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4 People Who Were Buried Alive (And How They Got Out)

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In the days before sophisticated medical equipment could definitely determine when someone had passed from this world to the next, many people feared being buried alive—and enacted strict post-passing procedures to ensure it didn't happen. In Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, Jan Bondeson looked at some of the measures taken to guard against being buried alive, including coffins that featured a bell or flag that would warn passers-by of any movement down below. While many reported cases of burials of the living were exaggerated, Bondeson did unearth a few cases of people who went under the earth while still breathing. 

1. The Shoemaker

In 1822, a 40-year-old German shoemaker was laid to rest, but there were questions about his death from the start. Although the shoemaker’s family confirmed his passing—he looked dead, they said—no one could detect any stench or rigidity in the cadaver. Still, the funeral went on as planned. But as the gravedigger was dispersing the last shovelsful of dirt onto the grave, he heard a knocking from below.

Reversing his process and now removing the earth as quickly as possible, the gravedigger found the shoemaker moving inside his coffin. His arms were drawn upward, he wasn’t cold, and when an attending physician opened a vein, blood flowed all over the shroud. Over the course of three days, resuscitation attempts were made, but all efforts were fruitless. The shoemaker was declared dead once more and laid to rest for a second and final time.

2. Essie Dunbar

In 1915, a 30-year-old South Carolinian named Essie Dunbar suffered a fatal attack of epilepsy—or so everyone thought. After declaring her dead, doctors placed Dunbar’s body in a coffin and scheduled her funeral for the next day so that her sister, who lived out of town, would still be able to pay respects. But Dunbar's sister didn't travel fast enough; she arrived only to see the last clods of dirt thrown atop the grave. This didn’t sit well with Dunbar’s sister, who wanted to see Essie one last time. She ordered that the body be removed. When the coffin lid was opened, Essie sat up and smiled at all around her. She lived for another 47 years.

3. Philomele Jonetre

In 1867, a 24-year-old French woman named Philomèle Jonetre contracted cholera. Not long after, she was presumed dead. As was custom, a priest arrived to administer the last sacraments, and Jonetre’s body was placed in a coffin. Only 16 hours later, her body was lowered six feet underground.

Like the Shoemaker’s case, a gravedigger heard Jonetre knocking against her coffin lid and promptly removed her from the earth. Though no breath was apparent when a lit candle was placed under her nose, distinct rhythmical sounds could be heard in her chest, and she exhibited some muscle contraction and eyelid twitching. This didn’t last long, however; Jonetre was officially pronounced dead the following day and was buried a second time.

4. Angelo Hays

Bondeson calls the case of 19-year-old Frenchman Angelo Hays “probably the most remarkable twentieth-century instance of alleged premature burial.” In 1937, Hays wrecked his motorcycle, with the impact throwing the young man from his machine headfirst into a brick wall. Hays' face was so disfigured that his parents weren’t allowed to view the body. After locating no pulse, the doctors declared Hays dead, and three days later, he was buried. But because of an investigation helmed by a local insurance company, his body was exhumed two days after the funeral.

Much to those at the forensic institute’s surprise, Hays was still warm. He had been in a deep coma and his body’s diminished need for oxygen had kept him alive. After numerous surgeries and some rehabilitation, Hays recovered completely. In fact, he became a French celebrity: People traveled from afar to speak with him, and in the 1970s he went on tour with a (very souped-up) security coffin he invented featuring thick upholstery, a food locker, toilet, and even a library.

For more, check out Jan Bondeson's Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear.

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Doctor Weighs In on What May Have Killed Saladin, the 12th-Century Muslim Military Leader
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Saladin, the 12th-century sultan of Egypt and Syria, was one fearless ruler. After unifying much of the Muslim world, he took on the Christian Franks at the Battle of Hattin and won, bringing Jerusalem back under Islamic rule and setting off the Third Crusade.

It wasn’t battle that did him in, though. Dr. Stephen Gluckman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the cause of Saladin's death in 1193 was most likely typhoid, LiveScience reports.

Up until now, the circumstances of Saladin’s passing have largely remained a mystery, as is often the case with people who lived long before modern diagnostic tools were invented. Gluckman was able to reach a diagnosis by analyzing Saladin’s symptoms as they were recorded more than 800 years ago, and shared his medical opinion at this year’s Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland, which taps experts to diagnose a different deceased historical figure each year. In past years, some theorized that Charles Darwin’s cause of death was cyclic vomiting syndrome, and Edgar Allan Poe’s demise was attributed to either rabies or delirium tremens—“a severe form of alcohol withdrawal.”

As for Saladin, he suffered a “mysterious fever and two-week illness,” according to LiveScience. He died at age 55 or 56, despite efforts to revive him with bloodletting techniques and enemas.

Gluckman was able to rule out plague and smallpox because they tend to kill quickly, and tuberculosis and malaria didn’t fit the bill, either. Typhoid, however, was common at that time, and Saladin's symptoms seemed consistent with other cases. Caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, typhoid is spread through contaminated water or food. High fever is the main symptom, but weakness and loss of appetite are also typically observed.

Saladin was buried next to the sword he had carried during the Holy War, but otherwise, his burial rites were “as simple as a pauper’s funeral,” according to author Stanley Lane-Poole in Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The money for his funeral had to be borrowed because he had given away all his riches.

[h/t LiveScience]

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The Curse on Shakespeare's Grave
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images

It's a pretty good practice to avoid incurring the wrath of the dead in general, but if there's a ghost you really don't want to upset, it's probably William Shakespeare's. Just think of the many inventive ways he killed people in his plays. That's why the curse on his grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon should be taken seriously:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones."

It's thought that the warning was penned by Shakespeare himself. In his day, it was common for bodies to be exhumed for research purposes or even just to make room for more burials, and the Bard did not want that to happen to his remains. So far, his warning seems to have worked. Even when the grave received some repairs in 2008, workers said the stones would not actually be moved and the bones certainly would not be disturbed. 

It has recently been suggested that Shakespeare's remains be exhumed and studied using the same techniques that allowed us to learn more about King Richard III, so we may soon find out how effective that curse really is. Professor Francis Thackeray from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who wants to exhume the bones, seems to be pushing his luck. "We could possibly get around [the curse] by at least exposing the bones and doing high-resolution, non-destructive laser surface scanning for forensic analyses without moving a single bone," he said. "Besides, Shakespeare said nothing about teeth in that epitaph."

Will it be enough to avoid the Bard's wrath? Only time will tell.

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