Buried Alive, with Bells

Happy Halloween! Bells have a sinister side, too, you know. As my colleague Tiffany Ng has argued in her doctoral dissertation, in cultural representations bells have been associated with utopias and dystopias—death, decay, and all the rest of it.

And we don’t even have to look at cultural representations—we can just look at the macabre security coffin from Europe.*



Fear of being buried alive has been common since time immemorial. By the 19th century, western science still hadn’t quite honed in on the notion that death was confirmed by a stopped heartbeat, and anecdotes abounded of the dead coming back to life days after their supposed death. What to do? One gross solution was to store bodies in a Leichenhäuser, a waiting mortuary, for a time until they had decomposed enough to ensure that they were really, truly dead. That place must have stunk to high heaven for a mile around. Another solution was to rig up your coffin to a bell above ground, so that the bell would ring should the poor person awake while in the grave. Yes, you read that right—bells to alarm those above ground that the buried is still alive.

There were different mechanisms to ring the bell. Some required intelligent motion, by pulling on a string, for example. Others were activated by the mere slightest movement of the chest and arms, should the person not have the strength to even pull a string.

Bells in this case signaled life—actually, resurrection! Bells toll to mark the death of a Christian, and here bells have the duty to announce the person’s earthly life again. These patented coffins never made deep inroads in the funeral market, but that’s probably for the best. It turns out that the bloating of a decomposing body would have been enough to trigger the bell in the security coffin detecting slight movements in the chest and arms. Just imagine hearing a bell at a graveyard, frantically digging down to the coffin to release the desperate person inside, perhaps with the family nearby…only to find a putrefied body. Gruesome, to say the least. Hearing the bell at the graveside, after a few incidents like this, one wouldn’t be sure if it signaled death or life.

* Information on security coffins taken from Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: the Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

The Bell of the Great Chicago Fire II

Thanks, B.D., for passing along these dramatic details about the Great Chicago Fire and the courthouse bell!

Donald L. Miller, author of City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, explains the particulars. He does it so well, no need for me to paraphrase.

Note the name of the watchman/bell ringer! Schaffer! I am no stranger to the feeling he must have had during the blazing fire “If you would have just listened to me, we wouldn’t have gotten in this mess!” [The second time, of course, after correcting the initial mistake.] Maybe that sentiment runs in the family.

In the summer of 1871 the city had just finished installing a new network of fire-alarm boxes. These automatic signal devices were supposed to be simple to operate and completely reliable. “One pull at a hook,” said a fire official, “gives the signal with unerring accuracy.” To prevent people from turning in false alarms, the 172 numbered boxes were locked, the keys entrusted to responsible citizens in nearby residences and businesses.

This up-to-date electrical system was supplemented by a medieval-like fire watch. A watchman was on duty around the clock on the high cupola of the “fireproof” courthouse, and each fire station had its own observation tower. When a fire was sighted and reported to the central-alarm-system operator at the courthouse, he set the eleven-thousand-pound courthouse bell tolling with an electrical apparatus and sent a signal identifying the fire box closest to the blaze to all the engine companies in the city.

Around 9:00 p.m., October 8, the watchman Matthias Schafer, on duty in the courthouse tower, saw flames on the West Side of the city through the screen of smoke created by the coal fires along the river. Looking through his spyglass, he located the fire near Canalport Avenue and Halsted Street and called down through a voicebox to William J. Brown, night operator at the central-fire-alarm telegraph office on the first floor of the courthouse, to strike box 342. Within seconds, the courthouse bell began booming its alarm over the sleeping city, and hose companies set out for Halsted Street.

As Schaffer continued to watch the fire, however, he realized that he had mislocated it by a mile or so and told Brown to strike the correct box, number 319. Brown refused, claiming that this might confuse the fire companies and that they would pass the fire, anyway, on their way to box 342. William Brown’s stupid blunder helped doom Chicago.

The Bell of the Great Chicago Fire

Dear loyal readers, I have a scrumptious treat to share with you!

We don’t know much about Henry Rincker, Chicago’s own bell founder, and his metallurgical output in the mid-nineteenth century, but we know he did cast a bell for the combined courthouse and city hall. This government building, constructed in 1853, was destroyed in the infamous Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The bell played an important role as the tragedy was unfolding; just as bells rang the alarm for fire in medieval European towns, so this bell rang for five hours before the building collapsed and the bell tumbled down. The fate of the bell is unknown.

So where’s the treat? A series of historical images of the courthouse in good times and in bad, including one amazing pic of the bell upturned on the ground—with a person standing inside! The size comparison shows just how large the bell was. Also notice the flared lip (bottom, here upturned) of the bell. That shape deviates from the less flared Gothic bell shape we are more accustomed to today in carillon and change ringing bells. The flared shape may reveal Rincker’s roots in German bell casting, but I’m not sure. I’d have to consult my sources on that one.