FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE
Presented by author Troy Taylor and Based on his book, BEYOND THE GRAVE (2000).. Click Here for More Information about the book!
THE HORROR OF THE GRAVE & THE DARK SIDE OF DEATH
THE HORROR OF THE GRAVE &
THE DARK SIDE OF DEATH
In his book, BEYOND THE GRAVE, Troy Taylor discusses man's fear of death. One has to wonder if perhaps the fear of what may be waiting for us on the other side may also extend to our fear of ghosts? Our fear of death has its roots in the not so distant past. In centuries gone by, life was short and death came far too soon. A mother during the Victorian era might give birth to six children in order that three might survive to adulthood. People simply didn’t live very long in those days, creating a fear of death that was both primal and deep-seated.
Today, things have changed. We live much longer and death has become remote and sanitized. In these modern times, few adults under forty have even seen a corpse. When death finally comes for us, it does so in the clinical setting of a hospital. We are protected and shielded from our dark dreams of death.... or are we?
In spite of all of these changes, death is just as mysterious now as it was two hundred years ago. Our cause of death may differ, but the result is still the same. What happens when we die? Is there a life beyond this mortal one?
And thus, our fear of ghosts is born.
What rational person wishes to return from the grave to wander the earth for eternity? Who would wish to spend their postmortem days and nights aimlessly pacing the corridors of the house where they once lived, doomed to loneliness, isolation and despair? Most importantly, what creature would desire to be trapped for all time among the crypts, monuments and tombs of a forgotten graveyard?
The ghosts who haunt graveyards seem to stay behind because of events that take place after their deaths. An indignity carried out on our body after we die is a fear that has remained with us since the days of the “body snatchers”. Society endows on a lifeless corpse the capacity for feeling hurt and the expectation of respect. All forms of the defilement of the dead, especially thefts and the desecration of corpses, are regarded as not only distasteful but almost unholy.
And perhaps society is right about that, for the majority of graveyard ghost tales stem from terrible events that occur within the bounds of the cemetery, long after the hapless victims have died. Cemeteries gain a reputation for being haunted for reasons that include the desecration of corpses, grave robbery, unmarked graves, natural disasters that disturb resting places and more. Could such events literally create the ghosts of these haunted cemeteries?
In the book, Taylor speaks much of the "Dark Side of Death". This darker side not only includes the reasons why some cemeteries might become haunted, like premature burial, grave robbery, desecration of corpses and more, but also the unexplained and the mysterious side of death as well. Here, we will take a look at some of the strangest of the "horrors of the grave". I offer a word of warning though... some of these tales are not for the faint of heart or for the weak of stomach. Read on if you dare!
The fear of being buried alive is perhaps as old as the fear of death itself. Being taken from this world at the moment of death is bad enough, but the prospect of being mistakenly identified as dead and then waiting in suffocating horror... well, it’s too much for most of us to think about.
A classic painting inspired by stories of cholera victims who awakened just before being placed into the grave.
The obsession with premature burial reached its peak during the Victorian era but anecdotes of those unfortunate enough to be buried alive stretch back to for centuries. One early instance was written about in 1308. A grammarian named Johannes Duns Scotus was mistakenly thought to be dead and was interred in his tomb. Some time later, the vault was reopened and Scotus was found outside of his coffin. His hands were torn and covered in crusted blood from his futile attempts to open the tomb from the inside.
Anxiety of premature burial still exists today, but thanks to advances in the medical world, it remains more of a private fear that one of public hysteria, as seen in years past. The terror has its roots in 1742 when a famous French doctor wrote that people were routinely being buried alive. Needless to say, writings from a well-known doctor on the subject of premature burial got people talking and published accounts by authors like Edgar Allan Poe made matters all the more intriguing. Poe even wrote an article on what was believed to be a true account of a woman being entombed alive. It reportedly happened to the wife of an eminent official in the Baltimore area. She was seized by an unknown illness, and to all outward appearances, was dead. She was placed in the family vault and was left undisturbed for three years. At the end of that time, the tomb was opened for an interment and as the door was pulled open, the skeleton of the woman in her burial clothing tumbled out! Apparently, she had revived soon after her funeral and had succeeded in knocking her coffin from the ledge where it rested. It broke open and she was able to escape. She was not able to get through the door of the tomb however and she died there, her screams unheard by those passing outside.
While the medical profession was quick to disregard the claims of “rampant” premature burials, it was hard to ignore the accounts and evidence that came in response to public interest. One physician, Franz Hartmann, collected over 750 cases of people being buried alive and earned the almost universal condemnation of the book by other doctors. How could they not disagree? The public mania over premature burials highlighted the fact that doctors were merely human and sometimes made mistakes... perhaps even mistakes that had people waking up from a trance and finding themselves entombed in a coffin.
The stories and alleged incidents of premature burial fueled the public’s imagination and created both scandalous and spine-tingling reading. In 1849, a severe cholera epidemic killed 199 people. An old woman, who was in charge of the cholera wards, stated that as soon as patients died, they were placed into wooden coffins and the lids screwed down. They were then moved outside into a small shed so that they would be out of the way.
“Sometimes”, she coldly told authors William Tebb and Edward Vollum, “they’d come to afterwards and we did hear them kicking in their coffins, but we never unscrewed them, because we knew they had to die”.
A particularly gruesome case was recounted in an article from July 1889. A portion of the article recalled a New York case from 1854 in which a baker placed the coffin of his deceased daughter in a temporary vault in order for the girl’s older sister to come to New York from St. Louis for the funeral. This was possible, testified the undertaker who performed the services, because the death occurred in the winter and the outdoor temperature prevented severe decomposition. When the rest of the family arrived, the vault was opened for the funeral. When the lid of the coffin was removed, they discovered that the girl had apparently been buried alive. Her grave clothes had been torn to shreds and according to the report, several of her fingers had literally been bitten off. She had supposedly eaten them in a vain attempt to prolong her life.
Today, it hard for us to guess just how fearful the Victorians needed to be about being buried alive. Certainly, there were many tales and stories of those who discovered bodies in a state that appeared as if they had been trying to escape from the grave. There were also plenty of “near-miss” experiences, told by those who fell into a stupor and were almost buried alive. In all honesty though, most of the fears probably came from the popular press. Such tales of death and gruesomeness played right into the public demand for ghosts and frightening stories. How much more frightening is a macabre event that can actually occur to you?
But what ailments caused premature burials to take place? Catalepsy was probably the most common sickness to mimic death during the Victorian period. It has been characterized by the immobility of the muscles and was easily mistaken for death. During a trance state, a victim’s limbs have a wax-like flexibility that causes them to be shaped into odd positions, where they can remain indefinitely. Catalepsy often occurred during moments of hysteria and was a common side effect to schizophrenia before drug treatments came into use.
Comas were often mistaken for death in the days of more primitive medical treatments. They tend to create a very deep, sleep-like state and it often takes a lengthy period for the victim to recover. The fate of the comatose patient in those days often depended on the patience and the vigilance of doctors and relatives and the legal time limits placed on the interval between death and burial.
Horrific tales told by those who were "nearly buried alive" fed the public frenzy over premature burial. The Victorians soon began a search for ways to prevent such atrocities from taking place. In days past, the surest way to avoid being buried alive was to obtain the services of a doctor who could be trusted enough to actually view and examine the corpse. Many instances of premature burial occurred because of misdiagnosis by relatives or because of absentee doctors who, acting in perfect accordance with the law, were not required to actually see a body to pronounce the person dead. A certificate of death only needed to state that the doctor had been told they were dead. The obvious answer to this problem was for the relatives to be in no doubt about whether you were dead or not and if there was some question, for them to have explicit instructions about what to do to eliminate that lingering doubt.
The mystery writer Wilkie Collins always carried a letter with him detailing the elaborate precautions that his family should take in order to prevent his premature burial. Other people added to their wills that no one in the family would benefit until it was absolutely sure they were a corpse. They even went as far as to write friends into the will who would be given a substantial amount of money to sever their heads from their body or to pierce their veins.
Lady Burton, the wife of the famous British explorer Sir Richard Burton, stated that she thought it infinitely preferable to be killed outright by the embalmer’s needle than to regain consciousness below the ground. Apparently, she was not alone in these feelings.
There is no doubt that the worst possible experience of premature burial would be awakening while trapped inside of a coffin, below six feet of earth. No matter how loudly you screamed or clawed at the lid of the coffin, there was little chance for escape... or was there?
In 1896, Count Karnice-Karnicki, chamberlain to the Tsar of Russia, invented an ingenious device to prevent premature burial. The count imagined the nightmare faced by anyone who might be buried underground. How could such a person summon help? The apparatus that he constructed was a tube that passed vertically from the lid of the coffin and then ended in an airtight box above the level of the ground. Resting on the chest of the deceased was a glass sphere that was attached to a spring running the entire length of the tube. It connected to a mechanism inside of the box. The slightest movement of the chest would move the sphere in a way that the spring would cause the lid of the box above to fly open and admit air and light. The spring also activated a flag, a light and a loud bell to attract the attention of anyone who might be in the cemetery.
This device could be rented for a small amount of money and after a length of time went by, and there was no chance for revival, the tube could be pulled up and used in another coffin.
There were other devices invented too that allowed anyone who awoke in the grave to ring bells, sound alarms and wave flags. There is no record of what the success rate for these devices might have been but I can imagine that the inventions gave many Victorians no small amount of comfort.
Others looked for a more direct solution to notify their families that they were alive. One man, John Wilmer, was actually buried in the back garden of his home. A switch that was placed in his hand, at the time of his burial, was connected to an alarm in his house. If he awakened from any sort of trance, he could immediately summon help. For some reason though, apparently fearing a technical failure, he asked his relatives to be sure that they carried out an annual inspection of the wiring!
The reader is bound to laugh at such a suggestion, wondering just how long Wilmer planned to remain alive in his grave! However, that laughter is bound to turn into a shudder after they read the strange account that follows.
Martin Sheets was a wealthy businessman who lived in Terra Haute, Indiana in the early 1900’s. One of his greatest fears was that of a premature burial. He often dreamt of being awake, but unable to move, at the moment the doctor pronounced him dead and then regaining consciousness while trapped in a coffin below the ground. Sheets decided to fight his fears by investing some of his resources in the prevention of his being buried alive.
First of all, he had a casket custom-designed with latches fitted on the inside. In this way, should he be placed inside prematurely, he would be able to open the coffin and escape. He also began construction on a mausoleum so that when he died, or was thought to have died, he would not be imprisoned under six feet of dirt. The mausoleum was well built and attractive but Sheets realized that even if he did manage to escape from his casket, he would still be trapped inside of a stone prison.
He came up with another clever idea. He installed a telephone inside of the tomb with a direct line to the main office of the cemetery. In this way, he could summon help by simply lifting the receiver. The line was fitted with an automatic indicator light so that even if no words were spoken, the light would come on in the office and help would soon be on the way.
Death came for Martin Sheets in 1910 and he was entombed in the mausoleum. I would imagine that for several days afterward, cemetery staff workers kept a close eye on the telephone indicator light in the office. After more time passed though, it was probably forgotten. Years went by and the telephone system in the area changed. Eventually, the direct line to the cemetery office was removed but thanks to very specific instructions in Sheets’ will, and the money to pay for it, the telephone in the mausoleum remained connected and active.
A number of years later, Sheets’ widow also passed away. She was discovered one day lying on her bed with the telephone clutched in her hand. In fact, she held the receiver so tightly that it had to be pried from her fingers. It was soon learned that she had experienced a severe stroke and family members assumed that she had been trying to call an ambulance when she finally died. A service was held and after a quiet memorial service, she was taken to the family mausoleum, where she would be interred next to her husband.
When cemetery workers entered the mausoleum, they received the shock of their lives. Nothing there was disturbed, they saw, except for one, very chilling item. Martin Sheets’ telephone, locked away for all of these years, was hanging from the wall.... its receiver inexplicably off the hook!
THE VAMPIRE IN AMERICA
There is perhaps no supernatural creature, outside of ghosts, as closely connected to the graveyard as the vampire is. Although long considered to be nothing more than a myth, the vampire is a still a strangely attractive and enticing being to the modern reader. We think of them as being nothing more than the fanciful creation of folklore and literature, but what if we are wrong? What if vampires are real... and what if they once stalked the fields and towns of historic America?
Impossible, you say? You might be surprised at what you find lurking around the dark corners of New England!
Few can really say what the traditional vampire is. Some believe that he is an evil spirit that wears the body of the newly dead, while others believe that he is a corpse, re-animated by his original soul. What everyone can agree on is what this creature must have to survive and that is blood. This vital bodily ingredient must be taken from the veins of a living person so that the vampire can survive.
In nearly every case, a vampire that is exhumed from his grave, or resting place, is always found to be ruddy of complexion, well-nourished and apparently in good health. This is in spite of the fact that he had been dead for some time. His appearance is always marked by long, curving fingernails (having grown long in the grave) and blood smeared about the mouth. According to European legends, the only way to destroy one of these living corpses is to drive a stake through its heart. After that, the body should be burned. The American legends suggest a different method of disposal. According to old reports, the heart of the vampire must be cut out of the chest and then burned. Often, a potion must be mixed from the ashes and must be given to the vampire’s victims. In this way, they do not die and become vampires themselves.
The legends of vampires have their roots in traditional fears. In days past, it was not uncommon for people to be fearful about the dead returning from their grave, especially in cases of suicides or of unfortunates being buried without the last rites. Occasional deviants who practiced necrophilia or corpse-stealing often provided apparent “proof” that some of the dead could leave the graveyard. An empty coffin was not seen as evidence of theft, but evidence of vampires instead.
Terrible and what seemed to be mysterious outbreaks of disease and plagues were sometimes thought to be caused by supernatural means. In America, an outbreak of the “white death” or tuberculosis was believed to actually be a string of vampire-related deaths.
Probably the most common source of vampire legends came from premature burials. People suffering from catalepsy and other ailments sometimes found themselves buried alive and when later exhumed, the distorted state of the corpses led many to believe the dead had been coming and going from their coffins for some time. In the 1700’s, it was not uncommon for bodies to be dug up to see if they had become vampires, especially when it involved the death of a suicide, a murder victim or someone who had died during a spate of unexplained deaths. If a body was discovered to be in any way out of the ordinary, it was burned to prevent it leaving the grave again.
While vampires had allegedly been around for centuries, became a part of popular culture in 1897 with the publication of Bram Stoker’s book, Dracula. This was certainly not the first fictional story written about vampires, but it made the greatest impression on history. It also set the standard for the elegant, European vampire, a standard that is still very prevalent today. This image of the vampire taught us to hate the creature’s evil nature but to be seduced by his powerful and charismatic charm.
In America, our colonial ancestors were well aware of vampires, but they certainly did not see them as graceful “creatures of the night”. The vampire was a death-bringer and something to be feared. An unsuspecting community that fell under the spell of one of these monsters could very well be destroyed. You see, in historic America, vampires were not mythical creatures from books and folklore, they were unquestionably real!
In parts of New England, stories of vampires were common, especially during outbreaks of tuberculosis, or as it was called at that time, consumption. It is not hard to imagine how consumption may have given birth to the legends of vampires in New England. The disease was the plague of the 1800’s. Death tolls from the illness were staggering as it was highly contagious and would pass easily through entire families. It was generally fatal and often referred to as the “White Death”. The name came from the fact that the affected person’s skin became very pale, thin and almost ghost-like. There was also a reddening of the face, fainting spells and a general weakening of the body. It was easy to see, in more superstitious times, how this could have been mistaken for the draining of the lifeblood by a vampire. It was thought that when someone died from consumption, they might come back from the dead and try to feed off their living relatives, who by this time, had probably come down with the disease themselves. In order to stop them from coming back, family members would go to the grave and try to “kill” the deceased again.
You might think that one look at the decaying corpse would dispel any rumors of vampires, but you would be wrong! In fact, when the coffin was opened, the recently dead consumptive would be found to be bloated in death, even though the disease had made them wasted and thin when alive. Their fingernails would have appeared to have grown (as when the flesh retracts, the nails appear longer) and worst of all, their mouths would be filled with naturally regurgitated blood. The evidence of vampirism was blatantly obvious! Or so it was thought.
While there were a number of cases of supposed vampires in New England, the most famous was undoubtedly that of Mercy Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island.
The story of Mercy Brown may end in the Chestnut Hill Cemetery in 1892, but it actually started a number of years before that in 1883. George Brown was a hard-working farmer who prospered in the Exeter area. He and his wife, Mary, had raised six children and lived a comfortable but simple life. In late 1883, the first in a series of terrible events occurred on the Brown farm. Late that year, Mary Brown began to show signs of consumption. The sturdy, once healthy woman began to suffer from fainting spells and periods of weakness. Most of all, she was gripped with a harsh cough that kept her awake through the night. The disease began to ravage her body and on December 8, she slipped into unconsciousness and did not awaken.
The following spring, Mary Olive, George’s oldest daughter, also came down with the dreaded illness. She began to complain of terrible dreams and of a great pressure that was crushing her chest at night, making it impossible for her to breathe. Mary Olive grew paler and weaker with each passing day and on June 6, 1884, she followed her mother to the grave.
Several years of peace followed the death of Mary Olive and during this time, Edwin Brown, George and Mary’s only son, got married and bought his own farm in nearby West Wickford. Here, he hoped to make a life for himself and his new bride while he worked in a store to support his family and save money for the future. All was going well until about 1891, when Edwin began to notice the symptoms of the disease that had killed his sister and mother. He resigned from his job and following advice from friends, moved west to Colorado Springs. Here, he hoped that mineral waters and a drier climate might restore his health.
While Edwin was out west, things got worse for the family in Exeter. In January 1892, he received word that his sister Mercy had become sick and had died. He also began to realize that his health was not improving either. He came to the decision that he should return home and spend the remainder of his days with his family, friends and loved ones.
By the time he reached Rhode Island, he found his father in a dreadful and worried state. He had become convinced that the family was being preyed upon by a vampire. After much debate, it was decided that they should exhume the bodies of the other family members and see which one of them it was. How they convinced Edwin to go along with this is unknown, but a group of men went out to the cemetery during the early morning hours of March 18,1892.
It is likely that this exhumation would have remained a secret, if not for the fact that the men sought official sanction for it from the local doctor. They approached the district medical examiner, Dr. Harold Metcalf, and asked him to come to the graveyard to examine the bodies. He discouraged them but eventually agreed to go along, realizing that he could not persuade them from what they believed was their duty. By the time that he arrived at the cemetery, the bodies of Mary Brown and her daughter, Mary Olive, had already been unearthed. Dr. Metcalf took a look at them and found them in a state of advanced decay. They were “just what might be expected from a similar examination of almost any person after the same length of time”, he stated with certainty.
Mercy’s body had not yet been buried. As she had died in the winter, the ground was too hard for a burial. Her body had rested for the past two months inside of a small crypt on the cemetery grounds. The coffin was placed on a small cart inside of the tomb. Once the casket was opened, Dr. Metcalf looked inside and began a quick autopsy of the corpse. What he noted, mainly decay and the marks of consumption on the lungs, did not convince him that she was a vampire. He finished the examination and quickly left.
The other men remained behind. To them, Mercy seemed relatively intact, or at least more so than she should be after two months in the grave. In addition, they were also sure that her body had moved. She had been laid to rest on her back and somehow, the corpse was now resting on her side. Could she have left the casket?
They were nearly sure that Mercy was a vampire and what happened next convinced them entirely. One of the men opened up her heart with his knife and was startled to see fresh blood come pouring out of the organ. It was quickly removed from her chest and burned in the cemetery. As it was engulfed in the flames, ashes were gathered with which to make a tonic that would hopefully cure Edwin of the disease.
Edwin consumed the macabre mixture, but it did no good and he died soon afterwards. On May 2, he too was buried in the cemetery. While tragic, all was not lost. He became the last of the Brown family to die from the mysterious “White Death”. The exhumation had ended the vampire’s control over the family once and for all.
Even though these events took place more than a century ago, Mercy Brown has not faded from the memory of those in Exeter. Famous Rhode Island author H.P. Lovecraft even included a thinly disguised Mercy Brown in his vampire tale The Shunned House. In addition, the story has appeared many times in documentaries and books about the supernatural.
Gone, but not forgotten... Mercy Brown lives on as America’s most celebrated vampire.
Click Here to Continue on with your Journey Beyond the Grave
Haunted Cemeteries in America
Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
See Bibliography of "Beyond the Grave" for Individual Sources