Mary Best was 17 years old when she contracted cholera in India. All alone since her adoptive mother left the country some months earlier, Mary suffered hours of agonising stomach cramps and sickness, her pulse becoming weaker and weaker until, at last, the doctor pronounced her dead.
She was buried in the vault of her adoptive family a few hours later, in the French cemetery in Calcutta.
The year was 1871, and cholera victims were generally buried very soon after death to prevent the germs spreading. In India’s tropical heat, a rapid burial was all the more necessary. Nobody questioned Mary’s hasty interment.
But ten years later, when the vault was opened to admit the body of Mary’s newly deceased uncle by adoption, the undertaker and his assistant were greeted by a horrifying sight.
The lid of Mary’s coffin, which had been nailed down, was on the floor. The girl’s skeleton was half in, half out of the coffin, and the right side of her skull bore a large, ugly fracture. The fingers of her right hand were bent as if clutching at something, perhaps her throat, and her clothes were torn.
Mary, it seemed, had not been dead when she was nailed into a coffin, but merely unconscious.
Cholera victims frequently fell into a coma, and it was in this state that Mary had been buried. Some hours or days later she awoke with no idea where she was.
The utter terror she endured, her futile screams for help, can barely be imagined. Then, realising she was not being heard, she tried desperately to push the coffin lid off. Straining every muscle, she eventually burst it open.
Perhaps the effort was so great that she fell forward, through exhaustion or fainting, and struck her head on the stone shelf, dying instantly.
More likely, however, finding herself in the pitch darkness of the vault, Mary went mad with terror, tore at her clothes, tried to throttle herself, then banged her head and died.
It transpired that the doctor who had certified her death had much to gain by her demise, having twice tried to kill Mary’s adoptive mother – perhaps in an attempt to get his hands on her money – which was why she had fled India. Mary might even have witnessed his actions.
Horrifying as her fate was, in Victorian times – and before – it was not as unusual as one might imagine. Until the medical advances of the 20th century, methods of determining death were far from reliable and could involve applying hot bread to the soles of the feet to check for reactions.
Some people were so terrified of the thought of waking up in a coffin that they demanded in their wills that steps be taken after their ‘death’ – such as slitting their throat or driving a stake through their heart – to prevent this horrific fate.
In a book published in 1905 and now reprinted, two doctors and a colleague presented a macabre compendium of premature burials (and near misses) gathered from newspapers around the world.
Perhaps the most disturbing cases were those where the victims came tantalisingly close to being saved, only for the fear or incompetence of the living to seal their fate.
In 1887, in France, a young man was being carried to his grave when the undertakers heard knocking from under the coffin lid.
Afraid of creating a panic among the mourners, they proceeded with the burial. But as the earth was being thrown on the coffin, everyone heard the knocking.
Rather than remove the lid, they waited for the mayor to come. By the time he arrived and the coffin was opened, the man inside had died of asphyxiation.
There were other cases of people waiting for the authorities before opening the coffin, only to find that its occupant had died minutes earlier.
It was clear from the victims’ contorted bodies, the nails torn from fingers and toes, and the expression of utter horror on their faces, that they had been trying to free themselves.
Sometimes people who tried to prevent what they feared was a premature burial were dismissed as being mad with grief and unable to accept the reality of death.
In 1851 Virginia Macdonald, a girl living in New York, was buried after falling ill, despite her mother’s insistence that her daughter was not dead. The family tried to reassure the hysterical woman but to no avail, so they eventually had the body disinterred.