A short story by Edgar Allan Poe
The Premature Burial
Here are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible
for the purposes of legitimate fiction. These the mere romanticist must eschew, if he do not wish to
offend or to disgust. They are with propriety handled only when the severity and majesty of Truth
sanctify and sustain them. We thrill, for example, with the most intense of "pleasurable pain" over
the accounts of the Passage of the Beresina, of the Earthquake at Lisbon, of the Plague at London,
of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, or of the stifling of the hundred and twenty-three prisoners in
the Black Hole at Calcutta. But in these accounts it is the fact- it is the reality- it is the history
which excites. As inventions, we should regard them with simple abhorrence.
I have mentioned some few of the more prominent and august calamities on record; but in these it is the
extent, not less than the character of the calamity, which so vividly impresses the fancy. I need not
remind the reader that, from the long and weird catalogue of human miseries, I might have selected many
individual instances more replete with essential suffering than any of these vast generalities of disaster.
The true wretchedness, indeed- the ultimate woe- is particular, not diffuse. That the ghastly extremes of
agony are endured by man the unit, and never by man the mass- for this let us thank a merciful God!
To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen
to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied
by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall
say where the one ends, and where the other begins? We know that there are diseases in which occur total
cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely
suspensions, properly so called. They are only temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism. A
certain period elapses, and some unseen mysterious principle again sets in motion the magic pinions and
the wizard wheels. The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken. But
where, meantime, was the soul?
Apart, however, from the inevitable conclusion, a priori that such causes must produce such effects- that
the well-known occurrence of such cases of suspended animation must naturally give rise, now and then, to
premature interments- apart from this consideration, we have the direct testimony of medical and ordinary
experience to prove that a vast number of such interments have actually taken place. I might refer at once,
if necessary to a hundred well authenticated instances. One of very remarkable character, and of which
the circumstances may be fresh in the memory of some of my readers, occurred, not very long ago, in the
neighboring city of Baltimore, where it occasioned a painful, intense, and widely-extended excitement. The
wife of one of the most respectable citizens-a lawyer of eminence and a member of Congress- was seized with
a sudden and unaccountable illness, which completely baffled the skill of her physicians. After much
suffering she died, or was supposed to die. No one suspected, indeed, or had reason to suspect, that she
was not actually dead. She presented all the ordinary appearances of death. The face assumed the usual
pinched and sunken outline. The lips were of the usual marble pallor. The eyes were lustreless. There was
no warmth. Pulsation had ceased. For three days the body was preserved unburied, during which it had
acquired a stony rigidity. The funeral, in short, was hastened, on account of the rapid advance of what
was supposed to be decomposition.
The lady was deposited in her family vault, which, for three subsequent years, was undisturbed. At the
expiration of this term it was opened for the reception of a sarcophagus;- but, alas! how fearful a shock
awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door! As its portals swung outwardly back, some
white-apparelled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet
A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her entombment;
that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf to the floor, where it
was so broken as to permit her escape. A lamp which had been accidentally left, full of oil, within the
tomb, was found empty; it might have been exhausted, however, by evaporation. On the uttermost of the steps
which led down into the dread chamber was a large fragment of the coffin, with which, it seemed, that she
had endeavored to arrest attention by striking the iron door. While thus occupied, she probably swooned,
or possibly died, through sheer terror; and, in failing, her shroud became entangled in some iron-work
which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.
In the year 1810, a case of living inhumation happened in France, attended with circumstances which go
far to warrant the assertion that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. The heroine of the storywas
a Mademoiselle Victorine Lafourcade, a young girl of illustrious family, of wealth, and of great personal
beauty. Among her numerous suitors was Julien Bossuet, a poor litterateur, or journalist of Paris. His
talents and general amiability had recommended him to the notice of the heiress, by whom he seems to
have been truly beloved; but her pride of birth decided her, finally, to reject him, and to wed a Monsieur Renelle, a banker and a diplomatist of some eminence. After marriage, however, this gentleman neglected,
and, perhaps, even more positively ill-treated her. Having passed with him some wretched years, she
died,- at least her condition so closely resembled death as to deceive every one who saw her. She was
buried- not in a vault, but in an ordinary grave in the village of her nativity. Filled with despair, and
still inflamed by the memory of a profound attachment, the lover journeys from the capital to the remote
province in which the village lies, with the romantic purpose of disinterring the corpse, and possessing
himself of its luxuriant tresses. He reaches the grave. At midnight he unearths the coffin, opens it,
and is in the act of detaching the hair, when he is arrested by the unclosing of the beloved eyes. In
fact, the lady had been buried alive. Vitality had not altogether departed, and she was aroused by the
caresses of her lover from the lethargy which had been mistaken for death. He bore her frantically to his
lodgings in the village. He employed certain powerful restoratives suggested by no little medical learning.
Infine, she revived. She recognized her preserver. She remained with him until, by slow degrees, she fully
recovered her original health. Her woman's heart was not adamant, and this last lesson of love sufficed to
soften it. She bestowed it upon Bossuet. She returned no more to her husband, but, concealing from him her
resurrection, fled with her lover to America. Twenty years afterward, the two returned to France, in the
persuasion that time had so greatly altered the lady's appearance that her friends would be unable to
recognize her. They were mistaken, however, for, at the first meeting, Monsieur Renelle did actually
recognize and make claim to his wife. This claim she resisted, and a judicial tribunal sustained her
in her resistance, deciding that the peculiar circumstances, with the long lapse of years, had
extinguished, not only equitably, but legally, the authority of the husband.
The "Chirurgical Journal" of Leipsic- a periodical of high authority and merit, which some American
bookseller would do well to translate and republish, records in a late number a very distressing event
of the character in question.
An officer of artillery, a man of gigantic stature and of robust health, being thrown from an
unmanageable horse, received a very severe contusion upon the head, which rendered him insensible
at once; the skull was slightly fractured, but no immediate danger was apprehended. Trepanning was
accomplished successfully. He was bled, and many other of the ordinary means of relief were adopted.
Gradually, however, he fell into a more and more hopeless state of stupor, and, finally, it was
thought that he died.
The weather was warm, and he was buried with indecent haste in one of the public cemeteries. His funeral
took place on Thursday. On the Sunday following, the grounds of the cemetery were, as usual, much thronged
with visiters, and about noon an intense excitement was created by the declaration of a peasant that,
while sitting upon the grave of the officer, he had distinctly felt a commotion of the earth, as if
occasioned by some one struggling beneath. At first little attention was paid to the man's asseveration;
but his evident terror, and the dogged obstinacy with which he persisted in his story, had at length their
natural effect upon the crowd. Spades were hurriedly procured, and the grave, which was shamefully shallow,
was in a few minutes so far thrown open that the head of its occupant appeared. He was then seemingly dead;
but he sat nearly erect within his coffin, the lid of which, in his furious struggles, he had partially
He was forthwith conveyed to the nearest hospital, and there pronounced to be still living, although in
an asphytic condition. After some hours he revived, recognized individuals of his acquaintance, and, in
broken sentences spoke of his agonies in the grave.
From what he related, it was clear that he must have been conscious of life for more than an hour,
while inhumed, before lapsing into insensibility. The grave was carelessly and loosely filled with an
exceedingly porous soil; and thus some air was necessarily admitted. He heard the footsteps of the
crowd overhead, and endeavored to make himself heard in turn. It was the tumult within the grounds of
the cemetery, he said, which appeared to awaken him from a deep sleep, but no sooner was he awake than
he became fully aware of the awful horrors of his position.
This patient, it is recorded, was doing well and seemed to be in a fair way of ultimate recovery, but
fell a victim to the quackeries of medical experiment. The galvanic battery was applied, and he
suddenly expired in one of those ecstatic paroxysms which, occasionally, it superinduces.
The mention of the galvanic battery, nevertheless, recalls to my memory a well known and very
extraordinary case in point, where its action proved the means of restoring to animation a young
attorney of London, who had been interred for two days. This occurred in 1831, and created, at the
time, a very profound sensation wherever it was made the subject of converse.
The patient, Mr. Edward Stapleton, had died, apparently of typhus fever, accompanied with some
anomalous symptoms which had excited the curiosity of his medical attendants. Upon his seeming
decease, his friends were requested to sanction a post-mortem examination, but declined to permit
it. As often happens, when such refusals are made, the practitioners resolved to disinter the body
and dissect it at leisure, in private. Arrangements were easily effected with some of the numerous
corps of body-snatchers, with which London abounds; and, upon the third night after the funeral,
the supposed corpse was unearthed from a grave eight feet deep, and deposited in the opening chamber
of one of the private hospitals.
An incision of some extent had been actually made in the abdomen, when the fresh and undecayed
appearance of the subject suggested an application of the battery. One experiment succeeded another,
and the customary effects supervened, with nothing to characterize them in any respect, except, upon
one or two occasions, a more than ordinary degree of life-likeness in the convulsive action.
It grew late. The day was about to dawn; and it was thought expedient, at length, to proceed at once
to the dissection. A student, however, was especially desirous of testing a theory of his own, and
insisted upon applying the battery to one of the pectoral muscles. A rough gash was made, and a wire
hastily brought in contact, when the patient, with a hurried but quite unconvulsive movement, arose
from the table, stepped into the middle of the floor, gazed about him uneasily for a few seconds, and
then- spoke. What he said was unintelligible, but words were uttered; the syllabification was distinct.
Having spoken, he fell heavily to the floor.
For some moments all were paralyzed with awe- but the urgency of the case soon restored them their
presence of mind. It was seen that Mr. Stapleton was alive, although in a swoon. Upon exhibition of
ether he revived and was rapidly restored to health, and to the society of his friends- from whom,
however, all knowledge of his resuscitation was withheld, until a relapse was no longer to be
apprehended. Their wonder- their rapturous astonishment- may be conceived.
The most thrilling peculiarity of this incident, nevertheless, is involved in what Mr. S--- himself
asserts. He declares that at no period was he altogether insensible- that, dully and confusedly, he
was aware of everything which happened to him, from the moment in which he was pronounced dead by his
physicians, to that in which he fell swooning to the floor of the hospital. "I am alive," were the
uncomprehended words which, upon recognizing the locality of the dissecting-room, he had endeavored,
in his extremity, to utter.
It were an easy matter to multiply such histories as these- but I forbear- for, indeed, we have no need
of such to establish the fact that premature interments occur. When we reflect how very rarely, from
the nature of the case, we have it in our power to detect them, we must admit that they may frequently
occur without our cognizance. Scarcely, in truth, is a graveyard ever encroached upon, for any purpose,
to any great extent, that skeletons are not found in postures which suggest the most fearful of suspicions.
Fearful indeed the suspicion- but more fearful the doom! It may beasserted, without hesitation, that no
event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is
burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs- the stifling fumes from the damp earth-
the clinging to the death garments- the rigid embrace of the narrow house- the blackness of the absolute
Night- the silence like a sea that overwhelms- the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm-
these things, with the thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly
to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be
informed- that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead- these considerations, I say, carry into
the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most
daring imagination must recoil. We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth- we can dream of nothing half
so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell. And thus all narratives upon this topic have an
interest profound; an interest, nevertheless, which, through the sacred awe of the topic itself, very
properly and very peculiarly depends upon our conviction of the truth of the matter narrated. What I
have now to tell is of my own actual knowledge- of my own positive and personal experience.
For several years I had been subject to attacks of the singular disorder which physicians have agreed to
term catalepsy, in default of a more definitive title. Although both the immediate and the predisposing
causes, and even the actual diagnosis, of this disease are still mysterious, its obvious and apparent
character issufficiently well understood. Its variations seem to be chiefly of degree. Sometimes the
patient lies, for a day only, or even for a shorter period, in a species of exaggerated lethargy. He is
senseless and externally motionless; but the pulsation of the heart is still faintly perceptible; some
traces of warmth remain; a slight color lingers within the centre of the cheek; and, upon application
of a mirror to the lips, we can detect a torpid, unequal, and vacillating action of the lungs. Then
again the duration of the trance is for weeks- even for months; while the closest scrutiny, and the most
rigorous medical tests, fail to establish any material distinction between the state of the sufferer and
what we conceive of absolute death. Very usually he is saved from premature interment solely by the
knowledge of his friends that he has been previously subject to catalepsy, by the consequent suspicion
excited, and, above all, by the non-appearance of decay. The advances of the malady are, luckily, gradual.
The first manifestations, although marked, are unequivocal. The fits grow successively more and more
distinctive, and endure each for a longer term than the preceding. In this lies the principal security
from inhumation. The unfortunate whose first attack should be of the extreme character which is
occasionally seen, would almost inevitably be consigned alive to the tomb.
My own case differed in no important particular from those mentioned in medical books. Sometimes, without
any apparent cause, I sank, little by little, into a condition of hemi-syncope, or half swoon; and, in
this condition, without pain, without ability to stir, or, strictly speaking, to think, but with a dull
lethargic consciousness of life and of the presence of those who surrounded my bed, I remained, until the
crisis of the disease restored me, suddenly, to perfect sensation. At other times I was quickly and
impetuously smitten. I grew sick, and numb, and chilly, and dizzy, and so fell prostrate at once. Then,
for weeks, all was void, and black, and silent, and Nothing became the universe. Total annihilation
could be no more. From these latter attacks I awoke, however, with a gradation slow in proportion to
the suddenness of the seizure. Just as the day dawns to the friendless and houseless beggar who roams
the streets throughout the long desolate winter night- just so tardily- just so wearily- just so cheerily
came back the light of the Soul to me.
Apart from the tendency to trance, however, my general health appeared to be good; nor could I perceive
that it was at all affected by the one prevalent malady- unless, indeed, anidiosyncrasy in my ordinary
sleep may be looked upon as superinduced. Upon awaking from slumber, I could never gain, at once,
thorough possession of my senses, and always remained, for many minutes, in much bewilderment and
perplexity;- the mental faculties in general, but the memory in especial, being in a condition of
In all that I endured there was no physical suffering but of moral distress an infinitude. My fancy
grew charnel, I talked "of worms, of tombs, and epitaphs." I was lost in reveries of death, and the
idea of premature burial held continual possession of my brain. The ghastly Danger to which I was
subjected haunted me day and night. In the former, the torture of meditation was excessive- in the
latter, supreme. When the grim Darkness overspread the Earth, then, with every horror of thought,
I shook- shook as the quivering plumes upon the hearse. When Nature could endure wakefulness no
longer, it was with a struggle that I consented to sleep- for I shuddered to reflect that, upon
awaking, I might find myself the tenant of a grave. And when, finally, I sank into slumber, it was
only to rush at once into a world of phantasms, above which, with vast, sable, overshadowing wing,
hovered, predominant, the one sepulchral Idea.
From the innumerable images of gloom which thus oppressed me in dreams, I select for record but a
solitary vision. Methought I was immersed in a cataleptic trance of more than usual duration and
profundity. Suddenly there came an icy hand upon my forehead, and an impatient, gibbering voice
whispered the word "Arise!" within my ear.
I sat erect. The darkness was total. I could not see the figure of him who had aroused me. I could
call to mind neither the period at which I had fallen into the trance, nor the locality in which I
then lay. While I remained motionless, and busied in endeavors to collect my thought, the cold hand
grasped me fiercely by the wrist, shaking it petulantly, while the gibbering voice said again:
"Arise! did I not bid thee arise?"
"And who," I demanded, "art thou?"
"I have no name in the regions which I inhabit," replied the voice, mournfully; "I was mortal, but am
fiend. I was merciless, but am pitiful. Thou dost feel that I shudder.- My teeth chatter as I speak, yet
it is not with the chilliness of the night- of the night without end. But this hideousness is
insufferable. How canst thou tranquilly sleep? I cannot rest for the cry of these great agonies. These
sights are more than I can bear. Get thee up! Come with me into the outer Night, and let me unfold to
thee the graves. Is not this a spectacle of woe?- Behold!"
I looked; and the unseen figure, which still grasped me by the wrist, had caused to be thrown open the
graves of all mankind, and from each issued the faint phosphoric radiance of decay, so that I could see
into the innermost recesses, and there view the shrouded bodies in their sad and solemn slumbers with
the worm. But alas! the real sleepers were fewer, by many millions, than those who slumbered not at all;
and there was a feeble struggling; and there was a general sad unrest; and from out the depths of the
countless pits there came a melancholy rustling from the garments of the buried. And of those who seemed
tranquilly to repose, I saw that a vast number had changed, in a greater or less degree, the rigid and
uneasy position in which they had originally been entombed. And the voice again said to me as I gazed:
"Is it not- oh! is it not a pitiful sight?"- but, before I could find words to reply, the figure had
ceased to grasp my wrist, the phosphoric lights expired, and the graves were closed with a sudden
violence, while from out them arose a tumult of despairing cries, saying again: "Is it not- O, God, is
it not a very pitiful sight?"
Phantasies such as these, presenting themselves at night, extended their terrific influence far into
my waking hours. My nerves became thoroughly unstrung, and I fell a prey to perpetual horror. I
hesitated to ride, or to walk, or to indulge in any exercise that would carry me from home. In fact,
I no longer dared trust myself out of the immediate presence of those who were aware of my proneness
to catalepsy, lest, falling into one of my usual fits, I should be buried before my real condition
could be ascertained. I doubted the care, the fidelity of my dearest friends. I dreaded that, in some
trance of more than customary duration, they might be prevailed upon to regard me as irrecoverable.
I even went so far as to fear that, as I occasioned much trouble, they might be glad to consider
any very protracted attack as sufficient excuse for getting rid of me altogether. It was in vain they
endeavored to reassure me by the most solemn promises. I exacted the most sacred oaths, that under
no circumstances they would bury me until decomposition had so materially advanced as to render
farther preservation impossible. And, even then, my mortal terrors would listen to no reason- would
accept no consolation. I entered into a series of elaborate precautions. Among other things, I had
the family vault so remodelled as to admit of being readily opened from within. The slightest pressure
upon along lever that extended far into the tomb would cause the iron portal to fly back. There were
arrangements also for the free admission of air and light, and convenient receptacles for food and water,
within immediate reach of the coffin intended for my reception. This coffin was warmly and softly padded,
and was provided with a lid, fashioned upon the principle of the vault-door, with the addition of springs
so contrived that the feeblest movement of the body would be sufficient to set it at liberty. Besides
all this, there was suspended from the roof of the tomb, a large bell, the rope of which, it was
designed, should extend through a hole in the coffin, and so be fastened to one of the hands of the
corpse. But, alas? what avails the vigilance against the Destiny of man? Not even these well-contrived
securities sufficed to save from the uttermost agonies of living inhumation, a wretch to these agonies
There arrived an epoch- as often before there had arrived- in which I found myself emerging from
total unconsciousness into the first feeble and indefinite sense of existence. Slowly- with a
tortoise gradation- approached the faint gray dawn of the psychal day. A torpid uneasiness. An
apathetic endurance of dull pain. No care- no hope- no effort. Then, after a long interval, a ringing
in the ears; then, after a lapse still longer, a prickling or tingling sensation in the extremities;
then a seemingly eternal period of pleasurable quiescence, during which the awakening feelings are
struggling into thought; then a brief re-sinking into non-entity; then a sudden recovery. At length
the slight quivering of an eyelid, and immediately thereupon, an electric shock of a terror, deadly
and indefinite, which sends the blood in torrents from the temples to the heart. And now the first
positive effort to think. And now the first endeavor to remember. And now a partial and evanescent
success. And now the memory has so far regained its dominion, that, in some measure, I am cognizant of
my state. I feel that I am not awaking from ordinary sleep. I recollect that I have been subject
to catalepsy. And now, at last, as if by the rush of an ocean, my shuddering spirit is overwhelmed by
the one grim Danger- by the one spectral and ever-prevalent idea.
For some minutes after this fancy possessed me, I remained without motion. And why? I could not
summon courage to move. I dared not make the effort which was to satisfy me of my fate- and yet
there was something at my heart which whispered me it was sure. Despair- such as no other species
of wretchedness ever calls into being- despair alone urged me, after long irresolution, to uplift
the heavy lids of my eyes. I uplifted them. It was dark- all dark. I knew that the fit was over. I
knew that the crisis of my disorder had long passed. I knew that I had now fully recovered the use
of my visual faculties- and yet it was dark- all dark- the intense and utter raylessness of the Night
that endureth for evermore.
I endeavored to shriek-, and my lips and my parched tongue moved convulsively together in the attempt-
but no voice issued from the cavernous lungs, which oppressed as if by the weight of some incumbent
mountain, gasped and palpitated, with the heart, at every elaborate and struggling inspiration.
The movement of the jaws, in this effort to cry aloud, showed me that they were bound up, as is usual
with the dead. I felt, too, that I lay upon some hard substance, and by something similar my sides
were, also, closely compressed. So far, I had not ventured to stir any of my limbs- but now I
violently threw up my arms, which had been lying at length, with the wrists crossed. They struck a
solid wooden substance, which extended above my person at an elevation of not more than six inches
from my face. I could no longer doubt that I reposed within a coffin at last.
The Premature Burial - Part 2