JF Ptak Science Books Post 1526
I've written here before on the wonderful book by Jan Bondeson, Buried Alive, the Terrifying History of our Most Primal Fear 1(Norton, 2001) and on the difficulties of determining death in the 19th century, and the various ways that people sought to deal with and sidestep the possibilities of premature burial. In continuing those posts I'd like to add the following drawings from hopeful reports of the U.S. Patent Office, some of which really didn't make that much applicable sense, but, well, you can patent just about anything if it hasn't already been patented.
These coffins were constructed to allow their occupants to ring or telephone or telegraph or signal with smoke or light and so on should the dead respond to their lost life while buried. As I point ou tin the earlier (linked) post, determining death was a difficult task in the 19th century, so there wsa a legitimate fear-of-being-buried-alive concern. OF course, the best way yo determine death would be to allow the supposed-dead to lay out for three days at the end of which the body became a corpse and putrefy--the decay part was the true determiner of death. WHy people had to bury the dead into a coffin and be placed underground faster than the three days is a mystery, particularly if there were so many people who lived in fear of waking up in an underground coffin.
And so to the solutions, the first of which was brought to the world by Franz Vester of beautiful Newark, New Jersey. Well, Newark was probably beautiful when this patent was granted in 1868, and maybe this idea seemed so, too. Here's what would happen if a dead body awoke in Vester's safety coffin: their hands were attached to a rope that would be connected to a top-side bell, and the not-deceased would tug on it for all they were worth. After that, a sliding door above the face would be moved, and the coffin's occupant was then supposed to pull themselves up to a short laddered tunnel that was connecting the living world from the sleep-of-worms-world. Were there problems? Yes, of course, but so far as it has been recorded no person ever saved themselves suing this coffin, in spite of Vester's very strenuous exercises to promote his invention.
[Image source: American Artifacts, via VanVleck]
A few years later from just downthe road in Hoboken, Theodore Schroeder and Hermann Wuest were granted a patent for another rope-activated sounding device. The 1871 patent revealed what was pretty much a common thread to come--rope, hands, bell. Theoretically, if the dead awoke they would tear away at the bell until the prefect or whomever arrived to dig them out. The pair from Hoboken added a few tweaks here and there--one that allowed a release of fresh air into the coffin, and another which used an electromagnetic deice to replace the hand engine. I'm not sure how long someone can last in a coffin underground, but it can't be very long at all. Why someone would think that adding an air vent to a coffin where the dead have been underground for a few days already doesn't seem to make much sense, except to the coffin manufacturers.
The next example comes from the beautifully-named Albert Fearnaught, who although not from mid-Jersey patented a device again using a rope around the wrist of the dead, this time though the rope was attached to a spring-loaded device that would release a flag when activated from below.
This next (1885) patent has a slight variant on the rope-hand solution: the string-finger. Well, there was also some electromagnetic stuff involved, but basically the string on the finger of a moving not-dead-corpse would activate an electric bell and yadda yadda yadda people would come to help and release. The added extra here, the clear-coat undercoating, is a device that would allow the folks topside to peer down and see the face of the interred, and whether or not it was animated, I guess.
Hubert Deveau evidently had grown tired of all of these hand/finger-operated back- from-the-dead resurrection devices, and constructed (in his patent of 1894) a relatively simple groundskeeper-alerting-breathing-device combo--a pipe that could be moved up by the head of the person int he coffin which would in turn activate a spring-something that would keep the pipe poking-up above the ground. It would deliver fresh air to the buried, and would evidently be a warning sign to the cemetery man that something was afoot, underfoot.
Funny thing her is that most of the systems I looked at for this post involved a single device to release the prematurely-buried--it seems to me that there should have been at least one back-up system in case the main apparatus failed. I mean, if you're going to become intensely psychotic, why would you then depend on one thing to get you out of your buried coffin? And that one thing is, basically, a rope. What if the thing failed? I'm just saying that I expected to see a little more comfort juice applied to these solutions than I saw.
And why current radio talk show fearmongers like Glenn Beck isn't all over these things, I don't know--they Fearnaughts for just about everything else...
1. A fine article on patent remedies for premature burial can be found here: "Signals from the Grave, Early Patents for Detecting Life in Buried Persons", by Richard Van Vleck, in American Artifacts, issue 45, July 1999.