The Victorian era was a prime time to have Taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the limited advancement of medicine led to many people being mistakenly buried alive. A Safety coffin or security coffin is a coffin fitted with a mechanism to prevent premature burial; this allows the occupant to signal that they have been buried alive.
Many diseases of the time often led people to be buried alive. Some diseases would be cholera and bacterial infections that caused severe diarrhea and dehydration. Other diseases would cause the heart to slow down where it is almost undetectable. African trypanosomiasis, also known as African sleeping sickness is an infectious disease that causes uncontrollable abnormal sleeping patterns. This disease did lead to a great number of premature burials as well as widespread fear of being buried alive. Due to limited medical knowledge, this was a real problem at the time and prompted safety coffins to be built.
In 1790, Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick had the first safety coffin built. The coffin included a window to allow light in and a tube that provided fresh air. Once the lid was locked, 2 keys were sewn into a pocket in his burial shroud. In the event he was to awaken inside his coffin, he would be able to reach the 2 keys and unlock the coffin. The window would allow for the cemetery caretakers to periodically look down onto the coffin to see if his body was decomposing. The dying request of George Washington stated, “Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead.”
In the 19th Century, Germans designed over 30 different designs of safety coffins. The most popular one was from Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger. This coffin included a rope system that attached to the corpse’s hands, feet, and head to an above-ground bell. This system was not as effective as he was hoping, due to the bloating of the body having not being accounted for. When the body begins to decompose it becomes bloated, this caused the areas where the ropes were tied to begin to move and ring the bell above ground. Other designs such as a raiseable flag, firecracker, or a pyrotechnic rocket were used to alert the cemetery caretakers. A few designs even included a shovel, a ladder, and a supply of food and water. Some experts believe the idiom ‘saved by the bell’ originated from the use of safety coffins.
There were 149 cases of actual premature burial, 10 people were accidentally dissected before death, and 2 were embalmed while still alive. In 1905, the book “Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented” was written, Co-author William Tebb. He was also the founder of the London Association for Premature Burial. This book was to help stop the mistake of being buried alive.
As recently as 1995, an Italian named Fabrizio Caselli invented a safety coffin model that includes an emergency alarm, two-way microphone/speaker, a torch, oxygen tank, heartbeat sensor, and heart stimulator. Safety coffins are still available for purchase today.