How the Unintentionally Buried were Literally Saved by the Bell

Yana Bostongirl

Prior to the progress that has been made in the medical field when pronouncing a person dead, there were many horrific incidents of people buried alive on account of low pulse or breathing rates. Since doctors of old relied more on touch and smell to determine whether a person was dead, many found themselves unintentionally buried alive.

When coffins were later opened, it led to the macabre discovery of scratch marks all over the coffin as the unfortunate victim awoke and tried to claw their way out. This gave rise to the grave bell as a precautionary measure for the prematurely buried.

The grave bell consists of a pipe that leads down into the coffin and a string that leads out of the coffin via the pipe and is attached to a bell. Its purpose is that if the person who is presumed dead happens to awaken, they then grope around for the string to ring the bell and summon help.

An article published in newsandsentinel.com suggests that grave bells were used in Cooper Cemetery in New Matamoras, Ohio. This is what John Miller, president of the Matamoras Historical Society had to say in the article: “The bell’s purpose was if they (unintentionally) buried you alive, you were supposed to feel around the coffin…for a string.”

According to historycollection.com, the bell system was invented by Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger in 1892. Here is an excerpt: "Bells housed above ground connected to strings attached to the body’s head, hands, and feet. If the bell rang, the cemetery watchman would insert a tube into the coffin and pump air using bellows until the person could be safely evacuated from their grave. However, due to the process of natural decay, a swelling corpse could activate the bell system leading to false beliefs those buried inside were alive. Despite its popular use, there is no record of a safety coffin saving anyone."

The article goes on to suggest that the idiom 'saved by the bell' came from the use of safety coffins.

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