Tag Archives: Premature Burial

Edgar Allan Poe and Premature Burial

8 Nov

During the nineteenth century, there was widespread anxiety concerning the inability to distinguish between life and death. As a result of these fears, The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was founded in 1896.[1]

The society took measures to prevent live burials such as attaching strings ‘to the fingers of the corpses…[which were] attached to bells’[2] and placing bodies in ‘waiting rooms’ to ensure that they were dead, a certainty only when the body exhibited signs of decomposition.

Conditions that confused the states of animation and death included catalepsy, trance and deep sleep. Catalepsy is defined as ‘an “exaggerated lethargy”…during which time no medical test could detect the vital spark.’[3] This condition is portrayed by Edgar Allan Poe in ‘The Premature Burial’ (1844), wherein Mademoiselle Victorine who ‘had been buried alive’ is subsequently ‘aroused by the caresses of her lover from the lethargy which had been mistaken for death.’[4]

In Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, Lady Madeline is enclosed alive within her coffin, the narrator relating

[w]e have put her living in the tomb!…I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin.[1]

Upon breaking free from her coffin, Lady Madeline stands enshrouded with ‘blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame.’[2] Madeline’s bloody exertions and subsequent escape from her tomb incite horror since, rather than remaining a passive corpse, the Lady forcefully resists incarceration.

[1] E.A. Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Everyman, 1993), pp.137-55, p.154

[2] Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, pp.137-55, p.155

[3] Behlmer,Grave Doubts’, p. 206

[4] E.A. Poe, ‘The Premature Burial’, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Everyman, 1993), pp.290-303, p.292

[1] G.K. Behlmer,Grave Doubts: Victorian Medicine, Moral Panic, and the Signs of Death’, Journal of British Studies, 42 (2003) <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:ft:abell:R03565047:0> [accessed 16th May, 2008], p.206

[2] J. Stevens Curl, The Victorian Celebration of Death (London: David and Charles, 1972), p.177