MYTH #130: People in the “olden days” were routinely buried with a string tied to their finger that ran above ground to a bell . . .

153726-Wiertz_burial

. . . so that in the event the deceased was merely comatose, not dead, and happened to awaken, the movement would cause ringing, giving us the expressions “dead ringer” and “saved by the bell.”

I’d been meaning to get to this one (“I’m not dead yet!”) for some time, but Susan Smyer’s forwarding of this article from George Mason University’s website, cited below, cinched it for this, the week of Halloween. 

“One of the most characteristically Victorian fixations was the fear of premature burial. . . Accounts of this horrifying yet fascinating fear commonly describe the “escape coffins” reportedly sold in the nineteenth century to allow those mistakenly declared dead to save themselves at the last moment. The most popular of these, it is often said, was the cheap and simple “Bateson’s Belfry,” a bell mounted on top of a casket with a string running to the corpse’s hand within… so that, if the “deceased” suddenly awoke — before burial but in an extremely unwelcome predicament — he could instantly and easily summon help. 

The striking life-story of the inventor George Bateson is also often invoked. In 1852, he patents the belfry as the “Bateson Life Revival Device.” Rising rapidly to fame and fortune, he receives the OBE from Queen Victoria in 1859. But, obsessive fear of premature burial gnawing at his own mind, he designs ever more complex alarm systems for his own coffin, finally insisting his family have him cremated. In 1868 (transposed to 1886 in some accounts), he panics his instructions will be ignored, douses himself in linseed oil and incinerates himself.

Positively dripping in Victoriana, satisfyingly redolent of Poe’s dark tales, the Bateson story has made many appearances, continuing to feature in popular books, historical web sites, and even the occasional news article. Earlier this year, it inspired a prize-winning graphic novelette.

There’s just one problem. George Bateson and his belfry never existed.” 

Read the entire, very interesting article at http://hnn.us/article/153726#sthash.wD8oN3YA.dpuf

But did a bell device like this exist? If it did, it would not have worked, since the lack of air in a buried coffin would have killed any comatose person rather quickly. And while there are various patents filed that intended to “save” not-dead-yet people from premature burial with periscope-like devices that supposedly introduced air into the coffin, none has been documented as used. 

8 Responses to MYTH #130: People in the “olden days” were routinely buried with a string tied to their finger that ran above ground to a bell . . .

  1. Logan Rees says:

    The term ‘dead ringer’ comes from horse racing, and the meaning of it doesn’t even apply to the mythical scenario. And ‘saved by the bell, is pretty obviously a boxing term. I did believe this one probably so cw fifth grade though, so thank you!

  2. janice says:

    that was great. you had me hooked! and then you said it never happened. funny.

  3. Carole Kingham says:

    If this is a repost, please disregard.
    I have seen a few books who mention this story myself…they also mention medieval charnel houses that were places to leave the body at prior to burial until obvious ddecomposition had set in…with guards and a system of pulleys and bells with strings tied to the corpses finger to detect any sign of life. Since sometimes bodies do move during natural decompostion there may have been some rings and very frightened guards if these actually existed.
    I always wondered about the tale of the man mistaken for dead and left at the botton of a pile of corpses after the battle of Gettysburg…who was discovered later and found to be alive but insane…have you ever found any citations on that?

    • Mary Miley says:

      Re: Gettysburg incident, no, I’ve never heard that.

      • Deborah Brower says:

        I’ve wondered about that one too. Most recently during a recent visit by relatives when pulled out the old Ghost’s of Gettysburg Battlefield auto tour. The tour was written by Mark Nesbitt an ex-NPS ranger at Gettysburg. He also made a couple of videos and the story might be one of the dramatizations. It was shown on the HIstory Channel several years ago. I’ll have to take another look at it and see what I can find out.

  4. Damien says:

    Nobel is known for the concern:
    Nobel had a lifelong fear of being buried alive, and in his will he left instructions to have his arteries cut after death, just to be sure.

  5. oldud says:

    I thought “dead ringer” came from the practice by merchants, and others, of dropping a gold or silver coin on a hard surface to hear the sound it made. A coin of solid gold or silver will make a different sound than a counterfeit one of base metal mixed with gold or silver; the genuine gold coin making a different pitch ring and the counterfeit one making more of a thud. I have never tried it and it may be just another myth.

  6. There are a couple of coffin alarms that are in the US Patent Office records. The Improved Burial Case. Patent No. 81,437 Franz Vester, Newark, New Jersey. August 25, 1868 and GRAVE ALARM (No Model.), Patent No. 500,072, Patented June 20, 1893
    A. LINDQUIST. These two designs seem to deal with the lack of air issue as well. The most recent alarm patented was late in the 20th century…around 1980 or so I think. Anyway, it still comes down to whether or not these devices were used. Probably not very widely if at all. Nonetheless, there was a very real fear of being buried alive dating back to the 18th century in the U.S. I think it is Elizabeth Drinker’s diary that records some details about a family member observing the body of the recently departed to identify signs of death (I think she calls it putrefaction) before allowing the body to be buried. Other diaries record family members worrying about burying someone too soon ( in the case of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philly). Pretty interesting.

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