Le Karnice, the Victorian Coffin Designed to Save Lives

The Medical and Surgical Monitor via Google Books // Public Domain

 

In 1897, doctors, reporters, and diplomats attending a conference at the Sorbonne marveled over a novel contraption presented to them: a coffin designed to alleviate anxieties over premature burial. Taphephobia (fear of being buried alive) was particularly widespread in Victorian-era Europe and the United States, growing as newspapers published horrific accounts of unnecessary interments. People were terrified that doctors were unable to differentiate between death and profound lethargy, comas, or trances, which could strip patients of perceivable signs of life. The new safety coffin, patented the previous year by Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, a chamberlain to Russia’s Nicholas II, arrived as the seemingly perfect means to compensate for such potentially lethal misdiagnoses.

Known as Le Karnice, the mechanical apparatus equipped any poor soul lying slowly suffocating in a box underground with tools to survive and signal for help—even if still in a trance. On ground level atop the grave sat a spring-loaded iron container, connected to the coffin’s interior by an iron tube. From the tube’s lower end, a glass ball dangled over the interred’s chest, so any slight bodily movement that disturbed it would release the spring. Like a jack-in-the box, the container would then pop open, welcoming air and light into the coffin. To attract anyone in the cemetery, the box even housed a bell that would chime loudly, and a flag attached to its lid that would shoot up 4 feet tall. Some reports add that the box also had an electric lamp that would burn to provide light after sunset. And if none of those tricks sufficed, anyone buried alive (assuming they were fully awake) could shout for help through the tube.

The count, according to his publicist Horace Valbel, had become so obsessed with preventing premature burial that he had received the tsar’s permission to take leave from his duties as chamberlain to find a solution. (The duties associated with Russian court titles can be unclear, but sources seem to indicate that a chamberlain was a position akin to a chief of staff. They were often counts.) Karnice-Karnicki had apparently witnessed a young Belgian girl nearly buried alive, who had been awakened just in time by the thud of earth shoveled onto her coffin. Unable to forget her screams, he shut himself up for four years in a castle, tinkering away.

 

Le Karnice, though far from the world’s first safety coffin, was an instant hit. The French Society of Hygiene, which organized the conference, unanimously named Karnice-Karnicki an associate member for his contraption. The esteemed French physiologist Charles Richet, after examining it, exclaimed, “The problem is solved; lethargy is vanquished!” Within a few years, thousands of French citizens had requested in their wills that they be buried in Le Karnice, as William Tebb writes in the 1905 edition of his book Premature Burial and how it May be Prevented. Tebb, who founded The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial in 1896, also endorsed Le Karnice, noting that with a price tag of only 12 shillings (about $300 today relative to average UK earnings), its promise of security was “exceedingly reasonable.”

What made the design particularly appealing was its marketability: easily transportable, the apparatus on the top was designed for reuse, so its cost would remain low and it would be accessible to people of all financial means—it was, ultimately, supposed to be a humanitarian invention. Since it involved no complicated machinery, the average cemetery worker would also be able to construct it. The coffin also eliminated the drawbacks of waiting mortuaries, where people lay in communal rooms until they were determined to be truly deceased. Since it was also hermetic, Le Karnice prevented putrid gases from rising to the living world in the event of actual decomposition.

The count traveled through Europe to showcase Le Karnice, as Jan Bondeson describes in Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. One demonstration, however, went awry, with an assistant unable to trigger the flag and the bell. He eventually escaped after some anxious digging by Karnice-Karnicki, but the press was unforgiving, and Le Karnice’s reputation was forever tainted. Medical experts, too, started expressing reservations. At a meeting at the Académie de Médecine in Paris, the hygienist M.E. Vallin argued that the coffin was too sensitive: abdominal swelling during putrefaction—often a definitive indicator of death—could set it off. His detailed case for its impracticality led the Académie to forgo its proposal that municipalities each buy one for lease to a potential corpse at one franc a day.

Undeterred, the count in 1899 sent his representative Emil Camis to New York, where the Parisian presented the coffin to the Medico-Legal Society. He described to his audience a dark world in dire need of such a device, sparing no drama:

"According to the declarations made by grave-diggers of the great cities of all countries, when, at the end of five years, the dead are removed from the common grave, they find in the coffins convulsed skeletons, with fists clenched, twisted and raised to the jaws! In every part of the world, there is not a community of any importance, town or village, where some memory is not preserved of people buried alive, and this memory remains like a permanent terror through all time!"

Camis won over the Society. Members praised the coffin’s simplicity and economy, and word of it quickly spread. Minneapolis monthly The Medical Dial reported on its success; doctors in Detroit said they “urgently recommend the introduction of that life-saving device.”

Back in New York, Camis displayed the coffin for a number of years in a showroom at 835 Broadway near Union Square, and he made known his eagerness to test-trial it to convince any skeptics. A resolute salesman literally loyal until death to his product, he was even willing to volunteer to undergo repeated burial to prove its purpose.

“He thinks that in time the Karnice method will be made a part of the knowledge of every undertaker, who will carry his apparatus in stock,” a March 1901 Telephone Magazine article notes. “The whole outfit would cost hardly more than $40, and M. Camis thinks there will be no difficulty in putting the article on the market.”

For all Camis’s efforts, though, Le Karnice never did take off in America, nor in Europe. Besides unquelled fears that it might fail to function, its reported hypersensitivity introduced strong concern over false alarms—and unnecessary exhumations of decomposing corpses were nearly as undesirable a vision as being buried alive.

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7 Weird Graveyard Inventions
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If necessity is the mother of invention, death is its eccentric aunt. For centuries, humankind has been preoccupied with what happens to our bodies after we die. The result has been a grim procession of inventions intended to make our graves safer, sturdier, and in some cases, easier to flee. Some of these grave innovations are practical, but others border on the bizarre and downright creepy. Here are seven of the strangest.

1. THE SAFETY COFFIN

Leave it to the Victorians to fear being buried alive more than death itself. In the late 19th century, books and newspapers were full of stories of terrifying premature internments, although it's not clear how many actually occurred. The solution to the possibly-made-up problem was the safety coffin, or coffin alarm. These devices—of which there were several—most often employed a bell or other noise-making apparatus that could be manipulated by a person trapped inside a buried coffin to alert those aboveground. Many also included a hatch that would let fresh air into the coffin, allowing the prematurely buried victim to breathe until rescue came. One of the more famous of these devices was created by the Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, and included a spring-loaded compartment atop the grave that would pop open like a jack-in-the box if there were any bodily movement below.

2. THE ESCAPE COFFIN

A more elaborate cousin of the safety coffin, escape coffins were built for those prematurely declared dead who didn’t have the patience to wait for someone else to come to the rescue. One such coffin, patented in 1843 and intended for use in vaults, had a spring-loaded lid that could be opened with the merest movement of a head or hand. Another more extreme example was the burial vault retired firefighter Thomas Pursell designed for himself and his family at a cemetery in Westport, Pennsylvania. The ventilated vault could be opened from the inside by a patented wheel lock. Pursell was indeed buried there in 1937, but so far he has not emerged.

3. THE WAITING MORTUARY

The waiting mortuary, a slightly more practical approach to avoiding premature burial, was most popular in Germany in the 19th century. Corpses were laid out inside these stately halls and monitored day and night for signs of revival or, more often than not, decomposition. Sometimes, strings attached to bells would be tied around fingers and toes—a precursor to the coffin alarm. When Mark Twain visited one in Munich in 1880, he wrote:

"There were 36 corpses of adults in sight, stretched on their backs on slightly slanted boards, in three long rows—all of them with wax-white, rigid faces, and all of them wrapped in white shrouds. Along the sides of the room were deep alcoves, like bay windows, and in each of these lay several marble-visaged babes, utterly hidden and buried under banks of fresh flowers ... Around a finger of each of these fifty still forms, both great and small, was a ring, and from the ring a wire led to the ceiling, and thence to a bell in a watch-room yonder, where, day and night, a watchman always sits alert and ready to spring to the aid of any of that pallid company who, waked out of death, shall make a movement."

4. CAST-IRON COFFINS

Inventor Almond D. Fisk was less concerned with premature burial than he was with delayed burial, such as when someone died overseas and transporting the body home would take weeks. In 1848, he patented his cast-iron coffin, which could preserve bodies for extended periods of time. Similar in shape to an Egyptian sarcophagus, these ornate coffins also included hinged faceplates, which could be opened to reveal the face of the deceased through a pane of glass.

5. REUSABLE COFFINS

Around 1784, Austria’s Emperor Joseph II grew so concerned about Vienna’s extravagant funerals (not to mention dwindling wood supplies and cemetery space) that he instituted the use of a reusable coffin. The wooden coffin contained a trap door in the bottom through which corpses, wrapped in sacks, would be discreetly dropped into their graves. The coffin could then be reused for other funerals, which would save wood and hasten decomposition of Vienna’s dead. The Viennese, however, were outraged at such an invention, and the drop-bottom coffin order was rescinded, meaning that reusable coffins never actually became part of Viennese funeral customs.

6. MORTSAFES

A mortsafe on a mossy grave at St Mary's Churchard, Holystone, England
A mortsafe at St Mary's Churchard, Holystone, England

In the 19th century, grave robbers known as "resurrection men" prowled UK and American cemeteries looking for fresh corpses to sell to medical schools. The problem was especially grave, pun intended, in Scotland. Thus came the mortsafe, a heavy wrought-iron cage or stone placed over gravesites to prevent the theft of corpses. It would be placed over the grave for a few weeks until the robbers lost interest, and then sometimes moved to a new grave. Although the practice of grave robbing diminished in the UK after the Anatomy Act of 1832, which gave medical schools a legal way to obtain cadavers for study, mortsafes would survive a few more decades. They can sometimes still be seen on older burials, and are occasionally misinterpreted as cages meant to keep vampires from rising from their graves.

7. COFFIN TORPEDOS

When incidents of corpse stealing increased after the U.S. Civil War, trigger-happy Americans had a more explosive way of theft-proofing their graves—the coffin torpedo. Contrary to what its name implies, a coffin torpedo was either a greatly modified firearm that shot lead balls when triggered by the opening of the coffin lid or a landmine-like device that sat atop the coffin and would detonate if the grave was disturbed.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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An Ancient Sarcophagus Was Found in Egypt—And It's Never Been Opened
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In what could be the plot of the next summer blockbuster, a sealed sarcophagus has been found 16 feet underground in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Science Alert reports. It’s still unknown who or what might be lying inside the nondescript black granite casket, but what’s clear is that it hasn’t been opened since it was closed more than 2000 years ago.

Ayman Ashmawy, head of the government’s Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector, observed “a layer of mortar between the lid and the body of the sarcophagus,” indicating it hadn't been opened, according to a Ministry of Antiquities Facebook post. Considering that many ancient tombs in Egypt have been looted over the years, an untouched sarcophagus is quite a rare find.

The sarcophagus was discovered when a site in the Sidi Gaber district, dating back to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-30 BCE), was inspected before construction of a building began. The casket is 104.3 inches long and 65 inches wide, making it the largest of its kind ever discovered in Alexandria. In addition, an alabaster statue of a man’s head was found in the same tomb, and some have speculated that it might depict whoever is sealed inside the sarcophagus. Live Science suggested that archaeologists may opt to inspect its contents using X-rays or computed tomography scans to prevent damage to the artifact.

Although it remains a mystery for now, Twitter has a few theories about who might be lying inside:

[h/t Science Alert]

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