George Washington’s Taphophobia: The Fear of Being Buried Alive

On December 14, 1799, as George Washington lay in his final moments on his death bed, he told his secretary Tobias Lear what were likely his last words. Tobias recalled later:

“About ten o’clk he made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, at length he said,–‘I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.’ I bowed assent, for I could not speak. He then looked at me again and said, ‘Do you understand me?’ I replied Yes. ‘Tis well’ said he”.

George Washington on His Deathbed by John Meister

In his 19th century painting, John Meister imagines “George Washington on His Deathbed”. Credit: Mount Holyoke College Art Museum / Wikipedia

Why did George feel the need to state this on his death bed? These were his last known words, and must have been a thought of importance to Washington. Taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, may, in part, explain his final words.

The medical field advances constantly and surprises us every day with new knowledge of the human body. DNA testing, cancer screening, vaccines, bionic limbs… I could go on forever about how the world of medicine has evolved. Today, it’s hard to imagine life before these advances when something as simple as detecting death was not even clear cut.

Technological and medical advancements in the mid-20th century brought us machines that could detect even a very faint heartbeat – the surest sign of life – and, by that time, people were no longer as concerned with accidentally being pronounced dead. Certainly, after embalming became standard, people were even less worried about waking in the grave because one could not survive the embalming process.

In earlier centuries, however, being incorrectly pronounced dead and accidentally buried was a real possibility and a common fear.  George Washington wasn’t alone in taking precaution to ensure he was not buried prematurely.  Several historical figures, the best known being Edgar Allen Poe, were taphophobic, as were some other members of the Washington family.

 

A Brief History of Being Buried Alive (Vivesepulture)

Have you heard the tale of Margorie McCall, whose tombstone in Lurgan, County Armagh in Northern Ireland reads “Margorie McCall, Lived Once, Buried Twice”?  As her story goes, in 1705, poor Margorie fell ill with fever (fever being a catch-all term for illnesses not yet identified). Her husband, a doctor, was sick with worry as many people during the time rapidly succumbed to now treatable ailments. When Margorie died, her husband, aware of how rampantly sickness could spread, had her buried quickly.

Margorie Mccall Gravestone

The gravestone of Margorie McCall in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. Credit: Charlie Hintz / cultofwierd.com

As soon as the dirt settled, grave robbers aware of Margorie’s wealth decided to loot her grave. She was buried with her wedding ring, which was of considerable value. The grave robbers could not pull off the ring due to swelling, so they used a knife and began to remove the finger. The moment she was cut, a confused Margorie awoke, presumably giving the grave robbers the fright of their lives. They fled, and she wandered back home to make a full recovery, have children, and outlive her husband.

While the grave of Margorie McCall is real, the legend may be just that – a legend. “Lady with the ring” tales existed in several European countries from the 14th through the 18th centuries and continued into American folklore. The place, names, and dates were different, but the fate of the lady remained the same. But why would people believe it? Why was it passed on for centuries?

Well, in part, this and similar stories were spread by anti-premature burial activists (Yes, this was a thing.) in European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some authors even sold pamphlets on the subject of premature burial, and used “lady with the ring”-style stories to agitate fear on the subject. Dr. Franz Hartmann, published a pamphlet entitled Buried Alive: An examination into the occult causes of apparent death, trance and catalepsy in 1894, that was filled with gruesome (and mostly untrue) tales of premature burial. These kinds of stories resonated and instilled taphophobia in everyday people.

 

How to be Sure that Someone is Dead

Taphophobia was a fear with some validity. Indeed, for most of history, the only sure way to determine that life was extinguished from a person was noticeable decomposition.

Just before Hannah Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s sister-in-law, died two years after George’s death, she made a specific request regarding the treatment of her body after death. She wrote in her will that since:

“no physician in the world can possibly tell whether or not a person is dead until putrefaction takes place and many have most assurdly been buried before they were dead…..  I therefore most earnestly pray that I may be allowed to remain in my bed just as I did whilst living until putrefaction by every known sign Justifies my being put into the coffin…” [PDF]

For several reasons – spread of disease, the smell, etc. – not everyone was comfortable with or had the means to allow a corpse to decompose above ground.

So, how did people in earlier centuries make certain that they didn’t bury a living person? One way was to remove the heart of the deceased. Some instances exist of people putting in their will to have their heart removed or to even be decapitated before burial. For those that didn’t want to accidentally have their still-beating heart removed, as this may have been an even worse fate than the premature burial itself, there were other options to be sure that a corpse was really a corpse. Pouring liquid ammonia into the nose, burning the bottoms of the feet with an iron, and pricking needles underneath the fingernails, for example, were ways to rouse a person in a death-like state. As cringe-inducing as all of these options are, it’s not surprising that they would indeed wake someone who was only unconscious. Additionally, tobacco pipe enemas were considered another useful way to rouse the dead. Putting a light source behind the fingers to look for signs of circulation, or a “diaphanous test”, was a less painful way to look for life.

Washington's 'Old' Tomb at Mount Vernon

The Old Tomb where George Washington was originally buried in 1799 before ultimately being moved to the New Tomb, which Washington had ordered built in his will, in 1831. Credit: Sarah Stierch / Wikipedia

Why They Mistook the Living for Dead

Ideally, one just waited the customary three days before burial, but that was not always feasible. During epidemics before the spread of disease was fully understood, hasty burial of the sick was common.

Today, with medical advances and a much better understanding of the human body, the likelihood of misidentifying death is minimal, but it is not unheard of even in the modern era when people suffer rare conditions that cause them to appear dead. There are many death-like conditions that can fool us. Catalepsy, a condition that can leave you unresponsive and immobile for minutes, days, or even weeks was rare and unknown to past physicians. Catalepsy can accompany a variety of mental disorders, which themselves were not well understood, even into the 20th century. “Sleeping sickness”, or African Trypanosomiasis, was a very real condition caused by the bite of a tsetse fly that caused a coma-like state that led to people being presumed dead in the 19th century. Several other conditions that result in unconsciousness even today like seizures, diabetes, dehydration, and low blood pressure could have been the culprits in people being presumed dead before the modern era.

Being shot in the head would also constitute as a condition that could lead doctors, even today, to believe you were dead. But, in May of 1799, about 7 months before George Washington’s death, an article was published in a Philadelphia newspaper telling of a soldier who had been shot in one temple, the bullet exiting the other temple. Even today most would assume death of the victim was imminent.  A grave was even being dug and the soldier prepared for burial. However, a fellow soldier “thought that he noticed symptoms of animation” in the man. Unbelievably, the man was miraculously alive and gaining consciousness. The lucky soldier was attended by a surgeon and made nearly a full recovery, suffering later only some weakness in his eyes.  Had George perhaps heard of this, and possibly have been startled by the fact that this man was nearly buried alive?

 

How to Not Bury Someone Alive

When burial couldn’t wait, or when the deceased or the family of the deceased were really taphopohbic, there were avenues to ensure an escape from the grave, if the dead returned to life. The use of bells was perhaps the most affordable way to watch for premature burial.  Bells were tied to the body and hung on the ground surface above the grave. The bell would ring if there was movement below ground. This is where the term “dead-ringer” originates.

Other inventions required a bit more expense, so not everyone had access to them. “Safety coffins” were gave piece of mind to the loved ones of the deceased. Some featured an air pipe AND an alarm system that indicated movement if a buried person became conscious. Air pipes would be removed once the smell of decomposition set in or a sufficient amount of time had passed.

US371626-0

Patent drawing for a safety coffin. Credit: U.S. Patent Office

The first “waiting mortuary” or Leichenhaus, was designed in Germany in 1792. A worker, called a Leichenhäuser, would be expected to sit vigil at the window of the corpse room and await movement. Workers were not allowed to leave the “patients” for any period of time, and were required to have equipment to resuscitate a person if they stirred.

Similarly, a special vault was once built in Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania that featured air flow and hand wheels on doors for those who awoke in the vault to help them escape. It was used as a safe holding area to give the deceased time to revive before being removed to their grave in another part of the cemetery.

Wildwood Cemetery Vault

Wildwood Cemetery’s special vault in Williamsport, Pennsylvannia as featured in the July 1921 edition of Popular Mechanics.

There were many normal reasons for relocating a family member’s body, just as George Washington’s body was moved into the new vault at Mount Vernon 32 years after his death. What wouldn’t be considered normal, would be to find that the deceased had rolled over, pulled out their hair, or scraped off their fingernails on the interior of the coffin lid. Opening a burial vault for the first time in years to relocate a body, or to inter another family member, only to come to the realization that the person was clearly not dead when they entered the grave, was a common fear. Stories existed of family finding the skeleton of a deceased relative inside a vault but outside of their coffin, having apparently starved to death in the mausoleum. No doubt some of these stories were fictional, but some were probably true as well.

Finally, glass windows allowed people to see into the grave vault. They weren’t always installed just for fear of premature burial. Families have been known to install grave windows for other reasons that have to do with the mourning process. They were a useful tool, however, in being able to make sure the dead had not woken up. Some famous examples of grave windows still exist today.

Grave Window

A window into the grave of Dr. Timothy Clark Smith in the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Vermont. Credit: Vermonter.com

Upon his death in November of 1829, Bushrod Washington, Hannah Bushrod Washington’s son and George Washington’s nephew, requested a special coffin to be placed in for a while before burial on top of a waiting period to be sure he was actually dead:

“My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides–particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place.”

Bushrod Washington

Bushrod Washington was George Washington’s nephew, the son of John Augustine Washington, and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Depicted in an engraving made in 1830 by James Barton Longacre from a portrait by Chester Harding. Credit: New York Public Library.

A “phobia” is a word used in terms of an irrational fear. But was taphophobia really irrational in the 18th and 19th centuries or was it simply justified caution? Ultimately, we will never know how many people tragically succumbed to vivesepulture. What we do know is that George Washington made certain that he would not.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Advertisements

Some Like it Hot …But Probably Not This Hot: The Archaeology of a (BIG!) Fire

Twenty years ago, archaeologists digging at George Washington’s Ferry Farm unearthed the remains of a mid-eighteenth century kitchen.  It was immediately obvious from the state of the artifacts that this kitchen had not simply fallen into to ruin and been abandoned – it had burned down.  While this is fairly interesting in and of itself, a reexamination of the kitchen fire artifacts this year revealed surprising information about the intensity of the fire.

Map of Kitchen Site

Overhead image of George Washington’s Ferry Farm showing location of the kitchen that burnt down in the 18th century. Credit: Google

What first struck us was the sheer density of artifacts in this kitchen. We recovered A LOT of artifacts.  Furthermore, these broken sherds could be mended to form almost whole bottles, crocks, jugs, pans, and such.  The number of artifacts and the fact they could be put together to form entire objects tell us that the Washington family and their slaves did not have much, if any, time to salvage what was inside the burning kitchen.  Food, wine bottles, food storage and preparation vessels and utensils, furniture, and more all destroyed exactly where they stood.  Think of this kitchen as a mini Pompeii or Titanic. Just about everything that the Washington’s had in their kitchen went down with the ship and was still there, just squished and burned.

A preserved moment in time like this fire is a great opportunity for archaeologists to study the Washingtons but it comes with one big problem—most of the artifacts were totally cooked and absolutely toasted beyond recognition in some cases.  Soft metal artifacts made from lead and copper, for example, were reduced to melted blobs by the fire.  Ceramic vessels appear to have exploded from the heat and were reduced to blackened sherds.  Some of the glass bottles survived with a minimal amount of warping from heat but the majority were melted or even burned in a process called ‘devitrification’.  And oddly enough there was very little animal bone, which is usually ubiquitous in kitchens found archaeologically.

To put the intensity of this kitchen fire in context here are some quick statistics (in Fahrenheit):

  • Lead melts at 621.4 degrees.
  • According to the National Institute of Fire and Safety Training, the average modern house fire tops out at around 1,100 degrees.
  • 1,400-1,800 degrees is the temperature at which bone will be destroyed
  • Copper melts at 1,984 degrees
  • Glass melts between 2,600 and 2,800 degrees.

Since the Washington kitchen fire was hot enough to actually burn glass, not just melt it, we’re looking at a fire that likely exceeded 2,800 degrees.  That’s incredible!  It also explains why there was so little animal bone recovered. Most bone was probably completely destroyed by the flames.

Extremely Burned Tin Glaze

Extremely burned tin glaze ceramic recovered from the kitchen site at Ferry Farm.

Devitrified Glass

Devitrified glass from the burnt Washington kitchen

Melted Cooper Alloy

Melted copper alloy excavated from the Ferry Farm kitchen

Blob of Lead Alloy

Blobs of lead alloy recovered from the kitchen site

DSC_0006

Slightly burned wine bottle from the kitchen

DSC_0011

A second slightly burned wine bottle

So, how on earth did the fire get that hot?  We’ll probably never know, unfortunately.  Some possible explanations may be the environmental conditions at the time of the blaze – a hot dry day with high winds could produce a perfect storm for a wooden kitchen to turn into an inferno.  The fire also may have started at night when few people were awake to notice and try to put it out, although presumably the kitchen housed enslaved people, as was common for that time period.  Another culprit may have been what was kept in the kitchen.  There were dozens of wine bottles in there. While we call them ‘wine’ bottles today, they were actually all-purpose vessels that held any kind of spirituous liquid including harder alcohol like gin, whiskey, and rum, which are highly combustible.  Animal products such as lard, tallow, beeswax, and even whale oil for lamps were likely stored in the kitchen and all burn quite well for long periods of time.

Regardless of the fire’s cause, it is clear from archaeological evidence that it happened quickly because not much within the structure could be saved, if anything.  We also know that it burned extremely hot and for a sustained period of time in order to have caused so much damage to the items within.

Finally, perhaps, the last and the biggest mystery is where the replacement kitchen was located.  Kitchens were almost all outbuildings because, as you may have deduced, they tended to catch on fire easily.  A colonial household absolutely required a kitchen, however, and another would have been built almost immediately. Somewhere on the landscape at Ferry Farm, there is another kitchen waiting to be discovered archaeologically.

In the meantime, The George Washington Foundation plans to reconstruct the original Washington era kitchen so visitors can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of an eighteenth century kitchen, minus the blazing inferno, of course.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

The Lying Valet [Photos]

This past weekend at Historic Kenmore, the Fredericksburg Theatrical Society presented three performances of the 18th century play The Lying Valet at Historic Kenmore.  Here are some photos of the play.

Check kenmore.org/events for event listings of future theater productions and other special tours, exhibits, and programs or follow us on Facebook.

Coming Soon! “The Lying Valet” at Historic Kenmore

This weekend at Historic Kenmore, The George Washington Foundation will present three performances of The Lying Valet performed by the Fredericksburg Theatrical Society.

First performed in London in 1741, The Lying Valet was written by David Garrick.  “If there was one name to know on the London stage in the 18th century,” as we’ve noted in a previous blog, “it was David Garrick. As a writer and actor, he was synonymous with celebrity” and was one of the leading thespians of the time.

Garrick as Hamlet

Etching of David Garrick in Hamlet from Dramatic Characters, or Different Portraits of the English Stage, 1773. Public Domain. Credit: Wikipedia

The Lying Valet was performed many times in the British Colonies and perhaps could have even been the very first play that life-long theatre fan George Washington ever saw!  As noted in an account ledger he kept, twenty-year-old George saw a play for the first time ever on June 2, 1752 during June Fair in Fredericksburg.  June Fair was a annual community gathering where Fredericksburgers and other Virginians sold farm goods and land, settled debts and tried court cases, gambled on horse races, and enjoyed a play.  Whatever the play was that Washington saw on that day in 1752, it was performed by the Murray-Kean Company of actors. Intriguingly, The Lying Valet was indeed one of the plays in their repertoire but there is no way to know if the play was performed on that day at June Fair.

The Lying Valet tells the story of William Gayless, who lost all of his money after a series of bad choices. Left only with one chair, Gayless attempts to rectify his situation by marrying the rich young lady Melissa, whom he has come to care for, despite the advice of his servant. Timothy Sharp, Gayless’ lying valet, finds himself weaving a few lies to save face for his master, all the while Kitty Pry, a servant to Melissa, attempts to uncover the truth. One thing leads to another as Sharp finds himself caught on the brink of disaster, and it looks as though Gayless will never have a wedding. Will everything end happily, or will lies, consumption, Frenchmen, drunk cooks, half truths, and a significant lack of funds ruin the whole plot?

This weekend’s performances of They Lying Valet take place at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, October 19 and Saturday, October 20 with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Sunday, October 21.  Admission is $10 for adults and $5.00 for students. Pre-purchase of tickets is not necessary as payment will be taken at the door.  The performances take place in the Crowninshield Museum of Historic Kenmore at 1201 Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg.

The Lying Valet poster

Our Best Guess about Mary Washington’s Best Bed

Furnishings posts logo finalIn July, we were very excited to see the culmination of at least a year’s worth of research and work when the “best bed” was installed in the Hall Back Room (the master bedchamber) of the Washington House. Between its imposing size (it nearly touches the ceiling) and it’s bright blue bed curtains in a house where there was very little color, the best bed is one of the most memorable pieces in the house, both today and when the Washington family resided at Ferry Farm.

Best Bed

The “best bed” in the Hall Back Room of the replica Washington house at Ferry Farm.

The “best bed” in a colonial gentry home like the Washington’s was intended to be a showstopper, and a visual statement to visitors about the prosperity of the family that owned it.  It was one of the reasons that the bedchamber in which the best bed stood was usually considered a public entertaining room – all the better to have people see the bed.

But how do we know what the Washington best bed looked like? In this case, we had several clues from historic documents and archaeological finds that we pieced together with what we know about life in early 18th century Virginia households.

The first question we had to answer was what type of bed was it? Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory describes the bed simply as “1 Bed & Furniture…..£8.” At first glance, this scant information doesn’t seem to tell us much (other than this bed is indeed the most valuable single item in the entire Washington household at £8).  But, the mention of “furniture” along with the bed is actually quite useful.

Best Bed on Probate Inventory

“1 Bed & Furniture” valued at £8 listed on the probate inventory of Augustine Washington’s personal property done after his death in 1743.

In this context, “furniture” refers to all the textile accessories associated with the bed, including bed curtains.  In order for a bed to have bed curtains, it must be an expensive tall-post bed, rather than low-post.  While we refer to the Washingtons as being among the gentry class, meaning they were able to furnish their home with higher end furnishings, this was actually a question for some time.  At this early point in the 18th century, being gentry might not actually mean living in the luxury that we associate with homes like Kenmore or Mount Vernon of the century’s later decades.  Simply owning a bedstead – of any variety – put you well ahead of the vast majority of colonial Virginians.  The traditional view of George Washington’s childhood is one of a very simple, primitive lifestyle.  Our archaeological findings at Ferry Farm have begun to change that view.  In actuality, the Washington family owned and used a wide variety of imported luxury goods in their home.

Bed bolts are one artifact changing the old view and pertain directly to the level of bed in the house.  Bed bolts were long, heavy screws inserted through the lower ends of the tall bed posts to hold them to the side rails of the bed.  Their presence at Ferry Farm proves the existence of tall-post beds.  So, this line item in the probate inventory actually serves to bolster the idea that the Washingtons were living a relatively high lifestyle – they had a tall-post bed with curtains in the Hall Back Room.

FF-Bedbolt

Bed bolt excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Once we determined the style of bed, we had to decide what the bed curtains and bed covering would look like.  The probate inventory was not overly helpful on this front – almost no descriptive information of any textile in the house is given.  However, there are several other documents related to Mary Washington’s estate that we could consult.

The first was her will, which was recorded in 1788, the year before her death.  This document details a number of her household goods, and which of her family members they were to go to.  While the list of items is not nearly as complete as a probate inventory, it does provide more descriptive information.  Among other textiles, a blue and white quilt, a white counterpane, purple bed curtains and “Virginia cloth” bed curtains are mentioned.

In another document, a list of household items sold at vendu (a public sale of personal property, sort of like a yard sale today) after Mary’s death in 1789, reference is made to blue and white coverlets, a blue and white counterpane, and several blue or white bed coverings, one of which is called “ye best.” Several sets of bed curtains are mentioned, but they are not described.

Best Bed with White Counterpane

The best bed with its summertime white coverlet.

Although both of these documents date to more than 40 years after the time period that we are interpreting at Ferry Farm, we can surmise that much of Mary’s bed textiles were blue and white and that this color combination was a particular favorite of hers.  As bed curtains and bedding such as quilts and counterpanes represented major financial investments in an 18th century household, it’s not unlikely that many of the finer textiles in the Washington house at Ferry Farm were still in use at the time of Mary’s death many years later, when she was living across the river in downtown Fredericksburg.  Because of these documents, we decided to depict the best bed at Ferry Farm with blue and white bedcoverings (a quilt for winter, and a matelessé counterpane for summer) and blue bedcurtains.

As with all the furnishings in the Washington house, we hope that Mary would recognize her bed if she were set foot inside the room today.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations