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.
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.
One surefire way to determine if a person was really dead was using a thermometer. But in the 19th century, doctors didn’t mess around with an under-the-tongue measurement. In 1841, Christian Friedrich Nasse developed a thanatometer – a long thermometer that could be inserted into the corpse’s stomach. The thermometer could then measure the core body temperature to determine if life was possible.
Of course, shoving a thermometer into the person’s stomach might also cause a reaction if the person wasn’t actually dead.
The concept of a waiting mortuary was relatively simple: a dead body would be kept for several days in a mortuary to make sure that it started to decompose before it was buried. The concept became so popular that many sprung up in Germany in the late 1800s.
But in practice, the waiting mortuary had a few problems. For one, nurses didn’t enjoy watching over a ward full of corpses. But decomposition posed an even bigger issue. To mask the smell of rotting flesh, waiting mortuaries packed in flower arrangements between the corpses.
If manipulating the tongue helped during artificial respiration, why not tug on it to see if a corpse was actually dead? That was the suggestion from Dr. J.V. Laborde, who recommended rhythmically pulling the deceased’s tongue for three hours.
According to Laborde, he had once successfully revived an unconscious woman by yanking her tongue with strong forceps. The woman complained that the pain was excruciating, but at least she was alive. Laborde even invented a tongue-pulling machine for mortuaries. Even unskilled mortuary assistants could turn the crank, determining whether a body was truly dead before it was buried.