Nels Quevli, the Mason City, Iowa author of the oddly-titled What Should be Done with the Bodies of the Dead (1936), does indeed have a point that rises above his oddly-titled, laugh-imminent pamphlet.. It is a little laborious getting there, and the 71-year old ex-pharmacist and “science writer” with “fifty years” of studying death really could’ve used a little editing in his 47-page exegesis, but a five-minute scan gets you past the grueling set-up to what the man is really worried about: being buried alive.
This is a great and grand old issue in the history of medicine, and it turns out that what Mr. Quevli was asking for was old-fashion simple: this was to put the newly “dead” into a Dead House1 for three days or more at 85 degrees to wait and see if the body began to putrefy, purification being (in 1936) still about the only infallible indicator that death had occurred (scaling beyond the family of mortises (morti ?) including pallor, livor, algor and finally rigor). The body was still being tended to some degree while in the death house, though nothing is said of water; and after three days or so without hydration a person is going to be in very rough shape anyway particularly if they were traumatized to begin with. But this solution for Quevli was much better than the alternative of being sent to autopsy while alive or being buried while still shallowly breathing.
The determination of the occurrence of death was a major medical feature of the 19th century, the French in particular waging a fight for how this to be so. Briefly put, for centuries even before Pliny death was described as the absence of an audible heart—the crux of the sentence being the word “audible”, so that the end of life was dependent upon being a physician’s/person’s capacity to hear the heart beating. This might be very problematic if the person listening for that heartbeat had faulty hearing from defect or age, as the listener would place his/her ear on the chest of the patient to determine if the heart was functioning or not. The stethoscope wasn’t invented until 1816 by Rene Laennec--who produced a monaural device much like a primitive hearing horn made of solid wood—which was a vast improvement over no stethoscope at all, by again was very crude compared to early 20th century devices. It was much more preferred by most doctors (though there were contingents who distrusted the instrument and wouldn’t use it and still others who thought it an insult to their person insinuating defective hearing capacity) compared to the ancient hairy-ear-on-chest method. It was also, in a small way, a kind of auditory x-ray.
It was also more elegant than other methods, the following examples referenced from Jan Bondeson’s delightful Buried Alive, the Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear (Norton, 2001):
--Christian Friedrich Nasse’s Thanatometer was a long thermometer that was inserted into the stomach, supposedly measuring a core body temperature that would determine if life was possible (and published in 1841);
--The (Englishman’s) Barnett scalding death cure, which recommended burning the skin of the arm to see if it blistered (no blister/no life);
--the German Middeldorph invented a heart flag, a needle device that would be thrust into the heart, which if functioning would trigger something or other that would cause a flag to be released at the top of the needle (a very Victorian and visual one, this);
--Christian August Struwe’s interesting Lebenspruefer (1805) was an electrical device that delivered a dual shock to the eye and lip, the logic here being that if the person was still alive that there would be a resulting twitch;
--the nameless tobacco enema, which blew smoke…(delivered in the beginning by breath through a tube and improved later to replacing the lips with a bellows, this secondary improvement by Antoine Louis2 and furthered by Dr. P.J.B. Previnaire’s much more powerful anal tobacco furnace. [Now there’s three words I’ve never strung together before].)
--Leon Collongues believed that he could hear the capillary functions of a possibly-dead person’s fingers if placed in his ear;
--Jules Antoine Josat3 invented a nipple-pincher ("pince-mamelon") life-rejuvenation device, operating on the assumption that a deeply sedated person could not resist a strong pinch of the nipple and would have to wake up if alive.
Perhaps the most spectacularly extension of the nipple-pincher was the tongue-pulling idea of Dr. J.-V. Laborde4 (1830-1903), a research physician with wide credentials, who reasoned that a continued regimen of advanced and strenuous pulling of a patient’s tongue would over time bring them back to life if alive. This is what leads us to the point of this post: Laborde established a mortuary, and in this mortuary, where the dead were waiting to die, he employed a man whose job it was to pull the tongues of these bodies. In the misty picture of all of this that is painted in my mind’s eye, the fellow working his way from body to body pulling their tongues with a heavy pincer seems far worse than nipple squeezing or even being an anal smoke blower, though to choose between the three in a twisted Purgatorial mandate would be hard to so. Although the nipple pincher wasn’t replaced by anything mechanical, the smoke blower was (by a powerful bellows), and so was our friend the tongue puller, who after complaining of the boredom of his task was pushed aside by an electrical device. I am loathe to report that I cannot find a picture of the machine.
1. This was not an uncommon practice. for example Munich and Frankfurt had their Leichenhaus in which the dead were allowed to putrefy, as did Vienna its Zentralfriedhof.
2. Antoine Louis. From the Bondeson book, page 156: "Antoine Louis had also proposed another method of testing life, or at least stimulating the vital spark in the apparently dead person: with a powerful bellows, he administered an enema of tobacco smoke. One of the pipes of this remarkable apparatus was thrust into the anus of the apparently dead person; the other was connected, by way of a powerful bellows, to a large furnace full of tobacco (reference 5). Such enemas of tobacco smoke were thought to be very beneficial and were used to try to revive not only people presumed dead but also drowned or unconscious individuals. In 1784, the Belgian physician P.J.B. Previnaire was given a prize by the Academy of Sciences in Brussels for a book on apparent death, which described and depicted an improved bellows for enemas of tobacco smoke, which he called Der Doppelblaser (reference 6). These enemas were regularly used well into the nineteenth century, particularly in Holland; modern science has discerned no physiological rationale for their use, except the pain and indignity of having a blunt instrument violently thrust up one's rear passage must have had some restorative effect (reference 7)."
3. Josat. From Weird Universe.net I found the following, quoting Death and Sudden Death, by Paul Brouardel and F.L. Benham:
“Josat invented a pair of forceps with claws, with which he proposed to pinch the nipples of persons whose death has to be ascertained. Josat obtained the first prize of the Academy, but Briquet, repeating the same tests on the hysterical subjects under his care, proved that they did not react under Josat's forceps any more than the dead.”
4. M. Laborde won a 2500 franc prize for his innovation in 1894 (as reported by the Revue scientifique. He sounded like an interesting man: according to the British Medical Journal (in reporting his death 25 April1903) upon his own death in that year Laborde: “as a freethinker had a civil ceremony; as an hygienist was cremated; as a member of the Societe Mutuelle d’Autopsie willed his body to be dissected; as an anthropologist willed his brain to be preserved at the Anthropological Museum…”
Some of Laborde's works include Le traitement physiologique de la Mort. And Les tractions rythmées de la langue, moyen rationnel ... de ranimer la fonction respiratoire et la vie ... Avec ... dessins, etc And: La traitement physiologique de la mort (Paris , 1894) And: La signe automatique de la mort reelle (Paris, 1900). And “Les Tractions Rhythmees de la Langue”, VIII, pp. 76 ff, ed. 2, Paris, 1897, and VIII, 2d part, pp. 406-510. And commented upon in some number, for example: Le Traitement physiologique de la mort par les tractions rythmées de la langue. Le tracteur lingual automatique Laborde, by Alix Hache.