Sunday, 29 March 2020

The Wrath of God: Coronavirus, Theology, and History

Last year, Donald Trump's cabinet pastor declared that the coronavirus pandemic was the result of "The Wrath of God." God's anger is being visited upon the world as punishment for our sins, or for our tolerating the sins of others. It's an ancient, decrepit explanation that hasn't improved with age.

Whenever a major disaster strikes the world, some people ascribe it to God's will. The disaster, be it earthquake, volcanic explosion, tsunami, fire, or disease, is proclaimed as a punishment for our sins, in this case the sins of tolerating gays and climate activists.  Survivors ascribe their deliverance to God's mercy. Some mercy. Some ego.

During the Great Plague of London in 1665, preachers went about telling people to repent of their sins or face annihilation. The most famous was Solomon Eagles, or Eccles. Samuel Pepys described Eccles in his famous Diary (vol. 13), as did Daniel Defoe in his fictional Journal of the Plague Year (1721).

Eccles was a Quaker convert who walked about naked except for a loincloth tied around his waist, and carried a pan of burning charcoal on his head to represent the fire and brimstone of hell. The plague, he declared, was God's judgment on the city for its sins. 

These sins apparently included music. Eccles had been a composer of church music but after becoming a Quaker decided that music was sinful, and burned all his music and instruments. London authorities arrested Eccles and jailed him for a few months. He survived that and the plague and lived on into the 1680s. (Below: 19th century images of Solomon Eccles or Eagle)

Many theologians blamed the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 on the Wrath of God. The quake, tsunami, and fires destroyed much of the old city and killed thousands of all ages, perhaps as many as 100,000. Catholic priests blamed it on toleration of infidels and heretics, including Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. Protestants blamed the Catholic Church for persecuting Protestants.   

That many of the victims of historical disasters have been young children innocent of the sins in question has proved no barrier to the Wrath of God argument. Skeptics might argue that God's aim must be spectacularly bad, and that anyway the event is a natural phenomenon. 

Wrath of God theologians will counter that all people are sinful, or that society is being punished for tolerating the sinful. Adam and Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah, Greta Thunberg....  

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

London, Coronavirus, and The Great Plague of 1665

The last time London experienced anything like the current coronavirus restrictions was nearly four hundred years ago, in 1665. It became known as the Great Plague of London, although earlier epidemics probably killed a higher proportion of the population. How did the 1665 epidemic compare to what the city is going through in 2020? 

The outbreak of plague began slowly in the spring, accelerated in the summer. and peaked in September. It declined during the late fall. By early 1666 it was all but over. By then it had killed @100,000 people out of a pre-plague population of @450-500,000. At its height in September, 7000 deaths per week were recorded, but that was surely an undercount. Many deaths went unreported.

Nearly half the people fled London during the epidemic, obeying what was thought to be the best prescription of the time: "Flee from the infected." Thus, the mortality rate among those who remained was probably close to 50%. The royal government did not make any attempt to stop the exodus. In fact, the king and his court fled, to Salisbury, then to Oxford.

Fleeing was more feasible for people of means: aristocracy, gentry, and wealthy merchants and professionals, including clergymen and physicians. Most of them had houses in the country, or relatives they could stay with. The physicians could do little against the plague; staying would have had little impact.

People below those groups fled as well, but they often had no fixed place to go. Inhabitants of villages and towns in the areas outside London often chased them away, fearing the spread of the infection. Many people were forced into the woods, to beg, steal, scavenge, and sometimes die of starvation or exposure.

The plague spread anyway, although not as much as during the Black Death of the 14th century. One of the most famous places it spread to the was the tiny village of Eyam, whose inhabitants quarantined themselves to protect nearby villages and towns, at great cost to themselves.

To their credit, the Lord Mayor and most city officials remained at their posts. The city distributed some food aid to the people. Farmers from the nearby countryside brought food. They left it outside the city gates, and negotiated prices at a distance. People who came to buy collect it left coins in buckets filled with water to disinfect them.

There was no official "lockdown" but people were urged to keep their social distance. Just as today, many people refused to observe sensible precautions. The diarist Samuel Pepys recorded with dismay that people continued to gather in businesses and shops and attend large funerals. One evening he stood looking longingly at a jolly group of people socializing in a tavern, but turned away, having decided he did not wish to die for a drink.

The authorities ordered the building of temporary pest houses to quarantine the infected, who would have overwhelmed the few hospitals. The city also employed mandatory house quarantine. Whenever the infection broke out in any household, everyone in the house was shut up with the sick person, which could be a death sentence for all the residents. Crosses would be painted on the house doors to warn others away.

Contemporaries recalled hearing the screams of the sick and terrified in the shut up houses. People naturally tried to escape these confinements, so guards were posted outside the houses to prevent it. Rioters sometimes broke open the houses and released the residents. Sometimes the guards were bribed to let the residents  escape. Most shops eventually closed, because their owners had fled or died.

The streets were eerily quiet except for the dead carts going around to pick up the dead, who were often dumped in mass graves. Grass began to grow in the streets due to the lack of traffic.

As the number of deaths mounted, the authorities closed alehouses and limited the number of lodgers who could stay in a household. They ordered a cull of cats and dogs, in the belief that they might carry the plague. That probably made things worse, since these animals killed many rats, whose fleas were major transmitters to humans. The city government also ordered the burning of fires in the streets, based on the widespread belief that miasma, or bad air, was the cause of the disease. The fires were supposed to disinfect the air.

One of the best accounts of the Great Plague of 1665 in London is a work of fiction. Daniel Defoe wrote The Journal of the Plague Year in 1721. It was what we would call a potboiler today, written due to heightened interest in and fear of plague. A major epidemic of plague had broken out in Marseilles, France, and it was commonly believed that it would move on to London. In the event it did not. The 1665 plague was the last major outbreak in the UK.

Despite being fictional, Defoe's work was soundly based on official documents, eyewitness reports, and a few short written accounts. Defoe lived in London at the time of the plague, although he was only five years old at the time. His uncle, Henry Foe, may have been a major source of information. Foe stayed in London throughout the plague. He was a saddler. Defoe's narrator in the journal is a saddler. At the end of the book are the initials "HF."

The contemporary woodcut below provides some sense of Londoners' experiences during the Great Plague. Death is everywhere, even following those who flee the city. On the far right, those fleeing are being stopped by armed countryfolk telling them to keep out.

As if London hadn't been punished enough, the following year brought the Great Fire of London. The fire raged for five days, between September 2-6 and destroyed 4/5ths of the city inside the old Roman Wall, including St. Paul's Cathedral and 87 parish churches. Amazingly, only six people were killed.

Further Reading: A. Lloyd Moote, Dorothy C. Moote, The Great Plague: The Story of London's Deadliest Year (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).


Sunday, 22 March 2020

Young and Reckless in the Time of Coronavirus

When the coronavirus pandemic was in its early days, we were often told that it was mainly of danger to the elderly. (In Trumpworld, the virus was laughed away as a hoax, nothing to worry about at all). Unfortunately, the emphasis on the threat to older population obscured another, perhaps greater danger. We are still playing catch up.

The authorities did not sufficiently emphasize that the young could be effective transmitters of the virus to the elderly. As a result, young people have tended to downplay the effects of the virus. Many have reasoned as follows:

I won't get it.
I may get it, but it will be just like a cold. I may have no symptoms at all.
I see no reason to stop enjoying myself. I will go to clubs, pubs, bars, the beach, and parties.

Evidence can be seen in images of beaches, in illegal raves, and mass, crowded events like motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, which has produced many thousands of new cases. It's our right to have fun, they say.

Thinking this way was perhaps understandable in the early stages of the outbreak, when it was a distant threat. Now it is inexcusable. You must keep your social distance or you may be responsible for the deaths of others.

If that isn't enough incentive to modify your reckless behavior, think of yourself. The young are not invincible. They can get full blown cases of coronavirus, spend weeks in hospital, and die from it. More deaths among the young, even infants, are occurring ever day. 

It is also possible that the virus could mutate and become more dangerous to the young. The Great Influenza of 1918-20 killed 50-100 million people globally. The highest mortality rate was among those 15-44. The best advice comes from the virus itself:

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Trump Virus or Kung Flu? Naming Pandemics in History

Last year, Chinese officials and many others accused Donald Trump of racism because he referred to Covid-19, or coronavirus, the "Chinese virus." At his Tulsa rally, he called it "Kung Flu."  "Trump Virus" may be the most accurate name, because he has done more than anyone on the planet to spread it. His rhetoric has also contributed to an upsurge on attacks on Asian Americans. 

Racist or not, and it often is, naming pandemic diseases after their alleged place of origin is an old practice. In 1957 and 1968, two deadly flu pandemics were named the "Asian Flu" and the "Hong Kong Flu." A pandemic flu first reported in St. Petersburg in 1889 was denoted the "Russian Flu." It was later called "Asiatic Flu," although St. Petersburg is a long way from Asia.

When pandemic cholera first made its way from India to the UK in the early 19th century, people called it the "Indian Cholera," as in the broadsheet below from 1831. One reason for adding the adjective "Indian" was to distinguish this new, mysterious disease from an old, familiar one: "cholera infantum," a type of childhood diarrhea. but the name led to Indians being blamed for the disease.

In the cartoon below, also from 1832, the cholera is dressed in Indian garb, trying to enter England, but caught by stout John Bull. The reality was far different for England and the world. A series of cholera pandemics during the 19th and early 20th century killed millions in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, more than 30 million in India alone.

Later in the 19th century, cholera was often referred to as "Asiatic Cholera."

In 1918-1919, a virulent form of influenza became pandemic, and ultimately killed 50-100 million people worldwide. It quickly became known as the "Spanish Flu," although it probably originated in the USA. But the USA was engaged in World War I and sending thousands of troops to Europe. The press was instructed not to report about the epidemic, lest it lead to demands to stop troop shipments -- the overcrowded ships were excellent incubators for such a disease. 

Most European countries involved in the war similarly kept quiet at first, to avoid hurting morale. Spain, however, was neutral, and its press reported on the outbreak. Spain's reward was to have one of the worst pandemics in history named after it. 

It was also called "Flanders Grippe" in Britain, "Bolshevik Disease" in Poland, "Too much inside sickness" in Hong Kong.

Today, it is usually called the "Great Influenza." Perhaps it should be called the "American Flu."

Interestingly, the greatest and most famous pandemic in world history was not named for a place or nation. That was the pandemic of plague that ravaged Eurasia during the 1340s, killing between 75 and 200 million, It wiped out perhaps as much as 60 percent of the European population. It probably originated in Central or East Asia and traveled west along the Silk Road to the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. 

The 14th century pandemic is best known today as the Black Death, but that name was not applied to it at the time. Other names for it include, Plague, Great Plague, Black Plague, and Pestilence (La Peste). Before the pandemic, plague and pestilence simply meant a deadly epidemic disease. (Below: The Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre, late medieval, Nuremberg Chronicles).

Syphilis, which struck Europe in pandemic form after 1500, was generally named after other, often disliked, countries. The English called it the French Disease. The French called it the Italian Disease. The Italians returned the compliment. The Dutch called it the Spanish Disease. Russians called it the Polish Disease. Turks called it the Christian Disease. The Japanese called it the Portuguese Disease because Portuguese traders brought it from Europe.  

Monday, 16 March 2020

Coronavirus, Quarantine, and Contagion: A Historical Perspective

The spread of Covid-19, or coronavirus, has led many countries and localities to resort to quarantine as a mechanism to contain this new disease. Medical isolation, as quarantine is often called today, has a long history, and its use owes little to modern medical science. 

Examples of isolation of the sick can be found in the Bible, in the Islamic World from the 7th century, and in medieval Europe. Interestingly, most of the quarantine measures currently being used to contain or delay the spread of coronavirus have been used for centuries or longer.

The practice of isolating people with diseases in the past, as today, was based on the belief that the sick were contagious: that they could infect the healthy. That was correct for some diseases, but not others. Even among those that were contagious, some were much less contagious than others. For this reason, contagion theory was controversial until the role of microbes in many diseases was firmly established in the late 19th century. Before then, contagionists could seldom demonstrate how diseases could be transmitted from person to person (or animal to animal).

Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, like yellow fever, or by contaminated water, like cholera, complicated things for contagion theory. Opponents of contagionism pointed out that people in close contact with the ill often remained healthy, while people who had no such contact contracted yellow fever or cholera.

Contagionism's main competitor until the establishment of germ theory was the miasmatic theory. Miasmatists believed that most diseases were conveyed in the air, through miasmas, or "bad air" ("mal aria" in Italian). Marshes and swamps were considered to be major sources of miasmas, as was rotting organic matter, including human and animal wastes. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the miasma theory gained many adherents, partly because the growing, unsanitary, and often polluted urban areas produced powerful, obnoxious odors. The miasma theory was wrong but it often led to draining of marshes and the implementation of sanitary reforms that reduced disease mortality.

In the 19th century, however, many traders used miasma theory to oppose quarantine, which could literally shut down ports for weeks or months. They argued that the source of the disease was not incoming ships or people, but miasmas generated locally by unsanitary conditions. 

As is the case today, a concern for health competed with a concern for the economy. As Benjamin Strobel, a Charleston, South Carolina doctor, wrote in 1840: "Truth and justice have been too often sacrificed to expediency and policy, and never more so than in reference to yellow fever. Has it not occurred, when the disease actually invaded us, that there were men who, regardless of the lives of others, and listening only to the sordid suggestions of avarice, have endeavored to conceal the fact?" (Benjamin B. Strobel, An Essay on the Subject of Yellow Fever, Intended to Prove its Transmissibility, Charleston, 1840, p. 9).

The term "quarantine" derives from the Italian phrase, quaranta giorni, meaning forty days. From the time of the Black Death in the 1340s, the Italian city-states took the lead in what we would call public health. 

During plague epidemics, 15th century Venice began to enforce forty days' isolation on ships entering the port. Passengers and crew could not disembark until that period had ended with no cases appearing. Passengers stranded on cruise ships where coronavirus has broken out will understand what a terrible prospect that was. And modern cruise ships are far more comfortable and clean than ships of the past.

Other ports imitated Venice, and quarantine was later applied to other diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera (from the 1830s). The length of quarantine then and since has varied, and is usually shorter than 40 days.

From the 15th century on, many ports created quarantine stations for isolation. These were sometimes on ships, on islands in or near the harbor, or on the mainland at a distance from highly populated areas. Some were old leper hospitals, often know as lazar houses, after the biblical parable of the beggar Lazarus. The stations established to quarantine for plague were often called lazarettos or pest houses -- "pest" coming from the French for plague, la peste. Venice established the first lazaretto in 1403 on one of the nearby islands. (Below: one of Venice's lazarettos and that in Ancona, also in Italy).

The oldest surviving quarantine station in the United States dates from 1799. and is near Philadelphia (below). American ports began establishing pest houses about a century earlier.

Inland localities have often used a cordon sanitaire to restrict movement of people in and out of a town or region, where an epidemic was underway. The authorities close off the access points to and from the place to prevent infected people from spreading the disease. In effect, the whole population inside the cordon was quarantined.

Sanitary cordons were a common measure used to prevent the spread of cholera in the 19th century, and are being used again to curb or slow the spread of the coronavirus. China has used them in the city of Wuhan and Province of Hubei during the current coronavirus outbreak. Italy has cordoned off some towns in the North ("lockdown"), then the North as a whole, and now the entire country.

In most cases where a cordon sanitaire has been used, communities have been isolated against their will. But in at least one famous case, in 1665, the inhabitants of a village agreed to cordon themselves off to protect neighboring towns and villages. In that case, the disease was plague. The village was Eyam in Derbyshire, England. The isolation lasted more than a year and killed at least 260 people, possibly more than half the residents who remained. But the disease did not spread beyond the parish boundaries.

During major epidemics, public facilities for quarantining and caring for the infected often became overwhelmed. Authorities often commandeered private houses or other buildings as temporary pest houses or hospitals for the specific disease, such as plague, smallpox, yellow fever, etc. The image below is of a pest house and plague pit in London's Finsbury Fields. The image dates from 1865 but depicts an earlier period, probably the Great Plague of London in 1665. The plague pit next to the pest house can hardly have been reassuring, but the case mortality rate from plague ranged from about 60-90 percent.

Today, many countries are trying to combat the spread of coronavirus by urging people who think they may be infected or are especially vulnerable, to self-isolate at home. Authorities did the same in earlier times, especially during plague epidemics from the 14th century. The isolation was seldom voluntary. Families were often forcibly shut up when one or more became infected. This could be a death sentence for all of them. Daniel Defoe provides a harrowing description of their suffering in A Journal of the Plague Year (1721), a fictionalized account of the Great Plague of London in 1665.

In conclusion, most of the quarantine measures used today have historical parallels. Just as in the past, quarantine may prove more successful in some places than others. We may have the advantage of a better understanding than our ancestors of how many contagious diseases spread, but in the case of coronavirus, we are battling a microbe that is new and somewhat mysterious.

Monday, 9 March 2020

The Great Lisbon Earthquake and The Problem of Evil

The sun rose brightly on Lisbon on the morning of November 1, 1755, the Feast of All Saints. The sky was calm and clear. "There never was a finer morning seen," recalled an English visitor, Rev. Charles Daly. Nothing in the situation provided a hint of the imminent event that was about to reduce "this flourishing, opulent, and populous city to a scene of the utmost horror and desolation."

Shortly after 9:30, the Portuguese capital was struck by a massive earthquake, followed by a tsunami and widespread fires. This combination and aftershocks left much of the city and surrounding areas a heap of ruins. (Below: contemporary image of the Lisbon Earthquake)

In Lisbon, more than 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed, or severely damaged, including palaces, convents, monasteries, and churches. The Opera House, completed only a few months before, was left a shell. 

The human cost was immense. The population of Lisbon in 1755 is estimated to have been around 200,000. Daly estimated the number of deaths at 60,000. Modern estimates vary considerably, between 10,000 and 100,000 for the city and other coastal towns and villages, including some in Spain and Morocco. Whatever the actual toll, the Lisbon earthquake ranks as one of the deadliest events of its kind in recorded history.

The earthquake had hardly finished its destructive work when people began to ask why it happened. A common view was an old favorite: God's judgment on wickedness of the citizens. Father Gabriel Malagrida put it bluntly: The cause of the catastrophe, he told the people of Lisbon, was "your abominable sins." He denounced the view that it was merely a natural event with natural causes. To dismiss it as such would discourage repentance and attempts to "avert the wrath of God." 

In the wake of the earthquake these "attempts" included the punishment of heretics and skeptics, some by hanging or burning. (Below: A priest shows the King of Portugal the best way to prevent earthquakes: burn some heretics).

Father Gabriel was, of course, a Roman Catholic, as was nearly everybody in Portugal. But foreign Protestants also attributed the quake to God's righteous anger: in this case anger at persecution of Protestants. 

Rev. John Wesley, the English founder of Methodism, was certain why God had punished Lisbon: "Is there indeed a God who judges the world? … if so, it is not surprising he should begin there, … where so many brave men have been murdered ... in a most barbarous manner … 'And shall I not visit for these things, saith the Lord? Shall not my soul be avenged on a city such as this?' (Below: Wesley)

Wesley was referring to persons tortured and executed by the Inquisition in their efforts to eliminate "heresy." Criticism of the Inquisition's deeds also came from another, far different perspective: that of the Enlightenment philosophes. Their main spokesman on this occasion was the French writer, Voltaire. 

One of Voltaire's favorite targets was the Church and religious fanatics. After hearing of the earthquake, he wrote to a friend, "I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens up and swallows all alike."

Voltaire became fascinated, one might say obsessed, by the earthquake. It undermined his previous view, influenced by the German philosopher Leibniz, that the world is good, indeed as good as it can be. If we could understand the Divine Plan, we would see it. Leibniz attempted to provide an answer to what is called the Problem of Evil. How a good and all-powerful God could allow evil to exist in the world. Voltaire had previously accepted that view, called optimism, but he abandoned it after the earthquake. 

In 1756, Voltaire published his famous "Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake." In it, he rejects the philosophic optimists' contention that the world is fundamentally good and Christian claims that God punishes people for their sins through natural disasters. Voltaire argues that it is illogical to believe God is both good and omnipotent. In view of the immense suffering in the world, God can't be both. Either he is unwilling to eliminate evil or unable to do so. Voltaire, a deist, opted for the latter: God is good, but not all-powerful. The excerpt below hits some of his main points:

Oh, miserable mortals! Oh wretched earth!...
Deluded philosophers who cry, "All is Well"
Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins...
One hundred thousand unfortunates devoured by the earth...
Will you say: "This is the result of eternal laws
Directing the acts of a free and good God?"
Will you say: in seeing this mass of victims
"God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes?"
What crime, what error did these children,
Crushed and bloody on their mothers' breasts, commit?
Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices
Than London and Paris immersed in their pleasures?
Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris!

In 1759, Voltaire published what is his most famous work: Candide; or Optimism. In this short novel, he elaborates on the themes of the Lisbon Earthquake poem. The main character, Candide, begins as an optimist, having been taught by his Leibnizian tutor Dr. Pangloss that this is "the best of all possible worlds." (To be fair, Pangloss's views vastly oversimplify Leibniz's.) 

After experiencing and witnessing a multitude of misfortunes, including wars, religious intolerance, horrible cruelty, dishonesty, slavery, and yes, the Lisbon Earthquake, Candide rejects Pangloss's view of the world in favor of a more pragmatic one: the world is far from as good as it could be but if we work together and treat one another with respect, we can make it more tolerable. 

(Below: Candide meets a slave in Surinam who has lost a hand in sugar refining machinery and a leg, chopped off as punishment for running away. "This the price of your eating sugar in Europe."

In sum, the Great Lisbon Earthquake was not just a monumental tragedy. It inspired a major discussion about the nature of God and the world, and the causes of evil or suffering within that world. (Below, a German image of the Earthquake). 

Sunday, 1 March 2020

"I'm Alive!" The Victorians and Premature Burial

In 1792, in conformity with his will, Henry Laurens of South Carolina was cremated. His reason: a long-standing fear of being buried alive. Taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, has a long history. Tales of people being buried prematurely have been related for centuries, and at least some are well documented. The fear of such a fate seems to have increased, in Europe and America at least, from the late 18th century. Perhaps alleged cases of burial alive were being more widely publicized.

Estimates of the numbers of premature burials around this time varied widely, from a preposterous third of people buried to one in a thousand. Common or not, many people became obsessed with the possibility that they might suffer this horrific fate.

Concerns about premature burial increased during the Victorian Age because epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and other diseases altered customary burial practices. During epidemics, burials often took place as quickly as possible, in hopes of preventing spread of the disease. The traditional practice in many countries was to lay the body out for several days before burial, at which point it would normally exhibit clear visual and olfactory signs of mortality. Rapid burials removed that certainty.

Art and literature also contributed to the growing sense of alarm. During a cholera epidemic in 1854, Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz painted "The Premature Burial." It depicts a cholera victim awakening after being placed in a coffin. Writers also addressed the subject, notably Edgar Allen Poe in his story of the same name.

Whatever the reality regarding premature burials, fear of it was common enough to inspire Victorian entrepreneurs to devise means of prevention. They designed "safety" coffins with various escape mechanisms or means by which prematurely buried persons could signal that they were alive.

An early safety coffin, patented in the USA in 1843, contained springs and levers that would open the lid with slightest movement inside, or so the inventor claimed.

Many safety coffins featured a bell on the lid from which a rope was attached. The rope was inserted into a hole in the lid and placed in the hands of the coffin's occupant. If they revived they could pull the rope to announce the fact. The one below, patented in the 1860s, added an escape hatch and a ladder as well. Michael Crichton, in his novel The Great Train Robbery, includes a scene in which one of the robbers is placed in such a coffin.

Other safety coffins were fitted with glass panes, breathing pipes, and/or flags. J. G. Krichbaum's 1882 model included a periscope-like pipe that supplied air and could be rotated or pushed by the interred person, alerting anyone nearby that s/he was alive.

All such contraptions, of course, relied on another person being near enough to hear or see the signal. Someone needed to keep a watch on the grave for a few days, just in case. Families sometimes hired people for this task. The watchers could also help prevent the body being carried off by "resurrection men" or body snatchers, for dissection in anatomy schools. 

The inventor of the vault below, from about 1890, found a way to solve that problem, and declared that it rendered premature burial "impossible." Each of the chambers was fitted with an escape hatch, a handwheel on the door. The vault was supplied with air and lined with felt to prevent injury. The body was removed from the coffin before being placed in the chamber.

Alas, despite the claims of inventors, there is no documented evidence that any of these safety features saved anyone from premature burial.