Taphephobia is the fear of being buried alive. Though probably not a worry rooted in much truth today, being buried alive used to be a lot more common. In the absence of medical technology and morgues, ways of determining whether someone had really died ranged from pinching to burning. Even then, sometimes the person had simply entered into a coma or was paralysed.
It wasn’t until 1846 that French doctor Eugène Bouchut suggested that they use new stethoscope technology to listen for the existence of a heartbeat that proving death became more certain. Unfortunately for the poor souls on this list, they weren’t so lucky.
From tragic accidents to harrowing crimes, here are 5 true cases of people being buried alive.
Lawrence Cawthorn (1661)
A pamphlet entitled ‘The Most Lamentable and Deplorable Accident’ tells the story of a London butcher called Lawrence Cawthorn who fell fatally ill in 1661. His landlady was eager to inherit his belongings, so had him pronounced dead and buried at a nearby chapel without a doctor’s consultation.
Not long after he was entombed, visitors and mourners heard shrieks coming from his grave. They rushed to dig up his coffin, but it was too late: his shroud was completely shredded, his eyes were swollen and his head was bloody from where he’d beaten it against the coffin. His landlady was accused of premature burial, and the story was immortalised in myth and legend for hundreds of years.
Mr. Cornish (c. 1737)
In 1817, John Snart published the ‘Thesaurus of Horror’. In it, he tells the story of the beloved mayor of Bath, Mr. Cornish, who apparently died of a fever in around 1737. His body was buried quickly. However, the gravedigger was nearly finished sealing the grave when he and some passers-by heard stifled moans coming from Mr. Cornish’s half-buried coffin.
They rushed to dig him up, but it was too late. Mr. Cornish had suffocated in his own grave and his knees and elbows were bloody and beaten. Mr. Cornish’s half-sister was so scared of encountering the same fate that she told her relatives to behead her when they thought she was dead, just to make sure.
Octavia Smith Hatcher (1891)
Octavia Smith Hatcher lived in the city of Pikeville, Kentucky. After her infant son died in 1891, Octavia was bedridden with depression and slipped into a coma. On May 2, she was pronounced dead from unknown causes. Embalming wasn’t an option at the time, and because it was an unusually hot summer, Octavia was buried quickly.
However, many other townspeople appeared to be struck with a similar sickness that caused them to fall into a coma. Crucially, those afflicted would wake up eventually.
Octavia’s husband James began to fear the worst and so exhumed his wife’s coffin, only to discover that his fears were true. The lining on the coffin had been scratched and torn to pieces, and the glass on top of it was smashed and scattered over Octavia’s body. Her nails were bloodied and broken, and her face was twisted with terror.
Octavia was reburied, and James erected a lifelike monument over her grave which still stands today. He reportedly developed a severe phobia of being buried alive.
Angelo Hays (1937)
In 1937, 19-year-old Frenchman Angelo Hays went for a motorcycle ride. He crashed the bike and slammed headfirst into a brick wall. When help arrived, Hays’ head was mangled and he had no pulse. He looked so terrible that his parents were kept from seeing him. He was declared dead and buried three days later.
In nearby Bordeaux, an insurance company became suspicious, since Angelo’s father had recently taken out life insurance for his son for 200,000 francs. An investigator had Angelo’s body exhumed two days after the funeral, and was surprised to discover that the body was still warm. The theory goes that Angelo survived because his body put itself into a deep coma that required very little oxygen to survive.
Miraculously, Angelo made a full recovery and became something of a celebrity. He also profited out of his terrible experience by inventing a security coffin that contained a ‘small oven, refrigerator and a hi-fi cassette player’, which he demonstrated at a fair in 1974 by surviving 30 hours buried underground.
Stephen Small (1987)
Illinois publishing and media heir Stephen Small was kidnapped at gunpoint and buried alive a metre underground in a wooden box in 1987. His kidnappers Danny Edwards and Nancy Rish asked his family for a $1 million ransom, which they intended to pay. Various phone calls to the family were garbled and unclear, meaning that the police had little to go on.
Police located Small’s maroon Mercedes near the site where he was buried and discovered a grisly scene. Though Edwards and Rish provided Small with an oxygen tube, a gallon of water, a torch, candy bars and gum, he ended up suffocating after his breathing tube failed. Edwards and Rish were sentenced to life in prison.