Ring My Bell: Safety Coffins and Death in the Victorian Era

I think it’s safe to say that those who lived during the Victorian era had an obsession with death. They crafted small portraits made from the hair of deceased family members that could be placed in brooches and worn, wore lachrymatory bottles (often mistaken for perfume bottles) on chains around their necks in order to catch the tears they wept for a departed loved one, and erected lavish monuments at grave sites. They even purchased new sets of mourning clothes each time someone passed on because keeping such clothing afterward and reusing it was considered bad luck. In fact, stores existed that catered only to those in mourning and sold every item an individual might need to properly mourn a loss. Mourning times ranged from four weeks (first cousins) to two whole years (for a spouse.) We wear black (or dark) clothing to funerals now, so that’s not too terribly odd, but we’ve since moved away from the regular practice of purchasing a special coffin for grandma, fully equipped with a bell, feeding/breathing tube, and spare set of crypt keys, just in case she was mistaken for dead.

Welcome to the wonderous (and often crazy) world of safety coffins.

Taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive, was quite common in the Victorian era, mainly because it was often difficult for doctors at the time to say for sure whether or not someone was sincerely dead. I’m currently flashing back to the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the Munchkin Coroner proclaims the Wicked Witch, “Most sincerely dead.”


On a completely unrelated note, I visited the National Musem of Funeral History in Houston, TX in March of last year and saw the costume worn by Meinhardt Raabe in the film. Anyway, I digress…

Stop Blowing Smoke…

Bodies would often be kept in Waiting Mortuaries or “Apparent Dead Houses” (as they were called in the Netherlands) for a period of time prior to being buried. The bodies in these mortuaries were cared for by a staff of nurses and were not buried until they showed signs of putrification. Flowers were placed by each bedside (to mask the odor or decay) and mirrors or feathers were held under the nose or by the mouths of the deceased in order to check for breath. In Europe, tobacco smoke enemas were often employed. Administered using a bellows, (they were originally done using a pipette and the smoke was blown into the rectum from the mouth of whoever was doing the check) the sensation of the smoke supposedly would wake those falsely proclaimed deceased. There were cases in which people did actually wake up. Of course, these cases then served as proof that the practice was viable. Of course, probes and needles were also used to poke and prod the body. Likely to give the poor bastard stuck with the smoke-blowing job a break. That’s a shitty end to the practice of drawing straws…excuse the pun.

Saved By the Bell

The first safety coffin was designed by Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick around 1790. His model included an air/feeding tube, a window to allow light, and a spare set of keys for the coffin itself and the tomb in which it was housed. By the 19th century, the Germans had created a whole line of safety coffins (around thirty or so) that included elaborate bell and pulley systems. Unfortunately, the human body tends to bloat when decomposing, causing the corpse to shift. Using a bell to detect accidental death is about as realistic as Dustin Diamond resurrecting his career at this point, but many mortuaries and cemeteries employed the bell as a tool to detect mistaken burial.

A Peek At the Afterlife

If you’ve ever gone wandering through Evergreen Cemetery in Vermont, you might have come across the grave of Dr. Timothy Clark Smith whose “window to the world,” is likely the creepiest physical manifestation of Taphophobia. The “window” is actually more of a tube that has a cap on both ends, allowing visitors to look down the tube and into the face of the sleeping Dr. Smith. At least it used to.


I’m pretty sure all anyone can see at this point is condensation and darkness, but people claimed to have been able to see Smith’s rotting corpse staring up at them, a hammer and chisel nearby to aid his escape. Of course, when Smith died, he was most definitely dead. Others weren’t so lucky.

In a report that dates back to the fourteenth century, whether entirely truthful or not, it is said that the philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was buried alive. Upon exhumation, Scotus was reportedly found outside his coffin with his hands and fingertips torn and bloody.

In Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, author Jan Bondeson writes,


According to Wikipedia,

Newspapers have reported cases of exhumed corpses which appear to have been accidentally buried alive. On February 21, 1885, The New York Times gave a disturbing account of such a case. The victim was a man from Buncombe County whose name was given as “Jenkins.” His body was found turned over onto its front inside the coffin, with much of his hair pulled out. Scratch marks were also visible on all sides of the coffin’s interior. His family was reportedly “distressed beyond measure at the criminal carelessness” associated with the case. Another similar story was reported in The Times on January 18, 1886, the victim of this case is described simply as a “girl” named “Collins” from Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. Her body was described as being found with the knees tucked up under the body, and her burial shroud “torn into shreds.””

Live burial may seem like a thing of the past, but even the best doctors can make mistakes. The article continues,

“In 2005, a body bag was delivered to the Matarese Funeral home in Ashland, Massachusetts with a live occupant. Funeral director John Matarese discovered this, called paramedics, and avoided live embalming or premature burial.

In 2014 in Peraia, Thessaloniki, in Macedonia, Greece, the police discovered that a 45-year-old woman was buried alive and died of asphyxia after being declared clinically dead by a private hospital; she was discovered just shortly after being buried by children playing near the cemetery who heard screams from inside the earth and afterwards her family was reported as considering suing the private hospital.  In 2015 it was reported that in 2014 again in Peraia, Thessaloniki, in Macedonia, Greece, police investigation concluded that a 49-year-old woman was buried alive after being declared dead due to cancer; her family reported that they could hear her scream from inside the earth at the cemetery shortly after burial and the investigation revealed that she died of heart failure inside the coffin and found out that it was the medicines given to her by her doctors for her cancer that caused her to be declared clinically dead and buried alive.”

What are your thoughts on safety coffins, the Victorian view of death and bereavement, and the practice of housing the dead in Waiting Mortuaries? I’d love to read your comments!

Your Fellow Haunt Head,



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S2 Ep. 3: Halloween Episode (Sort Of)

S2 Ep. 3: Halloween Episode (Sort Of)


This week, Mimi returns with the tale of Poveglia Island in Venice, Italy, and Janine mesmerizes us with the story of Franz Freidrich Anton Mesmer, the father of Mesmerism.

This episode contains memories from Halloween past, talk of witches and The Craft, being recognized, and shitty people.
*Note: If you’re not a fan of chit chat, we’d suggest you begin listening at about 20 minutes in.

Chillingham Castle: Most Haunted?

Chillingham Castle has been featured on many ghost hunting shows. Scariest Places on Earth, Ghost Hunters International, and Holiday Showdown, to name a few, have all taken a turn on the crazy whirligig of fun that is Chillingham. Safe to say, it’s the least chill place on earth.


Brief History

Located in Chillingham, Northumberland, the castle was the first line of defense preventing Scots from getting over the border to invade England. Originally a monastery in the late 12th century, the structure became a fully fortified castle in 1344 and was the seat of the Grey and Bennet families from the 15th century right up to the 1980’s. If you’ve heard of the Grey monument in Newcastle upon Tyne or savored a mug of Earl Grey tea, you should know that the Grey family has greatly influenced the course of history.

In the 1300’s, The War of the Roses had torn the Grey family apart, their support split between  Yorkists (Edward IV) and Lancastrians (Henry IV). The Lancastrians were the victors and the “winning side” of the family ordered 8 total executions of family members for high treason. They were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Sir Ralph Grey ordered his own son be put to death. The boy was hanged by the neck, cut down while still alive, his intestines were pulled from his abdomen, and he was quartered. His head was put on display at the gate as a warning.

In 1695, the Grey’s acquired the title of Earl of Tankerville, but had no son to to inherit it. (Perhaps if they’d refrained from killing the one they had..?) Lady Mary Grey married Charles Bennet who then inherited the title and brought the Bennet and Grey families together.

The following text read very much like an episode of Downton Abbey, Dowager Countess and all, so I’ll save you that frustration. I’m not saying it’s not valuable information. I’m saying I’d be here all day. Let’s skip ahead…

Structural Renovations

in 1344, King Edward III authorized battlements to be established at Chillingham in order to upgrade the structure into a stronghold and in 1617, after a visit from King James I (first king of England and Scotland), the moat was filled and the battlements were converted into residences. A banquet hall and a library were constructed.

During World War II, Chillingham housed soldiers and became a stronghold once again. Soldiers stripped much of the woodwork from the castle to burn for heat and pieces of a lead roof were removed, causing severe interior damage.

When the property was purchased in 1982 by Sir Humphry Wakefield, Second Baronet, whose wife was descended from the Grey’s of Chillingham, he set about restoring the structure to its former glory and opened sections of the castle to the public for tours.


The current owners of Chillingham market the castle as one of the most haunted places on earth. The structure has been investigated by paranormal investigators and has been featured on numerous television programs.

The most famous ghost, the Blue or, as he’s sometimes called, Radiant Boy is said to haunt the Pink Room. Guests claim a blue halo forms around the head of their bed and loud wailing can be heard. They then see the ghost of the  boy at the foot of the bed. During some of the castles many renovations, the body of a small boy and some scraps of blue fabric were found within a wall that was roughly 10′ thick. Those who found the remains reported that the bones of the fingers had been completely worn down, suggesting that the boy had been walled up alive and had tried to scratch his way out. Visitors to the castle still claim to see the blue light above the bed, but chalk it up to faulty wiring. The owners of the castle assert that there is no wiring in that wall.


The spirit of Lady Berkeley, the wife of Lord Grey, was reportedly left alone with her daughter at Chillingham after Grey ran off with her sister. The rustle of her dress can sometimes be heard in the corridors as she wanders aimlessly awaiting her husband’s return. Guests also report a chill in the air and the sensation of being touched.


The dungeon at Chillingham was a literal hell on earth. Prisoners would have their legs broken and their limp bodies would be thrown 20′ down into a pit. Many Scottish prisoners were kept in the dungeon and marked their time by scratching it onto the walls. These marks still remain. Prisoners were starved and often had to resort to cannibalism of their fellow prisoners or, if they were truly desperate, began to eat pieces of themselves.


The torture chamber was controlled by John Sage, one of King Edwards best men in battle. Sage was equipped with every kind of torture device imaginable and used each with pleasure. It is said that Sage tortured men, women, and children at the rate of 50 people per week for over three years.

When the war ended, Sage realized he had amassed a large number of prisoners and, in order to be rid of them, he had them all brought to the Edward Room. Men and women were separated from children and brought to the courtyard where they were burned alive. The children, locked in the Edward room and awaiting their own fate, watched with horror. Once Sage finished with the adults, he took an ax and butchered the children. Guests who stay in the Edward Room report a strong smell of blood and the ax used in the massacre is on display in one of Chillingham’s stairwells.


Eventually, Sage got what was coming to him. A tribal leader had Sage tortured because he had supposedly killed the man’s daughter. Sage was strung up by his neck and his body was mutilated. His nose, testicles, and toes were cut off and he was left to die of his injuries. Locals who witnessed the event took pieces of Sage as souvenirs.

Over the years, many skeletal remains have been found inside the walls, in hidden rooms, in crawlspaces, and in sections of the castle that have been walled up for decades. Two bodies, a man and a boy,  have even been found within an old stone vault that had been walled up. There is no identification for these remains.

With all the dark history surrounding Chillingham, it is no wonder that the place is so active. Visitors report a feeling of overwhelming sadness hanging over the entire location and it is a rare occurrence to leave Chillingham unchanged by the experience. Visitors report their hair being pulled, being scratched and bitten by the unseen, and being touched by disembodied hands. Cold spots are often felt and orbs are often seen.

Hundreds of recordings and photographs stand as a testament to the activity at Chillingham Castle. It seems as if it will never outlive its past and is doomed to forever be a gateway for the horrors of the past.

Have you ever visited Chillingham Castle? Leave us a note in the comments.

Your Fellow Haunt Head,



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Poveglia: An Island Hell

Poveglia is an island located between Venice and Lido in the Venetian Lagoon and divided by a canal. Supposedly, the island is a paranormal hot spot and has been visited by many ghost hunters and, given the location’s history, the stories of paranormal activity might not be so far fetched.


In 1348, the Black Plague hit Italy. Believed to have been spread by rats transported by merchant ships (later, it was discovered that gerbils may have been to blame), major ports shut down. In an effort to contain the spread of the disease, it was decided that the afflicted of northern Italy would be transported via gondola to the island of Poveglia. Doctors and nurses tried to help those who had contracted the plague, but their efforts were for naught. As a result, over 160,000 people perished and were buried on the island in mass graves. Their remains were disposed of quickly. To this day, the topsoil contains nearly 50% human ash left over from the mass burial pits. The Black Plague would devour Europe, killing 30-60% of the population.


The late 1920’s’s brought more pain and torment when the island was again used to isolate  those who were a danger to others. This time, it was used as an asylum to house the mentally ill. Here, highly disturbed individuals could be “treated” and contained. Rumors about the head doctor, a man who performed deranged experiments on his patients, have permeated the history of the island. By the 1930’s, it is said that the doctor, tormented by the spirits of those he had killed, threw himself from the hospital’s bell tower. The tower still stands today and, even though there is no bell in the tower, visitors to the island can still hear it tolling late at night.

By 1970, nature had largely reclaimed Poveglia and its remaining structures. Although thrill seekers request passage to the island from local boat owners, those who reside on the mainland refuse to transport them, believing the island is cursed. Many will not even venture close.

Paranormal experiences on the island include an overwhelming feeling of being watched, scratched, pushed, and chased by spirits. Those who have experienced being pursued by unseen forces report that it is impossible to tell where the pursuer might be. It seems to them that the danger is all around them and sounds of screams and moaning can be heard all across the island.


In 2014, the island was sold to a developer named Luigi Brugnaro. Many wonder if Brugnaro will convert the island into some sort of luxury resort, but many more wonder if the spirits of Poveglia will allow it. Given the dark history and the unsettled spirits residing on the island, I think the answer is a resounding no.

What are your thoughts about the island of Poveglia? Would you spend the night there? Share in the comments!

Your Fellow Haunt Head,



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