1888 – Woodhouse Cemetery, Leeds: The gravedigger, shovelling clods of dense, frozen earth, heard a knocking from the coffin and felt an upward motion of the ground beneath him. He paused, listened, consulted with colleagues, then continued with his work.Being buried alive was the stuff of gothic nightmares. The press in the 19th and early 20th centuries revelled in tales of premature interment, be it at home or overseas. Horror stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’ fuelled public imagination. But there were plenty of real life stories to whet the reader’s appetite for the macabre.
There was the phenomenon of January 1905 concerning Esther Elizabeth Holden (née Mills) a mother in her late 20s, living at Hapton, near Accrington. Her first husband, James Henry Ferris, played rugby for Rochdale Hornets and according to reports died as a result of an injury sustained in a game against Leeds. She was left with three young sons – James, Herbert and Henry. Esther married William Holden in 1901 and their daughter, Florence, was born in 1904. Dr Shotton attended her during a serious illness in January 1905, visiting her the day before her ‘death’. When her husband, William, informed him she had passed away he was unsurprised and issued a death certificate citing the cause as heart disease and exhaustion. William made funeral preparations drawing the £27 insurance money and arranging for the funeral coach. He laid out her body washing her face and brushing her hair and, in accordance with a Lancashire custom, putting on her a pair of white stockings. Undertaker James Waddington then arrived to measure her for the coffin. Whilst in the process of doing this, Mr Waddington became aware of a flickering eyelid, and he realised she was alive. Brandy was fetched from the local pub and she revived, although still very weak and constantly swooning. Donations poured in for the family to assist with Esther’s recovery. This included one sovereign raised from the sale of the death certificate to an Accrington man.Debates raged about the inadequacy of the law around death certification, especially the fact a medical practitioner was not required to inspect the body before granting a certificate. Others asked how many people had been buried without it being realised they were in fact alive. It also gave ‘fuel to the fire‘ of those in favour of cremation: still viewed with distaste and suspicion by many Christians, the first Cremation Act entered Statute only a few years previously in 1902, although it had not technically been illegal prior to this date and the Cremation Society dated from 1874. All this did not affect Mrs Holden. Less than two months later she was appearing on stage at the Circus and Variety Theatre Rochdale, billed as
“Mrs Holden late of Rochdale, who was saved from being buried alive by an Accrington undertaker.”
She lived until 1942. Others were not so fortunate.
Like the newly-born son of Elizabeth Ann and Charles Lean. Charles was the landlord of the Tavistock Hotel in Gunnislake, Cornwall. Elizabeth died on 14 December 1892 whilst giving birth to her 10th child. The boy, named Thomas, was sickly. When the family reported him dead, the doctor issued a certificate. The baby was placed in his mother’s arms in the coffin, and the lid was screwed down. Prior to burial the father heard the baby cry and, when the undertaker unscrewed the coffin, he was found to be alive. Thomas survived for only a short time afterwards, but the doctor ordered him to be wrapped in blankets for several days before he would permit burial. This took place on 20 December, three days after his mother.
In January 1895 at Heap Bridge, near Heywood in Lancashire a woman named Mrs Sutcliffe, who was laid out for several hours and covered in linen, raised herself up in bed. Two women tidying the room fled in terror, falling down the stairs injuring themselves in their haste to get away. That evening Mrs Sutcliffe told her son that she had been aware of the washing and laying out burial preparations, but was unable to speak. The recovery again was short-lived – the doctor said that her ‘second‘ death was accelerated by shock.
Such was the fear generated by such tales, in 1896 William Tebb founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. He published a book about the phenomenon, filled with advice about avoiding such a fate. Indeed, precautions were taken by some to ensure it did not happen to them. These included coffins equipped with contraptions like bells to sound the alarm; to veins being severed, presumably to check blood flow. James Mott, a Birmingham brass founder even had provisions incorporated into his will, including:
“…after my death two medical men or surgeons shall apply every test to prove that life is extinct, that a strong dose of prussic acid shall next to be put into my mouth, and that one of them shall decapitate my body in the presence of the other, and that both shall certify that such a decapitation had been done; or otherwise I direct that my body shall be dissected by post-mortem examination”.
He then wanted to be buried at sea.
But back to the incident at Woodhouse Cemetery, the Leeds General Cemetery in the St George’s Fields area of town, that cold 17 February day in 1888. Fred Posey was an experienced, respectable and trustworthy gravedigger, tasked with backfilling the grave after the funeral of a woman. Her family had left the scene and he was halfway through filling the nine feet deep hole. He then jumped into the chasm to remove the shoulder boards fastening the sides of the grave up. It was at this point he claimed he felt several knocks beneath his feet and a slight upward movement of earth. He ran to a colleague in the cemetery, and with what the newspapers described as a pallid face and quivering voice, recounted the story. Eventually swayed, the other cemetery worker came to the grave and listened a while but deciding it was nothing, Fred was persuaded to continue his work.The case became a media sensation, causing a public outcry. The demand for an exhumation of the coffin reached Parliament. Leeds MP Herbert Gladstone raised the issue in the House of Commons in early March. The Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, wrote to the Local Authority ordering that if any suggestion of truth existed about the story an inquest should be held. Accordingly, a warrant was issued for the exhumation of the body.
The woman was named as Arabella Elizabeth Tetley. The daughter of watchmaker John Henry Elliott and his wife Arabella, she was born in Leeds in 1864 and baptised on 21 January 1870 at the Methodist Chapel, Little Stonegate, York. The family subsequently moved to Bradford.
Arabella married William Tetley, a schoolteacher, on 10 April 1884 at St Augustine’s Church, Bradford. The couple’s first child, a son named William Norman, was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire in 1885. However, by 2 February 1888 when she gave birth to daughter Lily Isabel, the couple resided at Beckwithshaw, near Harrogate where William worked as a schoolmaster. Shortly after giving birth 23-year-old Arabella fell victim to that scourge of childbirth puerperal fever, and died on 14 February. Dr Deville, who attended her throughout her confinement and illness, issued the certificate. But was she really dead?
In the early hours of Monday 5 March her body was exhumed and later that day an inquest held at the Millgarth Street Mortuary by Leeds Coroner, Mr J.C. Malcolm. They now had to determine whether her death was indeed natural causes, or if she had been asphyxiated as a result of being buried alive.
The coffin was opened by surgeon Mr Scattergood, formal identification took place and members of the jury viewed the body before witnesses were called. Chief of these was gravedigger Fred Posey. He denied ever having made statements about a knocking sound, saying “I never said nowt to nobody.” He admitted there had been a strange noise, one the like of which he had never heard so he fetched monumental mason, Sykes Shepperd. Contrary to the pale-faced, quivering voice description given by the media, Shepperd said Posey did not seem at all alarmed. In fact, he lit his pipe in the stonemason’s shop. They did go to the grave though and waited kneeling on it for around 20 minutes, but heard nothing further. They attributed the noise to the sound of the frozen clay rattling the sides of the coffin. Shepperd believed because of the three to four tons of earth on it any movement was impossible, and neither would it have been possible to hear any noise.
Next Mr Scattergood came forward. He described shrinkages and crevices in the coffin, with some portions detached. But Arabella’s body was undisturbed, still wrapped in its shroud with the flowers and wreaths laid upon it. When the shroud was drawn back her hands were in the expected position. The Coroner ordered the jury to return a verdict confirming Dr Deville’s original certificate.
What became of Arabella’s family? William was still employed as a schoolmaster living at the Dudley Hill Road School House at Beckwithshaw in 1891. His sisters Mary and Catherine were in residence too, presumably helping look after young William and Lily – yes she survived. William re-married in late 1891, to the wonderfully named Eularia Winter. In 1901 the family lived at Grove Park Terrace, Harrogate with William undertaking a new venture as a hardware and fancy merchant, later described as a 6½d bazaar in 1911. It was clearly a family enterprise, as the household still included his unmarried sisters, who worked in the shop too. A third unmarried sister, Rose Jane, joined the family in 1901, but she earned her living as a school-mistress. In addition to William and Lily, William now had three daughters and a son to his new wife – Caroline (8), John Archibald (6), Dorothy (4) and Eularia (1). So a whole new life.
The question of the source of the initial report to the press remains unanswered. Was it a case of Chinese whispers and the story being embellished for dramatic effect until it reached the ears of the eager media? Whatever the origins, the effect would only have served to heap distress on Arabella’s grieving family: Wondering if she had been buried alive; the trauma of the exhumation; appearing at the inquest to identify the body and give evidence; perhaps attending the reburial; and despite the verdict, would they always have that niggling doubt – was she really coffined alive?
- Ancestry – West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; Yorkshire Parish Records; Old Reference Number: 17D85/7
- British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Leeds Times, 3 March 1888
- British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Pall Mall Gazette, 6 March 1888
- British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Knaresborough Post,10 March 1888
- British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Reynolds’s Newspaper, 11 March 1888
- British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Blackburn Standard, 19 January 1895
- British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – The Yorkshire Evening Post, 18 January 1905
- British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – The Grantham Journal, 21 January 1905
- British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Burnley Gazette, 1 March 1905
- British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – The Yorkshire Post, 29 August 1927
- Census: 1891-1901
- FindMyPast – Methodist Chapel, Little Stonegate, York (Borthwick Institute Reference Y EB 1)
- Cornwall Online Parish Clerks http://www.opc-cornwall.org/
- GRO Indexes
- Premature burial and how it may be prevented: with special reference to trance, catalepsy, and other forms of suspended animation – by Tebb, William, 1830-1918; Vollum, Edward Perry, d. 1902: https://ia600202.us.archive.org/35/items/prematureburialh00tebb/prematureburialh00tebb.pdf
- The History of Cremations in the UK http://www.watltd.co.uk/the-history-of-cremations-in-the-uk/
- Wellcome Library Images: https://wellcomeimages.org/
- Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
- Woodhouse Cemetery Burial Registers: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/collection/706
 The Grantham Journal – 21 January 1905
 Burnley Gazette – 1 March 1905
 Blackburn Standard – 19 January 1895
 The Yorkshire Post – 29 August 1927