Thomas Pursell’s Escape Burial Hatch – Williamsport, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura
Holiday Gift Guide: Atlas Obscura Books and Calendars

Williamsport, Pennsylvania

Thomas Pursell’s Escape Burial Hatch

A retired firefighter created this contraption so he and his family wouldn't die if accidentally buried alive.  

Thomas Pursell wanted to make absolutely sure that neither he nor his family would suffer the nightmare of a freak awakening six feet under. So the retired firefighter from Pennsylvania concocted an advanced version of the safety coffin: the escape burial hatch.

Obsession with the safety coffin, which became especially intense between the 18th and 19th centuries, was born from widespread fear of being buried alive. Historical records dating back to the Middle Ages name specific victims of this cruel fate. And while there are indeed contemporary accounts of erroneous death pronouncements, the paranoia was especially rampant in an age when comas and other death-like (emphasis on the “like”) medical conditions were sparsely understood.

Thus the safety coffin was invented in various iterations to draw attention to the gravesite should the deceased not actually be deceased. Coffins were outfitted with bells and tubes for air and even feeding, but Pursell took matters into his own hands. A ringing bell in an empty cemetery wouldn’t do—he would ensure that he and his family could escape on their own the premature burial that he so desperately dreaded.

Pursell subsequently designed a vaulted apparatus that would allow the revived to ventilate their coffin from the inside via a patented wheel lock that he devised. Each tomb was lined with felt for comfort, warmth, and safety should they begin to panic, and any fallen family members would be laid to rest with tools and bread.

Pursell’s burial hatch is a peculiar stone structure bearing five metal wheels—one for each tomb beneath the grave marker—should worst come to fruition. Pursell was buried in his own creation at the age of 83 in 1937 with no sign of attempted escape. He and his family are buried at Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

From the road head east into the cemetery and turn right follow that road roughly 0.2 mile and the site should be visible to you on the right hand side across the gully.

Know Before You Go

Wildwood Cemetery is open seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.

Community Discussion