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.
Robert E. Cornish (1903-63) was a Californian physician, academic and medical researcher, best known for his attempts to revive the dead. Born in San Francisco, Cornish was the Doogie Howser of his day: he completed high school at age 15, graduated from Berkley three years later and was licensed to practice medicine in his 21st year. In his mid 20s Cornish returned to Berkeley as a researcher where he worked on a number of projects, from reading glasses to the isolation of heavy water. But his pet interest was the resuscitation of human and animal cadavers after death, which Cornish thought entirely possible. By 1933 he had developed an unusual method of reanimation. Cornish’s ‘patients’ were strapped to a large see-saw, injected with adrenaline and heparin to thin the blood, then vigorously “teetered” to restore circulation. He attempted this bizarre experiment on several bodies without luck, coming to the conclusion that too long had elapsed since death for it to work.
In May 1934 Cornish turned his attentions to freshly euthanised dogs. He acquired five fox terriers, each pithily named Lazarus, and conducted his experiment. Three of them stayed dead while two were successfully revived, though both were rendered blind and insensible. Despite this rather inconclusive outcome, the experiments were hailed as a great success. Cornish was feted in the press and a 1935 film, Life Returns, was made about his work. After lapping up the celebrity, Cornish returned to more mundane areas of research. But in 1947 he reemerged with a scheme to “teeter” a freshly executed human cadaver. He found a willing participant, a child killer named Thomas McMonigle, who would be carried straight from the gas chamber to the ‘Cornish teeter’:
“Dr Cornish, elated at the sensational success of his experiments with dogs, wants to make the attempt [on humans]. He is now seeking permission to experiment with a criminal executed by poison gas. Given the body after physicians declare the man to be dead, he would strap the body to a teeterboard and attach electrical heating pads to the limbs. Next a chemical known as methylene blue would be injected into the veins to neutralise the poisonous fumes that had caused death. Pure oxygen would then be pumped into the lungs through a mask and the teeterboard rocked slowly to keep the blood in circulation… Dr Cornish believes firmly that the dead man would live. He does not agree with other scientists that the brain of the man so revived would be hopelessly damaged.”
Thankfully, Cornish’s proposal was turned down by the state of California, and McMonigle was executed without “teetering” in February 1948. By the late 1950s Cornish had retired from medical research and was marketing his own product: “Dr Cornish’s Tooth Powder with Vitamin D and Fluoride”.