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

  • Nathaniel A.

    “many others testified that they had come across people who were still living but didn’t have a heartbeat.”

    That is a valid concern even today, and the reason why premature burials still happen in modern times. I think the only true way to know would be a through examination of the body, looking for “rigor mortis”, bloating, etc. combined with checking the person’s heartbeat if none of the signs were found.

    Best bushel we have had in a while.

    • Joseph

      There always brain death too. Premature burials are rare in locations that have access to modern medical facilities. Even checking for a heart beat can be misleading without equipment since there are scenarios that a person’s heart beat can be so low that it would be difficult to feel it.

  • TheMadHatter

    I don’t know much but death creeps me the freak out!

  • oouchan

    WTH is wrong with people!? So glad the guy with the brains won out.


    • rincewind

      Is it just me being thick with text speak but what the hell does “WTH” mean? 😉

      • Hillyard

        WTH = What the hell. Variation on WTF.

        • rincewind

          Such a dismal subject as this warrants an attempted joke (even my poor effort) to cheer things up a bit. I used the phrase (what the hell) in my comment….. 😉

          • Joseph

            I thought it was funny.

          • TheTimmynator

            Maybe just stick to the running, Rince old chum.

    • Joseph

      Most of them are still better than being buried alive. Actually in some cases scalding water might have been a better idea than stethoscope. That’s only my opinion though and it’s based on the time period when the contest was organized.

  • rincewind

    During the Victorian era, there was such a preoccupation with premature burial, also known as vivisepulture, that it became a major source of literary inspiration. In the works of Edgar Allen Poe it was a repeated fear found in his stories “Berenice”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, and was featured in his tale “The Premature Burial”.

    From a 1877 British Medical Journal comes a report of a woman being declared dead and interred. Three days later, when her crypt was reopened to receive another body, she was discovered in quite a different state than that of her burial. It was recorded that “the clothes which covered the unfortunate woman were torn to pieces, and that she had even broken her limbs in attempting to extricate herself from the living tomb.” The article continues that the doctor who signed the death warrant received three months in jail for involuntary manslaughter.

    Other cases from this period include a report from 1886 Woodstock, Ontario where a girl was exhumed after a number of weeks to be moved to another burial location. Her body was found with her legs tucked up under her, the shroud torn to pieces and a look of horror on her face. A young man in North Carolina was found to be buried alive in 1885. When the body was removed from the casket a week after his funeral, it was found that he had moved face down and scratches covered every surface.

    If I had lived in those days, I think I would had requested decapitation after death, just to be on the safe side!

    • Joseph

      There was always safety coffins too. I don’t think that involuntary manslaughter is a good way to go with that. Unless there’s more information about it that isn’t in your comment. Manslaughter usually requires negligence or malice and that kind of mistake was probably common enough to not be considered negligence.

  • Hillyard

    Buried alive. Perhaps the creepiest thing that could, and has, happened to people. Some graves had air tubes and a bell to ring if the poor guy woke up and found himself (thought to be) dead.