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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Tomb with a View

"To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality."  
~ Edgar Allan Poe, 1850: "The Premature Burial" 
Dr. Timothy Clark Smith's unusual grave can be found in New Haven, Vermont, and his grave (and other's like it) is the subject of today's post.  

He was an educated man, who had traveled the world.  He received a Bachelor's degree from Middlebury College, and became a doctor upon graduating from the University of New York in 1855.  He "worked as a teacher, clerk in the US Treasury Department and physician. He was a staff surgeon for the Russian Army from 1856 to 1857. Smith was US Consul in Odessa, Russia from 1861 to 1875, and Galatz, Romania from 1878 to 1883." 

Dr. Smith suffered from Taphophobia, which means he was deeply fearful of being buried alive. More precisely, he feared being buried alive, as the result of obtaining some form of a sleeping sickness which would ultimately be falsely determined that he died.

"The Raising of Lazarus"  Rembrandt
His fear was not entirely irrational, however.  "Vivisepulture" is to be buried while still alive.  During  the 1800's, there was a rash of epidemics like cholera, smallpox and even the plague, and contemporary medicine as we know today, had not yet been perfected.  Now known as the Lazarus Phenomenon, diseases of the heart, though rare, could sometimes fool an attending physician into thinking the heart had stopped, and he may pronounce an individual dead.  Then that individual would naturally revive or return to life.

odd nerdrum, buried alive
The gruesome reality, mostly during the mid 1800's, was that there were over 200 recorded episodes of people "almost" being entombed and almost 150 cases of actual live burials!  And the horror continues with 10 people being dissected before they were actually dead, and 2 incidents where embalming procedures began on the living!

For many during the Nineteenth Century, the fear of premature burial became an obsession, after several people were pronounced dead, and during their wake or funeral, suddenly returned to life from a comatose or unconscious state.  These stories, were highly publicized in newspapers across the country, and the macabre Victorians took the only action they could - allowing bodies to stay lying in wait for days and even weeks on end - to ensure their death.
"The Death of Albine", by John Coliier
Some, with the financial means to prepare for the event of accidental burial, devised elaborate tombs in which a bell was installed over the head of the deceased and a cord which lead from the bell was placed in the body's hand; hence, any movement from within would signal an alarm.  

Source:  eduexplica.com
Other patented inventions included the "safety coffin" which consisted of a "movable periscope-like pipe which provided air and, when rotated or pushed by the person interred, indicated to passersby that someone was buried alive." 
When one considers decomposition and gravity, much like the proverbial tree in the forest, the bell probably did ring, but  would there be no one there to hear it?

Upon installing pipes that were concocted for the purpose of listening for any returning signs of life, the rich may have employed attendants to wait near the tombs, lest a bell would ring or a voice to be heard, so that they could run or call for help. 

Others who were less fortuante, financially, had simpler means of assisting anyone who came back to life by placing shovels and/or crowbars in caskets.  

I shudder to think of how a weakened body, most likely suffering from oxygen deprivation and dehydration, and at the discovery of being trapped in complete darkness - the extreme psychological fear that one would experience, how they  could excavate themselves from under 6 feet of dirt, would indeed be indicative of Lazarus.

Image (cropped) from roadtrippers.com
So, perhaps Timothy Clark Smith's fears were not so irrational, after all.  How else can I describe his own grave planning, than "facing his fear"?  He designed his own "safety grave", by rigging his tomb so that his hand would rest on a bell and from this coffin extends a breathing tube.  Directly over his head he installed a window, so that one may peer down into the grave to look at him and ensure that he was really dead.  

unknown source:  google images
"Because he feared being buried alive, he was interred in a specially designed grave. His face is positioned beneath a cement tube that leads from beneath the ground to the surface, and ends at a 14x14 inch plate glass window. In addition to arranging Smith so he could see the surface if he was alive, he was buried with a bell in his hand so he could signal for help." -Source:  findagrave.com

According to my research the actual burial vault has an arched stairwell, that is covered with stone in the lower part of the mount.  It leads to two rooms.  One room for his beloved wife, and the other containing the remains of Timothy Clark Smith which was constructed with the "viewing window" at the top of the shaft.  

Source:  findagrave.com

Source: sevendaysvt.com
As you can see, today, the window has a greenish, mossy appearance, with a good deal of condensation that has collected over the years.   While the window was in pristine condition, it is said that one could peer down to look upon his skeleton, and lying next to him was a hammer and chisel.  It is also entirely unclear as to whether or not a bell was installed in this grave, and his hand placed upon a rope connected to it.  

Dr. Timothy Clark Smith's grave is located in the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Vermont (near Middlebury).

An example of a "Mortsafe"

To read about how some graves were designed to keep bodies "in" the grave, you can read about the Mortsafe on Vermont DeadLine, here.