used to prevent body snatching led to murders, as ressurectionists were paid more for fresher corpses. The result was the Anatomy Act that was passed in 1832, allowing for dissection in Great Britain, before that supply was dependant on executed criminals.
The US took a different approach to deterrence, developing a grave torpedo. Post civil war, the number of medical colleges in the US nearly doubled and the competition between these programs increased cadaver demand, but the US was not the UK, and supplies were still satisfied by either by the legal use of executed convicts, or the black market. The public outcry spawned the grave torpedo, essentially a spring activated bomb buried with the coffin.

Filled with lead balls and gunpowder, moderate disturbance of the grave triggered the torpedo, and the body snatcher might find himself on the dissection table. Patented in 1881, the grave torpedo was in use until laws relaxed in the US and legal cadavers met the supply of the growing medical education market. But there is no telling how many bombs might be buried in 19th century graves across the U.S. Tread lightly.


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