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The Wildly Morbid History of Safety Coffins

illustration of simple wooden coffins propped against wall
Chun photographer/Shutterstock

Being buried alive isn’t something many of us have to worry about—but that doesn’t make the idea of the phenomenon any less frightening. Heck, as the history of safety coffins shows, humans have long demonstrated that they’ll do almost anything to prevent premature burial from happening to them—no matter how outlandish or impractical these so-called “solutions” might be.”

There is an actual word for the fear of being buried alive: In its psychopathological form, it’s called taphophobia, from the Greek τάφος (taphos), meaning “grave” or “tomb,” and φόβος (phobos), meaning “fear.” It’s quite rare for the fear to be severe enough to qualify as a phobia; however, as researchers working out of the Department of Geriatric Medicine at Galway University Hospitals in Galway, Ireland found in 2015, case studies “suggest that taphophobia, while rare, may persist in the community, especially among older people who acquired such fears in their youth.”

Indeed, at one point, the fear of being buried alive was common enough that numerous inventions were created to nip the problem in the bud. Here’s a look at the strange and morbid history of safety coffins.

Premature Burial: Fact or Fiction?

As mortician Caitlin Doughty wrote at LitHub in 2019, historical medical knowledge, particularly before the 20th century, was patchy enough that doctors “had a less-than-flawless track record when it came to declaring people dead.” True, tests could be performed that might make it easier to determine whether someone was actually dead or not— somewhat gruesome procedures that typically involved taking sharp objects to a body’s fleshy bits—but these tests were both unreliable and dangerous; furthermore, they weren’t always administered in the first place. As a result, for many a century, it wasn’t unheard of for people to be declared dead when they were actually still alive—and, occasionally, for these not-actually-dead folks to be either prepared for burial or (gulp) actually buried before they’d even died.

One such premature burial preparation is the source of a local celebration in Braughing, a village in Hertfordshire in the UK, that still goes on annually to this day. On Oct. 2, 1571, resident Matthew Wall, who had been declared dead, was meant to be buried in the cemetery belonging to Braughing’s St. Mary the Virgin Church. Pallbearers were in the process of transporting his coffin to the cemetery when one of them slipped and—horrors upon horrors—dropped the coffin. Those in attendance received even more of a shock, however, when a banging noise began emanating from inside the coffin—which, when opened, revealed that Matthew Wall was, in fact, still very much alive. He lived for almost another 25 years after that—and on Oct. 2 every year, Braughing celebrates “Old Man’s Day” in honor of Wall’s miraculous “resurrection.”

It is true, of course, that some tales of premature burial are just that—tales. One particularly persistent legend, sometimes referred to as “The Lady with the Ring,” tells the plight of a woman who is buried alive while wearing a valuable piece of jewelry, such as a ring. After her funeral, a grave robber—who is sometimes positioned as the church’s own sexton—digs up the woman’s body again to steal this piece of jewelry; however, when he attempts to retrieve the bauble, the woman wakes up, startling the robber and revealing that she had been buried prematurely.

This legend has been ascribed to numerous people over the years, some of whom did exist, and some of whom did not. In Scotland, for example, the woman is said to have been Marjorie Elphinstone of Inverurie, while in Ireland, she is identified in the story as Margorie McCall. Marjorie Elphinstone did exist; she was buried in Inverurie Bass Cemetery after her death in 1622. However, there’s no evidence that this 1622 burial was actually her second such burial—and, indeed, when the story about her supposed premature burial is brought up, it’s typically qualified with a statement like “tradition says that” or “it is said that” —that is, couching it in the vocabulary of legend and myth. Meanwhile, although a headstone reading “Margorie McCall: Lived once, buried twice” does reside in Shankill Cemetery in Lurgan, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, this headstone was made by stonemason William Graham and placed in the cemetery in 1860—not in the 1700s, when McCall is meant to have lived. Furthermore, church records do not contain information about a Margorie McCall buried in Shankill Cemetery in 1705—the date associated with this alleged premature burial.

But although some stories of premature burials are fiction, some are not; the fact of the matter is that some instances of people being buried alive did occur, meaning the fear of being buried alive was rooted in something very real for quite some time. What’s more, as Fugitive Leaves, a blog from the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, notes, these fears hit a fever pitch in the 19th century, thanks to a combination of actual circumstances—namely the six different cholera pandemics that spread death and panic across the globe throughout the era—and a culture of sensationalism that sprang up around them. It’s perhaps unsurprising that eventually, some people—namely, privileged people of wealth and means—would start to brainstorm ideas on how to prevent premature burial from happening.

For example: Safety coffins.

Early Safety Coffins: The Late 18th Century to the Mid-19th Century

View of old cemetery park in the mist
Jurgita Batuleviciene/Shutterstock

Safety coffins sought to solve the perceived problem of premature burial through the addition of various bells and whistles—sometimes literal ones—fitted to otherwise ordinary caskets meant to hold our remains after death. These additions were intended to provide anyone interred in the coffins with the means both to survive inside the grave and to alert those above or outside of the grave that they were, in fact, still alive and in need of rescuing.

According to Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, medical historian and author of the book The Butchering Art, what’s considered to be the very first safety coffin was constructed in 1792 for Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in advance of his death. This coffin, wrote Fitzharris for the website Wonders and Marvels in 2012, “included a window to allow light in and a tube to provide a fresh supply of air.” Both the coffin and the tomb that was meant to house it were fitted with locks; then, the keys for these locks were placed within a “special pocket” that had been sewn into the Duke’s burial shroud—thereby enabling him to free himself if needed. (As far as anyone knows, these anti-premature burial measures were unnecessary; the Duke did, in fact, die for good on July 3, 1792, and was entombed at Dom Saint Blasius in Braunschweig, Germany, where he remains to this day.)

In the decades following the Duke of Brunswick’s creation, a wide variety of ideas popped up in Germany to make coffins “safer” for those who might unwittingly end up in them without being fully dead—each of which was more impractical than the last. As detailed by Jan Bondeson in the book Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, proposed “solutions” to the alleged “problem” of being buried alive included rigging the coffin such that someone inside it could pull a cord and ring the church bells; installing a tube leading from the coffin to the surface allowing those above ground to smell whether putrefaction or decay was occurring, and fitting each coffin with some kind of device that would trigger an alarm bell if a prematurely buried person attempted to sit up within the coffin.

Despite the impracticality, however, the 1820s saw several German doctors not only propose safety coffin designs—often based around tube systems that would allow air, and, in some cases, even food and drink, to be transported to prematurely buried individuals—but also actually test them out. In 1822, Dr. Adolf Gutsmuth buried himself alive several times in coffins of his design several times, surviving for hours and, in one instance, even taking a meal in the coffin. Several years later, a Dr. von Hess performed and survived similar experiments with his specially-designed safety coffin. And in 1829, Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger created a safety coffin that broke from the tube-based designs by the inclusion of a bell: Ropes and strings tied to the buried individual’s hands, feet, and head connected with a bell above ground, allowing anyone who might have been prematurely interred to ring the bell and signify to night watchmen and other passersby that they were, in fact, still alive.

The race to develop the perfect safety coffin, it seemed, was on.

Safety Coffin Advancements: The Mid-19th Century to the Early 20th Century

By the mid-19th century, it had become apparent that something about devices meant to save us from the terrible fate of live burial grabbed us in a way that not many things do. Inventors in a growing number of countries churned out design after design—and in the United States, they did what any inventor who had even half a mind towards business could be counted on doing: They filed patents for them.

The earliest patent for a safety coffin filed in the United States dates back to 1843. Filed by Christian Henry Eisenbrandt of Baltimore, Maryland, it featured “an arrangement whereby anyone 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.”

Another patent filed in 1868 by Franz Vester of Newark, New Jersey, detailed designs for a safety coffin equipped with “a square tube, which extends from the coffin up through and over the surface of the grave, … containing a ladder and a cord.” One end of the cord was to be “placed in the hand of the person laid in the coffin,” with the other attached to bell up top. Should a person inside the coffin awaken to discover they’d been buried alive, the idea was for them to be able to “ascend from the grave and the coffin by the ladder” —or, if they were unable to do that, to ring the bell via the cord placed in their not-so-dead hand to alert those above to their plight.

One patent filed in Illinois in 1885 described a particularly complex system: According to this patent, the device in question featured a “fan connected to the coffin by means of a tube or pipe,” which a person who had been buried alive could use to force air into the coffin through the turning of a crank or lever; a tube and a lamp that would allow people on the surface to look into the coffin after it had been buried to observe the interred individual and thus confirm whether they were dead; and a string and wire system that would allow someone within the coffin to signal to those above that they had been wrongly interred.

Throughout the century, patent upon patent was filed. Many were simply variations on a theme—but they came fast and thickly as fears rose.

The Downfall of the Safety Coffin

Interest in safety coffins did eventually begin to wane, however—possibly because none of them worked quite the way they were meant to. In 1897, for example, Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki of Russia developed yet another apparatus intended to help someone who had been prematurely buried to survive underground while signaling for help up top; called Le Karnice, it did initially achieve acclaim in Europe—particularly in France—but a botched demonstration in which the signaling device failed to activate correctly quickly reversed public opinion. Le Karnice managed to gain back some of the ground it had lost when it Karnice-Karnicki sent it on tour with one of his representatives to the United States—and yet it never took off in any meaningful way, eventually being consigned to the dusty corners of history.

And although the failure of Le Karnice wasn’t necessarily the death knell for the safety coffin, the idea of such devices being at all useful eventually fell out of favor all the same. What’s more, for all the interest they sparked throughout the 19th century, it’s unlikely that anyone has ever actually buried in a safety coffin: According to Megan E. Springate’s book Coffin Hardware in Nineteenth-century America, “examples of safety coffins have rarely, if ever, been identified archaeologically.” Springate goes on to note that it’s “doubtful” any safety coffin designs ever even made it to market, let alone as far along as a purchase or actual burial—meaning that most, if not all, of these devices existed as nothing more than experiments.

Interestingly, though, people do occasionally design modern safety coffins even today. A patent filed in 2013 and granted in 2014, for instance, describes a “portable alarm system for coffins,” which “enables a person who has been mistakenly interred to transmit a signal that indicates that [they are] alive.” Unlike the safety coffins of the past, this one uses wireless technology to send these signals; furthermore, all you have to do to trigger the alarm is press a button or pull a switch. There’s also a “lamp or light source” included as part of the device that “provides illumination for the tomb or coffin to allay the effect of panic for the entombed person.” And—most notably—the device can be used more than once: “After a predetermined period,” reads the patent, “the system can be easily removed from the coffin for reuse.”

Is there an actual market for safety coffins these days? Who knows? But hey, if you decide that having one makes you feel better, more power to you. We all deal with coming to grips with our mortality in different ways—and having a bell to ring just in case can’t hurt, right?

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »