MailOnline article published March 6, 2013 —
- Horrifying fate not unusual in Victorian times
- Methods of determining death were far from reliable
- Even modern doctors have been known to make mistakes
Mary Best was 17 years old when she contracted cholera in India. All alone since her adoptive mother left the country some months earlier, Mary suffered hours of agonising stomach cramps and sickness, her pulse becoming weaker and weaker until, at last, the doctor pronounced her dead.
She was buried in the vault of her adoptive family a few hours later, in the French cemetery in Calcutta. The year was 1871, and cholera victims were generally buried very soon after death to prevent the germs spreading. In India’s tropical heat, a rapid burial was all the more necessary. Nobody questioned Mary’s hasty interment.
But ten years later, when the vault was opened to admit the body of Mary’s newly deceased uncle by adoption, the undertaker and his assistant were greeted by a horrifying sight.
The lid of Mary’s coffin, which had been nailed down, was on the floor. The girl’s skeleton was half in, half out of the coffin, and the right side of her skull bore a large, ugly fracture. The fingers of her right hand were bent as if clutching at something, perhaps her throat, and her clothes were torn.
Mary, it seemed, had not been dead when she was nailed into a coffin, but merely unconscious.
Cholera victims frequently fell into a coma, and it was in this state that Mary had been buried. Some hours or days later she awoke with no idea where she was.
Before the 20th century, methods of determining death were far from reliable and cases of premature burial was not uncommon
The utter terror she endured, her futile screams for help, can barely be imagined. Then, realising she was not being heard, she tried desperately to push the coffin lid off. Straining every muscle, she eventually burst it open.
Perhaps the effort was so great that she fell forward, through exhaustion or fainting, and struck her head on the stone shelf, dying instantly.
More likely, however, finding herself in the pitch darkness of the vault, Mary went mad with terror, tore at her clothes, tried to throttle herself, then banged her head and died.