Smells Like Terror, Volume II
In 1571 a man named Matthew Wall died in the village of Braughing in Hertfordshire, England. He was an ordinary man, a local farmer, and his name would have been lost to history were it not for the bizarre events that transpired at his funeral. As the pallbearers carried him to his grave, one of them slipped on some wet leaves and dropped the coffin containing Wall’s body. The embarrassed silence that followed was interrupted by frantic knocking… coming from within the coffin! The coffin was quickly opened, and members of the funeral party were shocked to find Matthew Wall very much alive. Wall, who apparently had never been dead at all and was only unconscious or in a coma, had been jolted awake by the impact of the coffin and narrowly escaped being buried alive. Wall celebrated the anniversary of his “resurrection” every year, and when he actually died over twenty years later he left provisions in his will for the continuation of this celebration. To this day residents of Braughing still commemorate Matthew Wall’s brush with death on October 2nd every year.
The story of Matthew Wall suggests that accidental live burial has actually occurred. There’s a great post on premature burial from earlier this month on the bio-archaeology blog, Bones Don’t Lie, that details some historical accounts of premature burial, including a sensational story that was reported in the New York Times in 1885, complete with the tabloid headline, “A Man Buried Alive. What His Friends Discovered When the Coffin was Opened.” The story involves a young man named Jenkins who died (or so it seemed at the time) from a fever and was buried the following day. Several days after burial his body was exhumed to be moved to the family burial plot, and according to the New York Times, this is what happened next:
The coffin was opened, and to the great astonishment and horror of his relatives the body was lying face downward, the hair had been pulled from the head in great quantities, and there were scratches of the finger nails on the inside of the lid and sides of the coffin. These facts caused great excitement and all acquainted personally with the facts believe Jenkins was in a trance, or that animation was apparently suspended, and that he was not really dead when buried, and that he returned to consciousness only to find himself buried and beyond help.
Yikes. It turns out there are a number of similar examples of premature burial reported in newspapers and other sources from the 19th century, but just how common was accidental live burial during this period? In 1896 a mortician named T.M. Montgomery, who was involved in moving the Fort Randall Cemetery in upstate New York, reported that two out of 100 exhumed corpses showed signs of premature burial. From this questionably small sample he extrapolated that 2% of Americans are accidentally buried alive. Others from the same period boldly hypothesized that 10% of all people buried were still alive at the time.
A fear of being buried alive was a Victorian fixation. (Several of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories use premature burial as a central plot point.) So much so that a variety of “safety” coffins were patented. These coffins were outfitted with bells and whistles (literally) as well as air tubes, flags, and so forth to allow for the survival and rescue of a prematurely buried individual.
Given this fascination with live burial, sources from the 1800s were prone to overlook alternative explanations or even wholly fabricate instances of premature burial. Cases of live burial were usually documented when a corpse was exhumed and found to have injuries to the hands or face or to be contorted into a different position than it was at the time of burial. In many cases, these post-mortem changes were likely the result of natural decomposition processes, which weren’t well-understood at the time. An alternative, but more disturbing explanation is that grave robbers looking for valuables or body snatchers looking for dissection subjects disturbed some recent burials, leaving bodies in odd positions or even removing them from their coffins.
Of course, this isn’t to say that accidental live burial never happened, but that it probably wasn’t as common as people thought at the time. And while premature burial is even more rare today, there have been some recent close calls, including a South African man who woke up in a morgue refrigerator earlier this year.
For more Halloween posts about spooky science, check out last year’s Smells Like Terror, Volume I.
References and Further Reading:
A BBC article about Old Man’s Day, the commemoration of Matthew Wall’s “resurrection” in Braughing, England.
Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. New York, NY. 2001
A Man Buried Alive. What His Friends Discovered When the Coffin was Opened. New York Times. February 21, 1885.
I’m Not Dead Yet: Premature Burial from Bones Don’t Lie