How can you be sure that someone is really, truly dead? Before the age of modern medicine, it was much more difficult for physicians to confirm that someone had died, and researchers developed all sorts of tests for telling living people apart from corpses. Many of these tests were pretty odd, and a good number simply didn't work.

Top photo by Larissa Sayer.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, many in North America and Europe feared being buried alive, although the frequency of such tragic accidents was likely exaggerated in the minds of the general public thanks to sensational reports and a few genuine misunderstandings. George Washington, for example, asked for his body to be put on ice for a few days between his death and his burial (during which the architect of the Capitol suggested a rather unorthodox means for bringing ol' George back to life). In some regions, the use of dead houses became common; corpses would be placed in common buildings until they putrified to ensure that they were dead. (In some cases, it was also a convenient way to guard against body snatching.) Some such houses operations would even attach each corpse's fingers and toes to loud alarms, so that the person standing guard would know the instant a body's digits so much as twitched. However, some folks came to believe that these setups represented a desecration of the corpse, while rumors spread that they were actually hotbeds of scientific experimentation.


Well into the 19th century, many Western European scientists had a preoccupation with preventing premature burial. More than 30 French dissertations were published on the signs of death between 1800 and 1835. In 1837, the toxicologist Pietro Manni established the Prix Manni, donating 1,500 gold francs to the Academy of Science as a prize to anyone who could come up with a worthy way to identify the signs of death. The Marquis d'Ourches would later conditionally donate 20,000 francs to the Academy for a similar prize. The entries offer some insight into the science of death detection. Scalding water was poured over bodies. Noses were lit on fire (which proved especially unfortunate in at least one case in which the body turned out to be alive). Corpses were injected with ammonia to see if it produced an inflammatory result. Fingers were chopped off in the effort to shock a body back to life.


Laennec examining one of his patients with a stethoscope. Painting by Théobald Chartran, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even the invention of the stethoscope by René Laennec in 1816 failed to put a definitive end to the question of how to tell a person was alive or dead. In fact, Eugène Bouchut won the Prix Manni in 1848—more than three decades after the invention of the stethoscope—for suggesting that the device might be used to determine death with a degree of certainty. Bouchut's thesis wasn't universally accepted by the medical community, either; admittedly, earlier stethoscopes were primitive compared to their modern counterparts, and some physicians doubted their usefulness as a diagnostic instrument. (And even today, with our sophisticated medical equipment, occasionally a person will wake up after being declared dead.) However, some of the other methods of death determination of the era were invasive, inaccurate, or just downright bizarre:

Rub prickly brushes over the corpse's body: The dubious winner of the Prix d'Ourches was Professor M. Weber, a forensic specialist from Leipzig, who claimed that death could be determined by rubbing a hard brush over some some portion of the body's skin. Weber claimed that after the rubbing, a dead body's skin would take on a parchment-like texture. However, after the prize commissioners attempted to replicate his technique and found it unreliable, they awarded Weber a 5,000-franc honorable mention instead of the full 20,000-franc grand prize.


Stick the corpse's finger in your ear: Leon Collongues believed that the physician's own body served as the best instrument for determining whether someone was alive or dead. He believed that the involuntary muscle movements in a live person's finger would create a buzzing noise that could be detected if the finger was shoved into the physician's ear. He even claimed that his death detection method was superior to Bouchut's.

Pinch the corpse's nipples: The term "pince-mamelon" may sound slightly more dignified in French, but Jules Antoine Josat's nipple pincher was precisely what it sounds like. The theory was that if one applied clawed forceps to a body's nipples, a live person's body would absolutely respond However, this thesis wasn't necessarily true; Paul Briquet, in his treatise on hysterical patients, claimed that some patients' nipples did not respond to touches or pinpricks. (Which, in addition to calling Josat's test into question, offers some insight into the treatment of so-called hysterics.)

Crank the corpse's tongue: Dr. J.V. Laborde similarly suggested that a sensitive body part might be manipulated in order to revive a supposedly dead person, in his case, the tongue. Laborde had reported that cranking the tongue of an asphyxiated person could clear the subject's airways, but he also claimed that rhythmically cranking the tongue over a period of three hours could somehow resuscitate a not-quite-dead person or animal. He even invented a tongue-pulling machine for use in mortuaries. A mortuary worker could, he claimed, turn the crank for the required period and be satisfied that the corpse on his slab was, in fact, entirely dead.


Administer an electrical shock to the corpse's eyes and lips: Many researchers had high hopes for galvanism in the area of death-detection. One proposal for the use of electricity in testing potential corpses for signs of life came from Christian August Struwe and his Lebenspruefer (Tester of Life). The device, described in 1805, involved of a pair of conductors placed against the eye and upper lip of the body. An electrical pulse was sent through the conductors, and if the body was alive, the theory went, the eye and mouth muscles would twitch. In the book Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, Jan Bondeson suggests that the galvanism death tests didn't get nearly the study they warranted in part because galvanism was viewed as dangerous and unreliable and the equipment was relatively expensive.

Plant a flag in the corpse's heart: A German scientist by the name of Middeldorph supposedly developed this test, which involved plunging a needle into the heart of the dubiously deceased. The needle was attached to a flag that should, the idea went, wave if the body's heart was beating. In 1893, Séverin Icard, a physician at the Grande-Miséricorde children's hospital, attempted the test on a lady when her relatives feared she could be buried alive. Icard had already declared the woman dead, but plunged the needle into her chest, after which the woman's scandalized family declared that the doctor had killed her. Icard was hounded by the press for some time after the incident.

Give the body a tobacco smoke enema: Perhaps one of the most infamous be-sure-they're-dead tests among modern readers is Der Doppelblaser, a method described in P.J.B. Previnaire's 1784 book on apparent death and employed by the French surgeon Antoine Louis. A physician would attach an apparatus to a tobacco furnace and blow the smoke through a pipe inserted in the apparent decedent's anus. Tobacco enemas were, at the time, considered healthful even for the non-corpsified. If it did revive a few folks who weren't quite dead, it was likely because the procedure was rather painful.


Tobacco enema image from Bond's book.

Administer the "I am really dead" test: This test is a bit more fun and clever than it is bizarre—or at least it would have been if it had worked. This test once again involves our friend Séverin Icard, he of the heart-flag scandal, who actually came up with a quite reliable death-test of his own. He found that the subcutaneous injection of a fluorescent solution would cause an animal's skin to turn yellow and eyes to turn green if the subject's circulatory system was still in working order. (There would be no reaction if the subject was dead.) However, this wasn't quite as showy as his written death test. Icard would write the phrase "I am really dead" on a piece of paper in acetate of lead and then place the paper in the alleged corpse's nose. If the acetate encountered sulfur dioxide, a feature of putrefactive gases, then formerly invisible words would become clear on the paper. It was a neat trick, but not a terribly accurate one. Certain dental conditions and tonsillitis could produce the levels of sulphur dioxide necessary to cause the reaction. And an English doctor who tested the process found that only one out of six corpses affirmed their deaths through this method.


Bury the corpse in a Safety Coffin: Okay, so this last one isn't so much about not burying someone alive as making sure they don't die while interred. If you were really nervous about the prospect of being buried alive, you could (if you had the funds) always opt to be buried in some type of safety coffin. There included coffins attached to bell systems so that a person who woke up in their coffin could ring for help. Others sat beneath tubes so that someone on the topside could watch for movement (or ensure that putrid gases were coming up from the coffin). Still other corpses were laid to rest in escape vaults that could be opened from the inside. Then there was the cheaper method of placing a pickaxe and some food and beverage in the coffin—just in case.

Further Reading:

Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, by Jan Bondeson


The Worst Job of the 19th Century? Tongue-Pullers, Nipple-Pinchers & Anal Tobacco Blowers Try to Revive the Dead, JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 781