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Buried Alive - Signals from the Grave

The New York Times printed two disturbing accounts of people that were buried alive. In 1885, one victim was a man from Buncombe County whose name was given as “Jenkins.” His body was found turned over onto its front inside the coffin, with much of his hair pulled out. Scratch marks were also visible on all sides of the coffin’s interior. Another Times article in 1886 described the victim simply as a girl named “Collins” from Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. Her body was described as being found with the knees tucked up under the body, and her burial shroud “torn into shreds”. The fear of being buried alive prompted a surge of patents for specialized coffins for “detecting life in buried persons.”

The U.S. Patent Office was busy during the 19th century granting patents for these “safety coffins.” The patent illustrations above are just a few of many that were granted during that time. In case of premature burial, a person would be able to utilize whatever features the coffin offered to signal that they were still alive and trapped inside.

  • 1882 (first illustration): John Krichbaum, of Youngstown, OH, created an odd device consisting of a bar placed in the hands of the corpse and extending to the surface and into a glass enclosure where a pointer and numbers apparently indicated any movement of the bar. Krichbaum mentions that the device is used for persons buried under doubt of being in a trance.
  • 1885 (second illustration): Charles Sieber and Frederick Borntraeger, of Waterloo, IL, received a patent for a grave signal for people buried in a trance. Along with an electromagnetic bell alarm and pop-up flag activated by a string tied to the finger of the corpse, this patent includes a spring driven fan in a housing at the grave surface that is also activated by the finger string and a lamp and window at the bottom of a tube for viewing the face of the corpse from the surface.
  • 1899 (third illustration): M.C.H. Nicolle, of France, patented a somewhat bizarre coffin signal, in which a hammer is released by movement of the corpse, swinging down and breaking a glass window directly over the head, allowing air to enter the previously sealed coffin. The alarm is simply the sound of the breaking glass, since the device is used only before burial. If anyone ever did wake from a trance in one of these coffins and lifted their head, the result would appear to be a face full of broken glass followed by a blow to the head from the falling hammer.

Although there were many specialized coffin patents granted, only a few were made, and of the one’s that were, there is no evidence that anyone’s life has been saved by their use.

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