Our Enduring Preoccupation with Premature Burial 

 

ed943eb562e8e7671f2dcc7765b2ab74--premature-burial-edgar-allan-poeHours before he died, George Washington told his secretary: “Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.” This kind of request was not uncommon. In an era when putrefaction was the only sure sign of death, many people in the past feared being buried alive.

Indeed, Washington’s nephew was even more paranoid than the former president. He ordered: “my thumbs are not to be tied together—nor anything put on my face or any restraint upon my Person by Bandages, &c. My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides—particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place and having been kept so long as to ascertain whether decay may have occurred or not, the coffin is to be closed up.”

By the 19th century, being trapped inside a coffin was a favorite plot twist for writers of macabre fiction, such as Edgar Allan Poe, whose story The Premature Burial (1844) contributed to the public preoccupation with the subject. Anxiety about premature burial was so widespread that, in 1891, the Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli coined the medical term for it: taphephobia (Greek for “grave” + “fear.”)

premature_burial_title_page1This phobia led to the creation of so-called “safety coffins.” In 1790,  Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick had built the first coffin of this kind, which included a window to allow in light, 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.

Many of the safety coffins that came afterward were touted as “tried and tested.” In 1822, Dr Adolf Gutsmuth consigned himself to the grave in a coffin he had designed personally. 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. The Germans were particularly ingenious when it came to safety coffins, patenting over 30 different designs in the 19th century. The best-known model was the brainchild of Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger, and it included a system of ropes that attached the corpse’s hands, feet, and head to an above-ground bell. Although many subsequent designs tried to incorporate this feature, it was by-and-large a design failure. What Dr Taberger didn’t take into account 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.safetycoffinsThe Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki’s design was an evengreater disaster than most. 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, none of the features worked and the demonstration failed miserably. While the assistant survived, Karnice-Karnicki’s reputation did not.

image_12One of the most unsettling coffin designs came from an American doctor named Timothy Clark Smith who was so terrified of being buried alive that he created a grave that even today intrigues and frightens visitors to Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Vermont. When Dr Smith died—aptly enough on Halloween, 1893—his body was interred in a most unusual crypt, with his face positioned at the bottom of a cement tube. This was capped with a piece of plate glass that 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.

Escape coffins were also built for those who didn’t have the patience to wait for someone to come to the rescue. One such coffin–intended for use in vaults–had a spring-loaded lid that could be opened with a slight movement of the head or hand. Another example was built by retired firefighter Thomas Pursell for himself and his family. Located at Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the ventilated vault can be opened from the inside by a handwheel attached to the door. Pursell was buried there in 1937.

9c13557a026510262f13555b436b6823-origIf all of this seems a bit irrational 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, a two-way intercom, a flashlight, an oxygen tank, a heartbeat sensor and a heart stimulator.  Taphephobia is far from dead and buried!

 

Fitzharris_ButcheringArt_JKFYou can now pre-order my book, all about the bloody & brutal world of Victorian surgery. Pre-orders are incredibly helpful to new authors. Your support is greatly appreciated. US link HERE, UK link HERE, Canadian link HERE, Australian link HERE. Info on other foreign editions to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Phrenology Head – Episode 16 – Under The Knife

In Episode 16, Dr Lindsey Fitzharris talks about phrenology, a popular pseudoscience that emerged in the early 19th century that put forth the idea that a person’s personality could be understood by examining the bumps on his or her skull. She also discovers that phrenological heads talk back!

Don’t forget you can now pre-order my book THE BUTCHERING ART in the US (click here), Canada (click here), UK (click here), and Australia (click here). And please subscribe to my YouTube Channel, and like/comment on the video!

Everyday Heroes: A Story of Self-Sacrifice & Bubonic Plague

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On 1 November 1666, a young farmer named Abraham Morten took one final, agonizing breath. He was the last of 260 people to die of bubonic plague in the remote village of Eyam in Derbyshire. His fate had been sealed four months earlier when villagers decided to shut themselves off from the rest of the world: a sacrifice they made in order to save the lives of their neighbors in surrounding villages.

eyam-plague-plaque.jpgThe nightmare began on an unremarkable day in September, 1665. George Viccars—a local tailor in Eyam—received a consignment of cloth from London for his shop. Upon inspection, Viccars noticed that the cloth was damp. He hung it before his fire to dry, not realizing that it was playing host to fleas that were carrying the bubonic plague.

Viccars was dead within a week.

The pestilence spread rapidly throughout the village. Panic broke out as villagers began making preparations to flee Eyam for contagion-free surroundings. It was then that two local clergymen, William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley, decided to intervene in order to stop the plague from spreading to neighboring villages. In a joint sermon, the two men pleaded with their fellow townspeople to recognize that it was their Christian duty to remain in Eyam until the scourge had played itself out, and to prevent the disease taking hold in other villages. Moved by the clergymen’s words, the villagers decided to make the ultimate sacrifice: they sealed themselves off from the rest of the world.

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In order to do this, they created a stone boundary around Eyam. No one was allowed in, and no one was allowed out. People from surrounding communities brought food and clothing to the disease-ridden village. They would leave their goods on the stones and pick up their payment from a well filled with water and vinegar [pictured above], which would disinfect the coins.

dsc03368.jpgWithin Eyam’s self-imposed bounds, the plague was unrelenting, killing people arbitrarily over the next fourteen months. No one was untouched by tragedy, including Elizabeth Hancock, who inadvertently brought the disease back to her farm after helping to bury a fellow villager’s body. Within a week, all six of Elizabeth’s children, as well as her husband, had died. Not wanting to put anyone at further risk, Elizabeth took on the task of burying her entire family herself.

By August, two-thirds of Eyam’s population had died from the plague, including Mompesson’s own wife. The cemetery had become so full that the dead had to be buried in nearby gardens and fields. The dwindling congregation—which grew smaller daily—began holding services outside in an attempt to halt the rampant spread of the disease. There, in the open air, they prayed earnestly to be delivered from the suffering God had seen fit to thrust upon them.

Eyam_window.jpgBy November, the plague had finally subsided. Of the village’s 350 original occupants, only 90 had survived. However, it is not the statistics that are noteworthy in this story, as these are fairly typical of plague mortality rates during this period. Rather, it is the villagers who are extraordinary. They stopped the spread of plague by their courageous, selfless actions, and in doing so, ensured that they would not become just another set of nameless statistics generated by that horrific epidemic.

No one in the surrounding area contracted plague during this time.

 

Fitzharris_ButcheringArt_JKFIf you’re interested in learning more about the plague, check out Rebecca Rideal’s excellent book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

And don’t forget you can now pre-order my book, The Butchering Art. All pre-orders count towards first-week sales once the book is released, and therefore give me a greater chance of securing a place on bestseller lists in October. I would be hugely grateful for your support. If you’re in the US, click HERE. If you’re in the UK, click HERE. Info on further foreign editions to come.

 

Dead Men’s Teeth – Episode 15 – Under The Knife

In Episode 15 of Under The Knife, I explore the horrible reality behind dental practices from the past, including how dentures used to be made from the teeth of executed criminals, exhumed bodies, and sometimes even slaves.

Don’t forget you can now pre-order my book THE BUTCHERING ART in the US (click here) and the UK (click here). And please subscribe to my YouTube Channel, and like/comment on the video!

Quacks & Hacks: Walter Freeman and the Lobotomobile

 

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On 12 November 1935, a Portuguese neurologist named Antonio Egas Moniz [below right] became the first individual to perform what would later be known as a lobotomy. Moniz’s work built upon that of the 19th-century Swiss psychiatrist, Gottlieb Burkhardt, who performed a series of operations in 1888 in which he removed sections of the cerebral cortex from six patients under his care at the Préfargier Asylum. Moniz’s early experiments involved drilling holes into patients’ skulls and pouring alcohol into the frontal cortex in order to sever nerves; and coring out regions of the brain with hollow needles.

egas4Moniz’s lobotomy quickly became a popular treatment for various mental conditions, putting an end to the therapeutic nihilism that dominated the psychiatric profession in the Victorian era. Suddenly, doctors believed they could “cure” patients whom they had previously deemed beyond help. Within a decade, the lobotomy became so esteemed that Moniz was awarded a Nobel Prize for his role in developing it.

During this time, Moniz’s procedure was adopted (and adapted) by the American neuropsychiatrist Walter Freeman, who performed the first lobotomy in the United States in 1936. Freeman won acclaim for his technique, and people all over the country began lining up to get their lobotomies, including Rosemary Kennedy [below]—sister to the man who would later become President of the United States. Rosemary was described by members of her family as a rebellious child who was prone to violent mood swings while she was growing up. In November 1941, Rosemary’s father took her to see Freeman, who diagnosed the 23-year-old girl with “agitated depression” and suggested she undergo a lobotomy to correct her erratic behavior. [Interestingly, 80 percent of the lobotomies performed in the US in those early years were carried out on women].

rosemary-kennedy-01-435Freeman performed the operation right then and there on Rosemary, without her mother’s knowledge. Shortly afterwards, it became clear that something had gone terribly wrong. Rosemary could no longer speak, and her mental capacity was equivalent to that of a toddler. Her father institutionalized her, telling people that his daughter was mentally retarded rather than admitting that her condition was due to a failed brain operation. It was only after his death decades later that the truth behind her condition was revealed. Rosemary never did recover her ability to speak coherently, and remained in care till her death in 2005 at the age of 86. She was the first of her siblings to die of natural causes.

The incident did little to damage Freeman’s reputation, who soon began looking for a more efficient way to perform the operation without drilling directly into the skull. As a result, he created the transorbital lobotomy in which a pick-like instrument was forced through the back of the eye sockets to pierce the thin bone that separates the eye sockets from the frontal lobes. This procedure—which later became known as the “ice-pick” lobotomy—could be performed in under ten minutes without anesthetic.

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Freeman took to the roads with his ice-pick and hammer, touring hospitals and mental institutions around the country. He performed ice-pick lobotomies for all kinds of conditions, including headaches. Eventually, he began performing the operation in his van—which later became known as “the lobotomobile.” At one point, he undertook 25 lobotomies in a single day. He even performed them on children as young as 4 years old. Years later, one of them spoke of the frightful incident: “I’ve always felt different—wondered if something’s missing from my soul. I have no memory of the operation, and never had the courage to ask my family about it.”

20131026_133743Over the course of four decades, Freeman performed nearly 3,500 lobotomies despite the fact that he had no surgical training. Many of his patients often had to relearn how to eat and use the bathroom. Some never recovered. And, of course, there were fatalities. In 1951, one of his patients died when Freeman suddenly stopped to pose for a photo during the procedure. The surgical instrument slipped and went too far into the patient’s brain. Many others fell victim to a similar fate at the good doctor’s hands.

The lobotomy eventually came under attack from the medical community. By the 1970s, several countries had banned the procedure altogether. Freeman eventually retired the lobotomobile and opened a private practice in California. Contrary to popular belief, he never lost his license to practice medicine.

Today, surgical lobotomies are no longer performed. The rise of drugs like thorazine make it easier to lobotomize patients chemically. In recent years, there have been calls for the Nobel Foundation to rescind Moniz’s prize that he received for developing the lobotomy, which has often been labeled one of the most barbaric mistakes of modern medicine.

 

Fitzharris_ButcheringArt_JKFSpecial thanks to Paul Koudounaris for bringing this fascinating subject to light for me when I was in Los Angeles this past April.

If you’re interested in the history of surgery, you can now pre-order my book, The Butchering Art. All pre-orders count towards first-week sales once the book is released, and therefore give me a greater chance of securing a place on bestseller lists in October. I would be hugely grateful for your support. If you’re in the US, click HERE. If you’re in the UK, click HERE. Info on further foreign editions to come.

 

 

The Dissected Criminal – Episode 14 – Under The Knife

In Episode 14 of Under The Knife, I discuss how the executions of thousands of people fed the anatomy schools in the 18th and 19th centuries. Warning: heads will roll!

Don’t forget you can now pre-order my book THE BUTCHERING ART in the US (click here) and the UK (click here). And please subscribe to my YouTube Channel, and like/comment on the video!

Painful Operations: Removing Bladder Stones before Anesthesia

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If you visit the Gordon Museum at Guy’s Hospital in London, you’ll see a small bladder stone—no bigger than 3 centimetres across. Besides the fact that it has been sliced open to reveal concentric circles within, it is entirely unremarkable in appearance. Yet, this tiny stone was the source of enormous pain for 53-year-old Stephen Pollard, who agreed to undergo surgery to remove it in 1828.

People frequently suffered from bladder stones in earlier periods due to poor diet, which often consisted of lots of meat and alcohol, and very few vegetables. The oldest bladder stone on record was discovered in Egyptian grave from 4,800 B.C. The problem was so common that itinerant healers traveled from village to village offering a vast array of services and potions that promised to cure those suffering from the condition. Depending on the size of these stones, they could block the flow of urine into the bladder from the kidneys; or, they could prevent the flow of urine out of the bladder through the urethra. Either situation was potentially lethal. In the first instance, the kidney is slowly destroyed by pressure from the urine; in the second instance, the bladder swells and eventually bursts, leading to infection and finally death.

2Like today, bladder stones were unimaginably painful for those who suffered from them in the past. The stones themselves were often enormous. Some measured as large as a tennis ball. The afflicted often acted in desperation, going to great lengths to rid themselves of the agony. In the early 18th century, one man reportedly drove a nail through his penis and then used a blacksmith’s hammer to break the stone apart until the pieces were small enough to pass through his urethra. It’s not a surprise, then, that many sufferers chose to submit to the surgeon’s knife despite a very real risk of dying during or immediately after the procedure from shock or infection. Although the operation itself lasted only a matter of minutes, lithotomic procedures were incredibly painful and dangerous—not to mention humiliating.

The patient—naked from the waist down—was bound in such a way as to ensure an unobstructed view of his genitals and anus [see illustration below]. Afterwards, the surgeon passed a curved, metal tube up the patient’s penis and into the bladder. He then slid a finger into the man’s rectum, feeling for the stone. Once he had located it, his assistant removed the metal tube and replaced it with a wooden staff. This staff acted as a guide so that the surgeon did not fatally rupture the patient’s rectum or intestines as he began cutting deeper into the bladder. Once the staff was in place, the surgeon cut diagonally through the fibrous muscle of the scrotum until he reached the wooden staff. Next, he used a probe to widen the hole, ripping open the prostate gland in the process. At this point, the wooden staff was removed and the surgeon used forceps to extract the stone from the bladder. [1]

L0015225 Lithotomy scene

Unfortunately for Stephen Pollard, what should have lasted 5 minutes ended up lasting 55 minutes under the gaze of 200 spectators at Guy’s Hospital in London. The surgeon Bransby Cooper fumbled and panicked, cursing the patient loudly for having “a very deep perineum,” while the patient, in turn, cried: “Oh! let it go; —pray, let it keep in!’” The surgeon reportedly used every tool at his disposal before he finally reached into the gaping wound with his bare fingers. During this time, several of the spectators walked out of the operating theater, unable to bear witness to the patient’s agony any longer. Eventually, Cooper located the stone with a pair of forceps. He held it up for his audience, who clapped unenthusiastically at the sight of the stone.

Sadly, Pollard survived the surgery only to die the next day. His autopsy revealed that it was indeed the skill of his surgeon, and not his alleged “abnormal anatomy,” which was the cause of his death.

1200px-Thomas_Wakley72But the story didn’t end there. Word quickly got out about the botched operation. When Thomas Wakley [left]—the editor of The Lancet—heard of this medical disaster, he accused Cooper of incompetence and implied that the surgeon had only been appointed to Guy’s Hospital because he was nephew to one of the senior surgeons on staff. Wakley used the trial to attack what he believed to be corruption within the hospitals due to rampant nepotism. Outraged by the allegation, Cooper sued Wakley for libel and sought £2000 in damages. The jury reluctantly sided with the surgeon, but only awarded him £100. Wakley had raised more than that in a defence fund campaign and gave the remaining money over to Pollard’s widow after the trial. [2]

Bransby Cooper’s reputation, like his patient, never did recover.

If you’re interested in the history of pre-anesthetic and pre-antiseptic surgery, you can pre-order my book The Butchering Art in the US (click here) and in the UK (click here). Information of foreign editions to come!

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1. Druin Burch, Digging up the Dead: Uncovering the Life and Times of an Extraordinary Surgeon (2007), p. 26. I am greatly indebted to his work for bringing this story to my attention.
2. Thomas Wakley, A Report of the Trial of Cooper v. Wakley (1829), pp. 4-5.