The Contest To Properly Diagnose Death

“The fittest place where man can die / Is where he dies for man.” —Michael J. Barry, “The Place To Die”

In A Nutshell

Buried alive wasn’t an uncommon thing even in relatively recent history. In the mid-1800s, doctors in Paris organized an academic contest to establish a single, credible way to determine whether or not someone was dead. Entries included electrocution, smoke enemas, and scalding the body with water. Thankfully, it was the man who suggested using a stethoscope to listen for a heartbeat that won the 1,500 francs.

The Whole Bushel

It’s only fairly recently that we’ve found a pretty reliable way to tell if someone’s really dead, or only slightly dead. Even as late as 1936, people still considered being buried alive a frightening possibility. One Iowa author requests that his body be left in a room for three days at 29 degrees Celsius (85 °F) to see if he starts to rot. Then, he says, he’s dead and it’s all right to bury him.

There were all sorts of precautions taken to try to prevent premature burials from happening, and in 1839, the Academy of Sciences in Paris decided it was about time to figure out a way to tell if someone was really, honestly dead once and for all—before they went into the ground.

A toxicologist named Pietro Manni offered a prize of 1,500 gold francs for the person whose idea met the criteria laid out by the university and developed the best, most successful way to tell if someone was really dead. The contest was called Prix Manni, and it took them three tries to find someone who came up with the right idea.

The winner was a doctor named Eugene Bouchut. His idea was fairly simple in the end, and it should sound pretty familiar. He took a fairly recent invention that had originally been developed to examine and diagnose diseases of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems—the stethoscope. His idea was simple—listen to the heart with the stethoscope, and should it not beat for two minutes, the person was dead.

Sometimes, the simplest ideas are the best. There certainly weren’t any lack of entrants for any of the three different times the contest was held, and we should probably count ourselves as being fortunate that some of these didn’t get a second look.

An English doctor suggested taking the person in question and pouring boiling water on their arm to look for a reaction or a blister that would indicate life. Another option (even more terrifying if the person wasn’t dead after all—in at least one case, the body they tested wasn’t completely dead), was to set the person’s nose on fire.

A German doctor named Middeldorph suggested fixing a flag to a long, incredibly sharp needle that was jammed into the person’s heart. If the flag started waving, the heart was still beating.

Several notable entries involved the pinching and pulling of various body parts. One, the nipple-pincher, was supposedly designed to cause an involuntary reaction that even the mostly dead couldn’t prevent. Similarly, the tongue-puller was said to have the ability to bring people back to life if the person operating the heavy metal pinchers did their job right.

Electrocution (specifically of the eyes and lips) was another popularly presented way to try to get the same involuntary responses that would tell if there was still life in the body. And then, there was also the doctor who developed a thermometer on a tube that needed to be inserted into the person’s stomach to monitor their core temperature.

As horrible as that sounds, we’re pretty sure it’d be more agreeable than smoke enemas. Long thought to promote good health, enemas for the questionably dead were a little more extreme. Rather than just having a person blow into a properly placed tube, bellows were used.

Bouchut’s method seems like the most efficient to be sure, and probably the least uncomfortable to use on those people that weren’t actually dead. It wasn’t accepted without protests, though; many doctors said that elderly physicians who couldn’t hear well anymore were still apt to make mistakes, and many others testified that they had come across people who were still living but didn’t have a heartbeat.

It’s also important to note that many of his detractors were those that had lost the 1,500 francs to him.

Show Me The Proof

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
io9: 9 Weird and Unreliable Ways to Avoid Burying Someone Alive