10 Famous People Who Were Afraid They'd Be Buried Alive

L'Inhumation Precipitee or "The Premature Burial" by Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz
L'Inhumation Precipitee or "The Premature Burial" by Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz
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The fear of being buried alive may be an ancient obsession—Pliny the Elder recorded cases among the Romans in his Natural History, written in 77 CE. But the golden age for this particular phobia was the Victorian era, when a sensationalist press met a public fascination with death (and some spotty science) to create a cottage industry of books and inventions devoted to premature burial and, most importantly, its prevention. Groups like the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial mushroomed, as did alarmist texts like One Thousand Persons Buried Alive by their Best Friends (published by a Boston doctor in 1883).

Getting trapped six feet deep inside a coffin was a favorite plot device for Gothic writers, as it was for Edgar Allan Poe, whose 1844 story, “The Premature Burial” (among other works), contributed to the public preoccupation with the subject. By 1891, Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli said fears of premature burial were so widespread it was time to create an official medical term [PDF]. He coined the word taphephobia (Greek for “grave” + “fear”). As Morselli described it, “The taphephobic … is an unhappy person, his every day, his every hour being tormented by the sudden occurrence of the idea of being buried alive.”

Rampant taphephobia also led to the creation of so-called “safety coffins,” designed to prevent premature burial. Germany alone saw more than 30 of these designs patented in the second half of the 19th century. Most involved some mechanism for communicating with the living, such as ropes and other tools that were used to ring bells above ground (some safety coffins also included supplies of air, food, and water). In 1822, one Dr. Adolf Gutsmuth of Seehausen, Altmark (modern-day Germany), demonstrated his design by having himself buried alive, where he “stayed underground for several hours and had a meal of soup, beer, and sausages served through the coffin's feeding tube.”

Ten famous taphephobes are listed below, and while not all were gripped by a full-blown phobia, they all made provisions to avoid being declared dead before their time.

1. Hans Christian Andersen

Author Hans Christian Andersen
Author Hans Christian Andersen
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According to his biographer Jackie Wullschlager, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen was deathly afraid of being buried alive. He spent his final days at the home of his friends Dorothea and Moritz Melchior in Copenhagen, and as the end neared, begged Dorothea to cut his veins after he’d breathed what appeared to be his last breath. Dorothea “joked that he could do as he had often done, and leave a note saying ‘I only appear to be dead' beside him.”

The note was a fixture of Andersen’s bedside table—some say he even wore it around his neck. Andersen was more than a little neurotic, and being buried alive was far from his only fear. According to Wullschlager, he also traveled with a rope in his luggage because he was afraid of fire, was terrified of dogs, and refused to eat pork out of fear of trichinosis.

2. Frédéric Chopin

Polish composer Frederic Chopin
Polish composer Frederic Chopin
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In his last written message, composer Frédéric Chopin is believed to have penned the words (in French): “The earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open, so I won’t be buried alive.” (Some biographers translate the scrawled word “earth” as “cough”—Chopin was diagnosed with tuberculosis.) Chopin’s precise cause of death has never been determined, though researchers have long wanted to study his heart, entombed in alcohol in the pillar of a Warsaw church, to test the theory that he might have died of cystic fibrosis.

3. George Washington

George Washington
George Washington
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A few hours before he died, George Washington said to his secretary: "I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead." The request wasn't uncommon for his time: Before the invention of modern stethoscopes, the onset of putrefaction—which generally happens to corpses within a couple of days—was the only sure sign of death.

His nephew, United States Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, was even more explicit in his protections against premature burial. He told his doctor: “[M]y thumbs are not to be tied together—nor anything put on my face or any restraint upon my Person by Bandages, &c. My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides—particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place and having been kept so long as to ascertain whether decay may have occurred or not, the coffin is to be closed up.”

4. Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Victorian novelist and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton is to blame for the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” (The line has since spawned the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where entrants compete each year to create the worst opening lines in literature.) But spare some pity for the guy: He was so concerned about one day waking up in a coffin that he asked for his heart to be punctured before he was buried, just in case.

5. Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite. Although invented for non-military purposes, he felt that his invention would help bring about peace by making war unpalatable.The Nobel Prizes were created by his will, which left the bulk of his vast estate to the creation of a fund for prizes awarded to those who “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" in the preceding year. The final portion of Nobel’s will, however, reflected a different preoccupation. He wrote: "It is my express wish that following my death my veins shall be opened, and when this has been done and competent Doctors have confirmed clear signs of death, my remains shall be cremated in a so-called crematorium.”

6.Auguste Renoir

Auguste Renoir
Auguste Renoir 
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According to a memoir by his son Jean Renoir, the French painter Auguste Renoir repeatedly expressed a fear of being buried alive. His son insisted a doctor do "whatever was necessary" to ensure the artist was really and truly dead before being buried.

7. Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer 
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According to the historian Jan Bondeson, the influential German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer "freely admitted to a fear of premature interment.” He requested that his corpse stay aboveground for five days, so it would be good and rotten before burial.

8. Nikolai Gogol

Russian author Nikolai Gogol (famous for his short story “The Overcoat” and the novel Dead Souls) was both fascinated and terrified by the prospect of premature burial. He wrote in a letter to a friend that he was amazed humans could stay in a trance and see, hear, and feel, without being able to do anything to prevent premature burial. His will specified that he not be buried until he was putrefying and without a heartbeat.

Supposedly, when Gogol was exhumed several decades later (Russian authorities had decided to demolish the cemetery where he’d been buried), his body had shifted and was lying on its side, giving rise to a legend that his worst fear had come true—he’d been buried alive. While it’s tempting to believe such a dramatic story, corpses can shift after death thanks to putrefaction and earth movements.

9. Johann Nepomuk Nestroy

According to Bondeson, Austrian writer Johann Nepomuk Nestroy took elaborate precautions against premature burial:

In his will, he declared that the risk of premature burial was the only thing he feared in his present situation and that his studies of the literature on this subject had taught him that the doctors could not be relied on to distinguish dead people from living ones. His body was to be kept in an open coffin for two days, in a waiting mortuary with a signaling apparatus that would herald any signs of life. Even after burial, the coffin lid was not to be nailed shut.

10.Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a British statesman and wit who is now perhaps best known for the letters to his illegitimate son that he wrote almost daily for 30 years, beginning in 1737. (Not everyone was a fan: After the letters were first published in 1774, Samuel Johnson wrote that they taught "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.") While not exactly crippled by a fear of premature burial, Stanhope made reference to the predicament in a letter to his son’s wife written in 1769: “All I desire for my own burial is not to be buried alive; but how or where, I think, must be entirely indifferent to every rational creature."

This story was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

5 Facts About Charles Ponzi and the Original Ponzi Scheme

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Some of the most infamous scams in history have been Ponzi schemes, but before Bernie Madoff (or Bitcoin), there was Charles Ponzi himself. The con he built was so successful that his last name became synonymous with fraud. In January 2020, a century after he set up his fraudulent Securities Exchange Company, the phrase Ponzi scheme is still used to describe any scheme in which funds from new investors are used to pay back old investors. Here are some facts about Ponzi and his scheme that you should know.

1. Charles Ponzi arrived in the U.S. with $2.50 in his pocket.

Charles Ponzi was born in Lugo, Italy, in 1882. As a young adult, he worked as a postal worker and studied at the University of Roma La Sapienza. Neither path panned out for him, however. In 1903, when faced with dwindling funds, Ponzi boarded a ship for America in search of a better life. But Ponzi wasn't a master hustler at this point in his life; he arrived in Boston with $2.50 after gambling away the rest of his life savings on the ship.

2. Charles Ponzi spent time in prison before his famous scheme.

Ponzi was no stranger to crime before concocting the scheme that made his surname infamous. Not long after arriving in Boston, he moved to Canada and got in trouble for forging checks. He spent two years in a Canadian prison for his offenses. Back in the U.S., he served a term in federal prison for illegally transporting five Italians immigrants across the Canadian border. It was only after his so-called Ponzi scheme began to crumble that his criminal history was made public by journalists, thus speeding up his downfall.

3. Charles Ponzi got rich off the postal system.

In 1920, Ponzi discovered the key to the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme: an international postal reply coupon worth $.05. It had been included in a parcel he received from Spain as prepayment for his reply postage. Thanks to an international treaty, the voucher could be exchanged for one U.S. postage stamp worth a nickel, which Ponzi could then sell. Ponzi knew that the value of the Spanish peseta had recently fallen in relation to the dollar, which meant that the coupon was actually worth more than the 30 centavos used to purchase it in Spain. He took this concept to the extreme by recruiting people back home in Italy to buy postal reply coupons in bulk from countries with weak economies, so that he could redeem them in the U.S. for a profit.

4. Charles Ponzi swindled $20 million from investors.

Ponzi technically wasn’t breaking any laws with his postal service transactions, and if he had kept his idea to himself he would have gotten away with it. Instead, he turned his small money-making operation into a wide-reaching scam. If people invested money into his “business” of cashing in foreign postal vouchers, which he dubbed the Securities Exchange Company, they would get their money back plus 50 percent interest in 90 days. The deal was too good for many investors to pass up.

It was also too good to be true: The money wasn’t being used to buy coupons overseas. Ponzi kept most of the investments for himself and used the flood of money coming in from new investors to pay off the old ones. Many investors were so thrilled with their returns that they invested whatever money they had made back into the business, which helped Ponzi keep the sham afloat.

Ponzi was finally rich and famous, but soon enough, cracks in the scheme started to form. The Boston Post launched an investigation into Ponzi and revealed that in order for his business to be functional, he would need to be moving 160 million vouchers across world borders. There were only 27,000 postal reply coupons in circulation at the time. The final blow came when the publicist he had hired to represent him came out against him to the public. His system fell apart and it was revealed that he had stolen $20 million from investors.

Because he had lied to his clients about their investments through the mail, Ponzi was ultimately charged by the federal government for mail fraud. He served three-and-a-half years in prison and then served an additional nine years for state charges.

5. Charles Ponzi didn’t invent the Ponzi scheme.

Though Ponzi schemes were eventually named for him, Charles Ponzi didn’t invent this type of scam. There were many crooks before him who used the same method to exploit investors. Charles Dickens even wrote pre-Ponzi Ponzi schemes into his 1857 novel Little Doritt.

It’s possible that Ponzi got the idea for his own fraud from William F. Miller, who pulled a similar stunt working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn in 1899. But it was the highs of Ponzi’s success—and the lows of his demise—that made his story so memorable.

14 Candid Photos of Martin Luther King Jr.

Getty Images
Getty Images

January 20, 2020 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the federal holiday that celebrates the life of the civil rights activist. The holiday—which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and has been observed annually since 1986—is held on the third Monday in January. (King was born on January 15.) Here's a look back at King in action.

Martin Luther King Jr. on the phone
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  • American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits on a couch and speaks on the telephone after encountering a white mob protesting against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 26, 1961.


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  • American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King arriving in London on October 1, 1961. He was in England to be the chief speaker at a public meeting about color prejudice and to appear on the BBC television program Face To Face.


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  • American president John F. Kennedy at the White House on August 28, 1963 with leaders of the civil rights March on Washington (left to right): Dr. Martin Luther King, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, A. Philip Randolph, President Kennedy, Walter Reuther, and Roy Wilkins. Behind Reuther is Vice President Lyndon Johnson.


William H. Alden/Evening Standard/Getty Images
  • King raising his hands in a restaurant on September 21, 1963.


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  • Canon John Collins greeting King at London Airport on December 5, 1964.


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  • King receives the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo, on December 10, 1964.


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  • President Lyndon B. Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with King in January 1965. The act, part of President Johnson's "Great Society" program, trebled the number of black voters in the south, who had previously been hindered by racially inspired laws.


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  • King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965. On the left (holding bottle) is American diplomat Ralph Bunche.


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  • King addresses a crowd in front of the Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama, following a voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.


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  • King listening to a transistor radio in the front line of the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to campaign for proper registration of black voters, on March 23, 1965. Among the other marchers are: Ralph Abernathy (1926 - 1990, second from left), Ralph Bunche (1903 - 1971, third from right) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 - 1972, far right). The first march ended in violence when marchers were attacked by police. The second was aborted after a legal injunction was issued.


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  • King addresses civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, in April 1965.


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  • King speaks to reporters during a march en route to Jackson, Mississippi, on June 11, 1966.


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  • Watched by Dr. Charles Bousenquet, King signs the Degree Roll at Newcastle University after receiving an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree, Newcastle, England, on November 14, 1967.


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  • King speaks at a January 12, 1968 press conference for Clergy & Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, held at the Belmont Plaza Hotel, New York City. He announced the Poor People's March On Washington at this event.

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