Exhuming historical accounts of people being buried alive.
The idea of being buried alive is horrifying. Though the possibility of waking in your coffin after being mistakenly buried alive is rare these days, years ago terrifying incidents like these were far more common than you might think. In fact, during the 18th and 19th centuries, inventors patented safety coffins designed to assist people who might be accidentally buried alive. Some included a bell with a cord that the prematurely buried person could ring to signal to the outside world that they were, in fact, alive. Some people have suggested that the phrases “dead ringer,” “saved by the bell” and “graveyard shift” began with the use of these safety coffins, but others dismiss the connection as urban myth.
What is true is that records exist of people having been accidentally buried alive. Below are just four of those disturbing cases.
1. Angelo Hays (1937)
The case of Frenchman Angelo Hays may be the most horrifying instance of premature burial, primarily because in this case the victim miraculously survived. Angelo Hays, a nine-year-old boy from St. Quentin de Chalais, France, was believed to have died in a motorcycle accident, hurled headfirst into a brick wall. The accident was extremely horrific, and Hays’ face was reportedly so disfigured that his parents weren’t allowed to view the body. Unable to locate a pulse, the doctors declared Hays dead, and he was promptly buried three days after the accident. Luckily for Hays, shortly after the burial investigators became suspicious when they realized Angelo’s father had recently insured his son’s life for 200,000 francs. An investigation was launched, and two days later Hays’ body was exhumed to confirm the cause of death. To the investigator’s surprise, when the doctor removed the burial shroud, Hays had a faint heartbeat, and his body was warm. While doctors had initially thought Hays was dead, he’d actually been in a state of unconsciousness due to his severe head injury. Because his coma-like state had diminished his need for oxygen, he’d miraculously remained alive. Hays was immediately rushed to a hospital, and after numerous grueling surgeries and extensive rehabilitation, he completely recovered. As a result, he became a celebrity throughout France, touring the country and showcasing a “security coffin” he’d invented, which featured a food locker, radio transmitter, alarm bells, chemical toilet, and library.
2. Mary Norah Best (1871)
At the age of 17 Mary Norah Best contracted cholera. After suffering agonizing stomach pains and cramps, her condition gradually worsened. Ultimately, a doctor pronounced her dead. Because of the stifling heat in India, cholera victims were typically buried quickly to prevent the disease from spreading. Though there were always questions surrounding the circumstances of her death, including that the doctor who reported her dead stood to benefit from her death, Mary was buried at a French cemetery in Calcutta in her family’s tomb. Ten years later, in 1881, the vault was opened to inter the body of her uncle. Upon opening the vault to place the second coffin in the tomb, however, the undertaker and his assistant witnessed a grotesque sight. The lid of Mary’s coffin was on the floor, and her skeletal remains were hanging out of the coffin. Interestingly, her clothes were torn, the right side of her skull bore a large fracture, and the fingers of her right hand were bent as if they’d been clutching something. Though no one is certain what happened, the general consensus is that the doctor who’d signed the death certificate actually poisoned Mary — a theory that was later validated when he attempted to murder Mary’s mother. Apparently the poison hadn’t killed Mary, and she was buried when she was merely unconscious. Once in the tomb, Mary somehow managed to gain consciousness, breaking the lid of the coffin and striking her head on a shelf nearby before dying shortly after.
3. Octavia Smith Hatcher (1891)
In 1891 Octavia Smith Hatcher, a young mother, tragically lost her son, Jacob, when a strange disease spread through her hometown of Pikeville, Kentucky. Shortly after her son’s death, Octavia fell into a depressive state and became bedridden with grief. Over the next few months, she grew increasingly ill, eventually slipping into a coma from which she could not be awakened. On May 2, 1891, she was pronounced dead of unknown causes. Hatcher was one of the first people in the town to become ill, and after she was buried, it was discovered that numerous townspeople had been afflicted with a similar disease and fallen into a coma-like state, only to awaken later, in some cases, shortly after being declared dead. Grief-stricken and tormented by the possibility that his wife might have been buried alive, Octavia’s husband, James Hatcher, decided to secure an emergency exhumation. Upon exhuming her body, it was clear his wife had awoken and attempted to claw her way out of the coffin. The lining inside the coffin had been scratched and torn to pieces, her nails and fingertips were bloodied and broken, and her face was contorted and horror-struck. It was later speculated that the mysterious illness had been caused by a Tsetse fly, an African insect that can cause a disease known as sleeping sickness. Following the exhumation, Octavia was reburied, and her husband erected a lifelike monument of Octavia near a monument to their baby Jacob, both of which still stand today.
4. Neysi Perez
One of the most terrifying cases of a person being buried alive involves 16-year-old Neysi Perez, a Honduran teen who apparently woke in her coffin, only to die before she could be rescued. According to reports, the horrible ordeal began when Perez, three months pregnant at the time, collapsed as a result of a panic attack after hearing sounds of gunfire near her home in La Entrada (western Honduras). When Perez began foaming at the mouth, her parents, who suspected she was possessed by an evil spirit, contacted a local priest who performed an exorcism. When the exorcism proved unsuccessful, Perez was rushed to the hospital, where she became lifeless and, three hours later, was pronounced dead by doctors. After burying his wife in the wedding dress she’d worn days earlier at their wedding, Rudy Gonzales reportedly heard her banging from inside the coffin. As I put my hand on her grave,” he later told Primer Impacto in an interview, “I could hear noises inside. I heard banging; then I heard a voice. She was screaming for help.” When other family members heard similar noises, cemetery workers and relatives smashed open her tomb, desperately hammering at the concrete surrounding her coffin. After rescuing her from the tomb, they transported Perez to a nearby hospital. Once at the hospital, staff tried to revive the teen, but they eventually concluded that she was clinically dead. Perez was ultimately reburied in the same mausoleum from which she’d been rescued hours earlier. Doctors believe the panic attack temporarily stopped Neysi’s heart or that she experienced a cataplectic episode (the sudden temporary loss of voluntary muscle function normally set off by extreme stress or fear), which often leaves its victims without muscle control. The girl’s mother said she believes the doctors may have prematurely declared her daughter dead. “Even after a day in the tomb,” she said, “the color of her body was normal. Her corpse didn’t smell. She just looked like she was in a deep sleep. There was no rigor mortis. Her body was still flexible. It was impossible that she had been dead for so many hours.” Though doctors were not held responsible for declaring Perez dead prematurely, if Perez was in fact buried alive, experts speculate that she most likely died of oxygen deprivation while in the tomb.