farm tools
U.S. Patent
Eisenbrandt, 1843

Vester, 1868

Schroeder & Wuest 1843

Fearnaught, 1882

Krichbaum, 1882

Sieber & Borntraeger, 1885

Redl, 1887

Kwiatkowski, 1893

Deveau, 1894

Egerland & Freese, 1895

Nicolle, 1899

McKnight, 1900

Griffith, 1901

Willems, 1908

Backus, 1913

Gauchard, 1983

American Artifacts

Signals from the Grave

Early patents for detecting life in buried persons

From American Artifacts, issue 45, July 1999
Richard Van Vleck

Bordering on the bizarre, the U.S. patents described here reflect a concern on the part of some that persons might be buried prematurely. It was feared that the vital signs of persons in a coma or “suspended animation” would not be detected. As embalming became more widespread, this concern became a moot point, except, perhaps, to the most gullible.

At least some of these grave signals and life preserving devices were likely made and marketed, but I know of no examples or even advertising existing. It is not likely that grave signals would have been marketed to undertakers, since they would have been fairly confident that the corpse was not going to rise up after they had finished their work. However, some of these patents cover devices which can be pulled from the ground without disturbing the casket after an appropriate time had passed and the signal not activated. Making the grave signal recyclable for use on another grave would seem to have appealed to the mortician or cemetery operator, rather than the bereaved.

The first such patent, granted to Christian Eisenbrandt, of Baltimore, in 1843, was for a spring loaded coffin lid. Unlike the later patents, this escape device would function only until the time of burial. “—-Whereas there have been instances of human beings having been buried alive, the inventor of this coffin has contrived an arrangement whereby anyone who may not really have departed this life may by the slightest motion of either the head or hand acting upon a system of springs and levers cause the instantaneous opening of the coffin lid.”

The next patent for a life signal, granted to Franz Vester, of Newark, N.J., in 1868, was designed to function after burial. “—-The nature of this invention consists in placing on the lid of the coffin, and directly over the face of the body laid therein, a square tube which extends from the coffin up through and over the surface of the grave, said tube containing a ladder and a cord, one end of the cord being placed in the hand of the person laid in the coffin and the other end of said cord being attached to a bell on the top of the square tube, so that, should a person be interred ere life is extinct, he can, on recovery to consciousness, ascend from the grave by the ladder, or if not able to ascend by said ladder, ring the bell, thereby giving an alarm and thus saving himself.”

In 1871, a patent was granted to Theodore Schroeder and Hermann Wuest, of Hoboken, N.J. for a “life detector for coffins”, which resembled a giant ear trumpet. The mechanism was simply a chain placed in the hand of the corpse, which, if pulled, would ring a bell and release a latch, causing a door to fall open, admitting air to the coffin and serving as a signal flag. An alternative mechanism in this patent substituted an electromagnet to actuate the latch trip and an electric bell to sound the alarm, requiring, of course, a charged battery to operate both.

The next grave signal to be patented was invented by Albert Fearnaught, of Indianapolis, in 1882. A rope tied around the wrist of the corpse, if tugged, would release a spring-loaded red flag at the surface to alert any bystander that the buried person wished to be disinterred.

Also patented in 1882, by John Krichbaum, of Youngstown, OH, was an odd device consisting of a bar placed in the hands of the corpse and extending to the surface and into a glass enclosure where a pointer and numbers apparently indicated any movement of the bar. Krichbaum mentions that the device is used for “persons buried under doubt of being in a trance”.

Charles Sieber and Frederick Borntraeger, of Waterloo, IL, received a patent for a “grave signal for people buried in a trance” in 1885. Along with the by then usual electromagnetic bell alarm and pop-up flag activated by a string tied to the finger of the corpse, this patent includes a spring driven fan in a housing at the grave surface that is also activated by the finger string and a lamp and window at the the bottom of a tube for viewing the face of the corpse from the surface.

Carl Redi, of Vienna, patented a life signal in 1887 with mechanical air flaps and an electromagnetic bell, describing one version for burial and another for use in a vault. See illustration on the front cover.

In 1893, a patent was granted to Adalbert Kwiatkowski, of Germany, for a coffin signal using a long spring loaded flag within a tube extending to the surface and a complex linkage with a bridle resting on the forehead of the corpse and ropes around the hands. (lower right illustration).

A simplified grave signal was patented by Hubert Deveau, of New York, in 1894. A pipe extended from the coffin top directly over the head of the corpse to the surface and enclosed a rod which when pushed upward by the person’s head, opened a valve at the top end, allowing air into the pipe and down to the coffin. The valve was enclosed in a glass cylinder and its movement upward served as the signal. Once pushed up, it remained in that position, until an alert cemetery attendant would notice its position and begin digging.

In 1895, Franz Egerland and John Freese, of Souix Falls, SD, patented a simplified coffin signal in which the electric switch and early dry cell were located in the coffin, with wires running up a small diameter air tube to a top mounted buzzer. Rather than using a valve mechanism on the air tube, it was left open and had a disinfectant globe mounted halfway up the pipe to prevent the discharge of “obnoxious gases” from the coffin.

M.C.H. Nicolle, of France, patented a somewhat bizarre coffin signal in 1899, in which a hammer is released by movement of the corpse, swinging down and breaking a glass window directly over the head, allowing air to enter the previously sealed coffin. The alarm is simply the sound of the breaking glass, since the device is used only before burial. If anyone ever did wake from a trance in one of these coffins and lift their heads, the result would appear to be a face full of broken glass followed by a blow from the falling hammer.

In 1900, Walter McKnight, of Buffalo, NY, patented an all electric device for “indicating the awakening of persons buried alive”. In addition to the usual air pipe to the surface, a large electromagnet (solenoid) in an enclosure on the surface pulled up a cap on the air pipe when movement of the corpse’s hands closed a switch. An electric bell was mounted outside the enclosure.

A telegraphic grave signal device was patented in 1901 by Monroe Griffith, of Sioux Falls, IA. In addition to the wiring of hands and feet to signal awakening and movement of the corpse, switches under the corpse would close if the body were lifted by grave robbers. Rather than using a buzzer above the grave, the wires lead to a central office such as “the home of the cemetery sexton or police station”.

In 1908, George Willems, of Roanoke, IL , patented a grave attachment which consisted of a pipe at the foot of the coffin leading to the surface, with an adjustable mirror at each end and a remote controlled flashlight. The idea was simply to observe the corpse for several days after burial.

1913 brought a more sophisticated device for detecting life in a corpse “in hospitals, morgues, crematories, at bathing beaches and on ocean-going steamers”. Peter Backus, of Delphos, OH was the inventor. The elaborate apparatus consisted of a motor driven vacuum pump, electric heaters, telephone monitor, and a special stretcher placed in a sealed casket. Presumably, a professional operated this apparatus and performed tests for residual life in the corpse. If the machine was ever made, it was, no doubt, quite expensive.

As late as 1983, a coffin life detector was patented by Fernand Gauchard, of France. The device used electrical relays and included a vacuum pump, but still relied on the old standby of detecting body movement to trigger the alarm.

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