In Prevention of Vivisepulture

Taphophobia – the fear of being buried alive – seems to have been a concern for Henry Wood Booth, father of Cranbrook’s co-founder George Gough Booth. Henry was always a tinkerer, inventing a number of things throughout his life–including things for the afterlife.

Figures 1-5, US Letters Patent No. 619,929, issued to Henry Wood Booth on February 21, 1899.

In 1897, he applied for a patent for a coffin, issued on February 21, 1899. The coffin ensured fresh airflow in case of vivisepulture, the burying of something alive.

This invention relates to coffins, and has for its object an improved coffin and device to be used therewith which is intended to cause a current of fresh air to flow over the surface of the body placed in the coffin for the double purpose of furnishing to the body, if by any chance the person should be still living, a supply of pure air, and which shall, if the body be dead, carry away the gases produced by decomposition.

US Letters Patent No. 619,929, issued February 21, 1899
La Caisse oblongue, illustration d’Harry Clarke, 1919, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial.” Harry Clarke, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so it was not ALL about being buried alive, but really, wasn’t that his main concern?

The fear of “unintentional burial” has likely existed forever, but peaked in the 19th century during the era’s many cholera epidemics. The fear was not helped by fictitious reports in the writings of Edgar Allen Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poe even penned “The Premature Burial” on the subject, published in 1844. Newspapers sensationalized storied of premature burial, including thirty-six in the Detroit Free Press between 1880 and 1886.

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