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BURIED ALIVE, AND HOW A BODY FEELS

From just after the end of the Civil War and throughout most of the 1870’s, newspapers often reported of a phenomenon that they called "suspended animation". It started with symptoms of a bad cold or flu bug. A few days later, primarily when the victim was asleep, the victim appeared as if they were dead as they could not move or speak. Their entire body was paralyzed. Also, their heart sounds were so faint and slow that doctors of the day could not hear it. Breathing was so shallow that it seemed to have stopped. However, the victim could still see and hear. Strangely, as fast as this condition came on there was total recovery. The condition lasted only a few days. It was if they had awoken from a nap. While I have seen and read many of these reports, I have only found one that was a first person account of what it was like. It appeared in the March 3, 1866 edition of the Stockton Daily Independent (California). The article is as follows:

I had been some time ill of a low and lingering fever. My strength gradually wasted, but the scenes of my life seemed to become more and more acute as my corporeal powers became weaker. I could see by the looks of the doctor that he despaired of my recovery; and the soft and whispering sorrow of my friends taught me that I had nothing to hope.

One day towards the evening a crisis took place. I was seized with a strange and indescribable quivering - a rushing sound was in my ears - I saw round my couch innumerable strange faces; they were bright and visionary and without bodies. There was light and solemnity; and I tried to move and could not. For a short time a terrible confusion overwhelmed me; and when it passed off, all my recollection returned with the most perfect distinctness, 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 of volition to stir myself, but could not move even an eyelid. After a short pause my friend drew near; and sobbing and convulsed with grief, drew his hand over my face and closed my eyes. The world was then darkened, but I still could hear, and feel, and suffer.

When my eyes were closed, I heard by the attendants that my friend had left the room, and I soon after found the undertakers were preparing to habit me in the garments of the grave. Their thoughtlessness was more awful than the grief of my friends. They laughed at one another as they turned me from side to side, and treated what they believed a corpse with the most appalling ribaldry.

When they had laid me out, these wretches retired, and the degrading formality of affected mourning commenced. 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. On the third day some of them talked of the smell of corruption in the room. The coffin was procured; I was lifted and laid in; my friend placed my head on what was deemed its last pillow, and I felt his tears drop on my face!

When all who had any particular interest in me had for a short time looked at me in the coffin, I heard them retire; and the undertaker's men place the lid on the coffin and screwed it down. There were two of them present; one had occasion to go away before the task was done. I heard the fellow who was left begin to whistle as he turned the screw nails; but he checked himself, and completed his work in silence. I was then left alone - every one shunned the room. I knew, however, that I was not yet buried; and though darkened and motionless, I had still hope; but this was not permitted long. The day of internment arrived - I felt the coffin lifted and borne away - I heard and felt it placed in the hearse. There was a crowd of people around; some of them spoke sorrowfully of me. The hearse began to move - I knew that it carried me to the grave. It halted, and the coffin was taken out - I felt myself carried on shoulders of men, by the inequality of the motion. A pause ensued - I heard the cords of the coffin moved - I felt it swing as depended by them. It was lowered, and rested on the bottom of the grave. The cords were dropped upon the lid - I heard them fall. Dreadful was the effort I then made to exert the power of action, but my whole frame was immovable.

Soon after a few handfuls of earth were thrown upon the coffin. Then there was another pause - after which the shovel was employed, and the sound of the rattling mould, as it covered me, was far more tremendous than thunder. But I could make no effort. The sound became gradually less and less, and by a surging reverberation in the coffin, I knew that the grave was filled up, and that the sexton was treading in the earth, slapping the grave with the flat side of his spade. This too ceased, then all was silent.

I had no means of knowing the lapse of time; and the silence continued. This is death thought I, and I am doomed to remain in the earth till the resurrection. Presently the body will fall into corruption, and the epicurean worm that it is only satisfied with the flesh of man, will come to partake of the banquet that has been prepared for him with so much solicitude and care. In the contemplation of this hideous thought, I heard a low and under sound in the earth over me, and fancied that the worms and reptiles of death were coming - that the mole and rat of the grave would soon be upon me. The sound continued to grow louder and nearer. Can it be possible, I thought, that my friends suspect they have buried me too soon? The hope was like light bursting through the gloom of death.

The sound ceased; and presently I felt the hands of some dreadful being working about my throat. They dragged me out of the coffin by the head. I felt again the living air, but it was cold, and I was carried swiftly away - I thought to judgment, perhaps perdition.

When borne to some distance I was then thrown down like a clod - it was not upon the ground. A moment after I found myself in a carriage; and, by the interchange of some 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. One of the men sung snatches and scraps of obscene songs as the cart rattled along over the pavement of the streets.

My eyes were still shut, I saw nothing; but in a short time I heard, by the bustle in the room, that the students of the anatomy were assembling. Some of them came around the table and examined me minutely. They were pleased to find so good a subject had been procured. The demonstrator himself at last came in.

Previous to beginning the dissection, he proposed to try on me some galvanic experiment; and an apparatus was arranged for that purpose. The first shock vibrated through all my nerves; they rung and jingled like the strings of a harp. The students expressed their admiration at the convulsive effect. The second shock threw my eyes open and the first person that I saw was the doctor who attended me. But still I was dead. I could, however, discover among the students the faces with whom I was familiar; and when my eyes were opened, I heard my name pronounced by several of the students with an accent of awe and compassion, and wish that it had been some other subject.

When they had satisfied themselves with the galvanic phenomena, the demonstrator took the knife and pierced me on the bosom with the point. I felt a dreadful crackling, as it were, throughout my whole frame - a convulsive shuddering instantly followed, and a shriek of horror rose from all present. The ice of death was broken up - my trance ended. The utmost exertions were made to restore me, and in the course of an hour I was in the full possession of all my faculties.

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