Halloween Special: Dead good (or maybe not?)

Jack-o-lantern

Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s Halloween again. The one night of the year when the spooky and gruesome is all around us – and the undead walk….

Here at Another Kind Of Mind, I do worry about you, my lovely readers, at this time of the year; a season when the nights are creeping in and the cold wind rattles spookily through the keyhole in the dark – and especially what with all those zombies and vampires who’ll be out on the streets tonight, just waiting to eat your brains or drink your blood when you least expect it. So, just in case you should encounter one of the undead on your travels this Halloween, I put together this handy historical guide to making sure they’re really dead… Or are they?

Modern medicine has all sorts of highly technical and complex methods of checking whether or not an individual has sadly breathed their last (and even then they don’t always get it right). Determining whether someone is dead or not isn’t always as simple as you might think.

However, things were even less definitive in medieval and early modern times. Then as now, being buried alive was a terrifying fate that no-one wanted – but it was not possible for contemporary physicians to 100% confirm death until the corpse started to rot, and, quite understandably, no-one wanted a dead body left in their living room until that happened, either.

So the doctors of the time put their over-active imaginations to work, and came up with some highly bizarre tests to confirm (or otherwise) the mortality of their patients. Most of these techniques managed to combine being very unpleasant with being very painful – which meant that if you weren’t actually dead, you’d soon announce that fact!

Using a very basic logic of a type rather shocking to our modern sensibilities (but understandable within its historical context), many of these methods seemed to involve inserting strongly smelling or uncomfortable objects into various delicate body cavities and orifices in an attempt to shock the patient back to the land of the living.

This could be as simple as attempting to make the corpse sneeze or otherwise react by stuffing pepper or other pungent herbs and spices up the nose. Or you could blow a trumpet loudly into the corpse’s ears in the hope of getting a reaction (an annoyed one probably. Either that or you’d be mistaken for St. Peter…).

If that didn’t work, there were some even more extreme techniques for proclaiming life extinct. In these days of health warnings and smoking bans, you might be surprised to learn that tobacco was once utilised by the medical profession for some very bizarre purposes.

It was widely believed that blowing tobacco smoke up a drowning victim’s backside was a sure-fire way of reviving them (who thought that one up, I wonder?). In fact, one doctor even went so far as to invent some specialized equipment in the shape of a machine designed for that very purpose, which presumably made such an unpleasant task much easier for him.

Even more unpleasant methods of determining death were the suggestions of pouring warm urine into the corpse’s mouth, thrashing the body with nettles (ouch), dripping hot candle wax onto the scalp area, stabbing the soles of the feet, or – most gruesome of all – almost emulating the supposed death of Edward II by inserting a red-hot poker into a very delicate part of the human anatomy…

Over the centuries plenty of campfire tales have been told of those who have been declared dead (usually attractive young ladies, as is often the case in such spooky stories!) and have been buried by their sorrowful families in all their finery (usually including an obviously valuable ring) – only to be dug up again by a greedy and avaricious gravedigger or sexton who is intent on getting his sticky paws on the jewellery.

Fighting to get the ring off the corpse’s finger, the story inevitably continues, the grave-robber pulls out a knife and attempts to cut the finger off… All of which, of course, wakes the ‘corpse’ from her death-like slumbers and terrifies the grave-robber almost out of his skin! Variations on this gruesome tale have been told for centuries, and there is actually an element of truth in some of them.

And it wasn’t just postmortem larceny that brought people back from the dead. There have been known cases of the ‘dead’ being revived when clumsy pallbearers dropped the coffin, or when the undertaker went to embalm the ‘corpse’, or when a pathologist began the postmortem (in one notorious case in 1984, a pathologist apparently died of shock when the ‘corpse’ he was opening up leaped off the table and grabbed him round the neck….), or even during the funeral service itself, as in the case of one Reverend Schwartz, who astonished his mourners when he joined in the singing of his favourite hymn from his coffin!

As technology advanced, methods for determining death became less invasive (especially with the invention of devices like the stethoscope, from the early 19th century onwards), but the fear of being buried alive remained – and the methods used by some people to ensure that didn’t happen to them became more creative.

The safety coffin was one such creative idea. Many different designs were patented during the 19th century, but the two things they all had in common were some sort of breathing apparatus and a device that would enable the prematurely buried to communicate with the world above – usually a bell, or, in the case of a modern safety coffin patented in 1995, an alarm and an intercom system!

Most of these patents for safety coffins were never built commercially; their existence only indicated by the fact that they remain on various Patent Offices’ books as slightly gruesome historical oddities. However, one or two did go into production, but no records have ever been found of anyone actually being buried in such a device – and it seems most of them were so eccentric in their design that they wouldn’t have been fit for purpose anyway….

It’s time for me to check my pulse – have a happy and spooky Halloween, and I hope the zombies don’t bite….

Also see Nigel Cawthorne’s ‘The Curious Cures of Old England’ (Portrait Books, London, 2005) for more on some of the stranger methods of determining death listed here.

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