How To Survive Premature Burials Through 19th-Century Cholera Pandemics

The 19th century is a time of massive change in Europe. Industrialization drives people out of the rural areas to flood the cities, capitalism flourishes in Western economies, while the urban landscape welcomes railroads, large factories and telegraph networks. But the progress of that golden era is rapidly overshadowed by a terrifying threat: cholera epidemics.

Between 1817 and 1896, no less than five cholera outbreaks decimate the world. Originated in the murky, polluted waters of the Ganges River, India, the disease spreads to neighboring countries: China, Japan, and the Philippines are soon infected too. Contaminated Russian soldiers eventually bring the virus into Poland during the November Uprising of 1831. Millions of people have already died, and the unknown pandemic is yet to invade Europe.

Two centuries after the Black Death – which killed one out of three Europeans – medicine science still cannot work wonders. The highly contagious pandemic thus propagates everywhere one goes: along trade and pilgrim routes, stemming from the holds of steamboats or the luggage of migrants. As water gets infected as well, the virus infiltrates into sewer networks and a few hours are sufficient to contaminate every household, mostly the working class doomed to public wells and overcrowded wash houses.

The_silent_highwayman
In 19th-century London, the Thames River is an open sewer littered with organic waste. High summer temperatures caused ‘the Great Stink’ in 1858, and the river is held responsible for many contagious diseases cursing the city at the time, including cholera.

In its wake, major European cities rise up against this mysterious enemy: violent ‘Cholera Riots’ take place in Saint-Petersburg (1831), Liverpool (1832) and Hamburg (1893), either to condemn medical incompetence or simply to protest against the series of measures implemented to stop the epidemic (which sometimes include police repression). Public squares soon become littered with feverish, gray-faced bodies; 100,000 people die in France alone in the first weeks of the outbreak. To restrain the contagion, corpses are thrown into mass graves or hastily buried – in such a hurry, it comes as no surprise that some not-actually-dead bodies are prematurely sent to the underworld. Hence the starting point of taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive…

Wiertz_burial
Victims of cholera were sometimes thought to be only temporarily dead and to wake up locked into their coffins; needless to say people immediately sought expert medical (and funeral) advice. (Painting: The Premature Burial by Antoine Wiertz, 1854.)

Three decades earlier though, Gessler, a German priest, had come up with a revolutionary concept to prevent such a mistake: he suggested in 1798 to tie ropes linking the church bells to every coffin in the graveyard, so that a person accidentally buried alive would make its presence known. A colleague of his simplified the idea; he considered inserting a tube in each coffin from which one could smell the decomposition process going on and thus legitimate the cadaver’s dead status. (Open position at the Church: apply quick if you want to experience the sweet smell of success.)

Over the course of the 19th century, numerous ‘safety coffins’, as they became widely known, were patented. Undoubtedly, this grim creativity was fueled by growing demands from taphophobics. Another gruesome fact highlighted the need for safer not-so-final resting places: a few years before, the Les Innocents cemetery in Paris was so overflowing with bones and corpses that thousands of them had to be moved elsewhere. (Some cadavers would even tumble into neighboring house’s cellars.) As graves were dug up, a few bodies were found face down in their coffins, and grave diggers assumed they had been buried alive.

C. H. Eseinbrandt coffin

In 1829, a new design of the kind was patented – perhaps the most widely known: a coffin in which the corpse’s arms and legs are tied to a small bell springing up to the surface. Can you picture the surprise of a grieving visitor, leaning over a relative’s grave in the deserted cemetery, being suddenly woken up by a ringing bell? (Heart attacks may have killed more people than accidental burials at the time…) Other creative coffins joined the list throughout the 19th century: some would be equipped with feeding tubes, others with glass panels so as to check on the cadaver every day or so, and the most recent of the kind feature heart rate monitors, intercom systems or breathing apparatus. What about WiFi?

tweet english premature burials and safety coffins

Nevertheless, much alike the presumed ‘vampires’ buried with sickles hanging over their necks, the assumption that people came back from the dead undoubtedly stemmed more from superstition and medical obscurantism than documented facts. Taphophobia was shaped by this cholera-infested, shadowy chapter of history. Tormented times often produce sharp surviving skills, although they sometimes give rise to your worst fears! Just like three million years ago cavemen learned to flee venomous species like spiders and snakes – bringing about two amongst the most common phobias in the Western world these days! You may fancy museums to contemplate history’s legacy; but the best way to look at your past right in the eye is through your own reflection in the mirror.

 

 


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