Let Me Out of My Coffin, I'm Still Alive: New Book
Reveals Spine-Chilling True Stories of Premature Burial
Mary Best was
17 years old when she contracted cholera in India. All alone since
her adoptive mother left the country some months earlier, Mary suffered
hours of agonising stomach cramps and sickness, her pulse becoming
weaker and weaker until, at last, the doctor pronounced her dead.
She was buried
in the vault of her adoptive family a few hours later, in the French
cemetery in Calcutta.
The year was
1871, and cholera victims were generally buried very soon after
death to prevent the germs spreading. In Indias tropical heat,
a rapid burial was all the more necessary. Nobody questioned Marys
But ten years
later, when the vault was opened to admit the body of Marys
newly deceased uncle by adoption, the undertaker and his assistant
were greeted by a horrifying sight.
The lid of
Marys coffin, which had been nailed down, was on the floor.
The girls skeleton was half in, half out of the coffin, and
the right side of her skull bore a large, ugly fracture. The fingers
of her right hand were bent as if clutching at something, perhaps
her throat, and her clothes were torn.
Mary, it seemed,
had not been dead when she was nailed into a coffin, but merely
frequently fell into a coma, and it was in this state that Mary
had been buried. Some hours or days later she awoke with no idea
where she was.
The utter terror
she endured, her futile screams for help, can barely be imagined.
Then, realising she was not being heard, she tried desperately to
push the coffin lid off. Straining every muscle, she eventually
burst it open.
effort was so great that she fell forward, through exhaustion or
fainting, and struck her head on the stone shelf, dying instantly.
however, finding herself in the pitch darkness of the vault, Mary
went mad with terror, tore at her clothes, tried to throttle herself,
then banged her head and died.
that the doctor who had certified her death had much to gain by
her demise, having twice tried to kill Marys adoptive mother
perhaps in an attempt to get his hands on her money
which was why she had fled India. Mary might even have witnessed
as her fate was, in Victorian times and before it
was not as unusual as one might imagine. Until the medical advances
of the 20th century, methods of determining death were far from
reliable and could involve applying hot bread to the soles of the
feet to check for reactions.
were so terrified of the thought of waking up in a coffin that they
demanded in their wills that steps be taken after their death
such as slitting their throat or driving a stake through their
heart to prevent this horrific fate.
In a book published
in 1905 and now reprinted, two doctors and a colleague presented
a macabre compendium of premature burials (and near misses) gathered
from newspapers around the world.
most disturbing cases were those where the victims came tantalisingly
close to being saved, only for the fear or incompetence of the living
to seal their fate.
In 1887, in
France, a young man was being carried to his grave when the undertakers
heard knocking from under the coffin lid.
Afraid of creating
a panic among the mourners, they proceeded with the burial. But
as the earth was being thrown on the coffin, everyone heard the
remove the lid, they waited for the mayor to come. By the time he
arrived and the coffin was opened, the man inside had died of asphyxiation.
other cases of people waiting for the authorities before opening
the coffin, only to find that its occupant had died minutes earlier.
It was clear
from the victims contorted bodies, the nails torn from fingers
and toes, and the expression of utter horror on their faces, that
they had been trying to free themselves.
who tried to prevent what they feared was a premature burial were
dismissed as being mad with grief and unable to accept the reality
In 1851 Virginia
Macdonald, a girl living in New York, was buried after falling ill,
despite her mothers insistence that her daughter was not dead.
The family tried to reassure the hysterical woman but to no avail,
so they eventually had the body disinterred.
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