Unless carried out by a skilled executioner, hanging can be an unreliable method of capital punishment. History abounds with stories of hanged persons who survived the ordeal. In a text on the mechanics of drowning, 18th century physician Rowland Jackson described several documented cases of failed hangings. In Aremberg in the Rhineland, a local merchant named Landthaler was hanged from a tree and swung “for a whole hour” before being cut down. He was discovered to be alive and complained of nothing other than sore eyes and toe-tips. In Cologne, a hanged robber was brought back to life by a passing servant – and then repaid the favour by trying to steal the servant’s horse. A similar tale occurred near Abbeville, Picardie, where a miller took a hanged thief home and nursed him back to life – only for the thief to burgle his house. In all three of these cases the victims were returned to the gallows and hanged again, this time successfully. More fortunate was a hanged man described by Mr Falconet, a “gentleman of strict probity and candour”. According to Falconet his family had a “foolhardy coachman” who:
“…falling into a quarrel at Lyon, killed a man, and being apprehended on the spot was forthwith condemned to be hanged, which sentence was accordingly put into execution. The surgeons of the town, having obtained his body in order to make a skeleton, brought it into a surgery where they left it upon a table. But when they came next day to dissect it, they were surprised to find the man not only alive, but in good health, and pissing in the chimney – for the want, as he said, of a chamberpot. This man had stood in no need of remedies… the circulation of the blood had not been so long suppressed that it could of its own accord restore itself.”
Jean-Jacques Winslow was a French-born English physician of the early 18th century. Little is known of Winslow’s medical career, however his main hobby horse was death, especially the prevention of premature burial. According to Winslow his interest in this subject was personal: he had been a sickly child who was twice declared dead and once prematurely entombed. In 1740 Doctor Winslow published a lengthy treatise titled The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death and the Danger of Precipitate Internments. In it he suggested that the only truly reliable sign of death was the onset of putrefaction. He also urged physicians and undertakers to complete a rigorous series of checks on ‘corpses’, to ensure they were truly dead:
“Irritate his nostrils by instructing into them peppers, snuffs, salts, stimulating liquors, the juice of onions, garlic and horseradish, or the feathered end of a quill, or the point of a pencil. We must also rub his gums frequently and strongly with the same substances… Spirituous liquors ought also to be poured into his mouth, where these cannot be had it is customary to pour warm urine into it… Stimulate his organs of touch with whips and nettles. Irritate his intestines by means of clysters [enemas] of air and smoke. Agitate his limbs by violent extensions… and if possible, shock his ears with hideous shrieks and excessive noises.”
Winslow’s book went on to describe several survivors of premature burial, such as the case of Anne Greene, as well as some victims with less happy endings. No information is available about the date, cause or veracity of Winslow’s own death. But thanks to Winslow’s writings – not to mention some creative input from Edgar Allan Poe and others – the issue of premature burial remained a popular if somewhat macabre fascination, well into the 19th century.