Tag Archives: burial alive

Saved from Burial Alive: Love is Stronger Than Death: 1793

coffin weepers A Book of Highland Minstrelsy 1846


In my mind, the urn-burial of the ancients has always been sacredly and pleasantly associated. The clean, white marble, contain the purified remains of all we have loved, is an object around which affection loves to linger; but the damp, dark grave, with its silent, loathsome work of corruption, is a revolting subject of contemplation, even where love is stronger than death. Then there is the fear of being buried before the vital spark is extinct, and of returning to consciousness with the weight of the earth upon you, and the fresh air of heaven shut out forever! To me this idea is so terribly distinct that it is the spectre of my waking hours, and the night-mare of my dreams. Death himself has no horrors for me; though well content with life, and bound to it by the strongest ties, I think I could calmly close my eyes beneath its oblivious touch; but human nature shrinks at the thought of being buried alive!  Perhaps the vividness of this impression, is owing to the remark I frequently heard from an aged relative, while I was yet a very small child that “hundreds and hundreds were buried before they were dead, when the yellow fever raged so terribly in Boston.” That period is well remembered by our fathers, when pestilence walked abroad at noon-day, and the hearth-stone was silent and dreary as the tomb. The death-carts went their continued round through every hour of the day and night, and unshrouded and uncoffined, the newly dead were hurried to their last home. I knew a man, who, during this time of peril, was snatched from the grave merely by the persevering affection of his wife. Of the correctness of the story there is no doubt; for I have often heard it repeated by both the parties concerned. This awful visitation of God came upon them when they were newly married; when existence was happiness, and separation worse than death. The young husband became a victim to that disease, which was breathing destruction over the city. The friend of his wife urged her to seek refuge in the country, and not risk her own life in a useless attempt to save his. But no persuasion could induce her to leave him; night and day she was by his bedside; and in the anguish of her heart she prayed that the pestilence might likewise rest upon her. But her prayer was not answered–surely and rapidly it did its work upon all her heart held dear; but to her, death would not come, though she prayed for it, and sought it with tears. She had inhaled the breath of her dying husband; but to her it was harmless; and in the madness of despair she repined at the merciful decrees of Heaven. No one was with her in the house–she was alone with the dead. Suddenly the silence of the deserted streets was interrupted by the rumbling of the death-carts; and she knew they had come to take him away from her sight forever; and with the thought, it suddenly flashed into her mind, that life might still be in him! Her entreaties excited compassion, and she was permitted to keep the corpse one half hour longer. The impression made upon her mind had the strength of inspiration; and though every restorative which ingenuity could devise, had failed to produce effect, she would not relinquish hope. Again the carts came round, and the solemn sound, “Bring out the dead,” disturbed the fearful stillness. Again the young wife entreated, wept, and screamed–the hearts of the men, whose dreadful employment accustomed them to such scenes, were touched; but they would not yield. They said the safety of the city required them to be firm in the discharge of their duty; that they had already disobeyed strict orders, and they dared not do it again; that the hope of restoring him was mere insanity; it was evident he had long been dead.” When she found they would not be moved by her prayers, she threw her arms around the body and clung to it with the strength of madness; declaring if they buried one, they should bury both. The men, after a few gentle attempts to remove her, dashed the tears from their eyes, and saying, “We cannot separate them,” left her another half hour of hope. The moments of that interval had a value, of which mortals under ordinary circumstances, can form no conception. Restorative after restorative was applied; but all in vain. With sickening anxiety, she fastened her eyes upon the watch, and then on the stiff, cold form beside her. The half hour had nearly gone; in five minutes they would again come to claim the dead; and she felt that she must resist no longer. She breathed into his nostrils–she moved her hand upon his chest, to restore the action of the lungs–but no change came over his rigid features. She bathed his temples and moistened his lips with sal-volatile – the terrible rumbling of carts was heard in the distance and in the trembling eagerness of the moment, she spilled the contents of the vial into his nostrils– a sudden convulsion passed over the face of the dead! a short, quick gasp –and the eyes heavily opened! The men with the death-carts were startled by a loud, shrill shriek that sounded as if it tore asunder the soul from which it came. When they entered, they found the dead living and the living senseless. Both husband and wife were soon after restored to health. They lived to be the parents of a numerous family; and the husband now survives her, who, with the strong arm of love thus snatched him from an early grave.

Godey’s Lady’s Book [Philadelphia, PA], September 1830

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Yellow fever was a disease, like cholera, so feared, that the dead and the not-entirely dead were hurried to the grave, where some were buried alive. Hence the young wife’s rightful terror at the advent of the death-cart. While we may admire the lady’s strength of character in saving her husband from a certain doom, we must surely ask ourselves, what would the harvest be?  She became the mother of a numerous family and, worn out by child-bearing and domestic duties, was survived by the man she had saved.  Scarcely the ending this romantic story deserved. Perhaps a more sensible option would have been to resign herself to the merciful decrees of Heaven and then marry a wealthy older gentleman who perhaps would have been less fruitful of progeny.

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.


Saved from the Grave by Her Lover: 1810

premature interment

A strange case…is stated to have occurred in Paris, in 1810. Mademoiselle Lafourcade was a young woman of great personal beauty and illustrious family, who possessed great wealth. Among her numerous suitors was a young man named Julien Bosuet, a poor litterateur, or journalist of Paris, who proved to be her lover. But her high birth induced her finally to reject him, and to wed a banker and a diplomatist of some distinction, named M. Rennale. This gentleman, however, after marriage, neglected and treated her with cruelty. She passed with him some years of wretchedness, and died,—as it was supposed; for her condition so perfectly resembled death as to deceive all who saw her. She was buried in an ordinary grave in the village in which she was born.

Bosuet filled with despair, and still inflamed by a profound attachment, hastened from the capital to the province in which the village lay, with the romantic purpose of disinterring the corpse and getting possession of her luxuriant tresses as a memento of her. At midnight he secretly unearthed the coffin, opened it, and while in the act of detaching the hair, he was stopped by the unclosing of the eyes of her he so tenderly and ardently loved. She was aroused by the caresses of her lover from her lethargy or catalepsy, which had been mistaken for death He frantically bore her to his lodgings in the village, and immediately applied the restoratives which his medical learning suggested.

She revived and recognized her preserver, and remained with him until she slowly recovered her original health. She bestowed her heart upon her preserver, and returned no more to her husband, but, concealing from him her resurrection,fled with her lover to America. Twenty years afterwards they both returned to France, in the persuasion that time had so greatly altered the lady’s appearance that her old friends would not recognize her. But it would seem that they were mistaken.

Her former husband, at the first meeting, actually recognized and immediately laid claim to his wife. Of course this claim was resisted, and a judicial tribunal sustained her and her preserver. It was decided that the peculiar circumstances of the case, with the long lapse of years, had annulled the original contract, and the legality of the authority of the first husband, and that the man who had rescued her from the tomb, and with whom she had lived for so many years, was alone entitled to claim her as his wife.

The Spirit Messenger, Vol. 1, R.P. Ambler, Apollos Munn, 1850

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil was chilled by this tale, not because of the premature interment or the thrilling circumstances of the rescue, but by the lover disinterring the corpse to claim a clock of hair. One supposes one ought to applaud the result, but really, there are limits to good taste. Mrs Daffodil felt the same distaste when Mr Rossetti, the poet, had his late wife exhumed to remove a manuscript volume of poems he had impulsively buried with the late lamented. The book sold well, possibly due to its macabre history, but things buried–like dead spouses–often acquire a lustre wholly disproportionate to their real merit.

Taking Pictures of the Dead: An Interview with a Photographer: 1882

The dead at "Bloody Lane" after the Battle of Antietam.

The dead at “Bloody Lane” after the Battle of Antietam.

A first-hand narrative from a photographer of the dead and how he came to such a vocation. This past week was the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, where this photographer had a grim experience.


[Sunday Mercury.] I’ve been engaged in taking pictures of the dead for twenty years or more, was the remark of a photographer of Philadelphia, as he arranged his camera to photograph the first corpse ever brought to a Philadelphia gallery for that purpose. A little coffin or casket was under the sky-light in a slanting position, supported by two chairs, and in it was the body of a fair-haired child, whose peaceful, smiling expression, despite the ghastly pallor of death, make it appear to be in tranquil sleep. The head lay in a perfect bed of flowers, and the waxen hands clasped held a spray of mignonette and two delicate tea rosebuds. The sun, shaded as it was by curtains, threw a bright glare over one side of the little dead face, leaving the other half in shadow. The tube of the camera was brought to the proper focus on the silent subject, and in a few seconds the negative was ready to go into the “dark room” and be prepared for printing in its chemical bath. No one was in the place except the proprietor, a solemn-faced undertaker and your correspondent. This is the first time, said the photographer, as he critically examined the negative, that I have ever been called upon to picture the dead in my own place, but this case was such a peculiar one that I could not refuse, although it would undoubtedly draw away custom if it were known. People have a foolish horror of death, you know, and would actually be afraid to come if they thought I had dead bodies here. It only took a moment, and there was really nothing awful about it. The mother, poor soul, will have something to look at and cry over now, and the speaker stopped, as the undertaker had turned the last screw in the lid of the coffin and was preparing to carry it out to the hearse again.


My first experience in photographing the dead, resumed the photographer, as the hearse rattled away from the door, was on the battle-field of Antietam. It was a warm September morning, three days after the great fight. I had a boy with me to assist in preparing the chemicals. He only worked for an hour. With boyish curiosity he went poking about, and picked up an unexploded shell. He was then on the bank of the creek about half a mile off. I never knew how it happened, but the bomb exploded, and almost blew him to pieces. A little darkey came up to where I was waiting for the boy’s return, and completely unnerved me by shouting: “Say, boss, de red-headed gemmen has done gone and blowed hisself up wif a shell!” He was a bright, intelligent boy, and I felt his loss keenly, but I pressed the negro boy into service, and went to work.

It would be useless to go over the scene of that carnage again; to tell of the ghastly after-sights of that awful fight which made so many widows and orphans. I was nervous and excited, and you can depend it did not tend to quiet my nerves when I unwittingly planted one leg of the camera stand on the chest of a dead Union drummer-boy. By some means he had been partly buried in a patch of soft soil. Nothing was visible but the buttons on his blouse and one foot. I changed my position rather hastily. A “dark room” was improvised by hanging army blankets from the limbs of a low tree; and after taking four negatives, I packed up my traps and started for Philadelphia. It was a slow and dangerous journey, but I made it in safety, and went to work printing pictures. They sold like wildfire at fifty cents and one dollar each. I was nearly two thousand dollars in pocket in less than two weeks, and determined to repeat the programme after the next big battle. It came with Fredericksburg. My anxiety to get a view of the field after the retreat of the Union army led to trouble. I was captured by three Confederate stragglers and taken down the Rappahannock in a rowboat. They suspected me to be a spy, I suppose, and the photographic apparatus merely a blind. At any rate the valuable camera, chemicals, glass and everything else were dumped into the river. I was taken before General Lee, personally, and charged with being a Union spy. No explanation availed anything; it was not even believed that I was a photographer. One of General Lee’s staff—I think his name was Murray—proposed that I should be tested. An aide-de-camp galloped off and procured the necessary apparatus, and I photographed the rebel general and his entire staff, on a day cold enough to freeze the words in a man’s mouth. The officers were evidently impressed with the idea of my innocence. A short consultation followed, and then General Lee himself said to me: “Sir, it appears that you are simply engaged in earning a livelihood, and, I believe, honestly. You are at liberty.” I was blindfolded, put back in the boat, and landed within twenty miles of where Burnside had his winter quarters. From that day to this I never knew where I was. Here is the picture of Lee and his staff, and the photographer exhibited the faded likeness, which had probably saved his life.


After the battle of Gettysburg, he resumed, it became very common for photographers to go to the front. They all appeared to be making money, and I finally made up my mind to try it again. The three days’ fight at Spotsylvania Court House was the last battle-field I ever saw, or want to see again. I arrived there before General Grant had driven the enemy into Richmond. Many of the dead had been removed, but there were still many bodies on the field—enough, in fact, to make a good picture, I thought. I never took it. After getting the best site to have the sun on a half-dozen dead soldiers and two abandoned cannon for the central figures of the picture, I covered my head with the cloth and brought the tube to bear on the group. I had just got the proper focus when a most startling incident occurred. I saw the arm of a supposed dead man lift high in the air and then fall. The day was mild, beautiful and sunny. Everything was as still as death, except the faint booming of a far distant cannon. I dropped the cloth and ran forward to where the dead soldiers lay. There was not the least sign of life in any of them. Decomposition had set in, except in one of them, a dark-haired young man wearing the gray uniform of the Confederacy. He was dead, to all appearance, and a ragged bullet-hole in his forehead precluded any other idea. Thinking it was only imagination, I went back to the camera to make another attempt. No sooner had I lifted the cloth to put over my head than I saw the arm lift up a second time. There could be no mistake. Again I approached the dead men, and looking first at the young man who seemed to have met death later than his companions, I plainly saw a tremor in his fingers. Quickly I bent over him, and placing my hand on his forehead found it clammy and cold. He was not dead, but dying. I spoke, and his eyelids trembled in a sort of unconscious recognition of the presence of the living. I heard a faint flutter of the breath, and saw the shadow of a smile hover for a moment about the lips. Then came a long-drawn sigh, a weak gurgle in the throat, and the soldier boy was dead.

I opened his coat. An old-fashioned daguerreotype of a gray-haired lady, a pack of cards and a Catholic prayer-book I found wrapped up in a small Confederate flag. On the fly-leaf of the book was written, “Henry Barnes MacHenry. From his mother.” The poor fellow had evidently lain where he fell for two or three days, suffering from the tortures of hunger and thirst. Earlier attention might have saved him. The incident, simple as it may seem to you, frightened me. I went home, and for a year devoted myself to regular photography.


Business grew dull, and I got poor. The war had just about ended, when one day, when pushed to my wits’ end for money, I was struck with an idea which I have followed out successfully ever since. The death columns of the morning papers were carefully gone over, and when the funeral was advertised from an humble neighborhood I was usually sure of a five dollar bill. I visited the houses and offered to photograph their dead. Out of a dozen visits I would probably get one job. In a couple of years my reputation grew, and now I am almost as frequently sent for as the minister. Only last May a messenger came from a West Philadelphia family for me to photograph their dying father.

When I got there he was too far gone and I had to wait. Half an hour after the old gentleman had breathed his last, and before he became stiff, we had him sitting in a chair, with his eyes held open with stiff mucilage between the lids and brow, and his legs crossed. He made a very good picture. I once photographed two children—sisters—who had died the same day of diphtheria. They were posed with their arms about each other’s necks. An Irish family, living in the southern part of the city, called on me about two years ago to take a picture of their dead son—a young man—with his high hat on. It was necessary to take the stiffened corpse out of the ice-box and prop him up against the wall. The effect was ghastly, but the family were delighted, and thought the hat lent a life-like effect. Sometimes, and at the suggestion of the family, I have filled out the emaciated cheeks of dead people with cotton to make them look plump. The eyes are nearly always propped open with pins or mucilage, but when people can afford to engage an artist it is an easy matter to paint the eyes afterward. Another time I took a picture of a dead man who had been scalded to death. It was a full-length photograph, and an artist was engaged to fill out the burns on the face and then make a copy in oil. For that piece of work I got $50, and I think he got no less than $500.


I recall an instance, continued the photographer, which is probably the most remarkable thing ever related. Two young men came into my place in the winter of 1874 or 1875, I forget which, and said they wanted a photograph of their dead father, whose body was in the family receiving vault awaiting interment in the spring. They cautioned me that their step-mother was violently opposed to having her husband’s body taken from the vault for such a purpose, and that she daily visited the place of sepulture to prevent any such attempt. It was agreed that I should engage a couple of men to assist in taking the body out, and another to keep watch for the widow. We went to the vault early in the morning to avoid the woman, who usually made her visit after twelve o’clock. It took some time to get the body properly posed against the side of the vault, and then it began to drizzle. We threw a horse blanket over the coffin and retreated to the shelter of a tree. About noon the sun came out, and I hurriedly prepared to secure the negative. The camera had just been placed in position when our sentinel came running breathlessly in, with word that the widow was nearly at the entrance to the cemetery gate, a quarter mile distant. It did not take a moment to restore the corpse to the coffin, screw on the lid, and carry all back to the vault. I packed up my kit, and with the two men got out of another gate. Four months after that one of the sons came to me with a most remarkable story. He said his step-mother had lost her reason. When the dead man’s body was exhumed in the spring in the presence of the widow, she insisted on having the coffin opened. The corpse was found partly turned over and the lining of the coffin disarranged. The widow went into hysterics, under the impression that her husband had been buried alive. The stepsons tried to reassure her, and finally confessed that they had authorized the taking up of the body to have it photographed, but the explanation came too late. The woman’s reason was affected, and she could not understand that in our haste to escape we had turned the corpse on its side.

Photographic Times and American Photographer, Volume 12, J. Traill Taylor, Editor, 1882

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This gripping narrative contains several popular themes of the era: dying Civil War soldiers, post-mortem photography, and burial alive. The mistaken placing of the tripod on a drummer boy’s corpse, the “dead” soldier’s moving arm, and the descent into madness of the obviously disliked stepmother are thrilling touches. And it is always useful to get a professional’s tips on how to make a dead body seem alive using common household items.

This excerpt and more on post-mortem photography may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

For a piece on the myth of standing post-mortem photographs see this post, Dead Man Standing.

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.