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Dude in a coffin, surrounded by gawkers

The eccentric engineer: the life and death of the strange safety coffin

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This edition of Eccentric Engineer tells the story of the last resting place of the dead: the coffin, and how, at one point, they were built with an escape route.

Engineers spend a lot of time thinking about safety. Every object and process must be safe to make, use and dispose of. But one item you would think doesn’t really need the ‘safety’ treatment is the humble coffin. The great thing about a coffin is that the owner/occupier is usually far beyond safety concerns and highly unlikely to sue should their purchase prove defective. Yet even this hasn’t escaped the clutches of safety engineering.

The reason why so much engineering effort and so many patents have been expended on the ‘safety coffin’ has entirely to do with answering one nagging doubt. What if the occupant isn’t dead? Perhaps surprisingly it can be hard for a doctor to be sure if someone is dead and, with the rather variable medical skills available in the 18th and 19th century, not wishing to be buried alive was a reasonable concern. Cholera epidemics stoked the fear, as did Edgar Allen Poe in his ghoulish stories, and even the rich and famous were not immune to the concern. Chopin asked to be dissected before burial to ensure he was dead while President Washington asked that everyone wait two days before entombing him in his vault, just to be on the safe side.

Of course, the answer to these fears was engineering; nearly 100 ‘safety coffins’ were patented to deal with the problem. For the poor unfortunate who found themself buried alive, there were two problems – how to stay alive and how to tell everyone that you were. Nineteenth-century patents deal with these in several ways. To stay alive most (but unbelievably not all) included a breathing tube and some also had food supplies, or methods of providing the occupant with food while they were dug out.

When Dr Adolf Gutsmuth of Seehausen demonstrated his safety coffin in 1822, he spent his subterranean hours being fed sausage, soup, cake and beer through a feeding tube.

Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger’s 1829 design didn’t include a breathing tube but, should the bell ring in the weather-proof housing over the coffin, an attendant was meant to arrive, insert a breathing tube and start pumping with bellows. Bearing in mind how much air you can fit in a coffin this would probably have been too late.

Then there was the question of telling someone you were alive. Popular here was the flag system. A rope would be connected to a flag, or sometimes a bell, above ground, that the occupant of the tomb could vigorously pull for attention. One elaborate version replaced the flag with a firework, another with firecrackers, although once they had been let off you had to hope someone had noticed as there was no way to ‘reload’. Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki’s ‘Le Karnice’ used bells and flags and he was wise enough to test it on an assistant. Sadly, the signalling system failed, and a breathing tube was only inserted just in time. This proved the death blow for ‘Le Karnice’.

Of course, conditions in a coffin are rather cramped, so having easy access to the rope was important. As such, it was often placed in the ‘deceased’s’ hand or tied around their wrist. This led to the unfortunate problem of ‘false positives’. Bodies move as they decompose and so a raised flag over a safety coffin was often a false alarm.

Some designs, like the 1868 Vester Burial Case, included a ladder so the occupant could escape without relying on others. A bell was also provided should it prove difficult to manipulate a ladder from inside a coffin.

Some systems went the other way and relied entirely on those above ground. Pastor Beck wanted to rely on smell. His system involved a ‘sniffing tube’ being inserted into each coffin. Every day the local priest could then sniff each grave and, where he could smell putrefaction, be certain that he had buried the right person. Should there be no smell, or should they even call out, then he would call the sexton double-quick to disinter the occupant. In Manchester, Robert Robinson’s 1791 tomb was fitted with a glass panel over his face so a watchman could check for his breath on the pane.

One very practical German system consisted of a box placed over an empty grave where the occupant could be viewed through a glass window. Once everyone agreed that putrefaction had set in, a trap door could be opened which deposited the body in the grave and the contraption could then be relocated over another grave.

Despite all this technological progress there is not a single known case of a safety coffin saving the life of its occupant. There can only be two reasons for this. Either everyone ever put in one was definitely dead. Or, more worryingly, they didn’t work.

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