There is a curious grave at Evergreen Cemetery in the West River neighborhood of New Haven, Vermont, the United States. It’s a small grassy mound with a large slab of concrete placed at the top. This concrete block has a small fourteen inch square glass window facing towards the sky. The glass window is hazy and has beads of water hanging on the underside from condensation, and you can’t see much inside. But back in 1893, you could have peered inside and straight into the decomposing face of Timothy Clark Smith.
The grave of Timothy Clark Smith. Photo credit: Geoff Howard/Panoramio
Timothy Clark Smith —while his heart was still beating— was a doctor, a diplomat and a “world traveller”. Having received his medical degree from the City University of New York in 1855, he joined as a staff surgeon for the Russian Army where he remained until 1857. From 1861 to 1875 Smith was US Consul in Odessa, Russia, and then in Galatz, Romania from 1878 to 1883. Before he became a physician, he worked as a teacher and clerk in the US Treasury Department.
All throughout his life, Timothy Clark Smith suffered from an incurable fear of being buried alive. Known as taphophobia, from the Greek word taphos, which means "grave”, the fear of being erroneously declared dead and placed in a grave while actually alive, is not very common today. But in those days, before the advent of modern medicine, the fear was not entirely irrational. Throughout history, there have been numerous stories—urban legend or otherwise— of people being accidentally buried alive. There are gruesome tales about victims falling into the state of sopor or coma, and then waking up, days, months or even years later, to find themselves entombed.
The Scottish philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was reported to have been buried alive after one of his occasional fits of coma was mistaken to be the loss of life. After his tomb was reopened, years later, his body was found outside his coffin. His hands were torn and bloody from the attempted escape. On February 21, 1885, The New York Times gave a disturbing account of a man identified as “Jenkins”, whose body was found turned over onto its front inside the coffin, with much of his hair pulled out. There were also scratch marks visible on all sides of the coffin's interior. Another story reported in The Times on January 18, 1886, tells about a Canadian girl named "Collins", whose body was described as being found with the knees tucked up under the body, and her burial shroud "torn into shreds".
“The Premature Burial” (1854), a painting by Belgium artist Antoine Wiertz that depicts a cholera victim awakening after being placed in a coffin.
Aside from these occasionally frightening news, many writers spun out horrifying stories about premature burials to overwhelm their readers. Edgar Allan Poe was especially guilty of this. His stories, “The Premature Burial”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Cask of Amontillado", “Berenice”, and to a lesser extent, “The Black Cat”, were all based on this natural fear of being buried alive.
Some of the worst afflicted of this phobia began to use what is known as a “safety coffin”. A safety coffin is fitted with some type of device that allows the interred person to communicate with the outside world should that person be revived after burial. Many different designs were invented and patented during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most designs included a rope that the undead could pull from inside the coffin and ring a bell or fire a cracker or raise a flag placed outside. Others had ladders, escape hatches, and even a supply of food and water. Ironically, many designs forgot to include the most essential element —a breathing tube to provide air. As the website of the Australian Museum in Sydney notes, “most models had sufficient design flaws to suggest that they would have been unlikely to have worked properly if they had actually been used.”
Although many people wished to be buried in a safety coffin, or had requested their relatives to check on their bodies for several days after they were dead, or delay the burial should the dead wake up again (George Washington made his attendants promise not to bury him for two days), there are very few recorded examples of people actually using a safety coffin, and none of anybody being saved by it.
Photograph of a burial vault built circa 1890 to protect against premature burial.
When Robert Robinson, an English Dissenting Minister, died in Manchester in 1791, a movable glass pane was inserted in his coffin, and the mausoleum had a door through which a watchman could go and inspect the body to make sure he was still dead.
Timothy Clark Smith’s coffin in Evergreen Cemetery was of a similar design. When he died on Halloween of 1893, he was interred in his specially prepared grave that consists of a fixed glass window—as opposed to the movable type in Robinson’s— that looks straight down a six-foot deep cement shaft at the other end of which lies Timothy’s face. In addition, he was buried with a bell in his hand so that he could signal for help.
According to cemetery records, there is a second room within the burial crypt which houses Timothy’s wife. A set of stairs lead into the crypt, capped by the stone in the lower front of the mound.
Timothy Clark Smith’s grave is a rare example of a phenomenon that has not quiet died out yet. The most recent patent for a safety coffin was filed in 1995. This modern safety coffin included an emergency alarm, intercom system, a flashlight, breathing apparatus, and both a heart monitor and stimulator.
A design for a safety coffin. Photo credit: Road Trippers
The window on Timothy Clark Smith’s grave. Photo credit: vermonter.com
Timothy Clark Smith’s grave mound. Photo credit: vermonter.com
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