Historic Preservation, The Times We Live In, Weekly Reader
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When you may be too paranoid for your own good

This is a history story that has resonance in today’s climate of fear, paranoia, and conspiracy theories.

Friends of Friendless Churches is a U.K.-based charity (i.e., nonprofit) that rescues and repairs redundant places of worship in England and Wales. They care for and celebrate their rich architectural legacy and history and support their local communities. I follow the group on their LinkedIn page, which is where I first saw this story. I reposted it on LinkedIn, and I want to do the same on More to Come. Here’s the information they provided:

Wood Walton church floats on a green island amid acres of churned dun fields and murmuring fenland. No one is around for miles. And in the 19th century, a lone bell rattling in the emptiness was the only way of alerting the living that you’d been buried alive.

Fear of being buried alive permeates through centuries, but perhaps achieved its tightest grip in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was aided by stories about the presumed-dead fighting their way out of airless coffins or grave-robbers waking up would-be corpses.

From the late 1700s methods of alerting the living that you were alive too began to be developed, with many devices patented. Some such devices were safety coffins – coffins with air and feeding tubes, bells and flags, and glass panels show up any condensation from breath.

One of the earliest recorded safety coffins was for Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick (d.1792). His coffin included an oxygen tube, a set of keys to unlock the coffin, and a glazed panel to let light in.

At the end of the 18th century, Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger’s safety coffin really took off. It involved bell(s) arranged above ground. The bells were connected to the deceased by a series of strings. If the buried woke up, they would pull the string and alert those above ground to dig them out.

The bell system was popular but there is no record of it saving anyone.

Now, back to Wood Walton in Cambridgeshire. Around the northside, there is an iron arch with a deep hook tightly bolted to it. It is solid and firmly embedded. It’s believed that this is the remnant of a bell house for a safety coffin. The bell, with its strings connected to the body of the deceased, would have hung from the hook, so they could call for help from 6ft under.

Note the line in the penultimate paragraph: there is no record of it saving anyone.

We are currently awash in conspiracy theories. Many are fed and spread by politicians and media outlets that are working overtime to take your mind off the fact that their policies (such as they are) are destructive and designed solely to put power in their hands and money in their pockets.

Liars, con artists, and grifters have taken over the party of Lincoln and they are feeding stories and conspiracies that are easily disproven, if one actually resides in the reality-based world. (*) Unfortunately, many do not want to deal with reality, because the lies and conspiracies actually feed deep-seated grievances.

If you worry about being buried alive, you may be too paranoid for your own good. If you believe that someone can hear a bell ringing when there’s no one around for miles to save you, then you may also believe the hucksters who are peddling conspiracy theories — and their remedies — to today’s Republican voters.

The safety coffin story is amusing when we read it today, and we can chuckle and realize that the main harm done was to lighten the pocketbooks of those who worried about being buried alive. But many of those peddling paranoia in our current political climate are driving hatred, division and destruction. For far too many Americans, it is time to join the reality-based world.

More to come…


NOTES to the Friends posting:

1. Drone image by Hestia Architects Ltd
2. Sketches are from Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger’s patent.
3. You can read more about St Andrew’s, Wood Walton, Cambrigeshire here: https://bit.ly/3TFyN5x
4. Some believe this is where the ‘saved by the bell’ phrase came from, others believe it is something to do with boxing.

*After the recent break-in at Speaker Pelosi’s home and the vicious attack on her husband — the second attempt in two years to assassinate the Speaker of the House by crazed right-wing conspiracy theorists — Donald Trump spread defamatory falsehoods, saying that the glass was broken from the inside and that “weird things were going on in that household.” He said this after the assailant admitted to police that he broke into the house through a glass door and after a surveillance camera caught a man with a hammer, breaking a glass panel and entering the speaker’s home. So literally nothing Trump said about this was true. Call me not surprised. Virtually nothing this man has said his entire life is based in reality. He is the modern-day version of the huckster selling the “safety coffin” to the paranoid.

This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry. 


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: November observations in More to Come… | More to Come...

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