Category Archives: history

Past present.

Not Dead and Still Buried

"The Premature Burial" by Harry Clarke, 1919.
Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Premature Burial” by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919.

Taphephobia. Greek for “fear of the grave.” With science and medicine such as it was for hundreds of years, it was not uncommon for men and women — rich and poor, educated or not, famous (http://mentalfloss NULL.com/article/64180/10-famous-people-who-were-afraid-theyd-be-buried-alive), infamous, or otherwise —to be afraid of being entombed alive. On his deathbed, George Washington apparently told his secretary that “”I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.” Spoiler: he did die, and was buried at Mount Vernon in 1799. He was not later found to have bloodied his fingers by scratching at his coffin or chewing the tips for basic sustenance. He did not become one of the undead (though undoubtedly, someone is right now working on a novel to that effect). But he did have a very real fear that many shared in the 18th and 19th centuries: being buried alive.

The earliest known written reference of a premature burial comes from Pliny the Elder in his Natural History of 77 AD. In a chapter entitled “Persons Who Have Come to Live Again After Being Laid Out for Burial,” Pliny recounts tales of people waking up after being declared dead. Fast forward to the 14th century, and there’s the story of philosopher John Duns Scotus, reportedly found outside his coffin with bloodied hands. Three hundred years later, and European rationalists would be stymied by a vampire craze — fueled by bloody bodies of exhumed corpses that were said to run amok at night and plague their families. But one need only Google for a few minutes to find modern cases of premature burial. As recently as just a few short months ago, a Brazilian woman claims to have been buried alive (https://www NULL.independent NULL.co NULL.uk/news/world/americas/woman-buried-alive-coffin-brazil-11-days-rosangela-almeida-dos-santos-a8213646 NULL.html), spending 11 days trying to get out of her coffin.

Popularity of his tale aside, there is no proof in his letters or other writings that Poe, himself, was afraid of Premature Burial

Curiously, though, the most widespread cultural obsession with being buried alive is found in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most famously captured in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Premature Burial (https://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/2148/2148-h/2148-h NULL.htm#link2H_4_0015) (1844) — where (spoiler) the real fear comes from an overactive imagination or fevered dream — the panic and paranoia felt by the 18th and 19th century taphephobe can, in many ways, be blamed on a distrust of one’s doctor(s) to properly certify death, and an all-too-ready cadre of family, friends, and neighbors who were quick to get the body into the grave — mostly, for fear of spreading disease.

It is the latter that may explain some of the vampire hysteria that began in eastern Europe and spread west as far as Austria and Germany in the 1700s.  As early as the 1670s, doctors wrote treatises about ‘grave eating’ where bodies were exhumed and found to have eaten their own shrouds or feasted on their own fingers. Bubonic plague lasted until as late as 1750, and it is understandable that villages throughout Europe feared that dead bodies could spread disease. Folklore of the vampire from Eastern Europe coupled with writers spreading the tale of Arnold Paole (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Arnold_Paole) in Germany in 1732 added fuel to the fire that undead bodies, rising from their graves, could spread a disease, too.

Symptoms of tuberculosis, for example — light-sensitive eyes, pale skin, low body heat, coughing up blood — could easily be misconstrued as victimization by vampires. Many of those who passed from such a disease would have been buried in haste. As others fell victim, and a vampire suspected, exhumation seemed logical. Kill the vampire and prevent the spread of the disease. When the body — due to the natural bloating, bubbling of bodily fluids, and shrinkage of the skin we now know are associated with decomposition  — was exhumed, it must have been a shock. To the superstitious, the undead were blamed. To the rational, there was suspicion of accidental premature burial. To some, both were a possibility. Physicians studying this so-called vampire epidemic of the eighteenth century wrote over a dozen articles in professional journals about the subject, along with numerous treatises. In some parts of Europe, there was widespread panic that vampirism would spread much like the plague.

It was modern-day folklorist Paul Barber — in his seminal Vampires, Burial, and Death (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampires-Burial-Death-Folklore-Reality/dp/0300048599) — who most effectively argued that the incidence of presumed vampirism or being burial alive has been overestimated, and that the normal effects of decomposition are mistaken for signs of life. And as the Enlightenment gave way to more scientific explanations of all things related to death, it was serious medical doctors, not priests or doctors of philosophy, who were looked to as authorities on death and disease.

But did medical doctors sometimes get it wrong? Were certified deaths sometimes the result of a doctor not noticing a faint heartbeat or weakened breath? Unlikely. But as the superstitions of the eighteenth century gave way to the more scientific approaches to death of the nineteenth, it’s not without reason that people began to — and rightfully so — fear doctors. After all, it was quacks like Moore Russell Fletcher, M.D. who published as late as 1884 his “One Thousand Persons Buried Alive by Their Best Friends”, a pamphlet placed inside the back of a textbook on common ailments and diagnoses: Our Home Doctor. Books like these contributed to the paranoia that being buried alive was a real possibility (really, “one thousand persons”!).

Outbreaks of Cholera in the mid to late nineteenth century — such as that in and around 1854 when Antoine Wiertz painted his ‘L’Inhumation Precipitee’ (the work that appears in the feature section of this post) — did much to fuel the fire of ignorance and fear.One Thousand Person Buried Alive by Their Best Friends

Such fear led to the formation of some curious clubs — among them, The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial, founded by Dr. William Tebb of Manchester (who also wrote a book on the subject, available in its entirety, here (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/ebooks/50460?msg=welcome_stranger)). His 1896 treatise is definitely a far more credible examination of the possible causes of, and ways to avoid premature burial than Fletcher’s (again, one thousand persons???); at nearly 400 pages, Tebb’s book is quite comprehensive, leading one to believe that the phenomenon was quite prevalent and quite real as the nineteenth century came to a close. Of course, modern-day scholars say it wasn’t, but that doesn’t make the beliefs any less potent.

Ardent beliefs certainly explain the prevalence of devices invented by enterprising men to combat premature burial at its source — from within the grave itself.

The first recorded of these, a safety coffin, was ordered by Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in 1792. It was equipped with keys to open the coffin and, should there be one, the mausoleum door. There was even a window for light, and an air tube.

Grave Contraption, 1882
Device for Indicating Life in Buried Persons, 1882

In 1829, Johann Taberger created a bell system that had ropes attached to the body so any slight movement would alert night watchman in the cemetery. In 1868, Franz Vester revealed his “Burial Case” — a coffin which included a tube for a curious passerby to see the face of the corpse. A nobleman, Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, patented a coffin in 1897. His coffin also detected movement, and would open a tube to supply air along with not only ringing bells but also raising a flag. Yet, despite the effort put in to making these devices, there’s no evidence that they ever actually saved anyone’s life.

Buried
Buried (2010)

This is not to say that people were no prematurely buried. Many an article online (http://www NULL.dailymail NULL.co NULL.uk/news/article-2289355/Let-coffin-Im-alive-New-book-reveals-spine-chilling-true-stories-premature-burial NULL.html) documents case after case in the nineteenth AND twentieth centuries. Authors and filmmakers a century after Poe wrote his seminal tale continue to fan the flames of this fear of being placed alive in one’s grave. There was even a most effective (and well reviewed) modern thriller, 2010’s Buried (https://www NULL.rottentomatoes NULL.com/m/buried/), that made the fear of live burial very much a possibility in this, the twenty-first century.

But is it all fiction? Actual or embellished, stories like the aforementioned Brazilian (https://www NULL.independent NULL.co NULL.uk/news/world/americas/woman-buried-alive-coffin-brazil-11-days-rosangela-almeida-dos-santos-a8213646 NULL.html) keep alive (pun intended) the notion that premature burial, even in the age of modern medicine, is still a possibility.

Paperwork for the Devil

Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885
William Gladstone as Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885

From Faust to Robert Johnson, fictional and historical figures alike have been mythologized for making pacts with the devil. Beelzebub. Lucifer. Old Scratch. Satan. The Devil is a decidedly Christian being that, while having demonic precursors outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is pretty much a product of the Old and New Testaments. Sure, the Babylonians had many malevolent demons. The Egyptians had their dark gods. Zoroastrianism even had a nasty spirit named Angra Mainyu. But it’s in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, that Satan really takes shape — first as heaven’s prosecutor of sorts. Later, in the Synoptic Gospels,  Satan comes into his own as both the great red dragon of Revelation, and the evil being that tempts Christ in the desert. And it’s his role as tempter of Christ that leads to a depiction of the Devil as one who can fulfill desires — for a price. Much like a genie (or djinn), the Devil can deliver on all things worldly.

Even make contractual agreements.

Theophilus of Adana, a 6th century cleric, may be the first documented story of a someone who makes a pact of this type. The archdeacon of Adana, part of modern day Turkey, Theophilus is said to have, out of humility, turned down a promotion to bishop. But when the bishop elected in his stead deprives Theophilus of his position as archdeacon, the poor priest comes to regret his decision, and seeks out a magician to help him contact Satan. In exchange for his help, Satan demands that Theophilus renounce Christ and the Virgin Mary in a contract sealed with the cleric’s own blood. Theophilus agrees, and is made bishop.

Fearing, however, that he has put his immortal soul in jeopardy, Theophilus repents, fasts, and implores the Virgin Mary to intercede on his behalf with God. Satan eventually relents, and Theophilus wakes to find the contract on his chest. He shows the contract to the legitimate bishop, who then forgives poor bastard and burns the document. Out of sheer relief, Theophilus dies and, presumably, goes to heaven. Oh, and he’s made a saint — which gives hope to everyone who’s considering selling their soul.

The tale is attributed to an eighth century scribe, Paulus Diaconus of Naples. From a modern Latin translation comes the details of the pact itself: “Let him deny the son of Mary and those things which are offensive to me,” says the Devil, “and let him set down in writing that he denieth absolutely, and whatsoever he may desire he shall obtain from me, so long as he denieth.” And so it would seem that we have the first instance of such a pact, and the importance of the written contract.

That element of such a pact — as a written contract — is repeated again and again in the centuries to come. It would eventually finds its way into literature — most notably, first in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (https://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/779/779-h/779-h NULL.htm) (1592). And from the 16th to the 18th century, countless witches would be tried and executed over the accusation of such agreements.

Urbain Grandier's Pact with the Devil
Urbain Grandier’s Pact with the Devil from Dictionnaire infernal ou bibliothèque universelle, 1826

The case of the 17th century French Catholic priest Urbain Grandier is perhaps the most infamous of these trials (and the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Devils of Loudun); what unique about Granier, however, is that an actual printed document was presented at his trial in 1634. Said to be penned by all manner of demons and the Devil himself, it is a mishmash of reversed Latin and many occult symbols. In it, Grandier is promised “the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers.” He’s only given 20 years before his soul is forfeit, but it would seem the Devil got his due much earlier as Grandier was tortured and subsequently burned at the stake. With phrases like “He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him,” the contract is quite detailed in its promises.

But a simpler tale of a deal with the Devil may be actually be found in a fairy tale commonly referred to as “The Smith and the Devil.” In it, a blacksmith trades his soul for supernatural powers, and then uses this power to trap the demon with whom he made the deal. So straightforward a story, it was collected by the Brothers Grimm in their two volume (1812 and 1815) Children’s and Household Tales (though it was removed from most later editions).

Like most folktales, the origins of the story are murky. It was readily believed to be European in origin or possibly Russian. That is, until very recently when folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamie Tehrani argued that “The Smith and the Devil” may in fact be one of the oldest known folk tales on the planet, and was told from India to Scandanavia. In their 2016 study “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales (http://rsos NULL.royalsocietypublishing NULL.org/content/3/1/150645#F4),” the authors present evidence that the basic plot of the tale is found across the Indo-European speaking world dating back over 6,000 years, to the Bronze Age.

But a signed contract? With the story of Theophilus not being readily told until the 11th to 13th centuries, it seems that the Devil requiring a physical contract is a relatively recent development, historically speaking.

All in all, I suppose it’s better to get it in writing.