A Child Buried Alive and Saved on the Dissecting Table: c. 1830s

A Victorian child's coffin

A Victorian child’s coffin

Even grave-robbers may once in a while be the unconscious means by which a human life is saved. Mr. Hayward, who lives in Missouri, is the man who went through this strange experience. The Kansas City Journal, which I quote, contained the following: “To be buried alive while sorrowing friends stand about the open grave, and then come to life in a dissecting room, is the actual experience of George Hayward, an Independence jeweler. Although years have elapsed since he was lowered gently into his grave, the memory of the moment when the undertaker screwed down the lid of his coffin, shutting out the sunlight, and the sensations he felt as he was lowered into the grave, while a funeral dirge was being chanted by the village choir, still remains to him as a horrible dream. He was conscious from the time he was pronounced dead until he was snatched from the grave by the medical fraternity and laid on the dissecting table in the ‘interest of science.’ Mr. Hayward still retains the grim recollection of hearing the damp earth falling on the coffin lid, a mournful accompaniment to the sobs of relatives. He was unable to help himself or make a sign, and, knowing this, his agony was at times intense. His greatest agony of mind occurred when the sexton rounded up his grave on top and the sound of receding footsteps smote his ears. Mr. Hayward says that at this moment he fell into a dreamy sensation peculiar to a drowning man. How long he remained in this condition he does not know, but his sense of living again came over him when he heard a scraping on his coffin lid some little time after he had been buried.

Mr. Hayward is a man of sixty-nine years of age. For years he has been in the jewelry business at Independence, and at present conducts a shop on South Main street. He has the belief that many people are buried alive, and his own experience has a tendency to confirm this belief. To a Journal representative Mr. Hayward related this burial and resurrection experience with the unconcern of a man who does not fear death. ‘It was in Marshville, England, County Gloucestershire, where I was buried,’ said Mr. Hayward very grimly. ‘My father had a large family of boys, and he raised us all on the farm near the village. I was quite young, and it was my chief delight to go to the fields with my older brothers. In those days the farmhouses were surrounded with big yards filled with straw. This straw was allowed to rot, and in the fall of the year it was loaded on wagons and carted to the fields as a fertilizer. It was a bright morning when we started for the fields, and I ran ahead of the horses. The horses in England are not driven with reins, but they follow the command of the voice. After reaching the field the pitching of the straw commenced. The men used hop picks, which are fashioned somewhat after a heavy pitchfork. While standing near one of the hands, by accident I was struck on the head with one of the picks. It penetrated my scull, and at the time made me feel faint and dizzy. My injury was not considered serious. After returning to the house I was sent into the cellar, and, much to my surprise, I could see in the dark as well as in the light. After coming from the cellar my strength failed me, and I was soon bedfast. Two doctors were called. One of them insisted that my condition was due to the blow on the head, the other that I had pleurisy. At any rate two weeks elapsed, and my eyes closed in supposed death. It was death as far as my relatives were concerned, yet I was painfully conscious of every movement going on around me. My eyes were half closed, and as I was laid out I heard my elder brother, John, walk into the house. I saw him approach the cot with tears in his eyes, and sympathizing friends consoled him by asking him to dry his tears. “He is gone,” they said, and other similar expressions were used around the bier. Well-known faces would peer down at me as I lay with my eyes half closed. Tears rained on my face as the burial shroud was wrapped around my body. As soon as the undertaker arrived I knew I was to be buried alive. Try as I would, nothing could break the spell which bound me. Every action and every word spoken are as distinct to my mind now as then. Well, the time for the funeral arrived, and the service was preached over my living but rigid body. The undertaker approached and the lid of my little prison-house was fastened down. Life seemed all but gone when this took place; but, as I stated, no effort of mine could break the spell. The coffin was shoved into the wagon, and the trundling of the vehicle sounded in my ears. I was painfully conscious of the fact that I was soon to be lowered into my grave. Strange as it may seem, at times I did not feel fear at my impending fate. The coffin was taken out of the wagon and lowered into the grave. In those days boxes were not used as a receptacle for the coffin. The clods of earth fell heavy on the lid of the casket. There I was being entombed alive, unable to speak or stay the hands of my friends. My effort to move proved futile, and the close air of the coffin seemed stifling to me. Suddenly the shoveling ceased and the silence of the tomb was complete. I did not seem to have the fear then that a person would naturally expect under such circumstances. All I remember is that the grave is a lonely place, and the silence of the tomb was horribly oppressive. A dreamy sensation came over me, and a sense of suffocation became apparent. My whole system was paralyzed; were it otherwise my struggles would have been desperate. How long I remained in this condition I do not know. The first sense of returning life came over me when I heard the scraping of a spade on my coffin lid. I felt myself raised and borne away. I was taken out of my coffin, not to my home, but to a dissecting room. I beheld the doctors who had waited on me at my home, dressed in long white aprons. In their hands they had knives. Through my half-closed eyes I saw them engaged in a dispute. They were trying to decide how to cut me up. One argued one way, while the other doctor took another view of the matter. All this I witnessed through my half-open eyes. My sense of hearing was remarkably acute. Both approached the table and opened my mouth to take out my tongue, when, by superhuman effort, my eyelids were slightly raised. The next thing I heard was: “Look out, you fool, he is alive!” “He is dead,” rejoined the other doctor. “See, he opens his eyes!” continued the first doctor. The other physician let his knife drop, and a short time after that I commenced to recover rapidly. Instead of cutting me up they took me home. There was great rejoicing among my relatives. I owed my life to the doctors’ dispute as to what ailed me during my illness. I suppose I was kept alive for some purpose,” continued Mr. Hayward, as he finished his grewsome tale, “for I am the father of ten children.”

The Encyclopaedia of Death and Life in the Spirit-world, Vol. 3, John Reynolds Francis, 1900

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  There are a shocking number of actual first-person narratives from persons buried alive, only to be saved by thieves or Resurrectionists. One English doctor investigating premature burial estimated that 2,700 people a year in England and Wales were buried alive. To counteract this distressing trend, an Association for the Prevention of Premature Interment was founded in 1895 by Colonel Edward P. Vollum, a US Army surgeon, and Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, eminent sanitary reformer and anaesthetic researcher. One of the suggestions made was to leave a flask of lightly stoppered chloroform in each coffin so that the person buried alive could drift painlessly off into a real death. When Dr. Richardson died in 1896, he was cremated–nonsensically, another method advocated for avoiding premature interment. One must question the logic that promotes being burned alive as a more desireable outcome than being trapped in an airless casket.

For more accounts of burial alive, please see this post.

The account above appears in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


4 thoughts on “A Child Buried Alive and Saved on the Dissecting Table: c. 1830s

    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Mrs Daffodil has collected perhaps a dozen first-hand stories from persons buried alive and saved by the coffin being dropped or some other act of Divine Intervention. It makes one shudder to think how many did NOT survive to write their accounts for the newspaper.


  1. Pingback: Was He Buried Alive? An Undertaker’s Obsession: 1907 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  2. Pingback: Cremated Alive – The Victorian Book of the Dead

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