New Futures for Birmingham`s Historic Buildings

“A life-preserving coffin in doubtful cases of death”.

Posted May 3rd, 2013 by Julie Webb with 1 Comment

Last weekend I was acting as a steward for some of the last public tours of the Coffin Works before work commences in July.  During a tour, one of our visitors described to the group the concept of the life preserving coffin.  This is a coffin which could be fitted with a system to alert people that the occupier wasn’t quite as dead as had originally been thought! The example given was that of a coffin fitted with a string pulley linked to a bell that the occupier could pull on to raise the alarm.  The phrases “Dead Ringers” and “Saved by the Bell” were also linked to this.

The visitor in question posed whether Newman Brothers made any element of this design in their factory.   As Newman Brothers made coffin fittings, not the coffins themselves, there is no evidence to suggest that they made any element of this design.   However, as this question was brought up, it prompted me to look into this concept a little further.

On the 15th November 1843, a Mr Christian Henry Eisenbrandt of Baltimore, USA, patented a new coffin design which he termed “a life-preserving coffin in doubtful cases of death”.   It was a quite a complicated system with certain movements of the occupier linked to a spring and lever system that would automatically open the coffin lid,  along with a mesh forehead plate to allow for oxygen supply.   There were no bells and pulleys on this design, but the concept of preventing being buried alive was there all the same.  The picture below shows Mr Eisenbrandt’s sketch on his patent application and a later colour version of the design.


“A life-preserving coffin in doubtful cases of death”.


Mr Eisenbrandt’s Ingenious Coffin Design
Source US National Archives.


With advances in modern medicine this coffin design may now be considered something of a historical oddity, resigned only for the very anxious.  However, in the 1840’s with the many prevalent diseases and somewhat dubious medical practices, I wouldn’t blame anyone for considering it!

One Response to ““A life-preserving coffin in doubtful cases of death”.”

  1. The Coffin Works | My Birmingham July 29, 2013

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