Chapter 40 A False Alarm
On the morning of May 22nd, when the Scottish guard McPherson arrived at the platform of the London Bridge Station to begin the day's work, he was greeted by a most unexpected sight. There alongside the luggage van of the Folkestone train stood a woman in black--- a servant, by the look of her, but handsome enough, and sobbing most piteously.
The object of her grief was not hard to discover, for near the poor girl, set onto a flat baggage cart, was a plain wooden casket. Although cheap and unadorned, the casket had several ventholes drilled in the sides. And mounted on the lid of the casket was a kind of miniature belfry, containing a small bell, with a cord running from the clapper down through a hole to the innards of the coffin.
Although the sight was unexpected, it was not in the least mysterious to McPherson--- or, indeed, to any Victorian of the day. Nor was he surprised, as he approached the coffin, to detect the reeking odor of advanced corporeal decay emanating from the ventholes, and suggesting that the present occupant had been dead for some time. This, too, was wholly understandable.
During the nineteenth century, both in England and in the United States, there arose a peculiar preoccupation with the idea of premature burial. All that remains of this bizarre concern is the macabre literature of Edgar Allan Poe and others, in which premature burial in some form or another appears as a frequent motif. To modern thinking, it is all exaggerated and fanciful; it is difficult now to recognize that for the Victorians, premature burial was a genuine, palpable fear shared by nearly all members of society the most superstitious worker to the best-educated professional man.
Nor was this widespread fear a simply neurotic obsession. Quite the contrary: there was plenty of evidence to lead a sensible man to believe that premature burials did occur, and that such ghastly happenings were only prevented by some fortuitous event. A case in 1853 in Wales, involving an apparently drowned ten-year-old boy, received wide publicity: "While the coffin lay in the open grave, and the first earth was shovelled upon it, a most frightful noise and kicking ensued from within. The sextons ceased their labors, and caused the coffin to be opened, whereupon the lad stepped out, and called for his parents. Yet the same lad had been pronounced dead many hours past, and the doctor said that he had no respirations nor any detectable pulse, and the skin was cold and gray. Upon sighting the lad, his mother fell into a swoon, and did not revive for some length of time."
Most cases of premature burial involved victims ostensibly drowned, or electrocuted, but there were other instances where a person might lapse into a state of "apparent death, or suspended animation."
In fact, the whole question of when a person was dead was very much in doubt--- as it would be again, a century later, when doctors struggled with the ethics of organ transplantation. But it is worth remembering that physicians did not understand that cardiac arrest was wholly reversible until 1950; and in 1850 there was plenty of reason to be skeptical about the reliability of any indicator of death.
Victorians dealt with their uncertainty in two ways. The first was to delay interment for several days--- a week was not uncommon--- and await the unmistakable olfactory evidence of the beloved one's departure rom this world. Indeed, the Victorian willingness to postpone burial sometimes reached extremes. When the Duke of Wellington died, in 1852, there was public debate about the way his state funeral should be conducted; the Iron Duke simply had to wait until these disagreements were settled, and he was not actually buried until more than two months after his death.
The second method for avoiding premature burial was technological; the Victorians contrived an elaborate series of warning and signaling devices to enable a dead person to make known his resuscitation. A. wealthy individual might be buried with a length of iron pipe connecting his casket to the ground above, and a trusted family servant would be required to remain at the cemetery, day and night, for a month or more, on the chance that the deceased would suddenly awake and begin to call for help. Persons buried above-ground, in family vaults, were often placed in patented, spring-loaded caskets, with a complex maze of wires attached to arms and legs, so that the slightest movement of the body would throw open the coffin lid. Many considered this method preferable to any other, for it was believed that individuals often returned from a state of suspended animation in a mute or partially paralyzed condition.
The fact that these spring-loaded coffins popped open months or even years later (undoubtedly the result of some external vibration or deterioration in the spring mechanism) only heightened the widespread uncertainty about how long a person might lie dead before coming back to life, even for a moment.
Most signaling devices were costly, and available only to the wealthy classes. Poor people adopted the simpler tactic of burying relatives with some implement--- a crowbar, or a shovel--- on the vague assumption that if they revived, they could dig themselves out of their predicament.
There was clearly a market for an inexpensive alarm system, and in 1852 George Bateson applied for, and received, a patent for the Bateson Life Revival Device, described as "a most economical, ingenious, and trustworthy mechanism, superior to any other method, and promoting peace of mind amongst the bereaved at all stations of life. Constructed of the finest materials throughout." And there is an additional comment: "A device of proven efficacy, in countless instances in this country and abroad."
"Bateson's belfry," as it was ordinarily known, was a plain iron bell mounted on the lid of the casket, over the deceased's head, and connected by a cord or wire through the coffin to the dead person's hand, "such that the least tremor shall directly sound the alarum." Bateson's belfries attained instant popularity, and within a few years a substantial proportion of coffins were fitted with these bells. During this period, three thousand people died daily in London alone, and Bateson's business was brisk; he was soon a wealthy man and respected as well: in 1859, Victoria, awarded him an O.B.E. for his efforts.
As a kind of odd footnote to the story, Bateson himself lived in mortal terror of being buried alive, and caused his workshop to fabricate increasingly complex alarm systems for installation on his own coffin after he died. By 1867, his preoccupation left him quite insane, and he rewrote his will, directing his family to cremate him at his death. However, suspecting that his instructions would not be followed, in the spring of 1868 he doused himself with linseed oil in his workshop, set himself aflame, and died by self-immolation.
On the morning of May 22nd, McPherson had more important things to worry about than the weeping servant girl and the coffin with its belfry, for he knew that today the gold shipment from Huddleston & Bradford would be loaded upon the railway van at any moment.
Through the open door of the van, he saw the guard, Burgess. McPherson waved, and Burgess responded with a nervous, rather reserved greeting. McPherson knew that his uncle, the dispatcher, had yesterday given Burgess a good deal of sharp talk; Burgess was no doubt worried to keep his job, especially as the other guard had been dismissed. McPherson asssumed that this accounted for Burgess's tension.
Or perhaps it was the sobbing woman. It would not be the first time a stout man had been put off his mark by a female's piteous cries. McPherson turned to the young girl and proffered his handkerchief.
"There, now, Missy," he said. "There, now..." He sniffed the air. Standing close to the coffin, he noticed that the odor seeping out of the ventholes was certainly rank. But he was not so overcome by the smell that he failed to observe the girl was attractive, even in her grief. "There, now," he said again.
"Oh, please, sir," the girl cried, taking his handkerchief and sniffling into it. "Oh, please, can you help me? The man is a heartless beast, he is."
"What man is that?" McPherson demanded, in a burst of outrage.
"Oh, please, sir, that guard upon the line. He will not let me set my dear brother here upon the train, for he says I must await another guard. Oh, I am most wretched," she finished, and dissolved into tears once more.
"Why, the unfeeling rogue, he would not let your brother be put aboard?"
Through sobs and sniffles, the girl said something about rules.
"Rules?" he said. "A pox on rules, I say." He noticed her heaving bosom, and her pretty, narrow waist.
"Please, sir, he is most firm about the other guard---"
"Missy," he said, "I am the other guard, standing here before you, and I'll see your dear brother on the train with no delay, and never you mind that blackguard."
"Oh, sir, I am in your debt," she said, managing a smile through her tears.
McPherson was overwhelmed: he was a young man, and it was springtime, and the girl was pretty, and soon to be in his debt. At the same instant, he felt the greatest compassion and tenderness for her distress. Altogether, he was set spinning with the emotions of the moment.
"Just you wait," he promised, and turned to chastise Burgess for his heartless and overzealous adherence to the rules. But before he could make known his opinion, he saw the first of the gray-uniformed, armed guards of Huddleston & Bradford, bringing the bullion consignment down the platform toward them.
The loading was carried out with sharp precision. First, two guards carne down the platform, entered the van, and made a quick search of the interior. Then eight more guards arrived, in neat formation around two flatcarts, each pushed by a gang of grunting, sweating porters--- and each piled high with rectangular, sealed strongboxes.
At the van, a ramp was swung down, and the porters joined together to push first one, and then the other, of the laden flatcarts up into the van, to the waiting safes.
Next an official of the bank, a well-rigged gent with an air of authority, appeared with two keys in his hand. Soon after, McPherson's uncle, the dispatcher, arrived with a second pair of keys. His uncle and the bank's man inserted their keys in the safes and opened them.
The bullion strongboxes were loaded into the safes, and the doors were shut with a massive metal clang that echoed in the interior of the luggage van. The keys were twisted in the locks; the safes were secured.
The man from the bank took his keys and departed. McPherson's uncle pocketed his keys and came over to his nephew.
"Mind your work this morning," he said. "Open every parcel large enough to hold a knave, and no exception." He sniffed the air. "What's that ungodly stink?"
McPherson nodded over his shoulder to the girl and the coffin, a short distance away. It was a pitiful sight but his uncle frowned with no trace of compassion. "Scheduled for the morning train, is it?"
"See that you open it," . the dispatcher said, and turned away.
"But, Uncle---" McPherson began, thinking he would lose his newly gained favor with the girl by insisting on such a thing.
The dispatcher stopped. "No stomach for it? Dear God, you're a delicate one." He scanned the youth's agonized face, misinterpreting his discomfiture. "All right, then. I'm near enough to death that it holds no terrors for me. Ill see to it myself." And the dispatcher strode off toward the weeping girl and her coffin. McPherson trailed reluctantly behind.
It was at that moment that they heard an electrifying, ghastly sound: the ringing of Mr. Bateson's patented bell.
In later courtroom testimony, Pierce explained the psychology behind the plan. "Any guard watches for certain happenings, which he suspects at any moment, and lies in wait for. I knew the railway guard suspected some fakement to smuggle a living body onto the van. Now, a vigilant guard will know a coffin can easily hold a body; he will suspect it less, because it seems such a poor trick for smuggling. It is too obvious.
"Yet, he will likely wonder if the body is truly dead, and if he is vigilant he will call to have the box opened, and spend some moments making a thorough examination of the body to insure that it is dead. He may feel the pulse, or the warmth of the flesh, or he may stick a pin here or there. Now, no living soul scan pass such an examination without detection.
"But how different it is if all believe that the body is not dead, but alive, and wrongly incarcerated. Now all emotions are reversed: instead of suspicion, there is hope the body is vital. Instead of a solemn and respectful opening of the casket, there is a frantic rush to break it free, and in this the relatives join in willingly, sure proof there is nothing to hide.
"And then, when the lid is raised and the decomposed remains come to light, how different is the response of the spectators. Their desperate hopes are dashed in an instant; the cruel and ghastly truth is immediately apparent at a moment's glance, and warrants no prolonged investigation. The relatives are bitterly disappointed and wildly distraught. The lid is quickly closed--- and all because of reversed expectations. This is simple human nature, as evidenced in every ordinary man."
At the sound of the bell, which rang only once, and briefly, the sobbing girl let out a shriek. At the same instant, the dispatcher and his nephew broke into a run, quickly covering the short distance to the coffin.
By then the girl was in a state of profound hysteria, clawing at the coffin lid with her fingers, mindless that her efforts were ineffectual. "Oh, my dear brother--- oh, Richard, dear Richard--- oh, God, he lives..." Her fingers scrabbled at the wooden surface, and her tugging rocked the coffin so that the bell rang continuously.
The dispatcher and his nephew instantly caught the girl's frantic anxiety, but they were able to proceed with more sense. The lid was closed with a series of metal latches, and they opened them one after another. Apparently it never occurred to either man, in the heat of the moment, that this coffin had more latches than any three others. And certainly the process of opening was more prolonged as the poor girl, in her agony, somehow impeded their efforts with her own.
In a few moments, the men were at a fever pitch of intensity. And all the while, the girl cried, "Oh, Richard--- dear God, make haste, he's alive--- please, dear God, he lives, praise God..." And all the while, the bell rang from the rocking of the coffin.
The commotion drew a crowd of some size, which stood a few paces back on the platform, taking in the bizarre spectacle.
"Oh, hurry, hurry, lest we are too late," the girl cried, and the men worked frantically at the latches. Indeed, only when they were at the final two latches did the dispatcher hear the girl cry, "Oh, I knew it was not cholera, he was a quack to say it. Oh, I knew..."
The dispatcher froze, his hand on the latch. "Cholera?" he said.
"Oh, hurry, hurry," the girl cried. "It is five days now I have waited to hear the bell...."
"You say cholera?" the dispatcher repeated. "Five days?"
But the nephew, who had not stopped throwing off the latches, now flung the coffin lid wide.
"Thank God!" cried the girl, and threw herself down upon the body inside, as if to hug her brother. But she halted in mid-gesture, which was perfectly understandable. With the raising of the lid, a most hideous, fetid, foul stench rolled forth in a near palpable wave, and its source was not hard to determine; the body lying within, dressed in his best Sunday clothes, hands folded across the chest, was already in a state of obvious decomposition.
The exposed flesh at the face and hands was bloated and puffed, a repellent gray-green color. The lips were black, and so was the partially protruding tongue. The dispatcher and his nephew hardly saw more of that horrific spectacle before the feverish girl, with a final scream of heart-wrenching agony, swooned on the spot. The nephew instantly leapt to attend her, and the dispatcher, with no less alacrity, closed the lid and began shutting the latches wit onsiderably more haste than he had displayed in opening them.
The watching crowd, when it heard that the man had died of cholera, dissipated with the same swiftness. In a moment, the station platform was nearly deserted.
Soon the servant girl recovered from her swoon, but she remained in a state of profound distress. She kept asking softly, "How can it be? I heard the bell. Did you not hear the bell? I heard it plain, did you not? The bell rang."
McPherson did his best to comfort her, saying that it must have been some earth tremor or sudden gust of wind that had caused the bell to ring.
The station dispatcher, seeing that his nephew was occupied with the poor child, took it upon himself to supervise the loading of luggage into the van of the Folkestone train. He did this with as much diligence as he could muster after such a distressing experience. Two well-dressed ladies had large trunks and, despite their haughty protests, he insisted that both be unlocked an opened for his inspection. There was only one further incident, when a portly gentleman placed a parrot--- or some such multicolored bird--- on the van, and then demanded that his manservant be permitted to ride with the bird and look after its needs. The dispatcher refused, explaining the new rules of the railway. The gentleman became abusive, and then offered the dispatcher "a sensible gratuity," but the dispatcher--- who viewed the proffered ten shillings with somewhat more interest than he cared to admit, even to himself--- was aware that he was being watched by Burgess, the same guard whom he had admonished the day before. Thus the dispatcher was forced to turn down the bribe, to his own displeasure and also that of the gentleman, who stomped off muttering a litany, of stinging profanity.
These incidents did nothing to improve the dispatcher's mood, and when at last the malodorous coffin was loaded into the van, the dispatcher took a certain delight in warning Burgess, in tones of great solicitousness, to look after his health, since his fellow passenger had fallen victim to King Cholera.
To this, Burgess made no response at all, except to look nervous and out of sorts--- which had been his appearance prior to the admonition. Feeling vaguely dissatisfied, the dispatcher barked a final order to his nephew to get on with the job and lock up the van. Then he returned to his office.
With embarrassment, the dispatcher later testified that he had no recollection of any red-bearded gentleman in the station that day at all.