Halloween is approaching and instead of giving you a generic article about the history of Halloween, I wanted to give you something a little more... historically dark. Maybe you clicked on this article because of the terrifying picture or maybe you clicked on this article despite the terrifying picture. Regardless, you're about to read the history of people who were actually buried alive. These are historical accounts not campfire ghost stories. Some survived, but some weren't so lucky.
Before I dive into the historical accounts, I wanted to give you a brief background on Taphophobia. This is the fear of being buried alive and it was at its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries. This fear stemmed from the fact that many people were actually buried alive. In many cases in the 18th and 19th centuries, people that were declared deceased never went in front of a doctor. They were often were inflicted by contagious diseases, so they were buried quickly out of fear that their disease could be passed on upon death.
Unfortunately, many of these people were actually in comas, not dead. How prevalent was the fear of being buried alive? Our first president, George Washington, even ordered that he not be buried for two days after he was declared dead, just to ensure that he was (in fact) dead. The fear was further perpetuated by literary works of the time, like Edgar Allen Poe's "The Premature Burial." Businessmen of the time even took advantage of the fear by creating "safety coffins" which offered ways for people to alert the living world that they had been buried alive. These coffins would include things like a bell situated above ground and attached by a rope to the deceased person's hand, so that they could ring the bell if they were to wake up 6 feet under. Other coffins included glass tops and were buried in a way that left a window for someone above ground to watch the deceased and ensure that their body did decay. Of course, we now know that someone buried in a coffin only has about 60 minutes of air before they asphyxiate, so these coffins probably wouldn't have helped much. So, now that you have a little background on the fears behind Taphophobia, let's talk about 5 historical cases of people that were actually buried alive.
Angelo Hays is one of the most famous cases of premature burial. Hays was born in 1918 and by the time he was 19, he was known across his French town for being the boy who was always riding his motorcycle. Unfortunately, one day in 1927 he was involved in an accident in which he was catapulted off of his bike and went head first into a brick wall. Hays' faces and head were injured beyond recognition. The doctor that received Hays at the hospital didn't even allow his parents to view his body after the accident because the injuries were so severe. Hays was buried with no doubt that he had succumbed to his injuries. Fortunately for Hays, his father had taken out a life insurance policy on the teen only two months before. The insurance company accused Hays' father of foul play and traveled to his town to exhume the boy's body and ensure that there was nothing fishy going on. The body was exhumed two days after the burial. As the doctor began to unwrap the boy's burial shroud, to his surprise, the boy's body was still warm. Hays was rushed to the hospital and after a few surgeries, he made a full recovery. Hayes lived a full life and became a French celebrity. He went on to live a life of fame and even invented his own coffin.
Octavia Hatcher was a young mother when a mysterious disease passed through her town of Pikeville, Kentucky, taking the life of her young son (the disease is now thought to be "sleeping sickness" still prevalent in African nations). Hatcher fell ill shortly after her son and was soon declared dead. It was the heat of summer and fear of her disease spreading from her corpse caused her to be buried very hastily. Hatcher was one of the first people in the town to become inflicted by the disease and it was only after she was buried that it was discovered that in certain cases, the disease only made people appear as if they were dead. Others in the town began to "wake up" after being declared dead from the disease. Her loving husband feared the worst. Tormented by the fact that he might have buried his wife alive, he had her body exhumed. His worst fears were confirmed... Her nails and the tips of her fingers were non-existent. She was covered in blood and the expression on her face showed true horror. It was clear that she had awoken while buried alive and had tried to claw her way out of the coffin to no avail... She was reburied and her husband had a monument erected above her grave.
Lawrence Cawthorn was a London butcher whose only fault in life was choosing to live in a place with an evil landlord. Cawthorn fell ill one day in 1661. At the time, if a tenant died in a dwelling, the landlord inherited the tenant's possessions. Cawthorn's landlady quickly declared him dead and saw to it that he was promptly buried so that she could acquire all of his possessions. In 1661, doctors (if there were even any around) were not required to declare a person dead. Family or friends would typically take this responsibility. Cawthorn was buried at the local church. After the final pieces of earth were spread upon his grave, he could be heard screaming from within his coffin. The gravediggers scrambled to save Cawthorn, but they couldn't move 6 feet of dirt before his oxygen ran out. Upon removing his coffin lid, they discovered that his burial shroud was completely shredded and his face was swollen and bloody from hitting it against the cramped coffin lid.
Mrs. Boger, only recognized as Charles Boger's wife, lived on a farm in Pennsylvania. In 1893 she abruptly died of unknown causes. A doctor was called and confirmed her untimely demise. She was buried not long afterward. As her husband Charles grieved his wife's death, he was told by one of her childhood friends that his wife had suffered from hysteria before he had met her. Charles pushed the subject further and eventually learned that hysterical fits could cause a person to lose consciousness in a manner that was almost undiscernable from death. Charles was wrought with agony, wondering if there was a chance he had buried his wife alive. He finally decided that he would have to exhume her body and prove to himself that she was (in fact) dead before his conscious could be cleared. It became clear that Mrs. Boger had not been dead at the time of her burial... Her burial robe was in tatters and her entire body was cut because she had shattered the glass case of her coffin, which had then broken over her. Worst of all, most of Mrs. Boger's fingers were missing, apparently having chewed them to bits in sheer agony knowing that she was trapped underground and running out of air.
Stephen Small, an Illinois native, was the heir to a vast fortune. His family had started a media company that he was to inherit. Danny Edwards and Nancy Rish kidnapped Stephen and buried him alive while they sought a ransom payment from his family. Stephen was provided with a little water, food, and a breathing tube that ran from his makeshift coffin to the open air. He was only buried about 3 feet under the ground, but somehow his breathing tube had become clogged. Small suffocated to death before his ransom was ever paid. Edwards and Rish were later caught and are still serving time behind bars for the murder.
Today, Taphophobia is considered to be a much more irrational fear than it once was. With modern medicine and the practice of embalming, it's pretty unlikely that you will be buried alive. Even more disturbing, the cases mentioned above are just the ones that we know of because--for one reason or another--these people were exhumed from their graves. Historically speaking, who knows how many people might have been buried alive with no record of the occurrence because their bodies were never exhumed? I hope that you don't have any fears of being buried alive this Halloween, you may just need to watch out for the clowns....