Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/January 1880/Premature Burials



THE difference between death and a state of trance—or, as the Germans put it, Todt and Scheintodt—has never been quite clearly understood by the generality of mankind. Society, which sometimes does its best for the living, does not always do its best for the dead (or those who appear to be dead), and he would be a bold man who, without statistics, should assert that men, women, and children are never, by any chance, buried alive. Are the bodies of the poor always examined with care before burial? Are deaths properly verified in days of epidemic, that is to say in days of social panic?

I propose in this article to call attention to a few instances of premature burials on the Continent of Europe: instances which involve stories of trance, or Scheintodt—a trance, the semblance of death, holding its sway over the human body for hours and days, and not merely for minutes, as in the case of ordinary fainting-fits. In days when land is dear, and burial rights are less sacred than the rights of builders and contractors, coffins have been opened with the pickaxe, in the act of converting cemeteries into streets and gardens. Here a grave has been discovered whose inmate has turned in its shroud; here a corpse clutching its hair in a strained and unnatural position: dead men and dead women lying in their graves as dead men never lie in a Christian land at the moment of burial. The presumption is, that these people have been legally murdered.

A few months ago a young and beautiful woman, on the eve of her marriage with the man she loved, was buried in the neighborhood of Lodi, in Piedmont, in accordance with the doctor's certificate. The doctor was of opinion that the girl had died from excitement—overjoy, it is said, at the prospect of being married, but the legal name for the catastrophe was disease of the heart, and with this verdict her place in society was declared vacant. When the first shovelful of earth was thrown down on the coffin, strange noises were heard proceeding therefrom, "as of evil spirits disputing over the body of the dead." The grave-diggers took to flight, and the mourners began praying; but the bridegroom, less superstitious than the others, insisted on the coffin being unnailed. This was done; but too late: the girl was found in an attitude of horror and pain impossible to describe; her eyes wide open, her teeth clinched, her hands clutching her hair. Life was extinct; but, when laid in her shroud the day before, her eyes were closed, her hands were folded on her breast as if in prayer.

The "Medical Academy" of Milan, in one of its weekly reports, published on Wednesday, March 22, 1848, quotes a case of trance which occurred to an ex-nun of the suppressed convent of St. Orsola, named Lucia Marini. The lady was taken ill, and, to all outward appearance, died: she was known to be subject to a peculiar kind of fit, which required peculiar treatment, and was staying at the time of the catastrophe in the house of a friend, who had been a nun. The becchini (grave-diggers, who in this case were the undertakers) insisted on burying the body before night; the surviving ex-nun remonstrated, urging that she must first try the effect of friction and mustard-plasters applied to feet and stomach. Fearing to lose their fee, the men of death waxed wroth in their contention, and, seizing the body by the shoulders, were about to drag it out of its bed, when the "dead lady," moaning and muttering inarticulate sounds, turned restlessly on her pillow. The friend of Lucia Marini broke out into prayers, interrupted by tears; the men let go their hold, and one of them (the elder of the two) crossed himself devoutly. The other, with a great oath, declared it was "spasms"; the dead, in his opinion, being liable to convulsive movements if not properly straightened. But humanity prevailed over ignorance, and cupidity gave way to medical skill. The lady was thoroughly revived by a medical practitioner of the neighborhood, and lived for many a long day to tell the story of her escape from the tomb.

Another case in point is that of Cardinal Espinosa, sometime President of Castile. Philip II., King of Spain, one day, in a moment of irritation, addressed him as follows: "Cardinal, take heed! You are speaking to the President of Castile." The Cardinal understood that he was dismissed from office (the King being his own president), and fell to the ground as if stunned. The pulse showed no signs of life; the parted lips emitted no breath—the King's wrath had slain his minister. It was decided that the unfortunate Cardinal should be cut open and embalmed. The surgeon arrived and commenced his operations, when lo! in the midst of the cutting the patient awoke, and, with screams of agony, attempted to struggle with his operator! But it was too late. The wounds were mortal, and the Cardinal expired before the comforts of religion could be administered to him.

In some instances the victims of trance have been known to rise out of their coffins. A case is recorded of a young lady in Leipsic, who, being reported dead during a nervous attack, was placed in her coffin in her parents' house, and there kept duly dressed for the grave, with the lid of the coffin still unnailed. While the family were at supper she appeared in her winding-sheet at the parlor-door, pale and frightened, but fair to see, as before her supposed death. Father and mother and sisters started up with cries of horror, and rushed out of the room by another door, believing her to be a ghost. It was only after a long interval, during which they entered and found her at table, eating and drinking, that they persuaded themselves that the girl still lived. They found her coffin empty; ergo, the ghost in the parlor was a living soul! The doctor, the priest, and the undertaker saw the error of their ways, and the deed was canceled which declared the lady a corpse. On the following year another deed was made out for the same lady, and the same priest officiated, but not the doctor or the undertaker. The lady was married, and lived to be the mother of many children.

But let us go back a century or two in these inquiries. We come upon the story of the Abbé Prévôt, author of "Manon Lescaut," and, earlier still, upon that of Petrarch.

Prévôt was found in a forest, one fine summer's day, in a state of complete unconsciousness. The village doctor, who examined the body, declared that life was extinct, and commenced what he was pleased to term his post-mortem examination. But at the first thrust of the knife the unlucky author awoke, and, with a piercing shriek, gave up the ghost. Bruchier, the biographer of Prévôt, deplores this event as a serious loss to literature. "Manon Lescaut," which Jules Janin complacently calls the "Paul and Virginia" of vice, might, he opines, have had a successor, if not a rival, from the same pen.

Petrarch, when a middle-aged man, lay in Ferrara twenty hours in a state of trance, and was to be buried on the completion of the time laid down by law, that is to say in four hours, when a sudden change of temperature caused him to start up in his bed. He complained of the draught and reprimanded his attendants. They had allowed a current of cold air to fall on his couch! Perhaps if the door had been kept shut, the poet, showing no signs of animation, would have been buried that day. Petrarch would have been defrauded of a large portion of his life, and the world would have lost, in consequence, some of its finest sonnets.

Misson, in his "Medical Anecdotes," tells a story of a lady who, in 1577, was buried alive in Cologne. This lady was the wife of a consul, and was placed in the family vault in gay attire, with rings on her fingers and a golden chain round her neck, as on her wedding-day. Robbers repaired to her grave at dead of night to steal her jewelry, and were taking the rings from her fingers, which were damp and swollen, when the lady awoke, and, sitting bolt upright, as if galvanized, stared and smiled at her visitors. One of the three men fell down in a fit, fearing the devil or his agency, and the others took to their heels "as if pursued by fiends." The lady walked home, and was received by her husband, first with fear, and afterward with transports of joy, and lived for many a long day in health and happiness. In the Church of the Holy Apostles at Cologne is a picture of the Consul's wife waking from the tomb, but the event is ascribed to a miracle, and death, and not a trance, is the subject of the picture.

But the resuscitated victims of apparent death do not always return safe and sound—hale in body and in mind—from the land of shadows. A carbineer in the Pope's service, named Luigi Vittori, was, not long ago, conveyed to the Roman hospital, and there, after a few days' acute suffering, registered as dead, his disease being "asthma." A doctor, glancing at the body, fancied he detected signs of life in it. A lighted taper was applied to the nose of the carbineer—a mirror was applied to his mouth; but all without success. The body was pinched and beaten, the taper was again applied, and so often and so obstinately that the nose was burned, and the patient, quivering in all his frame, drew short, spasmodic breaths—sure proofs, even to a non-professional witness, that the soldier was not altogether dead. The doctor applied other remedies, and in a short time the corpse was declared to be a living man. Luigi Vittori left the hospital to resume his duties as carbineer, but his nose—a scarred and crimson beacon on his face—told till he died (which was soon afterward) the sad story of his cure in the very jaws of the grave.

Stories are told of men who, after sentence of death at the hands of the doctors, returned to life blighted in intellect. Some of these victims of medical incapacity were men of position in society, but others—the great majority—were poor and friendless. Hospital cases have principally to do with the poor, and, in hospitals in warm countries, patients who show signs of approaching dissolution are quickly disposed of. Camillo de Lellis, the founder of an order of hospital monks, or Brothers of Charity, speaks in his memoirs of the frequency of premature burials in Italy. "Ah, merciful God!" he exclaims piously, "how many living men and women are annually taken to their graves in this Christian country!" Camillo was of opinion that the victims might be numbered by many scores—nay, by hundreds—in the course of a single year.

One day, after visiting the beds of the sick in a certain hospital in Lombardy, of which the name has been left in blank, Camillo entered the morgue, and found strewed upon the floor a great number of corpses, one of which was bleeding profusely from the head. "A dead man can not bleed in this way," thought Camillo, and had the body taken to another room, and there examined. The man was alive, and but for an accident would have received burial. He had been thrown to the ground with some violence a short time previously, and, then and there receiving the wound above alluded to, recovered consciousness. But he only survived his sentence of death three days; he died of the blow which had awakened him from his trance.

But there are double deaths—twofold burials—which are perhaps the most horrible of all. Society thinks it is burying one person, but the "deceased," being a woman, may from the point of view of maternity include two lives, or even more. Gasparo Rejes tells the story of a child born in the tomb whose mother was buried alive. The lady was the wife of a man of property named Francesco Orvallos, and "died," while far advanced in pregnancy, during her husband's absence. Orvallos, returning home the day after the funeral, had the tomb opened, not because he suspected foul play, but because he wished to gaze once more on the face of his beloved. The lady was in truth dead, but death had transpired in the grave. A child, struggling into existence, met the gaze of the bereaved husband, and was removed without difficulty by a medical assistant. The mother was once more consigned to the dust, but the child lived to be a man, and, carrying till his death the name of "Fruit of the Earth," occupied for several years the post of lieutenant-general on the frontiers of Cherez. This story is reproduced by the late Professor Comi in his treatise on "Apneology." Those who doubt it have only to read the following account of what is called "Involuntary Homicide," which happened in the south of Italy (at Castel del Giudice) in November last, and of which accounts were published at the time in the Neapolitan and English papers:

A poor woman at Castel del Giudice, in the province of Molise, was taken ill with the premonitory symptoms of childbirth, and, having fainted away while the doctor was being sent for, was, on his arrival, declared dead. Burial follows death very rapidly in southern countries, especially in Italy: it is the night of the tomb setting in without the twilight of the death-chamber; and eight-and-forty hours in the north of Italy, and four-and-twenty in the south, is the time allowed by law. If the "dead" awake in that time it is well. If not, they are doomed, and no one—not even a father or a mother, a husband or a wife—can save them from the hands of the grave-digger. This was the case with the poor woman of Molise. Her friends had doubts as to one, at least, of the deaths—that of the unborn babe—but the doctor was inexorable. He refused to operate on the "corpse" to save the infant-life, and the syndic, approving of his conduct, ordered the body to be buried. The funeral took place exactly at the twenty-fourth hour—that is to say that the body (being a poor one) was thrown into the ground like a dog. Dog-like, too, it had no rights, for a few days afterward it was unearthed to make room for another corpse—that of a girl—which was to be thrown in over it. But the becchini (the grave-diggers) perceived while doing their work that the woman buried the week before "had moved in the grave." Her hands were up to her mouth; her eyes were wide open and staring frightfully—she had been trying to bite the bands by which her wrists were fastened. But the bands of her legs were rent asunder, and there, in the dust beside her, was a dead child! The woman and the babe (a boy) whom law and medical incapacity had slain were taken out of the earth to be medically examined and legally provided for, and the new corpse (was it a corpse?) was thrown in in their stead. The doctor and the syndic were arrested, and condemned to three months' imprisonment, and the mother and child were buried again with two medical certificates instead of one. The legal authorities—somewhat late in the day—wished to do everything in "proper form," and the child, born in the grave, procured for its mother a second burial.

This horrible crime—the crime of burying a woman alive and murdering an unborn babe five or six feet underground by medical sanction—could with difficulty have occurred in England. English law provides an interval of a week (more or less) between death and burial, and the seeming-dead may in a week's time return to life—that is to say, that the body, with the suspended life dormant within it, may, by chance or by medical treatment, reassume its functions, or a portion of its functions, before burial has become a legal or a sanitary necessity; but it can not be stated with certainty that all persons buried in a northern climate—such a climate, for instance, as England—are in reality dead after the delay of a week has been accorded. Hasty and sudden burials are not always a question of climate or of temperature. In times of pestilence the week's delay is in many cases, even in northern climates, reduced to a few hours; and in Italy, where the minimum interval between death and burial is a day and a night, and the maximum two days and two nights, the victims (or the supposed victims) of epidemic are buried as soon as dead—that is to say, as soon as they appear to be dead, which, in exceptional times, amounts much to the same thing. The manifest blunder is that of supposing all dead persons—i. e., all persons dying in days of pestilence—to be dead of that particular pestilence; and the excuse for it, if excuse it be, is the desire to remove from the living all possibility of contagion from the bodies of the dead, dispensing with experiments with a view to reducing risk; and making sure, so to speak, of the corpse without giving it the benefit of a doubt.

The fact is, that the modern inhabitants of Italy—i. e., modern Italian legislators—are extremely intolerant of what may be called the romance of the death-chamber. Reverence for the deceased, a craving for the companionship of the unburied corpse, is not encouraged in Italy. As soon as life is extinct, or is believed to be extinct, the human being ceases to be sacred. It is earth or clay and nothing more, and the glamour of a beloved face which no longer smiles does not, to an Italian mind, speak of a soul hovering near the body, a soul asleep, not dead, which haunts the chamber of woe, and makes itself felt, as it were instinctively, in the presence of the mourners. Theology teaches Italians that the soul of the deceased is in purgatory, and that the altar and not the death-bed is the place to kneel at; so that, by kneeling and praying and doing penance (by fees and masses), mourners may be able to comfort the souls of the departed in the limbo they inhabit. Corpses belong in the first instance to the priests (who, after the unction by sacred oil, light tapers by the bedside); and in the second instance to the legal or sanitary authorities who employ the grave-diggers. The death-chamber is abandoned by the mourners, who flock to the church; and the room, and sometimes the whole house, is furbished up, and even whitewashed, as if the death of a near and dear relative had brought contamination upon it.

Now, it would be interesting to discover at what period of history the Italians began to be so severe in their treatment of the dead. The ancient inhabitants of Italy were by no means so rigorous. They were tender in the death-chamber, and careful at the funeral-pyre; though pagans, they were merciful in matters of life and death. Their burial laws were to a great extent similar to those of England—similar as regards the interval between death and funeral, and only different as regards the funeral itself.

The Romans had indeed many experiences of official and medical blundering, and that is perhaps the reason why they were, at certain periods, so careful in their funeral rites. Pliny tells the story of the Consul Acilius, who, being reputed dead, was placed on the pyre, and started up to shriek for assistance while the flames were gathering round him; but too late to be saved. Lucius was burned alive; and Tuberus, waking from the trance of death while preparations were being made to burn him, was removed by his friends and others from the stake. The interval between death and funeral was fixed at eight days. It was seldom less, and it was sometimes more; for Licurgus, in his anxiety to prevent accidents—i. e., medical and judicial murders—fixed the interval at eleven days. Why do the modern Romans, and all the modern inhabitants of Italy, insist on burying their dead within forty-eight hours? Simply—say the legislators—because the climate requires it; i. e., because it would not be fair to the living to allow the dead to remain unburied for a longer space than two days and two nights. Query: was the climate of Italy under Julius Cæsar very different, in point of heat or moisture, from the climate of Italy under King Humbert?

But it has always, and in all countries, been difficult to ascertain the difference between Todt and Scheintodt—death and the semblance of death. Dr. Gandolfi, a learned Italian writer, whose work on "Forensic Medicine"[1] was revised by the illustrious Mittermayer, is of opinion that medical men are themselves liable to make mistakes on this important question. He says—1. That "the organic phenomena which precede apparent death can not of themselves be distinguished from those which precede real death, and that for a certain time it will be difficult to decide, scientifically, whether life be suspended, or extinct"; and, 2. That "many phenomena which announce real death are the common and necessary indications of apparent death, as for instance the want of motion, of sense, of breathing, and of pulsation."

These are terrible sentences! How many persons are denounced as dead simply because they have ceased to breathe and move and show signs of a pulse—persons who, according to Gandolfi, may not, in all cases, be ready for burial! It is Gandolfi's opinion that persons "denounced as dead" may in some rare instances be the witnesses—the mute and fear-stricken witnesses—of their own funeral; that they may know perfectly well that they are going to be put into coffins, and thence into the earth, and yet be powerless, alive as they are, to avert the catastrophe of a legal murder! The following illustration of this point is authenticated by Bruhier, and is quoted, in slightly different words, by Dr. Gandolfi:

A schoolmaster in Mohlstadt, named Wenzel, was legally denounced as dead, and got ready for burial. He was to be buried on a certain fixed day, but his sister, who lived far off, had not arrived; and it was decided that the funeral should be postponed. The "deceased," in his winding-sheet, unable to move, and apparently unable to breathe, heard with joy of this delay, and tried, but utterly in vain, to open his eyes, which were fast closed. His sister arrived, and, finding him dead, burst into a paroxysm of tears, and, seizing his hand, reproved him passionately for thus dying without one word of farewell. She took his head between her hands, and, pressing it wildly, looked at him with a fixed and half-demented scrutiny. The eyelids of the "deceased" were seen to quiver; the eyes half opened; he was saved! He had succeeded in putting his latent self in communication with the outer world; and what he himself had begun the doctors completed. Here was a man who, but for his sister's delay, "would have been buried alive! Bruhier's story is, in fact, the confession of Wenzel. It is the story of a patient describing his horror on finding himself a dead man; and, without much confusion of terms, it might fairly be called the "Confessions of a Corpse." Dr. Gandolfi asserts that many such cases have been recorded in various parts of Europe, and that in most instances the cases have been "proved and authenticated." Gandolfi is an authority; and all persons of a quibbling or skeptical nature would do well to consider the matter thoroughly before condemning his evidence.

But it is needless to prolong the list of examples. Enough has been said to show the wickedness of hasty funerals, and the necessity of establishing a proper system of tests. But these tests, so long expected, are not forthcoming. Many physicians are, indeed, of opinion that no such system is obtainable in the present state of medical science. There are, they affirm, a great many ways of proving death, if sufficient time allowed be for experiments; but during the experiments, or before the experiments have begun, the supposed corpse may, they declare, pass from apparent to real death, and thus, without sign or warning, frustrate all inquiry. Celebrated physicians can not be at the death-beds of all sick persons. The poor, and even the rich, must oftentimes content themselves with the services of doctors who are not famous either for learning or intuition; and the medicines and appliances by which distinguished physicians might succeed in testing the existence of life, in persons suffering from trance, would, in the case of poor people, cost too much; and no one is willing to guarantee their final success. For it is important to bear this point in mind: it is one thing to certify that a "corpse" is not really dead; it is another thing to revive that corpse after the inner life—latent and slow to assert itself—has been properly recognized. No; what is wanted is a simple test, and not a complicated test, or a complicated series of tests, which would be out of the reach of the poor, and beyond the power of inexperienced or badly-paid doctors. Let us have that test as soon as possible! No doctor deems it an impossibility. It is a matter of difficulty, and that is all. But difficulties as great as, or greater than, this have been mastered over and over again by modern science.—Belgravia.

  1. "Medicina Forensa Analitica," by Giovanni Gandolfi, Milan, 1863.