People were buried alive so often in the 19th century that inventors patented safety coffins that would give the "dead" the ability to alert those above ground if they were still alive.
Cholera outbreaks, bacterial infections causing severe diarrhea and dehydration, were prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. They left not only the communities it impacted very ill, but also very fearful of being buried alive. It was during this time clever feats of engineering sought to comfort the panicked population. One such invention was safety coffin. The safety coffin provided its occupants the ability to escape from their newly found entrapment and alert others above ground that they were indeed still alive. Many safety coffins included comfortable cotton padding, feeding tubes, intricate systems of cords attached to bells, and escape hatches. Unfortunately, most neglected methods for providing air.
An account from 1791 explains the death of a man from Manchester, Robert Robinson, and a prototype of a safety coffin. He was laid to rest in a mausoleum fitted with a special door that could be opened from the outside by the watchman on duty. Inside Robinson's coffin was a removable glass panel. Before his death, Robinson had instructed his family to periodically check on the glass inserted in the coffin. If the pane of glass had indications of condensation from his breath, he was to be removed immediately. However, the first true recorded safety coffin was for Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick before his death in 1792. The coffin included an air tube, a lock to the coffin lid that corresponded with keys he kept in his pocket, and a window to allow light in.
1892 saw the rise of the bell system, created by Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger. Bells housed above ground connected to strings attached to the body's head, hands, and feet. If the bell rang, the cemetery watchman would insert a tube into the coffin and pump air using bellows until the person could be safely evacuated from their grave. However, due to the process of natural decay, a swelling corpse could activate the bell system leading to false beliefs those buried inside were alive. Despite its popular use, there is no record of a safety coffin saving anyone.
Many of the old burial customs from history resurfaced as fables and idioms we use currently. Some experts believe the idiom 'saved by the bell' originated from the use of safety coffins.