The Strange Story Of Essie Dunbar, The South Carolina Woman Who Was Allegedly Buried Alive In 1915

Published May 29, 2023
Updated May 30, 2023

Essie Dunbar was 30 years old when she had an epileptic seizure that left her doctor certain she was dead. However, when her sister arrived at her funeral and asked to see her one last time, the story goes that Dunbar sat right up inside her coffin.

Essie Dunbar

Public DomainEssie Dunbar was allegedly buried alive in 1915.

During a hot South Carolina summer in 1915, 30-year-old Essie Dunbar “died” of an epileptic seizure. Or so her family thought.

They called a doctor, who confirmed that Dunbar showed no signs of life. The family then arranged a funeral, placed Dunbar in a wooden coffin, invited friends and family to mourn her death, and finally buried her.

At the request of Dunbar’s sister — who arrived late to the funeral — Dunbar’s coffin was dug up so that her sister could view Dunbar’s body one last time. To everyone’s profound shock, Dunbar was alive and smiling.

Essie Dunbar had been buried alive, and she went on to live another 47 after her first “death” — or so the story goes.

The 1915 ‘Death’ Of Essie Dunbar

Not much is known about Essie Dunbar’s life before her “death” in 1915. Born in 1885, Dunbar apparently lived a quiet existence in South Carolina for the first 30 years of her life. Most of her family lived nearby, though Dunbar also had a sister in the neighboring town.

Blackville South Carolina

Evanoco/Wikimedia CommonsThe town of Blackville, South Carolina, where Essie Dunbar spent most of her life.

But in the summer of 1915, Dunbar suffered an epileptic seizure and collapsed. Dunbar’s family called a doctor, Dr. D.K. Briggs of Blackville, South Carolina, for help, but he appeared to arrive too late. Briggs found no signs of life and told the family that Dunbar was dead.

Heartbroken, Dunbar’s family started to plan a funeral. According to Buried Alive: The Terrifying History Of Our Most Primal Fear by Jan Bondeson, they decided to hold the funeral the next day, at 11 a.m., to give Dunbar’s sister time to travel to the service.

That morning, Essie Dunbar was placed in a wooden coffin. Three preachers conducted the service, which should have given Dunbar’s sister plenty of time to arrive. When the service finished, and Dunbar’s sister was still nowhere to be seen, the family decided to proceed with the burial.

They lowered Essie Dunbar’s coffin six feet into the ground and covered it in dirt. But her story didn’t end there.

An Astonishing Return From Beyond The Grave

A few minutes after Essie Dunbar was buried, her sister finally arrived. She begged the preachers to allow her to see her sister one last time, and they agreed to dig up the coffin which had just been buried.

As the funeral attendees watched, Dunbar’s freshly buried coffin was dug up. The lid was unscrewed. The coffin was open. And then shocked gasps and cries rang out — not in anguish but in shock.

To the astonishment and terror of the crowd, Essie Dunbar sat up in her coffin and smiled at her sister, looking very much alive.

According to Buried Alive, the three ministers conducting the ceremony “fell backward into the grave, the shortest suffering three broken ribs as the other two trampled him in their desperate effort to get out.”

Even Dunbar’s own family ran from her as they believed that she was a ghost or some type of zombie sent to terrorize them. When she climbed out of her coffin and tried to follow them, they grew even more terrified.

But Essie Dunbar was not a ghost nor a zombie. She was just a 30-year-old woman who’d had the bad luck of being buried alive — and the good luck of being quickly dug back up again.

Essie Dunbar’s Life After Death

Following her “funeral,” Essie Dunbar appeared to return to her normal, quiet existence. In 1955, the Augusta Chronicle reported that she spent her days picking cotton, and that she’d outlived Briggs, the doctor who had first pronounced her dead in 1915.

“[Dunbar] has many friends today,” a local doctor, Dr. O.D. Hammond, who treated one of the injured preachers during Dunbar’s funeral, told the paper. “She gets a nice-sized welfare check monthly and earns some money picking cotton.”

Newspaper Article About Essie Dunbar

Augusta ChronicleA newspaper article from 1955 recounting the story of Essie Dunbar’s premature burial in 1915.

In fact, Dunbar lived for almost another decade more. She passed away on May 22, 1962, at Barnwell County Hospital in South Carolina. Local papers reported her death with the headline: “Final Funeral Held For South Carolina Woman.” And, this time, there were apparently no shocking moments during Dunbar’s burial.

But though Dunbar became something of a local legend, it’s difficult to discern the fact and fiction of her story.

Was Essie Dunbar Truly Buried Alive?

In their fact-check of Essie Dunbar’s story, Snopes determined that the veracity of Dunbar’s premature burial was “unproven.” That’s because no contemporary accounts of Dunbar’s 1915 funeral exist. Instead, the story seems to come from the book Buried Alive (published in 2001, almost 100 years after the event) and from stories about Briggs’s death in 1955.

Thus, Essie Dunbar’s story may not be entirely accurate. But hers is just one of many stories of people who were mistakenly buried alive.

There’s Octavia Smith, for example, who was buried in May of 1891 after she fell into a coma following the death of her infant son. It was only after Smith was buried that the townspeople realized that a strange sickness was going around, in which the infected appeared dead but awoke a few days later.

Octavia Smith

YouTubeAnother person who was buried alive was Octavia Smith. But Smith, buried in 1891, was not quickly dug up like Essie Dunbar, and reportedly suffered a horrific death in her coffin.

Smith’s coffin was dug up, but the townspeople were too late to save her: Smith had indeed woken up underground. Her horrified family found that she’d shredded the inner coffin lining and died with bloody fingernails and a look of horror frozen on her face.

As such, it’s no surprise why stories like Essie Dunbar’s — or Octavia Smith’s, or any other accounts of being buried alive — strike such fear into our hearts. There is something incredibly terrifying about the thought of waking up underground, in an enclosed space, where no one can hear you scream.

After reading about the premature burial of Essie Dunbar, learn about the Chowchilla Kidnapping, the event that left 26 school children buried alive in rural California. Or, look through these real life horror stories even more terrifying than anything Hollywood could dream up — if you dare.

Amber Breese
Amber Breese is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Cite This Article
Breese, Amber. "The Strange Story Of Essie Dunbar, The South Carolina Woman Who Was Allegedly Buried Alive In 1915.", May 29, 2023, Accessed April 20, 2024.