Buried Alive: For Those Who Prefer Death To Enema

When the physician utters those dire words to call the time of death, no amount of denial can cast doubt over the veracity of his measurement. With the technology of modern medicine and traditions of practice, judging whether a body is alive or dead is no longer an uncertain affair. The situation of being prematurely buried alive has become the subject of horror movies rather than a common fear. Our ancestors weren't so lucky. For most of written history, absence of a heartbeat was considered to be the final call. While ancient Greek and Arabic legends exist of poor souls waking in coffins, the issue did not get significant attention until the seventeenth century when a resurgence of medical study grew alongside a subculture of superstition and myth. People began to wonder how one truly knew when a body had died. Primitive stethoscopes did not appear until the late 1800s and were just as unreliable as the deaf ears of an old country doctor. What if the heartbeat was too slow or faint to be detected?

Whether true or not, stories abounded about screaming corpses exhumed after having eaten their own arms for survival, grave robbers who discovered a living body in the coffin, or dead pregnant mothers that had given birth to babies who screamed from six feet under. Accounts given by seemingly reliable sources spoke of numerous occasions when individuals declared dead had been revived on their way to the burial. This isn't so hard to believe. Even doctors today will admit that a body heavily sedated or in hypothermic shock will appear to be dead by all basic means of measurements.

To allay the fear of awakening in tombs, various solutions were proposed. Entire hospitals for the dead were constructed to house corpses under surveillance until putrefaction set in (or didn't, in the case of the still living bodies). After this was determined to be disrespectful both to the recently dead and the poor workers attending the rows of decaying bodies, a whole trade in designing security coffins began. One of the first models, designed in 1798 by German village parson P.G. Pessler, included a hollow tube that led to aboveground. Not only would the tube let in air, but a rope attached to the church bell could be thread through the tube, allowing the corpse to really get the village's attention should he wake entombed. As it was later determined that a poor revived soul might be unable to pull against the weight of the church bell, other models were created with their own personal bells or flag systems, all controlled by a rope placed within reach of the alleged corpse. Some later models even devised a clever network of string that could activate a bell given even the slightest movement of the body. Inventor Johann Georg Hypelli threw out the rope idea entirely and instead designed an alarm activated by the bang of the resurrected's head against the coffin lid as he tried to sit up. Other means included the placement of a trumpet in the mouth of the deceased, or building coffins a lock and key or spring-loaded lit and including convenient tunnels, ladders or elevator systems in the grave. Some took to burying items with their deceased relatives such as pickaxes and supplies of food and wine. As this practice advanced over time, some coffins were luxuriously outfitted with electric lights, a heater and a telephone linked to the graveyard keeper's house.

An early version of a security coffin, with above-ground bell or flag attached to the corpse by rope.

Alongside the efforts of developing means for correcting premature burials, physicians began to wonder how they might keep from making the mistake in the first place. There needed to be a surer means of calling death apart from listening for a heartbeat or simply waiting for the individual to decompose. The initial methods seemed disrespectfully cruel. A bugle blast in the ear, rancid smelling salts applied to the nose, or rapidly yanking on the tongue would surely elicit a response in the non-deceased. Some physicians even took to cutting off fingers or scalding the face or anus with a hot iron, though those who were revived by these means were not as ready to celebrate as one might expect.

Various scientific and medical organizations worldwide began offering prizes for acceptable means of determining death. Antoine Louis proposed that an enema of tobacco smoke would do the trick. A physician placed a tube in the body’s anus, then took in a bit of tobacco smoke from his pipe and blew it forcefully into the back end of the recently deceased. In 1784, Dr. P.J.B. Previnaire improved on the idea by constructing an elaborate smoke enema apparatus called Der Doppelblaser. It consisted of a series of pipes - one end thrust into the anus of the supposed corpse and the other attached by a powerful bellows to a stove full of tobacco smoke. Though the practice didn’t enjoy much longevity, it did contribute to an expression we still use today: “blow smoke up your ass.”

As the years went on, the techniques became more advanced. Around the turn of the 19th century, some doctors were using galvanic apparati to detect the electrical pulses in living muscle. The poor man's version of this test was placing the corpse’s finger in the physician's ear as he listened for the buzzing sound given off by minor muscle contractions. The methods were no less cruel at times. Physiologist Xavier Bichat studied death by watching the struggles of drowning kittens (yes, really) and determined that there really was no single universal sign of death. French doctor Jules-Antoine Josat invented a pair of pincers to pinch the allegedly deceased's nipples, while another masochistic physician suggested placing leeches on the anus. Vying for his claim on the prize offered by the Academy of Sciences, a German named Middledorph proposed that a long needle with a flag attached on one end be thrust into the heart of the corpse in question. If the heart were still beating, the flag would wave. Many years later, in 1895, a doctor named Icard attempted to allay a family's fears that their daughter was not truly dead by performing Middledorph's test. As he plunged the needle into the girl's hear, the family cried out that if she hadn't been dead before, she certainly was now!

Dr. Icard went on to develop his own methods, including injecting a flourescent dye beneath the skin. If the blood was circulating, the skin would turn yellow and the eyes bright green, truly completing the picture of the living dead. Dr. Icard won the 2,500 franc prize from the Academy of Sciences that year, and again in 1900 for an even more humorous suggestion. A piece of paper with the words "I am really dead" written in acetate of lead would be placed in the body's nose. If the individual were truly a corpse, the beginning stages of decomposition would release gasses that would make the words appear like invisible ink set to flame.

For further reading: Jan Bondeson. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. W.W. Norton & Company; 2001. ISBN:039304906X

*Images from Jan Bondeson's private collection

Not The Best Thing She Created, But Close

In 1951, Dallas divorcee Bette Nesmith Graham put aside her dreams of becoming an artist and found work as a typist in order to support her son. Frustrated by frequent typos, Bette sought a more efficient alternative to re-typing text. Recalling that artists often painted over their mistakes with white paint on canvas, she wondered whether the same could be applied to typewriting. So Bette blended tempera waterbased paint with coloring to match her stationary and brought a bottle to work the next day. Sure enough, her boss never noticed the mistakes. The other secretaries in the office began to take notice, however, and decided the day had come that they had retyped their last memo. To meet the demand, Bette began bottling the substance at home in her kitchen, labeling the bottles with the tentative name "Mistake Out" and selling them to her colleagues. As the demand increased, Bette enlisted the help of her son and his friends to mix and bottle the product.

By 1967, Bette was devoting all of her time to the production of "Mistake Out" and after studying marketing and promotion had grown her brainchild into a million dollar business. She changed the name of the product to "Liquid Paper" and moved into her own plant and corporate headquarters, where she produced and sold one million bottles in 1968. In the years to come, Bette would establish an international headquarters in Dallas with a production line that produced 500 bottles a minute and sold 25 million bottles a year.

Though Bette sold her corporation for a whopping $47.5 million just before she died, she had always remained the humble single mother who had started her own business with the help of her young son. In her life, she set up two foundations to help woman find ways to follow in her entrepreneurial footsteps. Meanwhile, her son Michael gave up the liquid paper bottling racket and learned to the play the guitar.

You might remember him as Michael Nesmith from The Monkees.

How Much Volunteerism Is Too Much?

In AD 922, a historical account was written of the ceremony surrounding the cremation of a Viking chieftain. The ritual described reads like the goriest of horror tales, an unbelievable series of events that just keep getting worse. It all begins with a supposedly obvious question posed to the male and female slaves of the dead chieftain: "Which among you wish to die with him?" It's impossible to say whether the slaves were coerced or brainwashed or if they truly saw this act as an honor worthy of their lives. Either way, one of this particular chieftain's female slaves eagerly replied "I will." From that point on, she was under guard lest she have second thoughts. Her only human contacts were the servants assigned to wash her feet. On the day of the ritual, the party gathered at the rivers edge where the body was moored in a boat. A woman known as the Angel of Death took charge of the ceremony, removing the chieftain's clothes and redressing him in a full set of formal dress. Fruit, herbs and meat were thrown into the boat alongside the body, followed by the chieftain's weapons. And then things took a turn for the macabre.

A dog was taken and cut in two; its remains were thrown into the boat. Next, two horses were driven until they sweat and then hacked into pieces with swords and thrown in after the dog. The same was done with two cows, a cock and finally a hen. Considering the trend, you may be very worried about the fate of the slave girl by now. But she wouldn't get off so easy.

First, she visited every tent in the campground and had sexual intercourse with each household master. Then she was strapped to a frame and lifted up and down several times in order that she could report back on the pleasant state of the forthcoming Paradise. She was then carried to the ship, where she was given two beakers of funeral beer to drink before the Angel of Death "helped" her onto the boat and into the tent within which the chieftain's body lay. As the gathered audience beat their shields to cover the sounds of protest that may discourage future volunteers, six men followed the slave girl into the chieftain's tomb in order to have one last orgy. When they'd finished, the Angel of Death placed a noose around the slave girl's neck and instructed two of the men to pull it tight. During the strangulation, the Angel of Death repeatedly plunged a broad-bladed dagger repeatedly into the girl's body for good measure. The party then abandoned ship, and the chieftain's closet relative had the honor of lighting it on fire and setting it to sail.

Whether or not the slave girl regretted her decision or savored her fifteen minutes of fame will never be known. It speaks a great deal to the power of propaganda that the dozens of slaves who watched the flaming boat drift downriver may have all been jealously wondering when they'd have their turn.

Where "Money" Comes From (It Doesn't Grow On Trees)

Throughout history, rich and poor alike have endowed their money with a series of expressive nicknames. Centuries of imaginative thought have given us a chance to gripe about how there's never enough clams, dinero, bread, dough, greenbacks, or dead presidents in the bank. While I can't tell you where the money comes from, I can at least tell you where we got the term. Long ago, on one of the seven hills of ancient Rome, there stood a temple called Juno Moneta, or "Juno who warns". Juno was the Roman God of woman and childbirth (in case you were wondering why the young, pregnant protagonist of the 2007 film got her name). She was deemed "Juno who warns" after a flock of noisy geese perched in her temple woke nearby Romans to discover a fire. It just so happened that the Roman mint was located within the temple to Juno, and over time the mint came to be referenced as "ad Monetum" or "at the temple of (Juno) Moneta)". It followed that the coins the mint produced were nicknamed "moneta." The term endured ages of linguistic childbearing in the Romance Language Family to survive in Spanish (moneda), French (monnaie), Italian (moneta), and even in our Germanic English as the term we know, love and can't seem to stop talking about.

<- Roman denarius featuring the image of Juno and the phrase "Moneta"

Half Past V: How Ancient Romans Told Time

What time is it? Ask around ancient Rome and you may get a dozen different answers. While our lives are rigidly scheduled down to the minute, time was a more fluid concept in past times. The passing of the day was marked instead by the progression of normal events. When in doubt, one could always reference the position of the sun in the sky. Across the ages, high noon was a convenient time to schedule a Western showdown, or in the case of ancient Rome to make sure the sundial was positioned correctly.

In Rome, the largest sundial (roughly 200 by 525 feet) stood in the Campus Martius. It's time-telling shadow was cast by an obelisk brought from the Egyptian city of Heliopolis (it still stands today in the Piazza Montecitorio in modern Rome (see picture). Lines of bronze set into the pavement allowed passers-by to tell the hour and date by the position of the shadow cast. Romans considered it a social event to stop by the large sundials at the Campus Martius or the Forum to check the time, though there were smaller sundials throughout the city on buildings and in courtyards of wealthy homes.

Though the wrist watch Charlton Heston allegedly sported in Ben Hur was an anachronism, the Roman's did have their own version of a wrist watch. They looked liked concave shells just over an inch in diameter. Sunlight passed through a tiny hole on one side of the shell and cast a bright dot onto the set of markings carved into the concave surface. Though the well-to-do Roman could count on his solaria to tell the time from the convenience of anywhere he pleased in Rome, he wouldn't be able to take it with him on his travels. The markings were calculated precisely to the sun's positions over the latitude of Rome alone. They also needed a seasonal adjustment.

Water clocks were also a common way to gauge the time, and could even be used at night or on cloudy days. Like an hourglass dropping sand, these devices dripped water at a given rate into a vase that was marked to indicate hours at rising depths. Some were constructed with special floats that triggered sound-making devices, a sort of predecessor to the cuckoo or grandfather clock. The clock could even be used as a timer. Wax plugs could be used to stop the flow in case a timed senate speech or race event was interrupted. However, like the sundials, only the wealthy could afford them. Timepieces in ancient Rome were status symbols rather than necessary evils.

In any case, you might say you would be just as likely to hear the question 'Do you have the time?' on the streets of Rome as you are to hear this reply: 'Movate, tu es in meus lumen!' which roughly translates to "Move, you're in my light!"

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