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 Butchering Art – UK Cover Reveal!

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I’m thrilled to reveal the UK cover for my upcoming book THE BUTCHERING ART, which will be published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin, on October 17th. The book tells the story of the surgeon Joseph Lister and his quest to transform the brutal world of Victorian surgery through antisepsis.

Fitzharris_ButcheringArt_JKFFor those of you who are familiar with the US cover (right), you’ll notice a lot of similarities. The US cover features a painting by the 19th-century artist Thomas Eakins. It depicts the surgeon Samuel Gross, who didn’t believe in the existence of germs and made a point of not using Lister’s antiseptic techniques in the operating theater. The painting is dark and bloody, and the surgeons are all wearing their everyday clothing. These men are the last “butchers” of their profession – men who were lauded for their brute strength and speed, and who didn’t wash their hands or their instruments between operations.

In contrast, the UK cover (above) features a second painting by Eakins, this one completed a decade later after Lister triumphs and germ theory is finally accepted by the medical community. This painting is lighter, brighter, and there is a sense of cleanliness and hygiene (note: the publisher has stylized the original painting to give it a slightly modern look here). I think it’s brilliant that the US and UK covers are in conversation with one another. So here’s the important part! I would be HUGELY GRATEFUL if you would consider pre-ordering the book today if you’re in the UK. Pre-orders are especially crucial at the start of a writer’s career as they increase my chance at getting onto bestseller lists when the time comes. Click HERE.

And don’t forget you can also pre-order the US edition by clicking HERE. Info on further foreign editions to come!

Houses of Death: Walking the Wards of a Victorian Hospital

9deb7918e7e1d5281d6cfba4eafb711dThe following blog post relates to my forthcoming book THE BUTCHERING ART, which you can pre-order here

Today, we think of the hospital as an exemplar of sanitation. However, during the first half of the nineteenth century, hospitals were anything but hygienic. They were breeding grounds for infection and provided only the most primitive facilities for the sick and dying, many of whom were housed on wards with little ventilation or access to clean water. As a result of this squalor, hospitals became known as “Houses of Death.”

L0059152 Trade card for a 'Bug Destroyer' Andrew Cooke, LondonThe best that can be said about Victorian hospitals is that they were a slight improvement over their Georgian predecessors. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement when one considers that a hospital’s “Chief Bug-Catcher”—whose job it was to rid the mattresses of lice—was paid more than its surgeons in the eighteenth century. In fact, bed bugs were so common that the “Bug Destroyer” Andrew Cooke [see image, left] claimed to have cleared upwards of 20,000 beds of insects during the course of his career.[1]

In spite of token efforts to make them cleaner, most hospitals remained overcrowded, grimy, and poorly managed. The assistant surgeon at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London was expected to examine over 200 patients in a single day. The sick often languished in filth for long periods before they received medical attention, because most hospitals were disastrously understaffed. In 1825, visitors to St. George’s Hospital discovered mushrooms and wriggling maggots thriving in the damp, soiled sheets of a patient with a compound fracture. The afflicted man, believing this to be the norm, had not complained about the conditions, nor had any of his fellow convalescents thought the squalor especially noteworthy.[2]

Worst of all was the fact that a sickening odor permeated every hospital ward. The air was thick with the stench of piss, shit, and vomit. The smell was so offensive that the staff sometimes walked around with handkerchiefs pressed to their noses. Doctors didn’t exactly smell like rose beds, either. Berkeley Moynihan—one of the first surgeons in England to use rubber gloves—recalled how he and his colleagues used to throw off their own jackets when entering the operating theater and don ancient frocks that were often stiff with dried blood and pus. They had belonged to retired members of staff and were worn as badges of honor by their proud successors, as were many items of surgical clothing.

llanionmilitaryhospitalmoreThe operating theaters within these hospitals were just as dirty as the surgeons working in them. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, it was safer to have surgery at home than it was in a hospital, where mortality rates were three to five times higher than they were in domestic settings. Those who went under the knife did so as a last resort, and so were usually mortally ill. Very few surgical patients recovered without incident. Many either died or fought their way back to only partial health. Those unlucky enough to find themselves hospitalized during this period would frequently fall prey to a host of infections, most of which were fatal in a pre-antibiotic era.

419c2b28d1b137197a21298b24a604c0In addition to the foul smells, fear permeated the atmosphere of the Victorian hospital. The surgeon John Bell wrote that it was easy to imagine the mental anguish of the hospital patient awaiting surgery. He would hear regularly “the cries of those under operation which he is preparing to undergo,” and see his “fellow-sufferer conveyed to that scene of trial,” only to be “carried back in solemnity and silence to his bed.” Lastly, he was subjected to the sound of their dying groans as they suffered the final throes of what was almost certainly their end.[3]

As horrible as these hospitals were, it was not easy gaining entry to one. Throughout the nineteenth century, almost all the hospitals in London except the Royal Free controlled inpatient admission through a system of ticketing. One could obtain a ticket from one of the hospital’s “subscribers,” who had paid an annual fee in exchange for the right to recommend patients to the hospital and vote in elections of medical staff. Securing a ticket required tireless soliciting on the part of potential patients, who might spend days waiting and calling on the servants of subscribers and begging their way into the hospital. Some hospitals only admitted patients who brought with them money to cover their almost inevitable burial. Others, like St. Thomas’ in London, charged double if the person in question was deemed “foul” by the admissions officer.[4]

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Before germs and antisepsis were fully understood, remedies for hospital squalor were hard to come by. The obstetrician James Y. Simpson suggested an almost-fatalistic approach to the problem. If cross-contamination could not be controlled, he argued, then hospitals should be periodically destroyed and built anew. Another surgeon voiced a similar view. “Once a hospital has become incurably pyemia-stricken, it is impossible to disinfect it by any known hygienic means, as it would to disinfect an old cheese of the maggots which have been generated in it,” he wrote. There was only one solution: the wholesale “demolition of the infected fabric.”[5]

fitzharris_butcheringart_021417It wasn’t until a young surgeon named Joseph Lister developed the concept of antisepsis in the 1860s that hospitals became places of healing rather than places of death.

To read more about 19th-century hospitals and Joseph Lister’s antiseptic revolution, pre-order my book THE BUTCHERING ART by clicking here. Pre-orders are incredibly helpful to new authors . Info on how to order foreign editions coming soon. Your support is greatly appreciated. 

 

1. Adrian Teal, The Gin Lane Gazette (London: Unbound, 2014).
2. F. B. Smith, The People’s Health 1830-1910 (London: Croom Helm, 1979), 262.
3. John Bell, The Principles of Surgery, Vol. III (1808), 293.
4. Elisabeth Bennion, Antique Medical Instruments (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 13.
5. John Eric Erichsen, On Hospitalism and the Causes of Death after Operations (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1874), 98.

Pre-Order My Book! The Butchering Art

fitzharris_butcheringart_021417

I’m thrilled to reveal the cover for the US edition of my forthcoming book, THE BUTCHERING ART, which will be published by FSG on October 17th.

The book delves into the grisly world of Victorian surgery and transports the reader to a period when a broken leg could result in amputation, when giving birth in a squalid hospital was extraordinarily dangerous, and when a minor injury could lead to a miserable death. Surgeons—lauded for their brute strength and quick knives—rarely washed their hands or their instruments, and carried with them a cadaverous smell of rotting flesh, which those in the profession cheerfully referred to as “good old hospital stink.” At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more dangerous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: Joseph Lister, a young, melancholic Quaker surgeon. By making the audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection—and could be treated with antiseptics—he changed the history of surgery forever.

Many of you have been devoted readers of my blog since its inception in 2010, and I can’t thank you enough for your continued interest in my work. Writing a book has been the next logical step for a very long time. The idea of telling this particular story arose during a very difficult period in my life when my writing career was at risk. It is therefore with great pride (and some trepidation) that I am turning this book loose into the world, and humbly ask you to consider pre-ordering it. All pre-orders count towards first-week sales once THE BUTCHERING ART 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.

Pre-order from any one of these vendors using the links below:

*Please note that THE BUTCHERING ART will also be published by Penguin in the United Kingdom, as well as several other publishers around the world. I’ll be revealing covers for these foreign editions in the coming months, along with information on where to buy a copy.