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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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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

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As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

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Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

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Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

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The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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Is Death by Guillotine Painless?
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Is death by guillotine painless?

Roger Kryson:

Death by guillotine would be painless because it immediately severs the nerves from your spinal cord to brain. The clean cut would paralyze you after severing your vertebrae, so pain receptors would no longer send signals as your nerves are severed and your body is non-functional. This is, of course, assuming you’re alive after having your head completely chopped off by a 10-pound blade accelerating at speeds of 40 mph, which you wouldn't be. You wouldn't even feel the cold touch of the blade as it sliced into your neck hair; it would be too fast.

For those saying that spasms have been witnessed after execution by guillotine, it should be noted that spasms such as involuntary jerks, eye fluttering, and twitches can occur up to five minutes after death. This is because the brain suffocates, but it does not mean the presence of pain is there. Many people who pass away naturally and painlessly in a hospital bed will twitch, their eyes flutter, and even have bowel movements minutes after death. Once you are dead, you can't “feel” anything, including pain. As for studies mentioned about brain activity continuing in rats after severing of the head, the same goes. Brain activity can still be present after death, but that does not mean the subject is alive, nor [does it have] the defined senses of feeling.

The guillotine was such an effective fear-mongering tool because it didn't focus on pain and suffering, but rather punishment. The idea was you're going to literally just be wiped off the face of the Earth for your crime—you're not even going to be allowed the few extra minutes of torture. The idea of dwelling in a dark cave before being escorted out blindfolded, having your neck placed on a board with a bucket to catch your severed head, and being executed by the drop of the blade and nothing else … it's a jarring realization of just how unsympathetic death is.

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