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  • Giving Birth in a Coffin June 18, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing has recently been toying around with the idea of a publication on ‘buried alive’ stories from Boccaccio to Poe. It would be a short volume, but one that would keep most of us awake past our bedtimes. Any suggestions for vaguely literate buried-alive tales please contact: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Beachcombing has got five so far that are ‘entertaining’ and out of copyright, one involving frogs.

    A classic buried alive motif is the woman who dies in the advanced stages of pregnancy, is buried and awakes in her six by two wooden box and gives birth there. There are good dramatic reasons for this story being told and excellent reasons to be suspicious of it.

    First, the dramatic reasons: if being buried alive in a coffin is ‘our most primeval fear’, to use the tag of the best book on the subject (Jan Bondeson, Buried Alive), then giving birth underground adds substantially to the pathos and the horror. A typical buried alive story includes some boys playing in the graveyard and hearing a ghostly voice from the earth beneath their feet: imagine how the goose bumps would jump that much higher if they had heard a mother singing a lullaby!

    Second, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the buried alive mania was at its height and such things were whispered over in drawing rooms then buried-alive junkies were always looking for proof. Some announced that one in a hundred, one in twenty or even one in ten or five human beings were buried alive! And to make these bold and, at least in the upper reaches, ridiculous claims they were always hunting for post-mortem evidence.

    So if a grave was dug up and the fingers of the corpse had disappeared then it wasn’t rodents but the poor man or woman eating themselves in desperate hunger or fear! If the body had turned over it was not the contortions of internal gasses and rigor but the last twisting of a wide-awake victim!

    Now in the catalogue of proofs what is more definitive than digging up a grave and finding the corpse of a pregnant mother and a baby in the coffin but outside the womb?

    If this sounds incredible remember that a (246) ‘German review of 1941 lists one hundred instances of childbirth in coffin and remarks that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of them were originally reported as premature burials’.

    Anything is possible, of course, and some unlucky individuals were buried alive and briefly suffered (before the oxygen ran out) unimaginable horrors. Peace be upon them. However, with the burial of pregnant women there is a routine explanation for babies being born in coffins. (245) ‘The buildup of putrefactive gases inside the cadaver would also result in a highly increased intrabdominal pressure, which in some instances is strong enough to expel an unborn child from the womb.’

    Mother and child would naturally have been dead when this happened.

    A question that Beachcombing cannot answer, but one that interests him is whether even the most backward and rural communities would have buried a pregnant woman without attempting to rescue the child if the woman was in her last trimester.

    As Beachcombing established on another occasion caesarean section was a nineteenth-century invention in the west. But if the mother is already dead and her welfare is irrelevant then it is a fairly routine matter to cut a child out and even six month old babies have survived without the benefit of modern hospitals. Were these expelled coffin babies really so advanced then? Or were they perhaps four- or five-month old fetuses that were thrown out of the body?

    Ignorance is likely in this case bliss.


    18 June 2011: Invisible writes in: ‘Uggh, today’s post on burial alive/giving birth in a coffin. Can’t cope…. But it did remind me of a folktale on the subject often called ‘Milk Bottles’. I can’t find my copy of Things That Go Bump in the Night by Maria Leach, so here is a variant.  And, of course, there is Jan Bondeson’s 2002 book, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. Also Rodney Davies: The Lazarus Syndrome. Robert Wilkins has something to say about burial alive in The Bedside Book of Death. I think I remember a section on premature burial in The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death by Timothy Taylor, which should also be on your bizarre bibliography reading list for the author’s take on Celtic triple-death bog burials. Mary Roach in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, probably also has some info on burial alive. I have it, but haven’t read it yet. And this further reminded me of an amusing anecdote from The Percy Anecdotes via archive.org, irregular scan and all. There is probably a better edition of this out there somewhere, maybe in the Tales from the Terrific Register series The Dead Alive and that I quote here: ‘Some hypochondriacs have fancied themselves miserably afflicted in one way, and some in another; some have insisted that they were teapots, and some that they were town clocks; one that he was extremely ill, and another that he was actually dying. But, perhaps, none of this blue-devil class ever matched in extravagance a patient of the late Dr. Stevenson, of Baltimore. This hypochondriac, after ringing the change of every mad conceit that ever tormented a crazy brain, would have it at last that he was dead, actually dead. Dr. Stevenson having been sent for one morning in great haste, by the wife of his patient, hastened to his bedside, where he found him stretched out at full length, his hands across his breast, his toes in contact, his eyes and mouth closely shut, and his looks cadaverous. ‘Well, sir, how do you do? how do you do, this morning?’ asked Dr. Stevenson, in a jocular way, approaching his bed. ‘ How do I do!’ replied the hypochondriac, faintly; ‘ a pretty question to ask a dead man.’ ‘Dead!’ replied the doctor. ‘ Yes, sir, dead ; quite dead. I died last night about twelve o’clock.’ Dr. Stevenson, putting his hand gently on the forehead of the hypochondriac, as if to ascertain whether it was cold, and also feeling his pulse, exclaimed in a doleful note, ‘ Yes, he poor man is dead enough ; ’tis all over with him, and now the sooner he can be buried the better.’ Then stepping up to his wife, and whispering to her not to be frightened at the measures he was about to take, he called to the servant. ‘ My boy, your poor master is dead ; and the sooner he can be put in the ground the better. Run to C m, for I know he always keeps New England coffins by him ready made; and, do you hear? bring a coffin of the largest size, for your master makes a .stout corpse, and having died last night, and the weather being warm, he will not keep long.’ Away went the servant, and soon returned with a proper coffin. The wife and family having got their lesson from the doctor, gathered around him, and howled not a little while they were putting the body in the coffin. Presently the pall-bearers, who were quickly provided and let into the secret, started with the hypochondriac for the churchyard. They had not gone far before they were met by one of the townspeople, who having been properly drilled by Stevenson, cried out, ‘ Ah, doctor I what poor soul have you got there ?’ ‘ Poor Mr. B ,’ sighed the doctor, ‘ left us last night.’ ‘Great pity he had not left us twenty years ago,’ replied the other ; ‘ he was a bad man.’ Presently another of the townsmen met them with the same question, “And what poor soul have you cot there, doctor?’ ‘ Poor Mr. B’ answered the doctor again, ‘ is dead.’ ‘ Ah, indeed !’ said the other ; ‘ and so he is gone to meet his deserts al last.’ ‘Oh, villain!’ exclaimed the man in the coffin. Soon after this, while the pall-bearers were resting themselves near the churchyard, another stepped up with the old question again, ‘What poor soul have you got there, doctor?’ ‘ Poor Mr, B ,’ he replied, ‘is gone.’ ‘ Yes, and to the bottomless pit, said the other ; ‘ for if he is not gone there, I see not what use there is for such a place.’ Here the dead man, bursting off the lid of the coffin, which had been purposely left loose, leaped out, exclaiming, ‘ O you villain ! I am gone to the bottomless pit, am I ? Well, I have come back again to pay such ungrateful rascals as you are.’ A chase was immediately commenced by the dead man after the living, to the petrifying consternation of many of the spectators at .sight of a corpse, in all the horrors of the winding sheet, running through the streets. After having exercised himself into a copious perspiration by the fantastic race, the hypochondriac was brought home by Dr. Stevenson, freed from all his complaints ; and by strengthening food, generous wine, cheerful company, and moderate exercise, was soon restored to perfect health.’ Thanks as always to the amazing Invisible!

    19 June 2011: PhilP has written in with a thought or two: ‘Occam’s razor works best on this problem. If there was an attempt to save the child of a near term dying mother and it failed wouldn’t the two have been buried in the same coffin? If so, the most available space in the oblong box would have been near the lower legs. For a real premature burial, do not neglect The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis. While the book is controversial, the mechanism for inducing an intentional premature burial and exhumation of the still-breathing ‘zombie’ is plausible, and no horror was beneath the Tonton Macoutes.’ Thanks PhilP!