After reading "Buried Alive" at the Bournemouth Six Feet Under Convention yesterday an audience member asked if she could see a transcript. Here is a shortened version. Enjoy
The summer of 1674 was very hot and, as such, it caused a lot of discomfort to those trapped in the foetid, sweltering air of a town like Basingstoke. May Blunden was the wife of a prominent citizen, William Blunden a maltster. May Blunden was a large woman and as a consequence felt the heat more than most. In addition she was something of a wine bibber and, to be charitable, we can assume that this was to alleviate some sort of illness because she was also prescribed poppy water a not uncommon pain reliever of the time. As you can also guess, poppy water is a derivative of opium and a well known narcotic and its administration must be very carefully regulated.
On the day in question, her husband was conducting business in Alton some twenty miles away and May was trying to find some respite from the crushing heat in her bedchamber. Some time in the afternoon she called out that she was in pain. There was noone else in the house so the maid left her alone and went out to find the doctor. He was not to be found and after a great deal of searching, she went to the local apothecary who, distracted by the fact that it was dinner time, directed the maid to take a bottle from the shelf. In her distress and hurry the maid seized a bottle containing nearly a pint instead of the small phial that normally would have been allowed. When she returned her mistress was sweating profusely and rolling in agony and she was groaning out loud. But the maid had other chores to perform before William returned so she left the bottle with her mistress. When she looked in to see her later in the afternoon she saw that she was still and presumed her to be sleeping. But then on a subsequent visit she found that she could not rouse her. Panicking, the maid rushed out to find help and shortly returned with May’s sister Anne Penney. Anne thought her sister must be dead or near so and sent the maid out for the doctor again. Again he could not be found for some time and when he did eventually arrive he only conducted a perfunctory examination. In those days a doctor could use a mirror to see if there was a hint of breath or burn a feather to see if the acrid smoke had any effect or sometimes just resorted to the expedient of jabbing a pin into the corpse. It was clear, as he saw things, that May Blunden was dead.
Now there was a real urgency to get the body buried. It was only a few summers earlier that there had been a huge outbreak of the plague in England in which tens of thousands of people had died and given the intense heat an immediate burial became essential. With the absence of the husband it was Anne who made the decision to get her buried at once. A coffin had to be found and, as it so happened, the undertaker had one that had been ordered by a captain in the navy who ended up falling overboard whilst in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and after the sharks had finished their work there had been no call for a coffin of any description. This was fine except for one thing. May Blunden was a great deal larger than the previous owner, a small wiry man with several limbs missing even before the sharks’ luncheon, and the undertakers men had to apply a considerable amount of force and make use of crowbars to get her body into the box. Eventually this was achieved, though, and the box with May Blunden wedged tight inside, was bumped and jostled through the town to the Holy Ghost graveyard where, some two hundred and fifty years later in the cemetry lodge the great poet and cricket commentator John Arlott was to spend his early years. A hasty grave had been dug and the coffin lowered in and covered over.
It so happened, after the excitement had died down, in the way of all good stories of this type, that two schoolboys were playing in the churchyard and thought they heard a voice calling although there was nobody to be seen. Terrified they approached the grave and listened more intently. They both heard a voice crying “Take me out of my grave. Take me out of my grave”. Galvanised into action, they ran to their schoolmaster, who being a man of his time, thrashed them both thoroughly before they could convince him to return to the graveyard with them. The schoolmaster listened long and hard and, hearing, nothing was about to thrash them both again when, suddenly, he himself thought he heard the voice - much weaker now - calling “Take me out of my grave. For God’s sake take me out of my grave” He cuffed the boys for not telling him sooner and sent them to fetch help.
Meanwhile, William Blunden had returned from Alton and was somewhat nonplussed to be informed that not only was his wife dead but that she had already been buried. Quite a homecoming. What was even more extraordinary was the fact that William, instead of hurrying to the graveyard with a hastily improvised posy of flowers from the garden, immediately set out for a business trip to London leaving Anne Penney in charge again. It was something of an ironic decision because had he made that small excursion he might too have heard his wife’s last dying utterences. What a pretty scene that would have been with nought but six foot of Best Basingstoke loam separating the suffocating wife from her dear husband. Now, however, with William on his way to the Metropolis, the churchyard was in complete pandemonium. The doctor, vicar, magistrate were all present and gravediggers were furiously throwing soil out of the grave by the light of lanterns as it was now growing dark.
When the box was finally recovered and opened it was clear that there had been some activity within. When the winding sheet was unwrapped they could observe that May had indeed been trying to free herself from the cloth holding her in its choking embrace. The cloth was torn and bitten about the face and her fingers were gripping tight to the shredded ends. And her face... Let us not dwell on it. The doctor performed his usual tricks with looking glass and feather but it was now clear to those around that the terror of being confined in such a way had eventually driven May’s heart to give out and to provide her with some sort of merciful release at last.
Everyone could feel a storm was brewing and so the two gravediggers were set to look after the coffin whilst the officials repaired to a local hostelry to hold an inquest on the matter. And, no doubt, to sample much of the landlord’s best ale as this hearing lasted well into the small hours. Later that night the storm broke and the rain began to deluge down. The gravediggers, considering that they were being left out of the jolly proceedings in the pub, screwed the lid back on the coffin, heaved it back into the grave and covered it over again to protect it from the storm.
The next morning, the storm having abated and hangovers no doubt in place, the inquest was resumed at the graveside and the box reopened so that the body could be examined once more in the cold light of day. This time there was evidence of broken and bloodied fingernails and scratches on the inside of the lid. This time beacause of the raging thunderstorm and the fact that everyone was carousing in the hostelry no one had heard her calls for help.
May Blunden had been buried alive TWICE.
There is no record of how long they waited before she was buried for a third time but I’m pretty sure another doctor was asked for a second opinion. However, this is not quite the end of the story. There is an interesting postscript. A courtcase was held in Winchester to establish whether anyone was responsible for Mrs Blunden’s two deaths. Had the maid had given her mistress due care considering she knew her drinking habits? Had the apothecary, who had carelessly allowed such a large quantity of poppy water to fall into the hands of the unfortunate woman followed proper procedures? Was there anything suspicious in the actions of the sister who had so hurried the proceedings? Why had the doctor taken so long to be found and was he in any way negligent in his diagnosis? What about the gravediggers who had left the coffin unattended and, perhaps, most mysteriously, why had the husband, William Blunden left for London without even visiting his wife’s grave. He had said to the court, “I could mourn just as well in London as I could in Basingstoke.” Did that not sound just a trifle pat?
Of course there were many theories at that time. Some conspiracy perhaps to rid a prominent man of the town of an embarrassing encumbrance? In which case was May’s own sister implicated? Perhaps she had designs on May’s place as wife of a rich and important man?
No. There is no way we can tell and, in all probability, it was just a series of sad accidents as these things often are.
But some cloud must have hung over the protagonists as far as the law was concerned because, after long deliberation, the Justices produced a unique verdict and pronounced the entire community of Basingstoke guilty of the death of May Blunden and the whole town was fined a large sum of money.