Reanimating “Apparently Dead” Bodies in 1790s Charleston

I’ll wager that most Charlestonians don’t realize that a 1793 law offers a reward to citizens who attempt to “restore to life” persons who are “apparently dead,” but who may actually be in a state of “suspended animation.” Not familiar with this gem of our municipal code? Well then, you’re in for a Halloween treat. This Thursday, October 30th at 6 p.m. I’m presenting an illustrated lecture at CCPL titled “Reviving ‘Apparently Dead’ Bodies in 1790s Charleston.” If you’re looking for a ghoulish, yet hilarious tale of macabre local history, you won’t want to miss this event.

Our story begins with the widespread and justifiably real fear of “premature burial.” In the centuries before the advent of modern science, history records many cases, reported from around the world, of persons being buried and then awakening to find themselves trapped six feet underground in a tight wooden box. We learn of such stories from grave diggers who report finding caskets scratched open from the inside, and from physicians reporting apparently dead persons sitting upright at their own funerals.

In London in 1774, a group of physicians formed an organization to combat the scourge of premature burial with science—or at least what passed for science in the eighteenth century. That organization, called the Royal Humane Society, advocated the notion that bodies that appeared to be dead might really be in a state of “suspended animation”; that is, their soul (anima) might be precariously suspended somewhere between life and death. The society’s challenge was not simply to discover techniques for identifying the true state of an “apparently dead” body, but rather to experiment and to devise methods to loosen death’s grip on the bodies and souls of “apparently dead” persons and to encourage their life force to return to a state of vitality. In addition, the Royal Humane Society sought to spread its collective knowledge by encouraging others around the world to conduct similar experiments and to save more people from the horrors of a premature burial.

News of the efforts of the Royal Humane Society soon spread throughout Europe and the United States. It was truly an age of discovery as scientists conducted bold, new experiments that swept aside old superstitions. In Italy, for example, Luigi Galvani was applying electricity to dead frogs to “reanimate” their muscles (a fact that later inspired Mary Shelley‘s classic Frankenstein).

Meanwhile in Charleston, a group of physicians in the Medical Society of South Carolina (established in 1789) learned of these experiments and embraced the scientific challenge of “suspended animation.” In the summer of 1793, they purchased an “apparatus” from the Royal Humane Society and commenced a public education campaign. Not content with merely offering the new science of “reanimation” to the citizens of Charleston, the Medical Society convinced our City Council to pass a law mandating the use of the new techniques in all cases of “apparently dead” bodies. On 19 August 1793, the City of Charleston ratified “An Ordinance for assisting the Medical Society of South Carolina, in their humane intentions, to restore to life persons under suspended animation, and for other purposes therein mentioned.” This law required all retailers of spirituous liquors to receive into their houses “the bodies of persons apparently dead” and to provide “all articles as may be necessary in restoring to life such bodies.” Furthermore, the law also mandates that all retailers of liquors must “constantly keep in public view, printed directions for restoring persons apparently dead to life, which directions, drawn up by the Medical Society of South Carolina, shall be given [to] them gratis.”



Just what did those directions say? It’s a bit of a mystery, as no copies of the 1793 directions are known to survive. Nevertheless, compelling evidence for the “reanimation” techniques used in 1790s Charleston can be found in the directions promulgated by the Royal Humane Society and other similar contemporary organizations. Suffice it to say that the principal methods involved electricity, massage, spirituous liquors, and tobacco smoke “thrown into the fundament.” Really.

As bizarre (and potentially hilarious) as these old methods may seem to twenty-first century readers, we must acknowledge the real scientific achievement of their experiments. In the course of the nineteenth century, the initial forays into the quasi-science of reanimation evolved in to the real and valuable science of resuscitation. Without the pioneering efforts of the Royal Humane Society, the Medical Society of South Carolina, and a host of similar organizations, mankind would not have the benefit of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), defibrillationor even the miraculous pacemaker.

If you’d like to learn more about this story, please join me at CCPL on Thursday, October 30th at 6 p.m. for “Reviving ‘Apparently Dead’ Bodies in 1790s Charleston.” Click on the image above for a flyer that you can share with your friends!