Buried Alive: 19th-Century Safety Coffins

00In 1822, Dr Adolf Gutsmuth set out to conquer his fear of being buried alive by consigning himself to the grave in a ‘safety coffin’ that he had designed himself. For several hours, he remained underground, during which time he consumed a meal of soup, sausages and beer—all delivered to him through a convenient feeding tube built into the coffin.

Gutsmuth wasn’t the first to design something like this. Around 1790, the Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick had the first safety coffin built which included a window to allow light in and a tube to provide a fresh supply of air. The lid of the coffin was then locked and two keys were fitted into a special pocket sewn into his burial shroud: one for the coffin itself and one for the tomb.

The Germans were particularly ingenious when it came to safety coffins, patenting over 30 different designs in the 19th century. The best-known one was the brainchild of Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger, which included a system of ropes that attached the corpse’s hands, feet and head to an above-ground bell.

00Although many subsequent designs tried to incorporate this feature, it was by-and-large a design failure. What Dr Taberger didn’t account for is the fact that the body begins to bloat and swell as it decomposes, causing it to shift inside the coffin. These tiny movements would have set the bells ringing, and visitors to the cemetery running.

Of course, it wasn’t just the Germans who were consumed with taphophobia. Writer and artist, Adrian Teal, recently told the story of an 18th-century Brit who had his coffin stored in the rafters of his house.  And the American doctor, Timothy Clark Smith was so fearful that he would catch the ‘sleeping sickness’ and be buried alive, that he created a grave that continues to intrigue (and frighten) visitors of Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Vermont.

00When Dr Smith died (aptly enough on Halloween, 1893), his body was interred in a most unusual crypt, with his face positioned beneath a cement tube that ended at a piece of plate glass which would allow the unfortunate doctor to gaze upward in the event of his premature burial. Visitors to the cemetery used to report that they could peer down inside the grave and see Dr Smith’s decomposing head. Nowadays, all you can see is darkness and a bit of condensation (to see photo, click here).

The American horror writer, Edgar Allen Poe, also seemed unnaturally preoccupied by thoughts of being buried alive as the subject appears with some frequency in his own writings. In the story, Premature Burial (1850), he even describes a Taberger-like coffin with ‘a large bell [suspended from the roof of the tomb], the rope of which, it was designed, should extend through a hole in the coffin, and so be fastened to one of the hands of the corpse.’

If ropes were a failure, then the Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki’s design was an even bigger catastrophe. In 1897, he buried one of his assistants in order to demonstrate the features of his safety coffin. If the device detected movement from within, it was rigged to open a tube which would allow air to flow while simultaneously raising a flag and ringing a bell. Unfortunately, nothing went to plan and the demonstration failed miserably. The assistant survived. Karnice-Karnicki’s reputation did not.

If all this seems a bit superstitious to your modern sensibilities, consider the fact that safety coffins are still available for purchase today. In 1995, Fabrizio Caselli invented a model that includes an emergency alarm, two-way intercom, a flashlight, oxygen tank, heartbeat sensor and heart stimulator.

The fear of premature burial is far from dead, dear readers.

12 comments on “Buried Alive: 19th-Century Safety Coffins

  1. sandvick says:

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Today’s Sunday “Blog” from the past comes from The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice is a wonderfully morbid blog run by Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris focusing on the History of Medicine. This “Blog” is about 19th-Century Safety Coffins. 19th Century medicine was fairly abysmal and it I can imagine that a lot of people were concerned that they would be buried before they were actually dead. Perhaps coffin builders were hoping to corner the vampire market. Fitzharris’s post describes the surprising number of safety coffins that were designed and built. Enjoy!

  2. […] deaths, I know that it is a fairly well-known fact that before modern medicine people would get buried alive. Especially in areas where diseases such as the black plague and cholera went through and a lot of […]

  3. […] och groteska bloggen om kirurgins tidiga historia och diverse andra morbida saker. Se till exempel det här inlägget om […]

  4. Wasn’t live burial an accurate fear in the past, since death was not fully understood. Weren’t those in a coma sometimes buried? Loved reading this.

    Lucy

    • You’re right that the boundaries between life and death were not understood very well in the past, although you must remember that people were not buried immediately either (unless in cases of disease outbreaks). It’s impossible to know how many people were actually buried alive. I can say that there is no evidence that any of these safety coffins ever saved someone’s life.

  5. […] lot of strange objects in my research: books bound in human skin, prosthetic noses made of silver, iron coffins with safety devices to prevent premature burial. But perhaps one of the strangest objects I’ve seen is the one […]

  6. […] The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice for additional history and […]

  7. […] Buried Alive: 19th-Century Safety Coffins […]

  8. jeanjames26 says:

    Why was there such fear of the ‘sleeping sickness’, and of being buried alive? Was this such a common occurence as to spur the production of these coffins?

    • This is a great question – I knew someone would ask it! I’m actually going to work on a follow-up piece which will hopefully answer these questions. Sorry this is not immediately satisfying but more research is required!

  9. nightsmusic says:

    I’ve been morbidly fascinated with this subject since my first Poe which was The Premature Burial. I had no idea people were still doing this though in an era when embalming is the norm.

    I’m very surprised to see that the glass ‘window on the world’ on Smith’s grave was never broken though by some cemetery vandal.

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