In the recent (Jan 20, 2014) season finale of Fox’s critically acclaimed Sleepy Hollow, it is revealed that President George Washington was at one time, a zombie. While Sleepy Hollow and its plot surrounding the First Commander in Chief is a work of TV fiction, the facts are far closer to the truth than many realize.

Many Buried Alive

In the 18th and 19th centuries in the US, it was reported that a little over 2% of people buried, were buried alive. And this percentage is probably a little low, as these are only the numbers confirmed by those exhumed (for example by T.M. Montgomery, who was supervising the disinterment of remains at the Fort Randall Cemetery in 1896). In other words, about 2% woke up, tried to claw their way out, and were unable to do so. Given the oxygen supply in a coffin doesn’t last that long, it is likely the actual percentage of people buried alive was higher, when you include the ones who didn’t wake, but were still technically alive when buried.

The anti-vaccination lobbyist and co-founder of the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial, William Tebb compiled a list of 219 instances of narrow escape from premature burial; 149 cases of actual premature burial; 10 cases in which bodies were accidentally dissected before death; and 2 cases in which embalming was started on the still living. Taphephobia is the irrational fear of being buried alive. George Washington was considered to be taphephobic, but with numbers like that, it might not have been so irrational.

The ‘Death’ of George Washington

After contracting influenza and subsequently epiglottitis (inflammation of the flap at the base of the tongue) George Washington was subjected to several agonizing sessions of bloodletting (two and a half liters of his blood drained from his body). Blood-letting was a common practice for whatever ailed you back in those days.

On his death bed, General Washington told his secretary, Tobias Lear, “I am just going. Have me decently buried and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand?”

Despite the three doctors’ efforts, Washington died.

The ‘Reanimation’ of George Washington

As per Washington’s instructions, his body was put on ice, to await the three days before being put into the “vault.” A fourth doctor was brought in by step-granddaughter Elizabeth Law, a day after Washington’s death. His name was William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol Building, and also a physician (through the University of Edinburgh). In his words:

I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner. First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, and by degrees and by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the lungs by the trachea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb.

Transfusions using animal blood (especially lambs, as their blood was considered most pure, due to their lack of drinking alcohol and swearing) was common, and the University of Edinburgh (Thornton’s alma mater) was on the forefront of that research at the time.

Martha Washington vetoed the plan, even though the other doctors presiding did not; at least not on medical grounds. Their objection was only whether or not “it would be right to attempt to recall to life one who had departed full of honor and renown … and prepared for eternity.”

So close!

Interestingly, legend has it that George Washington once revived a slave who was believed to be dead. Not George Washington the zombie, but perhaps George Washington the zombie maker.

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