The danger of premature burial is one of the most feared perils of everyday life.
The horrendous tale of Lawrence Cawthorn, a butcher from Newgate Market in London, was issued in a leaflet called ‘The Most Lamentable and Deplorable Accident’ in 1661. It was one of many tales about premature burial keenly read by the public.
Cawthorn had become ill sometime that year. In the 17th century, little more than the lack of a heartbeat or breath were considered establishing proof of death, and a doctor saw few people in their last illness.
They often left it to lay people to pronounce someone deceased. And Lawrence’s wicked landlady, eager to inherit his belongings. Saw that he was quickly declared dead and then buried. But at the chapel where Cawthorn was interred, a stifled cry from the tomb and a frantic scraping at the coffin walls and lid horrified mourners.
Although quickly dug up, it was too late. Cawthorn’s motionless body was a horrid sight: the shroud was torn to pieces, the eyes hideously swollen, and the head battered and bleeding. The story concluded: ‘Among all the torments that humanity is capable of, the most dreadful of them is to be buried alive.’
Another horrific story was published in 1674. A Madam Blunden from Basingstoke, described as a fat, gross woman who liked to drink brandy.
Feeling ill one evening, Madam Blunden ordered some poppy water from her local apothecary. After drinking it, she fell into a death-like stupor. When the apothecary was called, he claimed Blunden had overdosed on the poppy water.
Her husband William, a wealthy malt dealer, arranged her funeral. But two days after the burial, some schoolboys playing in the churchyard claimed they heard groanings and dismal shrieks from the grave. Petrified, they went to get their schoolmaster. She was exhumed and appeared to be dead, although her body had fresh bruises and scratches. Injuries that were thought to be self-inflicted as she had tried to escape.
Determining death was an inexact science. Aside from the basic check for a heartbeat and breath, in the 18th century additional tests included whipping the corpse’s skin with nettles, bellowing in the ear and sticking needles under the toenails.
By the late 1700, paranoia about premature burial had reached such a peak that many doctors thought the only reliable sign of death was decomposition.
Just to be on the safe side, after they wrapped the body in a new burial sheet, the church warden suggested the grave be left open overnight, watched by some custodians. But it rained, and the custodians closed the coffin and sought shelter. The next morning, when the lid was opened, to everyone’s horror it was seen that Madam Blunden had revived for a while, tearing off her winding sheet, and scratching her face and mouth until she drew blood.
By the 1790s, another way of safeguarding against the dreaded premature burial was gaining popularity: the security coffin, designed to allow anyone who woke to find they had been prematurely interred to attract attention or escape.
One type was fitted with a tube rather like a ship’s speaking trumpet. The idea was that the local parson could take a stroll through the churchyard every morning and have a quick sniff down the tube to see if the putrefaction of the body was sufficiently well advanced to permit the tube to be withdrawn. If there was a lack of odour, the coffin would be opened after a few days.
In the second half of the 19th century, the obsession with security coffins continued and their design became more advanced. They replaced alarm bells with firecrackers, sirens and even rockets which could be set off from inside the coffin.
But such extraordinary episodes are not confined to the distant past. In 1995, 61-year-old Cambridgeshire farmer’s wife Daphne Banks was certified dead by her family doctor after taking a drugs overdose on New Year’s Eve. Three hours later, the undertaker loading her into a refrigerated drawer saw a vein twitch and heard her snore. Mrs Banks survived.
And just recently a 76-year-old Polish beekeeper named Josef Guzy was certified dead after a heart attack. He narrowly escaped being buried alive when an undertaker noticed a faint pulse as he prepared to seal his coffin. Just weeks later, Mr Guzy was back tending his bees.
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