One of Victorian London’s most respected undertakers, Violet Harper has the new duty of accompanying coffins from various undertakers on the London Necropolis Railway for respectful funerals and burials in Surrey. But on her fateful first trip, the mournful silence of the train is shattered by the shrill ringing of a coffin bell – a device that prevents a person from being buried alive.
Inside the noisome coffin, Violet finds a man wide-eyed with fear, claiming he was falsely interred. When a second coffin bell is rung on another trip Violet grows suspicious. She voices her qualms to Inspector Hurst of Scotland Yard, only to receive a puzzling reply that, after all, it is not a crime to rise from the dead. But Violet’s instincts are whispering that all is not well on the London Necropolis Railway’s tracks. Is this all merely the result of clumsy undertaking, or is there something more sinister afoot?
Determined to get to the heart of the matter, Violet uncovers a treacherous plot and villains who will stop at nothing to keep a lid on her search for the truth.
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For this book, I wanted to explore some of the mourning oddities that make Victorian mourning customs so fascinating. In particular, I decided to focus on what are known as “safety coffins.” The great fear of being buried alive was fueled not only by periodic cholera epidemics, but also by the writings of men like Edgar Allan Poe and his works such as The Premature Burial.
The idea behind a safety coffin was that it would contain some type of communication device inside it to alert people above ground, who would then rush to unbury the coffin. Unfortunately, many of these devices did not provide for air passage, and there is roughly an hour of air inside a coffin, meaning that even if someone were alive when placed in the coffin, he was surely gone by the time he was placed in the ground, which could be hours later.
For the record, the number of people actually recorded as having been saved by a safety coffin: Zero
Here are a couple of safety coffin examples:
Franz Vester’s “Burial Case,” which contained not only a ladder through which the deceased could crawl out, but a bell for the buried person to ring, plus a tube through which the face of the corpse could be viewed by the cemetery night watchman. The viewing tube was removable once it was established that the deceased was, indeed, deceased.
A “C. Redl” patented this coffin in 1887. Upon waking, the deceased could pull a string that would set off a bell above ground. The bell is even protected from the elements in the housing, and this coffin even seems to feature an air vent down to the coffin.
Developed by Christian Eisenbrandt, an inventor in Maryland, this “Life Preserving Coffin” had a spring-loaded mechanism that would cause the coffin to pop open at the slightest movement of the corpse. It also included a viewing/air hole. Two problems with this coffin: First, dead bodies tend to bloat and shift, so even a corpse could trigger it. Second: how, exactly, is the coffin going to spring open beneath six feet of dirt?