Here’s one grisly example of a real-life case of premature burial, as reported in the New York Times on January 18, 1886:
WOODSTOCK, Ontario, Jan. 18. — Recently a girl named Collins died here, as it was supposed, very suddenly. A day or two ago the body was exhumed, prior to its removal to another burial place, when the discovery was made that the girl had been buried alive. Her shroud was torn into shreds, her knees were drawn up to her chin, one of her arms was twisted under her head, and her features bore evidence of dreadful torture.
It didn’t help that medical science was slow to produce a reliable checklist of vital signs, nor that many doctors prior to the late 19th century were too poorly educated (or incompetent, or both) to tell a living body from a dead one.
It is also a fact that something of a moral panic concerning premature burials took hold in parts of Europe and North American during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, the fervor of which was scarcely warranted by the facts. Historians surmise it may have been prompted by the medical discovery that victims of suffocation and drowning could be resuscitated — that, though they appeared dead, they really weren’t. This must have been a disconcerting realization for many people at the time.
My great-great grandmother, who had been ill for some time now, finally passed away. My great-great grandfather was devastated beyond belief. She was his one true love and they had been married for over 50 years. They had been married so long it was if they knew each others thoughts.
Even after the doctor announced her dead, my great-great grandfather still insisted that she was not. He had to literally be pried away from his wife’s body so they could prepare her for a burial.
Back in those days they had simple backyard burial plots, without the body going through any preservation or embalming. The body was simply committed to the coffin and buried. Throughout this process, my great-great grandfather protested so much that he had to be sedated and put to bed. His wife was buried, and that was that.
That night, he woke to a horrific vision of his wide hysterically trying to scratch her way out of the coffin. He phoned the doctor immediately and begged to have his wife’s body exhumed. The doctor refused. He continued to have this nightmare every night that week, and each day after begged the doctor to remove his wife from the grave.
Finally, the doctor gave in, and the local authorities had the coffin removed from the ground and pried open. To everyone’s horror and amazement, my great great grandmothers nails were bent back, and there were obvious scratches on the inside of the coffin.