A friend forwarded a story to me recently from Retro Indy (Indianapolis) about a device invented in the late eighteenth century, which led me to explore a bizarre series of patents granted from the 1840’s through the early twentieth century. The September 20, 1963 issue of Life magazine suggested that one peculiarity of the nineteenth century, the fear of being buried alive, may have been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s creepy stories.
The first patent was granted to Christian Eisenbrandt, a German maker of fine brass and woodwind instruments. According to one source, many American fifers serving in the War of 1812 were equipped with Eisenbrandt’s fifes. Besides his reputation for finely-crafted musical instruments, Eisenbrandt is known for his “Life Preserving Coffin, In Doubtful Cases of Actual Death”.
The coffin was crafted in such a way that the slightest movement would cause the spring-loaded lid to pop open. All of which begs the question, did it work after being buried underground. The answer was “no” it only worked while the coffin was above ground. Still, he seemed rather sure of himself as the patent description indicates:
I . . . have invented a new and useful improvement in coffins, which I term a life-preserving coffin in doubtful cases of death . . . the inventor of this coffin has contrived an arrangement whereby any one who may not really have departed this life may by the slightest motion of either the head or hand acting upon a system of springs and levers cause the instantaneous opening of the coffin lid.
Eisenbrandt’s invention obviously had design and usage flaws since it only worked above ground, but in 1868 it was reported by The Spectator magazine that:
A German of the name of Franz Vester, living in the United States, has actually been good enough to invent the safety coffin, the merit of which consists in its enabling any one who happens to be buried alive in such a coffin, in his usual state of health and nerve, to rectify the mistake when he discovers it by either climbing out through a sort of chimney, or if he be not equal to that gymnastic effort, by ringing a bell for the sexton to come and help him.
The “safety coffin” is higher and bigger than ordinary coffins, so as to admit of the free movement of the body, and under the head is a receptacle for wine and refreshments. A box about two feet square rises from the head of the coffin to about a foot above the ground, and in this box there is a sort of ladder by which a person interred alive can climb out, if he is vigorous enough. A spring inside enables the occupant to ring a bell and, as we understand, to unclose the external lid of the chimney, which cannot be unclosed from outside.
Vester buried himself alive in one of his coffins and after being “interred” for more than an hour, emerged within a minute of giving the signal “with no more perceptible exhaustion than would be caused by walking two or three blocks under the hot sun.” Good for Vester, but someone actually buried alive probably wouldn’t be “springing” out.
Or, as The Spectator cheekily closed their article, “unfortunately, persons are not buried alive in a state of nerve and bodily vigour that would enable them on awaking unexpectedly in the grave to search for an consume lunch, touch springs, and climb a chimney, even if they could hope to make more sure of being buried by their friends in a properly appointed “safety coffin” than of not being buried alive at all.
Theodore A. Schroeder and Hermann Wuest
These two chaps from Hoboken, New Jersey had ideas of their own and on December 5, 1871 filed a patent for “a new and useful Improvement in Life-Detecters” [sic]. The device looked like an ear trumpet and its objective was an improvement “in means for detecting the recurrence of life in persons that have been buried in a state of trance or apparent death”.
They believed that “an instant admission of air at the moment of recurrence of symptoms of life” was not overrated. Not only would the lid of the tube be adapted to open allowing air, it would warn of the need for assistance. They believed it would truly be a life-saving invention.
The device was battery-operated to create a circuit inside the coffin. If the corpse stirred, the circuit would be broken, a bell would ring and fresh air would rush in to the coffin. If the lid remained closed for three or more days after burial, the tube would be withdrawn – the person inside presumed then to have actually died, case/lid closed.
I kid you not, that was the man’s name. Albert Fearnaught of Indianapolis was a photographer with a “new and useful improvement in Grave Signals”. The casket would be equipped with tubes, springs and stoppers, and a cord connected “to the wrist of the supposed corpse.”
After the casket was closed two other tubes were put into position, and should it turn out the once-thought deceased person was merely in “suspended animation”, the slightest movement of the hand (voluntary or involuntary) would cause two stoppers to pop out. In turn, a spring released which threw up the signal flag and at the same time established a circuit whereby air could circulate from the outside, providing ventilation until someone noticed the flag and rescued the person who was formerly in “suspended animation.” Patent #260379 was granted on July 4, 1882.
The parade of patented grave-signaling devices continued and as the nineteenth century was nearing its close electric switches and dry cell batteries were being employed. One device invented by Frenchman M.C.H. Nicolle in 1899 didn’t seem to be well thought out at all. A hammer would swing down and break a glass window that was positioned directly over the corpse’s head, allowing ventilation, if any corpse movement was detected. His device and others were specifically designed for people who had been buried in a trance. Waking up from a trance, only to find broken glass in your face, doesn’t seem useful though.
In the early 1900’s electrical devices were invented, and one a sort of “telegraphic” signaling device was invented by Monroe Griffith of Sioux Falls, Iowa in 1901. The hands and feet of the corpse were wired in order to signal movement. However, unlike earlier devices that might ring a bell, sound a buzzer of raise a flag, the wires came out of the grave and would be connected perhaps to “the home of the cemetery sexton or police station.”
Bizarre, yes. Necessary? Maybe. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on February 28, 1904 that medical records of years gone by cited numerous alleged instances of being buried alive. The article pointed out that several medical conditions could have mimicked death, including “conditions of trance, catalepsy human hibernation, self induced sleep, fainting fits, intense cold and narcotic influence”.
One such incident occurred in Brooklyn when a young woman named Virginia McDonald was interred in the city’s Greenwood Cemetery. Her mother had a premonition shortly after her daughter’s interment that she was in fact still alive. It continued to bother her but her family was skeptical of her fears. Still, she persisted until the family, to satisfy her, had the grave opened. Virginia by that time was indeed dead, but there was clear evidence she had been buried alive. The body was “lying on the side, the hands were bitten and there was every evidence of premature burial.”
Another woman, dancing at a ball, swooned and doctors pronounced her dead. Her husband wanted her buried with all the finery and jewels she was wearing at the ball. The undertaker, thinking it a waste of money, proceeded to take the jewels for himself. You just know what happened don’t you – as he was taking the rings from her fingers, the woman awoke and “was afterward restored to health.”
Another incident cited by Dr. Felix Hartman, who wrote about premature burials, involved a man whose pulse had stopped and appeared to have ceased breathing as well. He was placed on an autopsy table and when the knife was applied he jumped from the table and ran out of the room. According to the Daily Eagle article, “the operating surgeon died of apoplexy, but at last accounts the lively corpse was still enjoying the best of health.”
After embalming fluid became more widely used to prepare the body for burial, these concerns and fears became less of an issue. Still, these inventions, bizarre though they were, were innovative for the times. However, as someone who studied these patents years later concluded, so complicated were these devices they were more likely to fail – give them an “E” for effort though!
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!