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Buried Alive: A Die-Witness Account

The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader.

Being mistaken for dead and buried alive isn’t something we worry about much anymore, but in the 1800s, people were terrified of the possibility. Here’s the story of one man who claimed to suffer that terrible fate.


Before the 1830s, British medical colleges could legally use only the bodies of executed criminals for dissection in their anatomy classes. When those were in short supply, body-snatchers known as “resurrection-men” stepped in to fill the gap, digging up freshly buried corpses from cemeteries and selling them to medical schools. Then Parliament passed the Anatomy Act of 1832, allowing licensed medical schools to use unclaimed or donated corpses, which ensured a steady supply of legal cadavers and ended the ghoulish black market trade forever. But in 1896, before the practice passed entirely from public memory, James Blake Bailey, librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons, published The Diary of A Resurrectionist, “an actual record of the doings of one gang of the resurrection-men in London.” The book included what may be history’s only firsthand account of what it’s like to be buried alive and live to tell the tale. If John Macintire’s story could be believed, Bailey wrote, “the resurrection-men sometimes performed a valuable service to those who had been buried.” The following is Macintire’s account of his experiences, as told to Bailey.

In His Own Words

I had been some time ill of a low and lingering fever. My strength gradually wasted, and I could see by the doctor that I had nothing to hope. One day, towards evening, I was seized with strange and indescribable quiverings. I saw around my bed, innumerable strange faces; they were bright and visionary, and without bodies. There was light and solemnity, and I tried to move, but could not; I could recollect, with perfectness, but the power of motion had departed. I heard the sound of weeping at my pillow, and the voice of the nurse say, “He is dead.” I cannot describe what I felt at these words. I exerted my utmost power to stir myself, but I could not move even an eyelid. My father drew his hand over my face and closed my eyelids. The world was then darkened, but I could still hear, and feel and suffer. For three days a number of friends called to see me. I heard them in low accents speak of what I was, and more than one touched me with his finger.

Jack… in the Box

The coffin was then procured, and I was laid in it. I felt the coffin lifted and borne away. I heard and felt it placed in the hearse; it halted, and the coffin was taken out. I felt myself carried on the shoulders of men; I heard the cords of the coffin moved. I felt it swing as dependent by them. It was lowered and rested upon the bottom of the grave. Dreadful was the effort I then made to exert the power of action, but my whole frame was immovable. The sound of the rattling mould [dirt] as it covered me, was far more tremendous than thunder. This also ceased, and all was silent. This is death, thought I, and soon the worms will be crawling about my flesh. In the contemplation of this hideous thought, I heard a low sound in the earth over me, and I fancied that the worms and reptiles were coming. The sound continued to grow louder and nearer. Can it be possible, thought I, that my friends suspect that they have buried me too soon? The hope was truly like bursting through the gloom of death.

Out of the Frying Pan…

The sound ceased. They dragged me out of the coffin by the head, and carried me swiftly away. When borne to some distance, I was thrown down like a clod, and by the interchange of one or two brief sentences, I discovered that I was in the hands of two of those robbers, who live by plundering the grave, and selling the bodies of parents, and children, and friends. Being rudely stripped of my shroud, I was placed naked on a table. In a short time I heard by the bustle in the room that the doctors and students were assembling. When all was ready the Demonstrator took his knife, and pierced my bosom. I felt a dreadful crackling, as it were, throughout my whole frame; a convulsive shudder instantly followed, and a shriek of horror rose from all present. The ice of death was broken up; my trance was ended. The utmost exertions were made to restore me, and in the course of an hour I was in full possession of all my faculties.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader. The 26th annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series is all-new and jam-packed with the BRI’s patented mix of fun and information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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