Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Buried Alive?

or "The Case of the Bleeding Corpse"

In the winter of 1861, failed prospector Alf Doten was living in Milpitas, California, trying to be a farmer. The following year he would leave the Bay Area and head for Nevada to give prospecting one last try. He would fail again at prospecting but would end up as a newspaper reporter in Virginia City. Now, over a hundred years after his death, he is moderately well-known as a chronicler of Nevada History. For Alf Doten was a methodical diary-keeper, and the treasure he left was over 75 leather-bound diaries documenting fascinating aspects of daily day life in the old West. They have been edited and published in three big volumes (above) which I first discovered at the B Street B&B in Virginia City. The Journals of Alfred Doten (1849 - 1903)

I have been going through Alf's journals to get period details for my new Western Mysteries. Two days ago, I had reached November 1861 when I came across a couple of entries that chilled my blood.

Nov 5 - Campbell came this AM & got my pick to dig a grave - Miss Abby Nash died this morning around 9 oclock, of typhoid fever... She was 17 yrs old -

Nov 6 - Cloudy - Morning I rode Ben to Peacock's - learned that Miss Nash is to be buried at 10 AM - rode home - hitched Ben & Poncho to wagon - got ready - David and I rode to Peacocks - Took Mrs Peacock & Annie and a gentleman friend of theirs on board - drove to Nash's - friends & neighbors had assembled - Mr Barquay from Berreyessa officiated as clergyman - he read from the Bible, prayed, exhorted & we sang a hymn to the tune of Wyndham - four of us brought out the coffin & put it in Jim Smith's spring wagon - She looked very natural - procession moved to grave which was dug over next the fence on the line between Nash's and Valpy's farms - a very lonely out of the way place - opened the coffin that all who wished might take last look at corpse - her head was not properly pillowed so that in crossing the rough field I heard it knocking against side of coffin, and a large quantity of blood came from the right nostril - I helped lower her into the grave - funeral over - drove round & left our Peacock passengers & drove home - This funeral was got up on the very cheapest possible scale, and cost old Nash very few dimes - quite a saving -

What sent a shiver through me was this: I had always understood that corpses didn't bleed. As I re-read the entries, a few phrases seemed to jump out of the account: "she looked very natural" and "a large quantity of blood came from the right nostril" ... Was the poor girl buried alive in that "lonely out of the way place" where no one could hear her knocking to be let out? A truly horrible prospect.

I immediately sent a tweet to one of my favorite authors: Lee Goldberg, author of Diagnosis Murder and the Monk books. Lee instantly put me on the track of Dr D.P. Lyle, author of Forensics for Dummies. I was unaware that Dr Lyle has a fantastic blog about forensics for crime writers and other such eccentrics. I emailed him and wondered whether I would ever get a reply.

Yesterday evening, I had to go into central London to an event at the British Museum. As I was passing Jarndyce, the well-known Antiquarian Booksellers, a book in the window caught my eye: Premature Burial! I was early for my event so went into the bookshop and asked if I could look at the book. "You can look at it," said the nice shopkeeper, "but you can't buy it. It belongs to the owner." I perched on the edge of a walnut armchair and opened the book. Almost immediately my eyes fell upon this sentence: ‎"Live burials are far more frequent than most people think." Ew!

Sure enough, the book was full of accounts of people buried alive in the 19th century. Many people were so afraid of premature burial that they put clauses in their wills demanding that they be interred with coffins fit out with contraptions like that on the left. You could pull a little handle and a flag would pop up above ground, showing that you had been buried alive.

I was relieved to return home after my event and find that Dr Lyle, (the Forensics for Dummies doctor), had got back to me with a thorough and reassuring reply: "she was not buried alive and she did not bleed but rather this was either a broken down clot from her sinuses or purge fluid."

According to Dr Lyle, Abby Nash "could have had trauma to her face and blood could have collected in the sinuses. Blood initially clots and then begins to break down and separate into a contracted clot and serum. The serum or liquid part of the blood is usually tinged reddish brown in this circumstance and when they alter her position some of this could have leaked from her nose. This would simply be separated blood following the dictates of gravity. Also there is the situation of purge fluids. These appear as part of the decay of the body. This is blackish looking liquid that comes from the nose and often the mouth and has to do with decay of the tissues within the head. These usually appear a couple of days after death since it takes that long for the decay process to get that far. There are circumstances under which this process is sped up. Things like a very warm environment. Another is when someone has an infection. Here bacteria are already scattered throughout the body and therefore the decay process does not depend upon the intestinal tract breaking down first and releasing the bacteria within the bowel into the system. So she would already have bacteria in her bloodstream from her typhoid fever and therefore would decay much more rapidly."

I could rest easy. Poor young Abby Nash died tragically young. But at least she was not buried alive.

If you are of a ghoulish disposition and would like to read Premature Burial, you can do so online.
P.S. In the Arthur Conan Doyle 1901 short story 'The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax', a character is narrowly saved from being buried alive by the detective Sherlock Holmes.

1 comment:

  1. Philip Ardagh11:52 AM

    What a wonderful piece of investigation and a great read. And what helpful experts too.