During the 17th and 18th century one of the great fears that played in the back of everyone’s mind was the possibility of being buried alive. With sicknesses and diseases often ravaging whole communities, sometimes mistakes were made. It could only take someone falling into a deep fever, with their breathing extremely lowered for them to be mistaken for dead.
Coffins have been found with the insides scratched, indicating that people were buried alive at the time by accident. In fact, it became such a widespread fear that inventors decided to act! For example, cholera victims routinely fell into comas and were thought to be dead.
This fear of the life and death situation caused a new industry to pop up: safety coffins. In the late 1700s, people started to make features like a string attached to a bell above ground, allowing anyone buried alive to signal they were still breathing.
But in 1868 a German inventor by the name of Franz Vestor from Newark in New Jersey took the industry to a whole new level. He patented a unique type of coffin that allowed the occupant to open it up from the inside. This lets them climb out and signal to the world they were still alive. In fact, it even had compartments for food to be stored in. So if you did happen to wake up in a coffin and were not completely dead yet, you would not starve.
Vestor even showed how this would work in real life, he prepared a demonstration for a crowd of 600 strong. They even paid to watch the ordeal, you could say it was the first Houdini show! Vestor had planned to stay underground for some time, but the crowd became so anxious for his safety that he chose to come out after a few minutes. A quote from a newspaper article at the time sums up his invention pretty nicely:
“A minute after Mr. Vester unaided, stepped out of his living grave, with no more perceptible exhaustion than would have been caused by walking two or three blocks under the hot sun.”
The crowd was in awe and Vestor’s safety coffin was a success!