True stories from the shadow of death…
by Robert A. Waters
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? “The Premature Burial,” Edgar Allan Poe.
Before the development of embalming technology, those thought to have stopped breathing were pronounced dead, placed in a grave, and buried. If they were lucky, a competent physician would make the pronouncement. If they were unlucky, well…let’s just say it’s no wonder that premature burial was once dreaded by the living.
The following story, printed in the Fort Wayne Daily Gazette on February 9, 1884, describes the horror of a hasty interment.
A Dayton, Ohio, Maiden Suffers Horrible Death.
The Opening of the Coffin Discovers the Frightful Fact—An Awful Struggle for Life.
“A sensation has been created here by the discovery of the fact that Miss Hockwalt [sic. Hochwalt], a young woman of high social connections, who was supposed to have died suddenly January 10, was buried alive. The horrible truth was discovered a few days ago, and since then it has been the talk of the city. The circumstances of Miss. Hockwalt's death were peculiar. It occurred the morning of the marriage of her brother to Miss Emma Schwind, at Immanuel's church. Shortly before 8 o'clock the young lady was dressing for the nuptials and had gone into the kitchen. A few moments afterward she was found sitting on a chair with her head leaning against the wall and apparently lifeless. Medical aid was summoned. Dr. Jewett, after examination, pronounced her dead. Mass was being read at the time in Immanuel church, and it was proposed to postpone the wedding, but Father Haane thought best to continue, and the wedding was consummated in gloom by low mass. An examination showed that Anna was of excitable temperament, nervous and afflicted with sympathetic palpitation of the heart. Dr. Jewett thought this the cause of death. The following day the girl was interred in Woodland [Cemetery]. The friends of Miss Hockwalt were unable to forget the terrible impression, and several ladies observed that her ears bore a remarkably natural color, and could not dispel the idea that she was not dead. They conveyed their opinion to Anna's parents, and the thought preyed upon them so that the body was taken from the grave.
“It is stated that when the coffin was opened it was discovered that the supposed inanimate body had turned upon its right side. The hair of the head had been torn out in handfuls and the flesh of the fingers had been bitten from the bones. The body was reinterred and efforts made to conceal the case, but there are those who state that they saw the body and know the truth of the facts narrated.”
A second case was reported in American Weekly in 1930. The article, entitled “Safeguards Against Being Buried Alive,” read:
“One of the most pathetic cases is that of Mrs. Catherine Boger, of Morrison's, near White Haven, Pa. A year after her marriage in 1892, Mrs. Boger was taken ill and ‘died.’ Dr. James Willard, the family physician, made several tests to make sure that death had taken place, and Mrs. Boger was buried. Sometime afterwards a friend informed Boger that his wife had been subject to periodic hysteria and suggested that she might have been buried alive. This thought haunted Boger until he became practically insane and to pacify him it was arranged that the grave should be reopened.
“To the shock of Boger's friends his fears were proved correct. The woman had been buried alive. The body was turned face downward. The glass in the lid of the coffin was broken. The burial robes had been torn to shreds and bruises and gashes in the woman's flesh showed where she had torn herself in frenzy upon discovering her hopeless situation.”
Beginning in the early 18th century, many wealthy people attempted to devise some system that would alert others if they were interred before actually dying. Usually, these schemes included constructing wires inside the casket attached to outside bells that could be rung in case the dead person awoke.
Skeptics insist that many of the examples of those disinterred who seemed to have injuries associated with being buried alive were actually the effects of decomposition. However, there have been enough documented cases to know that such horrible burials did indeed occur. And the law of averages would imply that of the trillions of persons buried throughout history, some would not have been dead.
How many crime victims have been buried alive? This will never be known, since many bodies will never be discovered.
Listed below are a few modern victims whose remains were found—prematurely entombed.
1987: Stephen Small, 39, media mogul from Kankakee, Illinois, was abducted from his home and held for ransom. The kidnappers, Danny Edwards and Nancy Rish, were quickly caught and led FBI agents to a plywood box buried in the ground near their home. Small’s body, still handcuffed, lay in the home-made coffin. Beside him were a flashlight, water, and candy. A PVC pipe designed to provide air was too small, and the victim suffocated. Edwards was sentenced to death, while Rish got life. In 2003, Illinois governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of everyone on death row, so Edwards escaped justice. (Former Governor Ryan is currently serving a six year sentence after being convicted of racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering, and tax fraud.)
2005: An elderly invalid couple was abducted from their Jacksonville, Florida home and buried in a previously-prepared grave. Carol and Reggie Sumner had been robbed and buried alive. Tiffany Cole, Alan Wade, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Nixon were convicted of the horrific crime—each received dual death sentences.
2005: Jessica Lunsford was kidnapped from her Florida home by John Evander Couey, a registered sex offender. After repeatedly raping her for three days, Couey stuffed Jessica into plastic bags and buried her alive beside his trailer. When found, her finger was sticking out of the bag and she was holding her favorite stuffed animal. Couey was convicted of murder but cheated the executioner by dying in prison.
2009: Five-year-old Nevaeh Buchanan was reported missing in Munroe, Michigan. Eleven days later, she was found encased in cement beside the River Raisin. Investigators said she was buried alive and died by inhaling dirt. No one has been charged in her murder.