Remember When We Buried People Alive for Fun and Profit?

It seems that Cincinnatians of the 1960s were easily entertained.

It was 1960, and the Ray Milland horror film, The Premature Burial, based on a tale by Edgar Allen Poe, was about to swing through the auto theater circuit. In Cincinnati, operators of the old Ferguson Hills Drive-In needed a gimmick to pack in the viewers. It isn’t recorded who decided to bury someone alive—maybe it was part of the studio’s publicity plan.

After burying men in snake-filled coffins, the only option left for live burial stunts was entombing bikini-clad women in blocks of ice, a memorable promotion for Bridgetown’s Tom Kneer Dodge dealership in 1969.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

At any rate, the Cincinnati Police didn’t like the idea and issued a cease and desist order. The drive-in management sued, and Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Otis R. Hess ruled the show must go on. If somebody wanted to get buried alive at Ferguson Hills Drive-In, it was their constitutional right.

The still-breathing and never-identified “corpse” was buried on June 17, 1960. In court testimony, the drive-in described him as a “professional stuntman,” but Ferguson Hills had run a “help wanted” ad just a day prior to the stunt seeking “Man to Be Buried Alive.” One wonders how the auditions went. Advertisements triumphantly blared, “Free Pass to Each Lady Who Does Not Faint! Nurses in Attendance!”

The gimmick worked, and the buried guy packed them in. The burial was at the entrance to the drive-in, and the “corpse” was observable through a glass viewing tube. The idea was so effective that it was picked up for the second run of the same movie in 1962 by the Hi-Way 28 Drive-In east of Milford.

They were still burying people alive in 1965 when Bob and Jerry Hedlesten announced a promotion for their magic-themed cocktail bar, the Mystery Lounge, in Madison Place. Bob Hedlesten, who had recently escaped a straitjacket while hanging suspended from a crane, was scheduled to be buried under the Albers Supermarket parking lot across the street.

Promotional stunts along the lines of live burials were fairly common in the 1950s and 1960s. A lot of traveling freak shows had fallen on hard times, and suburban audiences, embarrassed to be seen hanging around the carny tents, had no qualms about catching a freak show at their local drive-in, shopping center, or automobile dealership. A Cincinnati Enquirer business reporter investigated the trend and published [August 20, 1961] this analysis:

“In past months at shopping centers in and around Cincinnati, plumed camels have hauled cartloads of kiddies, wrestlers have wrestled, the Marines have staged a landing, and Marian Spelman has warbled excerpts from ‘The Student Prince.’ Even a baseball-playing monkey has appeared.”

And they buried men alive. As audiences lost interest in plain old buried guys, the hucksters realized they had to up their game. How about burying a guy in a snake pit? In August 1963 the Western Hills Plaza featured “Ahab the Arab,” buried for more than a week in a coffin filled with snakes. Shoppers could step up on a low carpeted platform to gaze down a six-inch pipe at a man entombed six feet down with a dozen slithery companions in a box six and a half feet long, three and a half feet wide, and three feet tall.

We know “Ahab’s” real name because he had to file a lawsuit against the Cincinnati Police to gain the privilege of burial under the Plaza parking lot. “Ahab” was 23-year-old Jerry Shinners, and the police tried to stop his show by claiming he lacked a license to perform. Judge Simon L. Leis agreed with Shinners and approved the snake man’s burial with a rattlesnake, two boa constrictors, a couple of water moccasins, and some copperheads, bull snakes, and indigos.

That Western Hills Plaza show was staged by herpetological impresario Lawrence E. Nunn of Glasgow, Kentucky. Larry Nunn pretty much had the snakes-in-a-coffin game locked up. It was never Larry in the coffin, of course—he always worked with a partner who always operated under an exotic name, like Ahab, Keeoga, or Wachickanoka. The stage names were necessary because the turnover rate was high. The longest-lived Wachickanoka was a dude known only as Pancho, who split receipts 50/50 with Nunn. Each of them raked in $4,000 weekly or more for a good part of the 1960s. Nunn advertised in The Billboard, claiming [April 18, 1960]:

“We had over 50,000 paid admissions in Minneapolis, Minnesota for Radio Station WDGY; over 40,000 in New Orleans, Louisiana for Radio Station WTIX; over 40,000 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for Radio Station KOMA.”

By 1965, Nunn claimed that he had sold 3 million tickets since his first snake pit show in 1950. He died at the age of 73 in 1992 and is buried in Glasgow, probably without snakes.

Audiences are fickle. Once you’ve seen one knucklehead buried in a coffin full of rattlesnakes, well, you’ve seen them all. With each iteration, the buried alive racket needed a new twist. How about burying women alive? While wearing a bikini! Frozen in a block of ice! That’s the ticket!

So the ultimate living burial came to pass at a Bridgetown automobile dealership. According to The Cincinnati Post [May 15, 1969]:

“A bikini-clad young lady will be sealed in 5000 pounds of ice at 6:30 p.m. tonight [Thursday] at Tom Kneer Dodge Inc., 6475 Glenway Avenue, and may be viewed by the public any hour of the day or night up through her release at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.”

Some Bridgetown residents still remember the long lines at the Childs-Glenway intersection and the woman “mechanically waving” from her frigid tomb. The unnamed young lady was, according to newspaper reports, hypnotized to minimize the effects of extreme cold. She was accompanied on a national tour of automobile dealerships, mobile home parks, and the like by a “scientist” named Forrest G. Parker who claimed her bodily functions were slowed through hypnosis to about half their normal rate. After conducting several experiments along this line, Parker “decided to present his findings to the public,” apparently selecting Dodge dealerships over peer-reviewed medical journals for some perfectly logical reason.

With ladies in ice, the buried alive promotional fad seems to have lost popularity. Car dealers and radio stations were forced to conjure up new thrills, like dropping live turkeys from helicopters.

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