As some of these stories point out, the threat of being buried alive is still a very terrifying and valid concern.
Being buried alive ranks pretty high on the list of terrible ways to die, and it used to happen a lot more than it does now. In fact, in the earlier days of medicine it was much more difficult to determine if someone was actually dead – or just in a coma, emaciated, or paralyzed.
Starting around the 18th century, suspected corpses were subjected to abusive tests to establish death. It ranged from the fairly benign nipple pinching all the way up to hot pokers inserted in their rectums.
If no complaints registered on that last test, it must certainly be safe to presume them dead. Laughter ensued in 1846 when French doctor Eugène Bouchut suggested the use of new stethoscope technology to listen for the existence of a heartbeat.
While we should feel thankful that the days of inferior medical equipment and lack of knowledge are mostly behind us, we haven’t rid humanity of this horrible experience quite yet. There is evil in the world that still makes the threat of being buried alive a valid concern, as some of these stories point out. Good luck sleeping tonight after reading these – especially if you suffer from taphephobia: the fear of being buried alive.
True Stories Of People Buried Alive: Angelo Hays
In 1937, a 19-year-old from France named Angelo Hays went for a motorcycle ride. Perhaps he had minimal knowledge of how to operate such a vehicle because he ended up crashing it and slamming head first into a brick wall.
When help arrived, they found Hays’ head was mangled and he had no pulse. He was so terrible to look at that his parents were kept from seeing him for their own good. Hays was declared dead and buried three days later.
Due to an investigation by an insurance company, the body of Angelo Hays was exhumed two days after the funeral. It was quite the surprise to find that his body was still warm. Apparently, in the aftermath of the accident, his body put itself into a deep coma and required very little oxygen to upkeep his system.
After being buried alive, Hays received proper medical care and went on to make a miraculous full recovery. He then invented a type of security coffin that he toured across France. It was reported to contain “a small oven, a refrigerator, and a hi-fi cassette player.”
Octavia Smith Hatcher
In 1889, Octavia Smith married a wealthy Kentuckian named James Hatcher. The newlyweds had a son whom they named Jacob. However, infant mortality rates being what they were in the late 1800s, Jacob died in infancy.
Losing her son put Octavia in a deep depression, and she was bedridden for several months. During this time, she also began showing signs of a mysterious illness.
Eventually, her body entered a coma-like state, and nobody could awaken her. She was pronounced dead in May of 1891 – just four months after Jacob’s death.
It was an unusually hot May that year, and so Octavia was buried quickly (Embalming was not yet common practice.) But a few days later, others in the town began falling into a similar coma-like sleep with shallow breathing patterns- only to awaken a few days later. They discovered it was an illness caused by the bite of the tsetse fly.
Fearing that she had been buried alive, James panicked and had Octavia exhumed, thinking she might awaken. She had, but James was too late. Octavia’s coffin was air-tight. He found the coffin lining had been shredded and Octavia’s fingernails were bloody. On her face was frozen a contorted shriek of terror.
A traumatized James re-buried Octavia and erected a lifelike monument of her that sits in the cemetery she rests in. Historian Jessica Forsyth notes that James went on to develop a severe phobia of being buried alive. Who wouldn’t after that experience?
One night in 1987, a 39-year-old Illinois businessman named Stephen Small received a phone call that one of his renovation projects was being broken into. He didn’t realize that by going to the property, he was being lured into his own abduction.
His wife, Nancy Smalls, received a call at 3:30 a.m., informing her that the ransom on her husband was $1 million. The family received five calls in total, and were willing to comply with demands – only they couldn’t understand them because of poor sound quality of the messages.
Where Stephen was during this time was in a homemade wood box about three feet underground. His abductors provided him with a flimsy breathing tube and some water – suggesting they intended to let him live if they got payment. But something happened that they maybe didn’t plan on. Stephen’s breathing tube failed.
When police finally used their air patrol to find Smalls’ vehicle, it was too late. They couldn’t pinpoint how long he’d been inside the box, but they did deduct that he’d been dead for several hours.
His abductors, Daniel J. Edwards, 30, and Nancy Rish, 26, were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping. “They planned it,” said Kankakee Deputy Chief Robert Pepin. “They built a box. They put a ventilation system in.”
In March of 2005, sex-offender John Evander Couey kidnapped and raped 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. Murder was also among the charges as Couey buried the girl – bound in speaker wire – in a trash bag near her home in Homosassa, Fla.
The only thing is, Jessica wasn’t dead when Couey put her in the bag. Heartbreakingly, nobody discovered the girl’s makeshift burial site, hidden under some leaves, until three weeks later.
The medical examiner ruled that Jessica died of asphyxiation and that she’d managed to poke two holes in the trash bag before she ran out of oxygen. Her fingers were sticking out of the holes when they uncovered the bag. Buried inside with Jessica was her favorite stuffed animal; a purple dolphin Couey let her bring along when he abducted her.
As much of a gut-punch as this story is, we can take some solace in where this landed Couey. He was caught, prosecuted, and sentenced to death – though he didn’t live to see his execution. Couey died of cancer (some sources cite the unpleasant anal variety) in prison.
Earlier, at his sentencing court date, Couey mentioned that he would apologize to Jessica in heaven. “I have bad news,” Jessica’s father, Mark Lunsford, said, “I don’t think you’re going to make it there.”
Most of what can be gleaned from this unfortunate case is from a newspaper article dating back to 1884.
Kentucky’s Hickman Courier reported that a young lady by the name of Anna Hockwalt was dressing for her brother’s wedding, and sat down to rest in the kitchen. When someone checked in on her a few minutes later, she was still there – her “head leaning against the wall and apparently lifeless” the paper reported.
Medical aid arrived, and the doctor assumed she was dead when he couldn’t revive her. Anna’s generally nervous nature and the fact that she suffered from heart palpitations was the flimsy cause of death. However, this assumption didn’t sit well with some of Anna’s friends, who thought her ears still looked pink as though blood was flowing through them.
Anna was buried the next day, and her friends told her parents of their earlier observation. Of course, this perplexed her parents to the point of having her dug back up. They found the worse case scenario: Anna’s body was turned onto its side, fingers gnawed almost to the bone, and hair torn out by the handful.
Now that you’ve read about being buried alive, read about the strangest deaths in history. Then learn about the Japanese monks who mummified themselves while still alive.