When George Washington was on his deathbed in 1799, he signaled for his secretary, Tobias Lear, and whispered hoarsely, “I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.”
Those were Washington’s final words, careful instructions from a man who wasn’t afraid of death itself, but, like many people of his era, was deathly afraid of being buried alive.
In Washington’s day and throughout the 19th century, the specter of “premature burial” felt very real. Medical science was in its infancy and death could strike from anywhere: common illnesses, infected wounds or fast-spreading outbreaks of smallpox. With so much death and so few scientific tools (even primitive stethoscopes weren’t around until the 1820s), it went unquestioned that plenty of people were being buried while “not quite dead.”
The acute fear of being buried alive — dubbed taphephobia (taphe is Greek for burial) — was part of a larger obsession with death that gripped the western world in the 19th century. One of the wildest ways that taphephobia manifested was through the invention of “safety coffins” (aka “security coffins”), tricked-out caskets that provided a way for prematurely buried people to escape from 6 feet under.
Frankenstein, Seances and the ‘Gray Area’ of Death
The first patents for security coffins started appearing in the 1790s in central Europe, says Adam Bisno, an historian at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). That timing makes sense because European intellectuals were swept up by German Romanticism.
Romanticism was a response to the cold logic and reason emphasized by the Enlightenment. Instead, Romantic writers and philosophers sought after truth in the “unseen and unknown,” says Bisno, “the ‘gray areas’ in our experience, like the gray area between life and death.”
Mary Shelley published “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” in 1818, a novel that captured the early 19th-century fixation on the blurry line between life and death. By the mid-19th century, seances and psychics offered ways for the living to communicate with the dead who seemed to exist on a spiritual plane just beyond our own.
“People were asking, ‘Are the dead really gone? Are they still here with us?'” says Bisno. “The fear of live burial really tapped into that fascination. It’s a figure underground who is with us and not with us, alive and not alive, dead and somehow not dead.”
The Patent Craze of Life-preserving Coffins
Bisno estimates that more than 100 security coffin patents were granted in America by the USPTO during the 19th century, with each design offering more bells and whistles (literally) than the last. (Every Halloween, the USPTO features spooky and macabre patents in its Creepy IP series.)
One of the earliest American patents for a “life-preserving coffin” (oxymoron?) was filed in 1843 by Christian H. Eisenbrandt of Baltimore, Maryland. The coffin had a spring-loaded lid which would snap open at “the slightest motion of either the head or the hand.” Since that wouldn’t do much good if the coffin were 6 feet underground, Eisenbrandt suggested leaving the coffin in an above-ground vault with a key to the vault door left inside, “so that should the person not really be dead, life may be preserved.”
Historians found advertisements for Eisenbrandt’s jack-in-the-box coffin dating from 1844, playing up the popular (but unfounded) belief in the “frequency and danger” of premature internment and the necessity of such a device. We don’t know how many were actually made, but sales might have been helped by Edgar Allen Poe, who published his harrowing short story “The Premature Burial” in the same year.
“To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality,” wrote Poe, whose tales explored the darker side of Romanticism. “That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
In 1868, Franz Vester of Newark, New Jersey, filed a patent for his “improved burial-case,” which featured a narrow tube with a ladder that allowed a reanimated person to climb to safety. If the buried individual was too weak to escape on their own, they could also pull a rope inside the coffin that rang a bell above ground to alert the living.
Vester gave demonstrations of his coffin, like this one chronicled by a reporter for The New York Times in 1868, during which he was buried under 4 feet of dirt and emerged an hour later “out of his living grave” to the applause and congratulations of the crowd.
The ‘Count’ of Security Coffins
The undisputed showman of 19th-century security coffins was a man known as Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, described as a “chamberlain to the czar of Russia,” who toured Europe and the United States demonstrating a remarkable coffin contraption that he called “Le Karnice.”
In a newspaper article from 1899, The Chicago Tribune reported on a meeting of the Academy of Medicine in New York City, where Dr. Henry J. Garrigues “startled” his fellow members with the assertion that one out of every 200 people buried in the U.S. was actually “in a lethargic state and is buried alive.”
That questionable claim served as an introduction to Count Karnice-Karnicki, who then demonstrated his device. Le Karnice improved on other security coffins by triggering a series of alarms and alerts with any movement of the body. There was a bell that rang and a shiny ball that lifted into the air. While waiting for help to arrive, the trapped individual could breathe and speak through a special tube.
To show its effectiveness, the Count would ask for volunteers to be buried alive. To this day, the world record for the longest voluntary live burial is held by an Italian man named Faroppo Lorenzo, who consented to be entombed in Le Karnice for nine days in 1898.
Despite these entertaining demonstrations, Bisno is certain that the Count never put Le Karnice into production. “People didn’t buy it,” says Bisno. “Funeral directors weren’t interested and the public wasn’t interested either. In fact, none of these inventions ever caught on.”
One design flaw of safety coffins is the morbid fact that dead bodies do indeed move, just not voluntarily. During the process of decomposition, a corpse can shift and even flip over, which would trigger a “false alarm” for most security coffins.