Timothy Clark Smith was a 19th century doctor with an incurable fear. Dr Smith suffered his whole life with taphephobia, defined as an “irrationally morbid fear of being buried alive”.
Today the fear of being buried alive isn’t quite so prevalent, but in the not too far distant past it was a justifiable thing to worry about. In the 18th and 19th century, there were reports of sick or dying people experiencing something called Lazarus Syndrome, which is “the spontaneous return of circulation after failed attempts at resuscitation”. In other words, you wake up 6 feet [≈ average height of a human] under.
"One theory for the phenomenon is that a chief factor is the buildup of pressure in the chest as a result of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The relaxation of pressure after resuscitation efforts have ended is thought to allow the heart to expand, triggering the heart’s electrical impulses and restarting the heartbeat." -wikipedia
It wasn’t uncommon for undertakers to discover scratch marks inside of casket lids after exhuming a coffin, or to find evidence that the “corpse” had pulled out their hair post-mortem. I believe the word you’re looking for is “yikes”. It was around that time period that the invention of the safety coffin came into play.
"A safety coffin or security coffin is a coffin fitted with a mechanism to prevent premature burial or allow the occupant to signal that they have been buried alive. A large number of designs for safety coffins were patented during the 18th and 19th centuries and variations on the idea are still available today." - wikipedia
There have been recorded cases of Lazarus syndrome happening as recently as February 2014, when a 78 year old Lexington man named Walter Williams was found moving on the “slab”. He was even well enough the next day to carry on a conversation with his family members. He died, for good, fifteen days after his first death. Walter was just one of many people who have died, awoken, and then died again.
That’s why good Dr. Smith was so petrified of experiencing a short-term afterlife only to wake up in his coffin. He decided to devise his own safety coffin to to be built after his death. Dr Smith’s grave at Evergreen Cemetery included a 14” x 14” glass window that looked down a six-foot shaft into his coffin. A bell was added, with a string that led to the surface of the earth. The idea was that if for some strange twist of fate he happened to be buried alive, passing mourners would be able to see him alive (and not so well) through the window. Smith died on Halloween 1893… and lucky for him, it was a permanent one.
Dr. Smith also had another vault built for his wife. According to the old cemetery plans, hidden underneath the grave is a room leading to a set of stairs that leads out of the vault for a simple getaway… again in case of accidental burial.
The glass window looking down into Timothy Clark Smiths grave still remains today, though it’s now foggy with condensation and mold. Many visitors once reported seeing his decomposing skeletal face staring up at them from the earth below. Smith’s windowed headstone is just one of the many bizarre, weird, and fascinating graves around the country, that for history lovers, are an interesting (and morbid) peek into the past.
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