US Patent No. 81,437
Issued: August 25, 1868
Inventor: Franz Vester, Newark NJ
"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 said 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 and the coffin by the ladder; or, if not able to ascend by said ladder, ring the bell, thereby giving an alarm, and thus save himself from premature burial and death; and if, on inspection, life is extinct, the tube is withdrawn, the sliding door closed, and the tube used for a similar purpose. . . "
This patent, one of literally dozens on coffins with escape hatches and/or signaling means, may seem odd to twenty-first century eyes, but it reflects more a change in the world than latent insanity on the part of our mid- to late-eighteenth century ancestors.
One reads in many 18th century sources of the exhumed corpses with hair and nails grown long, the fingernail scratches in the coffin lid, etc., but there are few reliably documented cases of live burial. While the reports of live burials are suspect, the fear of burial alive was very real. When the Industrial Revolution was new there were no reliable methods for determining death. At the same time, new methods of putting people in comas (electricity, chemicals, industrial accidents from the new machinery and railroads, etc.) were multiplying.
The British inventor of the first signaling coffin became wealthy, but burned himself to death in order to avoid the possibility of being buried alive.
Although today's use of electronic machines makes determining death fairly certain, and the modern practice of embalming certainly ensures that one would be dead at that point, coffin alarms were still being patented as late as 1983 (U.S. Patent 4,367,461, "Coffin Alarm" issued to Fernand Gauchard, January 4, 1983). For a good sampling of these devices, go to the USPTO web site and search Class 27, subclass 31.
For an interesting discussion of these devices, see the novel "The Great Train Robbery" by Michael Crichton. The movie version, starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland, shows an alarm coffin in one sequence.
It was known in the 19th century that even if one manages to survive the processes employed pre-burial, there is so little air in a coffin that one would asphyxiate quickly, but there was still widespread fear of premature burial. The Urban Legends Reference Pages has a "Buried Alive" page with a good discussion on the "problem", fears and attempts to deal with them.
... and no, reasonable as it sounds at first, it appears clear that this device is not the source of the phrase "saved by the bell". That term's from boxing, and arose in the 1930's. See the Urban Legends Reference page "Life in the 1500's"
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