Thursday, 29 October 2020

Premature burial of a baby at Abney Park Cemetery (1885)

From the London Daily News of 21 October 1885

This story was very widely reported in late October 1885 appearing in at least 70 national and provincial newspapers. All the stories consist of just one almost identical paragraph though there are a variety of headlines: child (or infant) buried alive (or nearly buried alive), child almost interred alive, burying a live child, narrow escape from being buried alive, strange scene at grave, startling discovery at grave,  an extraordinary story (or affair or case), Remarkable case of premature burial, and trance and premature burial…. The story first appeared on 20 October when it was reported in at least 11 newspapers across the UK from the Evening News in Portsmouth on the south coast of England to the Evening Express in Aberdeen on the north coast of Scotland.  Surprisingly in light of the 19th century obsession with premature burial and given the wide spread reporting of the story no one seems to have followed it up. Makes you wonder if it was really true.

Abney Park Cemetery is, of course, in Stoke Newington where Edgar Allan Poe, author of ‘The Premature Burial’ was a boarder at the Manor House school for 8 years from 1815 to 1823. Just a decade after this incident Dr William Tebb and Walter Hadwen founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial in 1896 with the aim of diffusing “knowledge regarding the pre-disposing causes of the various forms of Suspended Animation or Death-Counterfeits”. One of their concerns was that medical practitioners were not obliged to view a body before certifying a death so in many cases they were relying on the word of next of kin, ministers of religion or undertakers. In most cases death would have been self-evident but occasionally errors would be made. When they were made not many would awake in the nick of time and get themselves pulled out of their graves at the last minute.  

Do many babies still get buried alive? I was rather horrified when I googled it to see recent stories of squalling infants being dug up in cemeteries, waste ground and in woods across the world from Brazil, to India, China and the United States. In most cases they had been deliberately interred alive by parents who didn’t want them and most still had their umbilical cords attached. One hopes the incident in Abney Park cemetery was just human error… 

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