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By Professor Jan Bondeson
Updated: 09:57 BST, 12 March 2010
Better check: There are several documented cases of people being buried alive
The horrific tale of Lawrence Cawthorn, a butcher from Newgate Market in London, was published in a pamphlet called The Most Lamentable And Deplorable Accident, in 1661.
It was just one of many stories about premature burial avidly read by the public at the time.
Cawthorn had fallen ill sometime that year. In the 17th century, little more than the apparent absence of a heartbeat or breath were considered to constitute proof of death - and few were seen by a doctor in their final illness.
It was often left to lay people to pronounce someone deceased. And, as it happened, Lawrence's wicked landlady - eager to inherit his belongings - saw to it that he was hastily declared dead and then buried.
But at the chapel where Cawthorn was interred mourners were horrified by a muffled shriek from the tomb and a frenzied clawing at the coffin walls.
Although it was quickly dug up, it was too late. Cawthorn's lifeless body was a horrid sight: the shroud was torn to pieces, the eyes hideously swollen and the head battered and bleeding. The story concluded: 'Among all the torments that Mankind is capable of, the most dreadful of them is to be buried alive.'
Even more sinister was the story, published in 1674, of Madam Blunden from Basingstoke, described as 'a fat, gross woman who liked to drink brandy'.
Feeling ill one evening, she ordered some poppy water from her local apothecary. After drinking it she fell into a death-like stupor. When the apothecary was called, he claimed Blunden had overdosed on the poppy water.
Her husband William, a wealthy malt dealer, arranged her funeral, but two days after the burial, some schoolboys playing in the churchyard claimed they heard 'fearful groanings and dismal shriekings' from the grave. Terrified, they went to get their schoolmaster.
She was exhumed and appeared to be dead, although her body had fresh bruises and scratches - injuries that were thought to be self-inflicted as she had tried to escape.
By the late 1700, paranoia about premature burial had reached such a peak that many doctors thought the only reliable sign of death was decomposition
Just to be on the safe side, after the body was wrapped in a new burial sheet the church warden suggested the grave be left open overnight, watched by some custodians. But it rained and the custodians closed the coffin and sought shelter.
The next morning, when the lid was opened, to everyone's horror it was seen that Madam Blunden had revived for a while, tearing off her winding sheet, and scratching her face and mouth until she drew blood.
Although we cannot know for sure how many people, like Cawthorn and Madam Blunden, have been buried alive it's no surprise that premature burial was something of an obsession for people in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
But such extraordinary episodes are not confined to the distant past. Only last month a 76-year-old Polish beekeeper named Josef Guzy - certified dead after a heart attack - narrowly escaped being buried alive when an undertaker noticed a faint pulse as he prepared to seal his coffin. Just weeks later, Mr Guzy was back tending his bees.
While modern advances in medical expertise have largely eradicated that kind of mistake, three centuries ago, such was the threat from diseases like bubonic plague and cholera that hasty interrment was the norm.
Ascertaining death was an inexact science. Aside from the basic check for a heartbeat and breath, in the 18th century additional tests included whipping the corpse's skin with nettles, bellowing in the ear and sticking needles under the toenails.
There were still many tales of near escapes. One from Dole in France, published in the 1700s, was confirmed by a professor of medicine in Besancon.
A troop of soldiers had been allowed to make camp in a churchyard. While some of them were strolling among the graves, they heard a faint cry coming from one of the vaults.
These soldiers broke down the vault door and rescueda young servant girl who had been interred a few hours earlier.
The girl had been gravely ill for some time and her mistress - too mean to call a doctor - had presumed her dead.
By the late 1700, paranoia about premature burial had reached such a peak that many doctors in Europe subscribed to the idea that the only reliable sign of death was putrefaction (decomposition).
In Germany, >Leichenhauser, 'hospitals for the dead' became widespread and were still in use in the 1950s. These heated mortuaries were designed to hold corpses until it was obvious they had started to rot.
Some Leichenhauser were filled with fragrant plants to try to mask the smell. All were staffed with watchmen who had to supervise the bodies for signs of life.
By the 1790s, another way of safeguarding against the dreaded premature burial was gaining popularity: the security coffin, designed to allow anyone who woke to find they had been prematurely interred to attract attention or escape.
One type was fitted with a tube rather like a ship's speaking trumpet. The idea was that local parson could take a stroll through the churchyard every morning and have a quick sniff down the tube to see if the putrefaction of the body was sufficiently well advanced to permit the tube to be withdrawn. If there was a lack of odour, the coffin should be opened after a few days.
In the second half of the 19th century, the obsession with security coffins continued and their design became more advanced. Alarm bells were replaced with firecrackers, sirens and even rockets which could be set off from inside the coffin.
Britons who wanted to guard against being buried alive in the 19th century could order coffins equipped with the Bateson Life Revival Device, an iron bell mounted in a miniature belltower on the lid of the casket, the bell rope attached to the hands of the body through a hole in the coffin lid.
Bateson's Belfry was patented in 1852 - and quite a few were sold. George Bateson was even awarded a medal by Queen Victoria for his services to the dead.
Today we know much more about physiology than the 19th century inventors did. A person enclosed in a normal-sized airtight coffin would perish within 60 minutes because of lack of oxygen - so any coffin that lacked a fresh air supply would be pretty useless no matter how many bells or sirens it was fitted with.
We also know that the putrefactive changes to a corpse are accompanied by swelling of the abdomen and some contractures of the arms and legs.
This process no doubt set off many of the coffins' alarm mechanisms - leading to many panicked scenes in cemeteries as ringing bells, waving flags and rocket explosions were hastily investigated.
Thanks to a slew of alarmist pamphlets that were being circulated in the 19th century (some which falsely claimed that more than one tenth of humanity was buried alive) the danger of premature burial had become one of the most feared perils of everyday life.
Many upper-class English people left legacies to their family physicians to protect themselves against this gruesome fate. Francis Douce, an antiquarian, gave 200 guineas to his surgeon to see that his heart was taken out after his death.
Lady Dryden of Northamptonshire, left an eminent physician £50 to slit her throat before burial Mrs Elizabeth Thomas of Islington asked for her physician to pierce her heart with a long metal pin while the writer Harriet Martineau left her doctor ten guineas to see that her head was amputated.
Probably the most remarkable 20th-century incidence is that of Angelo Hays, from the village of St Quentin de Chalais in France. In 1937, when he was 19 years old, he was thrown from his motorcycle and hit a brick wall head first. Angelo Hays was declared dead and three days after the accident was buried.
But in nearby Bordeaux, an insurance firm found that Hay's father had recently insured his son's life for 200,000 francs. An inspector was called to investigate - and demanded to have the body exhumed two days after burial to confirm the exact cause of death.
When the doctor in charge of the autopsy removed the shroud, Hays was found to be warm. He was taken to hospital - and after several operations and a long period of rehabilitation recovered completely. His head injury had caused him to slip into deep unconciousness.
In 1995, 61-year-old Cambridgeshire farmer's wife Daphne Banks was certified dead by her family doctor after taking a drugs overdose on New Year's Eve. Three hours later, the undertaker loading her into a refrigerated drawer saw a vein twitch and heard her snore. Mrs Banks survived.
And it can still happen - as we saw with Josef Guzy a few weeks ago.
• Adapted Buried Alive: The Terrifying History Of Our Most Primeval Fear by Jan Bondeson, published by Norton at £10.95. Jan Bondeson 2010. To order a copy (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.
Precautionary Measures for the So-Called “Dead”
It is not clear if Poe inspired innovation or if he was merely tapping into the feelings of the time, but this fear led to one of the creepiest categories of invention—coffin alarms. There were a series of inventions in the 19th century, which would aid someone, who was buried alive, to escape, breathe and signal for help.
Patent No. 81,437 granted to Franz Vester on August 25, 1868 for an “Improved Burial-Case”
(U.S. Patent No. 81,437)
The tomb is equipped with a number of features including an air inlet (F), a ladder (H) and a bell (I) so that the person, upon waking, could save himself. “If too weak to ascend by the ladder, he can ring the bell, giving the desired alarm for help, and thus save himself from premature death by being buried alive,” the patent explains.
Patent No. 268,693 granted on December 5, 1882 to John Krichbaum for a “Device for Indicating Live in Buried Persons”
(U.S. Patent No. 268,693)
The device has both a means for indicating movement as well as a way of getting fresh air into the coffin. The disclosure states that “It will be seen that if the person buried should come to life a motion of his hands will turn the branches of the T-shaped pipe B, upon or near which his hands are placed.” A marked scale on the side of the top (E) indicates movement of the T, and air passively comes down the pipe. Once sufficient time has passed to assure that the person is dead, the device can be removed.
Patent No. 329,495 granted on November 3, 1885 to Charles Sieler and Fredrerick Borntraeger for a “Burial-Casket”
(U.S. Patent No. 329,495)
The invention provides for improvements in the important components of previous “burried alive” inventions. In this instance, motion of the body triggers a clockwork-driven fan (Fig. 6), which will force fresh breathable air into the coffin instead of a passive air pipe. The device also includes a battery-powered alarm (M). According to the patent, “When the hand is moved the exposed part of the the wire will come in contact with the body, completing the circuit between the alarm and the ground to the body in the coffin,” the alarm will sound. There is also a spring-loaded rod (I), which will raise up carrying feathers or other signals. Additonally, a tube (E) is positioned over the face of the burried body so that a lamp may be introduced down the tube and “a person looking down through the tube can see the face of the body in the coffin.”
Edinburgh’s Mysterious Miniature Coffins
It may have been Charles Fort, in one of his more memorable passages, who described the strange discovery best:
Edinburgh in 1830 (Public Domain)
London Times, July 20, 1836:
That, early in July, 1836, some boys were searching for rabbits’ burrows in the rocky formation, near Edinburgh, known as Arthur’s Seat. In the side of a cliff, they came upon some thin sheets of slate, which they pulled out.
Seventeen tiny coffins.
Three or four inches long.
In the coffins were miniature wooden figures. They were dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin.
The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here:
That the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier, the effects of age had not advanced so far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.
Fort’s short account is accurate, so far as it goes—and for more than a century not much more was known about the origin or purpose of the strange miniature coffins. Fewer than half of them survived the Scotsman, in the first known published account, explained that “a number were destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles.” Those that were brought down from the hillside eventually found their way into the collection of Robert Frazier, a South Andrews Street jeweler, who put them on display in his private museum. When, after Frazier’s retirement in 1845, the collection was auctioned off, this lot, described in the sale catalogue as “the celebrated Lilliputian coffins found on Arthur’s Seat, 1836,” sold for just over ٢. The coffins thus passed into unknown private hands, and remained there until 1901, when a set of eight, together with their contents, were donated to the National Museum of Scotland by their then-owner, Christina Couper of Dumfriesshire.
Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that these coffins were the same group as the one Frazier obtained in 1836, but few more details are available. The first newspaper reports appeared some three weeks after the initial discovery, and none named any of the boys. One much later account, which is unreferenced and which appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News as late as 1956—but which is so detailed that it may have been based on some otherwise unknown contemporary source—adds that the find was made on June 25, 1836, and notes that the niche, which was “about a foot in height and about 18 inches wide,” was opened up with trowels: tools it seems reasonable to suppose a group of boys out rabbiting might have had about their persons.
Arthur’s Seat–a long-extinct volcano–looms above Edinburgh, and has always had the air of a place apart. (Wikicommons)
Another intriguing detail in the same account states that the surviving coffins were retrieved the “next day” by the boys’ schoolmaster, one Mr. Ferguson, who was a member of a local archaeological society. The coffins were still unopened at this point, the reporter Robert Chapman added, but “Mr. Ferguson took them home in a bag and that evening he settled down in his kitchen and began to prise the lids up with a knife…. Mr. Ferguson took them to the next meeting of his society and his colleagues were equally amazed.” Where Chapman got this information remains unknown, but a search of the contemporary street directories shows that two schoolmasters named Ferguson were working in Edinburgh in 1836–George Ferguson as a classics master at Edinburgh Academy, and Findlay Ferguson as a teacher of English and math at Easter Duddingston.
The Chapman account at least explains how the surviving coffins found their way from the boy discoverers into the hands of the city’s learned gentlemen. In these murky circumstances, it is unsurprising that the precise spot where the find was made is only vaguely known. The Scotsman reported that the boys who unearthed the coffins had been “searching for rabbit burrows on the north-east range of Arthur’s seat” when one spotted “a small opening in the rocks, the peculiar appearance of which attracted their attention.” Another account, which appears to have circulated orally in Edinburgh at this time, and which was put in writing by a correspondent to Notes & Queries under the headline, “A Fairy’s Burial Place,” puts it a good deal more dramatically:
Salisbury Crags, on the left, and Arthur’s Seat (Geograph, made available under CCL.)
While I was a resident at Edinburgh, either in the year 1836 or 1837, I forget which, a curious discovery took place, which formed the subject of a nine days’ wonder, and a few newspaper paragraphs. Some children were at play at the foot of Salisbury Craigs, when one of them, more venturesome than the others, attempted to ascend the escarpment of the cliff. His foot slipped, and to save himself from a dangerous fall, he caught at a projecting piece of rock, which appeared to be attached to the other portions of the cliff. It gave way, however, beneath the pressure of his hand, and although it broke his fall, both he and it came to the bottom of the craig. Nothing daunted, the hardy boy got up, shook himself, and began the attempt a second time. When he reached the point from whence the treacherous rock had projected, he found that it had merely masked the entrance to a large hole, which had been dug into the face of the cliff.
The Scotsman‘s account is, I think, to be preferred here—Notes & Queries adds various other details which are known to be untrue, such as the statement that the coffins had “little handles, and all the other embellishments which the undertakers consider necessary to respectability” —but it is actually broadly in line with N&Q‘s with regard to location. Conversely, another Edinburgh paper, the Caledonian Mercury, describes the spot as lying “at the back of Arthur’s Seat”–that is, on the south side of the hill. Given the relative accessibility of the northern face, and the length of time that appears to have separated the burials from their discovery, it is perhaps marginally more likely that the exact site of the find was neither Salisbury Crags nor the north range of Arthur’s Seat, but a spot to the south, in a relatively remote location on the far side of the Seat from Edinburgh itself. This ties in rather intriguingly with the notion that Findlay Ferguson of Easter Duddingston may have been the schoolmaster associated with the find, since Duddingston lies directly beneath the southern face of Arthur’s Seat. Whatever the facts, it seems clear from the contemporary sources that the coffins were found not in a substantial “cave” on the hillside, as is sometimes supposed, but in a small gap in the rocks. The Scotsman, again, has the clearest description:
The mouth of this little cave was closed by three thin pieces of slate-stone, rudely cut at the upper ends into a conical form, and so placed as to protect the interior from the effects of the weather.
According to one later account, in a record in the so-called “Continuation Catalogue” of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, at least one of these slates was “rudely shaped like the headstone of a grave.” As for what the boys found when the slates had been removed, it was “an aperture about twelve inches square in which were lodged seventeen Lilliputian coffins, forming two tiers of eight each, and one on a third, just begun!” Each of the coffins, the Scotsman added,
contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funereal trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity.
So much for the circumstances of the discovery. The greater mystery, as the Scotsman was swift to point out, was what exactly the coffins were, who had placed them in their hiding place, and when. Several potential explanations were advanced, the most popular being that the burials were part of some spellwork, or that they represented mimic burials, perhaps for sailors lost at sea. Most of these solutions, however, assumed that the newspapers of the day were correct to state that the burials had been made over a considerable period of time. According to the Edinburgh Evening Post, for instance,
in the under row the shrouds were considerably decayed and the wood rotten, while the last bore evident marks of being a very recent deposit.
This assumption is, however, hard to prove. The discovery was made not by some trained archaeologist, who made a painstaking examination before moving a single piece of wood, but by a group of boys who appear to have thoroughly mixed up the coffins by hurling them at each other, and who never gave any first-person account of their find. The best that can be said is that several of the surviving coffins display considerably more decay than the others—the most obvious sign being the rotten state (or complete absence) of the figurines’ grave clothes—but whether the decay was the product of time or simply weathering is not now possible to say. It may be that the decayed coffins were simply those that occupied the lower tier in the burial nook, and so were most exposed to water damage. If that’s the case, there is no need to assume that the burials stretched over many years.
Five of the eight surviving coffins discovered in 1836. The photo shows the differences in the clothing of their wooden occupants as well as their varying states of preservation and the two different techniques used to fashion them. (National Museum of Scotland)
This matters, because the only comprehensive study yet made of the “fairy coffins” strongly indicates that all postdate 1800, and that the odds favor a deposit or deposits made after about 1830—within about five years, in other words, of the discovery of the cache. The work in question was carried out by Allen Simpson, a former president of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts and currently a member of the faculty of History and Classics at Edinburgh University, and Samuel Menefee, senior associate of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia, and it was published, regrettably obscurely, in the journal of the city’s local history society: The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club.
Simpson and Menefee began their work by describing the eight surviving artifacts (which can still be seen today, on display in the National Museum of Scotland). Two, they note, were originally painted pink or red the interior of one is lined with paper, made with rag fiber and datable to the period after 1780. As for the details of the construction:
A side view of one of the figurines found on Arthur’s Seat, showing how one arm has been removed to allow it to fit inside its coffin. (National Museum of Scotland)
Each coffin contains an ‘occupant’ and has been hollowed from a solid piece of wood. Each also has a lid which has been held in place by pins of various sizes, driven down through the sides and ends of the coffin base. In many instances the pin shafts are still in place, though some are bent over when the lids were prised off the coffins most of the hand-wound pin heads became detached…. Although the type of wood has not previously been commented on, it has now been identified as Scots pine. Coffin dimensions vary…those now accessible for study are 3.7 to 4.1 inches long, 0.7 to 1.2 inches wide, and 0.8 to 1.0 inches deep with their lids in place….
Judging by the longitudinal scoring on the base of the recess, a sharp knife—probably a hooked knife—has been used. The fact that the surfaces at the ends of the recess are so cleanly cut indicates that the knife has been very sharp but the user has apparently not been a woodworker by trade because he has not had access to an edged tool such as a chisel to cut out the base of the recess, and has had difficulty in controlling the depth of the cuts (which have even penetrated the base of coffin No.5).
There are two types of external shape. Five of the coffins (Nos 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8) have been carved with square-cut corners and edges, although most have slightly bowed sides so that the coffin has a taper at each end. However, the remaining three (Nos 3, 5 and 7) have a pronounced rounding of the edges and ends of the coffin this suggests a different manual approach…and may indicate that the coffins could have been carved by two different individuals.
As to who did the carving, Simpson and Menefee point out that “the most striking visual feature of the coffins is the use of applied pieces of tinned iron as decoration.” Analysis of this metal suggests that it is very similar to the sort of tin used in contemporary shoe buckles, and this in turn opens the possibility that the coffins were the work of shoemakers or leatherworkers, who would have had the manual skills to make the coffins but would have lacked the specialist carpentry tools needed to make a neater job of it.
The figurines found within the coffins were also studied. Each of the eight is neatly carved from close-grained white wood, and they share almost identical proportions, varying in height by no more than 5 millimeters—about a fifth of an inch. Some have arms, but several dolls have had them removed, apparently to allow the figure to fit neatly into its coffin. This suggests that the figures were not carved specifically for the purpose of burial, but have been adapted from an existing set Simpson and Menefee—noting their “rigidly erect bearing,” indications that they originally wore hats, and their carefully carved lower bodies “formed to indicate tight knee breeches and hose, below which the feet are blackened to indicate ankle boots”—believe they are the remnants of a group of toy soldiers, and note that each is made to stand upright with the addition of a slight weight on its front, which might have been supplied by the addition of a model musket. (There would have been no need to ensure carvings intended simply as corpses would stand upright.) The features are very similar, and “it seems unlikely that the figures were ever intended to represent particular individuals.” Moreover, “the open eyes of the figures suggest that they were not carved to represent corpses.”
Based on their appearance, the authors tentatively date the group to the 1790s no dendrochronological analysis or carbon dating, however, has been done on the collection. Several of the surviving figurines are still clad in well-preserved “grave clothes.” As Simpson and Menefee point out, “single-piece suits, made from fragments of cloth, have been moulded round the figures and sewn in place. With some figures there is evidence of adhesive under the cloth. The style of dress does not relate to period grave clothes, and if it is intended to be representational at all then it is more in keeping with everyday wear…. The fact that the arms of figure No.8 were already missing when the figure was clothed suggests that the fabric was merely intended to cover the figures decently and not to represent garments.” All the fabrics are cheap, made of plain woven cotton, though one of the figures is clad in checks and three “seem to have commercially inked patterns applied to the cloth.”
Two more figurines, showing details of the stitching and clothing, crucial clues to their likely origin. (National Museum of Scotland)
The evidence of the figurines makes dating the burials much easier. According to Naomi Tarrant, curator of European textiles at the National Museum of Scotland, the good condition of the surviving vestments suggests they were buried in the 1830s. More revealingly, one of the figures has been sewn into its grave clothes with a three-ply thread. Cotton thread replaced linen in Scotland from about 1800 “almost certainly,” Simpson and Menefee assert, “such thread would have been manufactured in the thread mills of Paisley, where tradition has it that cotton thread was not made before 1812.” Three-ply thread, according to Philip Sykas of Manchester Art Galleries–the leading expert on that topic – came into use in about 1830. Sykas believes that the mixture of one-, two- and three-ply threads found on the Arthur’s Seat figures “indicates a date in the 1830s.”
Now, none of this proves all the burials took place at so late a date as 1830 it is possible that the decayed surviving figurines represent interments that took place earlier than this, and also that the figurines sewn with one- or two-ply thread predate 1830. Nonetheless, it does seem possible to suggest that all the burials took place, at the outside, between about 1800 and 1830, and it is entirely likely that Simpson and Menefee are correct to state that all took place during the 1830s. This in turn suggests it is possible that all 17 figurines were interred at the same time, and the fact that the coffins seem to have been carved by at most two people and that the figurines apparently originally formed part of a single set implies that the burial(s) were carried out by the same person, or small group of people “over a comparatively short period.”
If this is true, write Simpson and Menefee, “the significant feature of the burial is that there were seventeen coffins,” and “it is arguable…”
William Burke, one half of the infamous pair of “resurrection men” responsible for 17 murders in the Scottish capital during the late 1820s. (Public Domain)
that the problem with the various theories is their concentration on motivation, rather than on the event or events that caused the interments. The former will always be open to argument, but if the burials were event-driven—by, say the loss of a ship with seventeen fatalities during the period in question—the speculation would at least be built on demonstrable fact. Stated another way, what we seek is an Edinburgh-related event or events, involving seventeen deaths, which occurred close to 1830 and certainly before 1836. One obvious answer springs to mind—the West Port Murders by William Burke and William Hare in 1827 and 1828.
Simpson’s and Menefee’s solution to the mystery is certainly dramatic— so much so it seems that nobody has actually asked whether the pair searched for news of any Scottish shipwreck from the early 1830s, as they suggest it might be wise to do. (It would appear that they did not.) The West Port murders, after all, were and remain notorious: They were committed in Edinburgh by two Irish laborers, Burke and Hare, to profit by supplying corpses to Edinburgh’s medical school, where they were in great demand for dissection. The pair’s victims, mostly indigents who, they supposed, would not be missed, numbered 17, of whom one expired of natural causes while the rest were murdered. The killers’ trial, in which Hare turned King’s evidence and Burke was convicted and later hanged, was one of the sensations of the age. Crucially, in the authors’ view, the fact that all of the 17 victims were dissected, and consequently had no decent burial, may have inspired a “mimic burial” on Arthur’s Seat:
Considering beliefs such as the alleged mimic burial given to Scottish sailors lost at sea, it would not be unreasonable for some person or person, in the absence of the seventeen dissected bodies, to wish to propitiate these dead, the majority of whom were murdered in atrocious circumstances, by a form of burial to set their spirits at rest. While it is always possible that other disasters could have resulted in an identical casualty list, the West Port murders would appear to be a logical motivating force.
Since Simpson and Menefee first reported their findings in 1994, their thesis has been elaborated. The Edinburgh Evening News reported in 2005 that George Dalgliesh, principal curator of Scottish history at the National Museum of Scotland, believes “the most credible theory is that were made by someone who knew Burke and Hare,” and so had a strong motive to make amends for their crimes. Attempts to suggest that Burke himself may have manufactured and buried the pieces in an agony of contrition seem to fail on the problem that the murderers were arrested almost immediately after committing their 17th killing, leaving little or no time for any burial to be made a DNA sample for Burke has been obtained from the murderer’s skeleton, which is preserved at Edinburgh University, but no traces of DNA could be recovered from the buried figurines.
There is, moreover, one potentially fatal objection to the theory that the Arthur’s Seat coffins are connected to the West Port murders: no fewer than 12 of Burke and Hare’s victims were female, yet the clothed bodies found in the coffins were uniformly dressed in male attire.
Without knowing more about burial customs in early 19th-century Scotland it is hard to know how worrying this objection is, but certainly it would appear no more difficult to clothe a figurine in a miniature dress than it would be to stitch on trousers. In the absence of firm evidence of any connection to the activities of Burke and Hare, I would suggest the first step in any future investigation should be to examine Scottish newspapers published between, say, 1820 and 1836, for evidence of any other disasters involving the deaths of 17 people—ideally, none of them women. Two titles, the Scotsman and the Caledonian Mercury, have now been digitized, and could be searched by a determined researcher. We await further developments.
A close up of two of Edinburgh’s mysterious miniature dolls. Are these intended to be the faces of two victims of the notorious bodysnatchers Burke and Hare? (National Museum of Scotland)
Caledonian Mercury, August 5, 1836 Charles Fort. Complete Books. New York: Dover, 1975 Edinburgh Evening News, October 16, 1956 and December 2, 2005 Edinburgh Evening Post, August 20, 1836 Samuel Pyeatt Menefee and Allen Simpson, ‘The West Port murders and the miniature coffins from Arthur’s Seat,’ The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, new series vol.3 (1994) Notes & Queries, 3S. III, April 4, 1863 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 36 (1901-02) The Scotsman, July 16, 1836.
Coffin Lid of Paamennesutawy - History
Coffin Plates or plaques are a very unique resource for genealogists. Coffin plates are decorative metal plaques that contain the name and death date of the deceased.
Coffin Plates in North America
The oldest coffin plates date from around the 17th century and gained popularity in North America in the 19th century. When a loved one died, the family would hire a local blacksmith, a metalworker, a silversmith, or a coffin plate manufacturer to create a metal plaque and engrave it with details of the deceased person. Depending on the financial resources of the survivors, coffin plates ranged in size, metals used to create them, and how much information was engraved. Common metals used were lead, pewter, silver, brass, copper, zinc or tin.
For a basic funeral, a simple lead plate would be engraved with the name of the deceased, date of death and the age of the departed. The plate was then nailed to the lid of the coffin or propped up on the lid. Families with more money could afford a plate of a more expensive metal and a more elaborate design.
In the late 1840s the first machine made coffin plates began to appear. The earliest machine-made plates were simple shapes stamped out of a flat piece of metal. More elaborate shapes with intricate stamped designs began to appear and by the 1860s there were catalogues of shapes and designs that survivors could look through to choose the coffin plate they wanted.
By the middle of the 19th century almost every family could afford to have a coffin plate put on the coffin of their loved one. During this time period it was a common practice to display the coffin plate on a wooden stand on the lid of the coffin. Sometimes it was placed on a nearby table along with a photo of the deceased. The family then took the coffin plate home as a remembrance of their loved one. Many such plates were tucked away in drawers and passed on in families but others were framed and hung on walls in the home.
This practice of taking the coffin plate home started in the early 1840s and was particularly popular in the North Eastern United States - Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. This practice peaked circa 1880 to 1899 and by the 1920s it had fallen out of favour.
Coffin Plates in the United Kingdom
In England the small decorative coffin plates popular in North America were not used as much. English burials for the more famous or wealthy inhabitants usually had a large breastplate attached to the deceased's coffin. These breastplates, usually 12 to 15 inches in height, were meant to be buried with the coffin and the only time you will see them is if a cemetery has to be relocated.
In that case, graves are dug up and coffins removed to be transported to their new location. Occasionally the attached breastplates are removed and you will sometimes find them for sale to collectors. They were often made of brass or copper and had ornate shapes such as shields.
An interesting tidbit about such breastplates is that one that was attached to Oliver Cromwell's coffin was removed in 1661 when his coffin was opened. Last December Cromwell's coffin plate was auctioned off at Sotheby's where it sold for GBP £ 74,500 (US $117, 352.40).
Your family may have an ancestor's coffin plate or you may be lucky enough to find one in an antique store or flea market. The coffin plate of my great-great-grandfather was found in a local antique store and I was able to purchase it from the man who bought it.
My husband inherited the coffin plate of his grandmother's sister who died at the age of 2, and a few years ago he purchased another ancestor's coffin plate at an estate sale for his great-grandmother's brother.
Resources for Coffin Plates
If you are stuck finding a death record for an ancestor or you simply want to flesh out his or her details, you may want to hunt for a coffin plate. Ancestors At Rest website has an extensive database of coffin plates online with images.
Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.
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Archaeologists open the mysterious lead coffin found buried just feet from the former grave of King Richard III
The inner lead casket of the Greyfriars medieval stone coffin. Credit: University of Leicester
A mysterious lead coffin found close to the site of Richard III's hastily dug grave at the Grey Friars friary has been opened and studied by experts from the University of Leicester.
The coffin was discovered inside a much larger limestone sarcophagus during a second excavation of the site, in August 2013 - one year after the remains of the former King of England were unearthed. Richard III will be reinterred at Leicester Cathedral this month (March) after his mortal remains are taken from the University of Leicester on Sunday 22 March.
Inside the lead coffin, archaeologists found the skeleton of an elderly woman, who academics believe could have been an early benefactor of the friary - as radiocarbon dating shows she might have been buried not long after the church was completed in 1250 (although analysis shows her death could have taken place as late as 1400).
The high status female was in one of 10 graves discovered in the grounds of the medieval complex, including that of Richard III, six of which were left undisturbed. Those that were examined were all found to have female remains.
Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris, who led the dig said: "Although it might seem unusual that Richard III is the only male skeleton found inside the Grey Friars church, the other four skeletons all being female, it must be remembered that we have only excavated five of ten identified graves in the church's chancel with the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery.
"Excavations of other monastic cemeteries have found ratios ranging from 1:3 to 1:20 woman to men buried, with urban monastic cemeteries typically having greater numbers of women buried in them than rural sites.
"In Leicester, ULAS's excavation of the medieval parish church of St Peter (today situated beneath the John Lewis store in Leicester's Highcross retail quarter) found that the burial of men and women inside the church was broadly equal.
"Statistically, the sample is too small to draw any conclusions to the significance of so many women at Grey Friars. After all, if we carried out more excavations it is possible that we could find that these are the only four women buried in the church. Richard III would certainly not have been the only male buried here during the friary's 300 year history and historic records list at least three other men buried in the church. What stands out more is the contrast between the care and attention taken with these burials - large, neatly dug graves with coffins - and the crudeness of Richard III's grave. The more we examine it, the clearer it becomes how atypical Richard III's burial really was."
The lead coffin, with an inlaid crucifix, the location of her burial in presbytery of the friary's church (possibly close to the high altar) meant that she had a special significance to the holy Catholic order.
The discovery is the first example of an intact medieval stone coffin to be unearthed in Leicester during modern excavations.
Mathew Morris added: "The stone sarcophagus was a tapered box carved from a single block of limestone. Inside, the wider end was curved, creating a broad head niche.
"Unfortunately, the stone lid did not properly fit the coffin allowing water to get inside, and its immense weight had badly cracked the sarcophagus, meaning it could not be lifted intact.
"However, inside the inner lead coffin was undamaged except for a hole at the foot end of the casket where the lead had decayed and collapsed inward exposing the skeleton's feet.Archaeologists open the stone coffin at the Greyfriars archaeological dig July 2013. Credit: University of Leicester
"This is the first stone coffin in Leicester to be excavated using modern archaeological practices.
"This makes it a unique discovery which will provide important new insights into the lives of the people of medieval Leicester."
Of the other nine sets of remains found at the Grey Friars, during the second excavation, three more were exhumed by University archaeologists, and six left undisturbed.
Two graves inside the choir - where Richard III was found - contained wooden coffins and inside were two females aged between 40 and 50-years-old.
Radiocarbon dating shows there is a 95 per cent probability that they died between 1270 and 1400.
Osteological examinations found that one of the women had a possible congenital hip dislocation which forced her to walk with a crutch.
The other was found to have lived a life of hard physical labour - regularly using her arms and legs to lift heavy weights.
A fourth female skeleton, which had been disturbed, was also thought to have believed to had led a life of hard physical work.
She is believed to have died in her early to mid-20s.The Greyfriars archaeological dig July 2013. Credit: University of Leicester
Analysis of the three intact sets of female remains - including the lady in the lead coffin - show that all of the women had a highly-varied, protein-rich diet including large amounts of sea fish.
A diverse diet like this would indicate that they would have been wealthy, and were able to consume expensive foods like game, meat and fish.
"Analysis of Skeleton 4 shows that she had a life of hard physical work, frequently using her arms and legs to lift and support weight. It is interesting then that she is buried in an area of the church which would have typically been reserved for wealthy benefactors and people of elevated social status.
"Her presence in this area might suggest that the friary's main source of donations came from the town's middle-classes, merchants and tradespeople who were probably of more modest means, and worked for a living."
There is a small clue as to who is buried at the site, which is in Leicester city centre, just a few yards from Leicester Cathedral where Richard III will be reinterred in March.
But not enough information remains to say with any accuracy whether the records relate to any of the female skeletons found by Mathew and the team.
Documents dating back to the time of the burials - about 700-years - name a lady called Emma, who was married to John of Holt.
In September of that year, the Bishop of Lincoln issued an indulgence granting 20-days off Purgatory for anyone who would say 'a Pater and a Ave for the soul of Emma, wife of John of Holt, whose body is buried in the Franciscan church in Leicester'.
However, little is known about her, including what she looked like, her age at death or where in the friary church she was buried.
Mathew said: "We know little about her and a lack of fundamental information, such as her age at death, what she did for a living, what she looked like or where in the church she was buried, coupled with no known descendants who can provide a DNA sample, make it impossible to say for certain whether one of these skeletons is that of Emma, or indeed anyone else. Sadly, they will forever remain anonymous."
History [ ]
The exact origins of the coffin are unknown but “John”, a servant of The Stranger, found it in chains at some point and believed he could control and bargain with it. In or after 1993, he enlisted Breekon & Hope to help him transport it. According to Breekon, the coffin was a “test” that was given to multiple people. Presumably in the same manner as Joshua Gillespie’s experience: John left the coffin with a person and they were eventually compelled to enter it and become lost in The Buried. The last of these instances is when, around 1996, “John“ gave Joshua Gillespie £10,000 to look after an unspecified package.
After Joshua spent the money almost a year later, Breekon & Hope delivered the coffin to his apartment. Joshua spent about a year living with the coffin. Placing things on the coffin caused a soft but insistent scratching from inside and whenever it rained, a soft, melodious moaning emanated from within. The coffin seemed to affect his sleep, causing him to try and open the coffin while sleepwalking. Joshua counteract-acted this by encasing the key to the padlock in a block of ice.
After almost a year and a half, the coffin no longer moaned when it rained. Breekon, Hope, and John came to retrieve it and appeared surprised to see Joshua again. Joshua heard screaming from his living room as they fetched the coffin and there was no sign of John afterwards. According to Breekon, “when the test finally failed” and the coffin did not have another victim, it claimed the one who tried to master it. However, Breekon and Hope were not included in this arrangement and became bound to the coffin. They continued to carry and transport if without a destination. Ώ] ΐ]
Breekon and Hope eventually started working with Nikola Orsinov and The Circus of the Other, bringing the coffin with them wherever they went.
On July 24th 2002, it was raining heavily as Breekon and Hope drove down the M6 near Preston, accompanied by a man who called himself Tom. They were stopped by police officers Isaac Masters and Alice “Daisy” Tonner for driving at about 25 miles an hour on the motorway and brought out the coffin after the police hear it moaning in the back of the van. Masters demanded the key from Tom and unlocked the coffin. The chains snapped off it as if they were spring-loaded and the lid opened on its own. Breekon and Hope restrained Daisy as Masters, seemingly entranced, walked into the coffin and the lid closed behind him. Daisy was unable to stop them as they packed up the coffin and drove off. Α]
Fiona Law’s death was officially listed as resulting from a failed liver transplant in 2003 but MAG 167 reveals that she was instead consumed by the coffin. It is unclear whether this also occurred in 2003.
The coffin, alongside Breekon and Hope, is present in the House of Wax museum in Great Yarmouth in May 2017 while John is being held captive there.
The coffin is also present in the House of Wax on August 7th 2017, when The Unknowing is attempted. Breekon feeds Daisy to the coffin after she kills Hope. With Hope’s death, Breekon is no longer bound to the coffin and he drops it off at the Institute on 3rd March, 2018.
Later that month, Jonathan Sims willingly enters the coffin in order to rescue Daisy and they emerge together after three days. Afterwards, John has the coffin sent to artefact storage with specific instructions on how to keep it locked up. Β]
Placing the Coffins on the Cliffs
The coffins lie in three types of placements along the cliffs: on wooden beams that jut out from vertical rock walls, inside natural caves or crevices, and on rocky ledges along the wall. They range from about 30 feet to more than 400 feet off the ground. Together, the corpse and coffin could easily weigh several hundred pounds. So, exactly how the coffins got to such difficult places and heights has been the subject of controversy for decades. There are three main theories as follows.
Hanging coffin in Hubei, China, 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons CC Peter Tritthart.
One theory suggests that the Bo constructed ramps of dirt that served as footpaths along the face of the cliffs. Then the coffin was carried up the paths. However, many experts discount this idea, because the amount of labor required to build the ramps was inconsistent with small rural populations.
Others suggest that the people who hung the coffins used climbing aids in the form of posts or scaffolding placed in the sides of the cliffs, however, there is no evidence of this practice.
Rope markings provide evidence to support the idea that they were extensively used to move the coffins. Also, scientists found ropes in some caves, and other ropes are still visible in some of the caves that they have not yet explored. In many cases, it appears the Bo lowered the coffins to their designated spots from the top of the cliff, but other scholars believe they may have sometimes hoisted them up from the ground level.
Longhushan, Jiangshi province. Source: dxdm.com
A Culture That Disappeared
There may be many reasons for a spiritual and practical nature for hanging coffins from cliffs. The culture seemed to arise quickly and quickly ended, for the most part, once the Bo disappeared around 400 years ago. Since then, many of the coffins that are more accessible have been robbed and disrupted. But many of them are still intact, hidden in caves and crevices and rumored to contain great amounts of wealth. Luckily, for those who lie in coffins that prove too difficult or dangerous to reach, they rest in peace. Perhaps they are pleased that their families gave them the most auspicious and unreachable sites.
A depiction of English Pilgrims reaching the north-east coast of America in the early 17th century.
What’s the difference between a coffin and a casket? It’s a question I’d never entertained before working at Newman Brothers Coffin Works, but that’s the question we pose to all our visitors on our guided tours. Although the answer seems very obvious to me, nine times out of ten when I ask a group, I’m met with vacant or pondering looks.
The answer is in fact to do with the shape, but because the terms ‘coffin’ and ‘casket’ are used interchangeably, you’d be forgiven for never considering the differences, but here’s the main one: a coffin has six sides and is hexagonal, and a casket has four sides and is rectangular. Most of the time anyway. But it’s not the shape for shape’s sake that makes this subject matter so fascinating.
A coffin traditionally has six sides, although it often doesn’t have a hinged lid.
A casket traditionally has four sides.
As well as making handles for coffins, Newman Brothers also made casket handles and casket-bar handles (see image above), as there’s a market for all styles in the UK, at least since the 1950s. However, Americans favour the casket, as the coffin died out in the States many years ago. But it’s the evolution of the casket as a direct descendant of the coffin that makes for an interesting study. This evolution is deep-rooted in socio-economic movements and to understand those changes we need to visit 19 th -century America.
The ‘New’ World
Formally, the British colonies in North America were known as British America and the British West Indies until 1776, when the Thirteen British Colonies located along the Atlantic seaboard declared their independence and formed the United States of America.
In 1700, a change in English law allowed all people to be buried in a coffin. Previous to this, coffins were for the most part reserved for the wealthiest in society and the poorest people were commonly buried in a shroud or winding sheet, and placed straight into the ground. The only type of coffin they would have encountered at this time was the ‘parish coffin’, a vessel used to transport the deceased from the church to the graveside in assumed dignity. The British American Colonies were no different and with the new law, by 1704 the use of coffins in colonial Maryland, for example, was at an all-time high of 90%. English mourning rituals had taken firm root in Colonial America, and the coffin was a key part of that ritual.
‘Coffin’ comes from the Old French word ‘cofin’, meaning a little basket, and in Middle English, could refer to a chest, casket or even a pie. A coffin at this point (by 1700) was predominantly hexagonal, with its traditional six sides, tapered at the shoulders, and at the feet. The tapered top half of the coffin was tailored to perfectly accommodate the width of a person’s shoulders, and it’s this anthropometric shape, which refers to the measurements and proportions of the human body, that proved problematic for some people.
Although four-sided coffins did exist in Britain, by the 18 th century it was the standardisation of the English funeral that meant that hexagonal coffins dominated. Moreover, the term ‘coffin’ was universally used regardless of the number of sides the vessel possessed. The term ‘casket’ was not yet in common use.
The Casket takes shape
Hexagonal coffins had largely been in use in the North American Colonies in great numbers from 1700 until at least the middle of the 19 th century, so what prompted their abandonment? There are a few theories. Although rectangular coffins were gaining in popularity before the American Civil War of 1861-1865, it was that war that firmly transplanted the design. In America, coffins were traditionally very plain and almost exclusively made from wood. Unlike in Britain, the coffin furniture trade in America was still in its infancy, and it was the Civil War that sparked a revolution in American funerary practices.
Early embalming taking place during the American Civil War. Notice the coffins in the background and their very simple design.
It was the violence combined with the scale of death that led to the ‘the beautification of death’ in America during this period, and it was the shift in both name and shape of the coffin that was an effort to distance the living from the unpleasantness of death, and the hexagonal coffins were part of that distancing. Many early American caskets were still six-sided, but noticeably grander. They also didn’t seem to taper at the bottom, as illustrated below.
An artist’s impression of President Ulysses S. Grant’s casket in 1885. Notice that although it has six sides, it resembles that of a casket rather than a coffin. It has casket-bar handles (a continuous bar running down the side of the casket), rather than individual handles found on a coffin.
It’s almost as if the coffin was too honest, too basic and unrefined. The change in name from coffin to casket reinforces this point, as ‘casket’ calls to mind a vessel for storing precious goods, a euphemism, yes, but seemingly also a mark of intended respect. For Americans, the idea of a casket seemed a more appropriate term to honour their dead.
At the same time, the post–revolutionary period saw traditional British customs of public mourning slowly wane and develop into something distinctly American. There was a new confidence in the air. Americans were now encouraged to buy local fabrics for mourning outfits, rather than expensive imported fabrics. This inward focus rather than a desire to imitate traditions from across the sea was arguably the beginning of America developing its own unique relationship with death, albeit one that had grown out of English traditions. But nevertheless there was a change in tide, a change that impacted upon the coffin. After making its pilgrimage across the Atlantic with the first English settlers, in less than just 150 years, the coffin was soon abandoned as a relic of the past, incompatible with this ‘new’ country and its burgeoning ideas of death, and therefore life.
Peter Robinson’s Mourning Warehouse of Regent Street, London offered customers advice on the appropriate level of mourning. By this point, with an established and flourishing trade of their own, Americans were importing less from Britain. ©Illustrated London News Ltd/ Mary Evans.
By the turn of the 20 th -century, caskets had all but replaced coffins in America. The casket can in many ways be seen as the American response to ‘refurbishing’ or improving the coffin a new polished and upgraded model that dispelled centuries of deep-rooted meaning.
World’s Oldest Fingerprints
The newly discovered ancient Egyptian fingerprints, while rare, are not unique. Preserved fingerprints and palm prints have been found embedded in artifacts around the world dating back tens of thousands of years.
One of the oldest sets of fingerprints and palm prints found in Egypt dates back to 1,300 BC and belong to an Ancient Egyptian baker. The prints were identified in a preserved loaf of bread that had been left as food for the afterlife in a tomb in Thebes. The dry, arid climate had allowed the organic material to be impeccably preserved, along with the imprints of the baker who kneaded the dough while it was still soft.
Ancient Egyptian bread, which retains its baker’s handprints ( abroad in the yard )
Other records include 5,000-year-old fingerprints found on ceramic pot shards in the Stone Age settlement of Siretorp, Sweden 10,000-year-old fingerprints found on fragments of clay objects at the Neolithic site of Boncuklu Hoyuk in Turkey and 26,000-year-old child fingerprints found on a ceramic statuette in the Czech Republic known as the Venus of Dolní Věstonice.
Remarkably, archaeologists have also identified pre-human fingerprints belonging to a Neanderthal weapon maker who lived some 80,000 years ago in what is now the Königsaue region in Germany. His fingerprint was found on an organic substance used as a glue made from birch bark, which had been applied to attach a piece of flint to a wooden handle.
From Left to Right: 10,000-year-old print found on clay fragment in Turkey, 26,000-year-old print found on Venus statuette in the Czech Republic, 80,000-year-old Neanderthal print ( abroad in the yard )
Featured image: The fingerprints were discovered by museum researchers on an inner coffin lid belonging to the priest Nespawershefyt from about 1000 BC. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.