The line between life and death suddenly seemed unclear in the 18th and 19th centuries. New scientific knowledge, like the use of electricity to manipulate life and smelling salts to revive unconscious people, seemed to promise that the dead might not actually be dead. Hence the development of 18th-century methods to test for death, which range from the gruesome, like chopping off a finger, to the bizarre, like cranking someone’s tongue for three hours. In the era of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it seemed possible to bring the dead back to life – so it was extra important to make sure someone was really dead before putting them in the ground.
The criteria for death was changing around 1800, as the medical definition of death and ways of testing death evolved. Artificial respiration promised the revival of seemingly dead people, but this raised a troubling question about how to confirm death medically. One test, the tobacco smoke enema, was incredibly risky for the victim and the medic, while others required tossing boiling water on corpses or slicing their feet with razors to test whether they were really deceased.
Families wanted to make sure their loved ones were actually dead before they were buried. Maybe that’s one reason Victorian mourners sat with dead bodies for days before burial. The fear of being buried alive was allayed by safety coffins and waiting mortuaries. And while morticians promise that these horrifying death tests aren’t used any more, death is always a gruesome process.
The feet are one of the most sensitive parts of the body – but only while a body is still alive. To determine whether someone was truly dead, physicians came up with all sorts of horrific foot tortures, including cutting corpses’s soles with razors. Another brutal method was shoving needles under their toenails or applying red-hot irons to the feet. If the body passed the "foot torture test," it could be safely buried.
Who knew all the uses of tobacco? The tobacco smoke enema was a surefire way of reviving drowning victims in the late 18th century. Starting around 1774, “pipe smoker London Medics” would insert an enema tube into a drowning victim and blow smoke into the rectum.
The device was thought to work two ways: it would warm the body, and it would stimulate respiration. But the tobacco smoke enema had its dangers, too: if the medic accidentally inhaled instead of exhaling, he might breathe in cholera and kill himself. Eventually, practitioners introduced a bellows so that medics didn't have to blow smoke directly up people’s bums.
A German scientist named Middeldorph came up with a test called the heart flag to test for death. The heart flag was a long needle that Middeldorph told doctors to thrust into the heart of a seemingly dead body. If the heart was still beating, a flag would pop up and unfurl, proving that the person was still alive.
This was not just a hypothetical test – it was used on multiple people. In 1893, a doctor named Séverin Icard used the heart flag on a dead body to prove to the woman's relatives that she would not be buried alive. Unfortunately for Icard, the woman’s family accused him of killing her with the heart flag. It became a scandal in the presses.
Many 18th and 19th-century death tests involved fingers. One gruesome way to test for death was chopping off a person’s finger. It was thought that the shock might bring a body back to life – or prove that the person was actually dead. Other tests involving fingers included holding them over a candle flame or looking for blood circulation at the finger tips. At least that sounds less painful than having a finger chopped off.