Cincinnatians Feared Premature Burial for Good Reasons

Let’s examine some curious cases of locals awakening in their coffins before being buried alive.

Among the most terrifying themes of horror tales is the prospect of premature burial. It’s commonly recalled that our ancestors went to great lengths to ensure they were really dead once consigned to the tomb. The Cincinnati Post [June 10, 1909] reported the case of a local man of means:

“The late Bradford Shinkle had a dread of being buried alive. The Covington capitalist died on May 7, and the funeral was held on May 10, but it was not until two weeks after Skinkle’s death that the body was finally interred. For 11 days a guard watched beside the casket in the vault at Highland Cemetery on the Lexington-pike. There was one during the day, and at night John Sanger, Assistant Sexton, would take up the grim vigil. With each hour one of the guards would peer into the casket to see if there were any signs of life.”

Shinkle’s fixation was written off as the eccentricity of a moneyed man, but his “dread” was not entirely unfounded. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [July 13, 1849] recounted a case that could have ended tragically:

“We learn from Col. Williamson, of Lockland, that a man was seized with cholera in that town on Wednesday, and died in a few hours—or rather he was pronounced dead, and the paraphernalia of mourning assumed. The body was laid out and placed in the coffin; but a few hours previous to the time appointed for the funeral, the dead man rose from his coffin, to the great terror of those around, and walked out of it in his shroud! He divested himself of the garments of the grave, and is now apparently a well man.”

The hasty burial of a Northern Kentucky woman made national news through the Illustrated Police News, a widely distributed scandal sheet of the late 1800s.

Illustrated Police News (1890), digitized by Villanova University

Such incidents were uncommon enough to cause a stir and make the newspaper, but not all that rare. Mrs. Jacob Kerb—or Mrs. John Korb (reports differ)—residing just south of Newport made national news when she was pronounced dead after a long illness. According to the Illustrated Police News [May 31, 1890]:

“As the body was being carried from the hearse to the grave, a groan was heard in the coffin. The frightened pall-bearers hastily dropped the casket, the lid was taken off, and the woman, wild-eyed and almost paralyzed from fright, sat up. Women screamed and fainted, men became excited, and it was some time before the woman received attention. She was carried into the church and a physician sent for. Before he arrived the woman started to her feet and fell back dead. The physician on arrival pronounced her dead and she was at once buried. There is much excitement in the neighborhood. Many believe the woman should not have been buried.”

And then there was Mathias Kessler. An unmarried pretzel baker, he was 52 years old when he died in his room upstairs from Weirich’s bakery on Bremen Street. According to the death certificate, he was buried in Walnut Hills Cemetery. Ah, but that was the second death certificate issued for Mathias Kessler. According to The Enquirer [April 3, 1908], Kessler succumbed to typhoid pneumonia 30 years earlier and apparently died. His remains were surrendered to the undertaker, and for three days the young man’s family mourned him as dead. On the third day, at the conclusion of services, the coffin lid was sealed and the pallbearers summoned to convey the body to the hearse.

“The pallbearers seized the handles preparatory to carrying it to the hearse when a startlingly weird thing happened. Kessler revived from his death trance, and, realizing his perilous position, tried to lift the clamped coffin lid. Desperately he worked in the narrow box until his efforts burst asunder the sides of the casket and he rose up before the horrified onlookers.”

As the funeral guests fled in terror, Kessler gathered up his burial shroud and calmly walked to the city hospital, where he was placed under observation and made a full recovery. Ever after, he often woke in the middle of the night, screaming in memory of that awful event. He told friends:

“I felt like one passing into a sweet sleep when I, as I supposed, died 30 years ago. When I came to the pain was terrific, but somewhat deadened by the intense fear that came over me when I found myself surrounded by the four walls of a coffin.”

The sheer number of near-misses reported by the old-time newspapers suggest that there must have been mistakes never caught or never owned up to. The case of Henry Grossheim is unnerving. He got caught up in a counterfeiting scheme and served a few years in prison, emerging as a raging alcoholic. Sober, he had a decent reputation as a skilled pattern maker, but his hours of sobriety were interrupted by days of drunken stupor.

It was no surprise to find Grossheim unconscious on the steps of a nearby grocer. Some friends carried him home and dumped him on a pile of rags in the cellar, where he lay for several days. Eventually, his landlady suspected the worst and tried to find a doctor, but none would reply. When a coroner finally showed up, someone told him a death certificate had already been issued, so he left. When the undertaker arrived, he asked for the death certificate so he could get a burial permit and discovered there was no death certificate.

One of the hearses was drafted into messenger duty as a delegation of Grossheim’s relatives scoured the city, looking for someone to issue a death certificate. They finally returned with the necessary paperwork, signed by the coroner. The body was hauled off and buried. According to The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [December 2, 1881]:

“Before the body was carried from the house, women who lived adjacent felt it and claim that it was not yet fully cold. One of them said yesterday afternoon, ‘The smell of death was not yet there. I put my hand on his neck just here—indicating the hollow at the base—and it was not only warm, but I am sure as I pressed it that something moved, shivering like under my fingers.”

Henry Grossheim was buried, dead or alive, in St. John Cemetery in St. Bernard. If you pass by of a Halloween night, you may still hear him cursing his overly efficient relatives.

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