How do we knew when a body is truly dead? Modern science shows us that the body dies slowly, not all at once as we used to suppose. It takes time. The body is a rather vast and complex ecosystem of enzymes, processes and functions that rarely, if ever, stop all at once. With our modern sensors and advanced medical knowledge, we usually determine the moment of death as the time when the brain ceases to show any sign of activity. However, if the heart stops beating and breathing ceases, there’s just no way that a body can function much longer. Today, an coroner always double-checks to makes sure the recently deceased is actually and fully gone, but in the past, not so long ago, we did not have the precise knowledge that we have today. What follows is a horrific example of what may have happened on a rather regular basis in the days before electricity. The thin line between life and death was often out of focus and those whose task it was to pronounce a person living to dead may have had a tough time getting it right all of the time.
The Howe family was one of the oldest founding families in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Of note is their founding of the Wayside Inn at Sudbury, Massachusetts which was later lovingly restored by Henry Ford. It is also famous for Elias Howe’s invention of America’s first lockstitch sewing machine in 1846. Such a family had established itself as memorable by the time they settled in Damariscotta, Maine after the War of 1812 and began their strange association with the phenomenon of American Spiritualism that ushered in one of New England’s saddest and possibly darkest burials.
Colonel Joel Howe, the family patriarch and veteran of the War of 1812 had nine children, all curious, well-read and very interested in the new ideas of science and invention beginning to take hold in the popular imagination. Of particular interest are son Edwin and his little sister, Mary Howe. Author Harold W. Castner who researched the legend for Yankee Magazine, actually interviewed people who were present and witnessed the events that passed in the Howe family home, fourteen people, in fact. Their stories corroborated the events described in local newspapers in the Newcastle and Damariscotta area at the time.
The Howe Family made their income from the stagecoach tavern known as the Howe House Inn. It was in that house that the family began their attempts at communication with the dead. This might sound like something out of a 1960s Hammer horror film, but the Spiritualist Movement in America was a bona fide religious organization that still exists today. It first appeared not far from Maine in the ‘burned-over district” of upstate New York with the Fox sisters and their supposed communication with the dead. Devout spiritualists at the time were often protestants who were using the idea of a life beyond the physical form in which a person could still learn and grow and, to the great interest of the believers, could communicate from beyond the veil with the living. Fueled by the written works of Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, spiritualists believed that there is not a single Heaven for all to enter, or even a single, solitary Hell. Instead, there was a hierarchy of both, much like Dante’s leveling of the Underworld in his Inferno. Spiritualists ascribe to the idea that the spirits of the dead act as a kind of network of connections between God and his living world. Through the souls of the deceased, Spiritualists believed that they could commune with the Almighty. In order to speak directly with the dead, one needed a medium, a gifted living person who could, through a kind of self-hypnosis, get themselves into a mental or spiritual state that was amenable to contacting the dead. Once that state of mind was achieved, the medium became the terminal in the network that connected both worlds. All you had to do was sit quietly and ask questions. If someone on the ‘other end’ was willing, the medium spoke or wrote your answer. This practice still exists today, but in 1882, it was all the rage. In the forty years since its birth in New England, Spiritualism had grown into a recognized religious organization.
Which brings us to young Mary Howe and her brothers and sisters, all living together under the same roof in Damariscotta. The family was gifted with the ardent belief in life after death coupled with a kind of ingenuity of invention that was the hallmark of a 19th century Yankee. Brothers Edwin and Lorenzo crafted a ‘perpetual motion’ machine and a way to counterfeit half dollars. Mary devoted her intellectual hunger toward her faith and the family discovered that she had a strong gift as a medium. Her fame spread throughout the Spiritualist community and beyond. Like so many people who have attended a seance or had their palms read, many visitors to the Inn were simply curiosity seekers wondering what this spiritualist stuff was all about, but some were as devout as the Howes. What they discovered when they attended one of Mary’s trance sessions might be a quiet conversation with a loved one, a long session of silence, or they might be treated to something quite theatrical. Once, convinced that she was graced with the gift of flight, Mary Howe jumped off the stairs, her arms spread wide like a bird wings, her mouth speaking in a strange, inhuman tongue. When she landed in a heap at the bottom of stairs with a broken ankle and a panoply of bruises and scrapes, it only served to increase her popularity as THE medium to visit if you wanted speak with Uncle Albert about where he buried his money.
A witness to one of the Howe sessions was author Castner’s own grandmother. Her question to Mary was a simple one: when would her relative return from his visit to New York. Mary’s answer was mumbled and quiet, but she communicated, “I can see him clearly. I see many lights! Wait! He will not return! When all those lights appear, he will die!” According to Castner’s grandmother, Mary’s prediction came true. Her relative died of apparent heart failure as he witnessed the first nighttime illumination of the lights on the Brooklyn Bridge. One can only imagine how quickly that story spread throughout the community.
Though Mary entertained many guests with her sessions, she also practiced another kind of spiritual connection with the world of the dead: she claimed that she could travel there. Her trances were deep, lasting much longer than any visitor could stay. Many mediums in the 1880s did not explain exactly what they were doing or how they achieved their mystical trances, but today we might classify these as self-hypnosis sessions or even as out-of-body experiences. They would need the help of others because their body would remain in an apparent state of sleep for long periods of time. During that time, they would fall into a deep sleep and then, into something deeper, sometimes for days. In order keep the spiritual journeyer’s body warm, they practised a strange habit. Normally, the infrared energy created by a sleeping body can be easily captured by blankets and even on the coldest night, the body’s own chemistry will keep itself warm. Not in the case of some of these mental journeyers, like Mary Howe. As she lay on her couch or bed, we never discover which, they would lovingly surround her with stones they had warmed on the stove. These stones maintained, they claimed, enough body heat to keep the medium’s body preserved and ready for when he or she returned from their spiritual wanderings and could reinhabit the body. It was claimed by those attending the bodies that these medium were indeed still alive, even though no breath fogged a mirror and no heartbeat could be found. Such practitioners might be doubted if it weren’t for our own modern understanding of both the coma state and the trances that various shamans enter in indigenous societies around the world. Mediums who practiced this deep type of trance almost always came out of them fully refreshed with no apparent harm to their physical body. If you waited long enough, they always woke up.
Which makes the story of Mary Howe so mysterious. In 1882, in her house on Hodgdon Street, Mary entered one of her deep trances. This was a commonplace happening and her brother Edwin knew the routine. He would keep the stones warm and keep replacing them around her body until she awoke and told of her journeyings to the other realm. By this time, Mary’s trances were an item of curiosity and many people visited the house to see her lying supine, her mind elsewhere. Edwin welcomed his neighbors and friends in to witness his sister thus. One can imagine the conversations, the cups of tea, and the convivial nature of the guests as they wondered about where she was and who she was visiting. Perhaps someone voiced the question, “What might happen if the spirit found itself astray and lost its way back to its earthly vessel?” People marveled when they visited after a week and still, she hadn’t returned to her body. Edwin reassured everyone not to worry – that this was not unusual. But after two weeks had passed, someone must have asked the question, “Is she in a trance, or is the poor girl dead?”
Dr. Robert Dixon was a man of science. He did not relish the idea of visiting the Howe household when the sheriff ordered him to make the determination. There were laws, as well as common sense, that dictated that a dead body was a source of disease and must be buried as quickly as possible. Funeral homes existed, but in 1882, it was common practice to lay out the deceased body of your loved one in your own parlor so that friends might visit to say one last goodbye. This is almost exactly the scene that the good doctor witnessed when he entered the Howe home. Edwin admitted Dr. Dixon and led him to the room in which the body of his sister lay in her trance. He explained to Dr. Dixon that the stones were arranged thusly to keep her body warm. Dixon did note that the body did not present as though rigor mortis had set in. The skin was supple and the flesh of her cheeks was both warm and flexible. Edwin assured the doctor not to worry. His sister was merely in a trance. The body had been lying in a warm room for two weeks and there was no smell of putrefaction evident.
Though she appeared to be alive, Dr. Dixon knew that all living people had two things in common: they breathed and their hearts beat. Neither was true for Mary Howe. Knowing that life did not inhabit a body that was neither pumping blood nor breathing, he had no choice but to pronounce her dead.
Of course her brother protested. So did many in the town who were used to her strange trances. That evening, a deputation on three men entered the Howe household and transferred Mary’s body into a coffin. Protesters waiting in the community determined that the authorities were about to bury a living woman. With the authority of the law behind the sheriff, there was little anyone could do. Dr. Dixon, the sheriff, and the undertaker began the process of burial. However, the owner of the Hillside Cemetery, Benjamin Metcalf, possibly refused permission to bury Mary in his ground. He was one of those in town who believed that she was possibly still in one of her trances and he would not be a part of such a horrific misdeed. Glidden Cemetery in nearby Newcastle would have to serve as her final resting place, but once at the cemetery, no one could be found who was willing to dig the grave for the very same reason. With determination to finish this episode, the doctor, sheriff and undertaker rolled up their sleeves and grabbed the shovels. After the grave was dug, the undertaker’s assistant began to realize the possibility of what was about to happen and he refused to help lower the coffin into the ground. Realizing that they were going to receive no help from anyone else, the three men took it upon themselves to lower Mary into her final resting place. They did not mark her grave, again possibly because they did not want anyone from the community to undo their official work and retrieve her from the cold, cold ground. To this day, no one knows her true final resting place.
Today, people are pronounced dead usually after all brain function ceases. The body can be kept alive in a state similar to Mary Howe’s state in 1882. However, in 1882 Dr. Dixon might not have been able to determine without a shadow of a doubt that Mary might have been in a deep coma. In such cases, the heart beats very slowly and respiration is neither deep nor easily perceived. Is the comatose person aware? Can a comatose person reawaken after weeks or months. The answer is yes, if their body is being properly fed and if fluids are being administered. But in 1882, there was no way of keeping Mary hydrated or her body fed if she was in a deep coma, or what her brother referred to as a trance. Is it possible that Dr. Dixon and his two compatriots buried poor Mary Howe alive?
One must assume that it is possible. In fact, when one considers the incidence of comas in the modern world and tries to determine the number of coma cases that must have occurred in the past, it is quite possible that a large number of comatose people were buried alive, given their incomplete knowledge of the condition. This is why some people chose tombs instead of graves and why some had strings attached to external bells so that, if a person awoke entombed, they could tug on the string and be ‘saved by the bell.’ Burial would be a faster death due to lack of oxygen. Given Mary’s supple flesh, the lack of rigor mortis, the lack of the odor of death, and her previous trance experiences, it is not only possible that she was buried alive, but probable.
In 1888, six years after the possible living burial of Mary Howe, the Fox sisters of upstate New York, whose interactions with the spirit of a dead peddler supposedly buried in their cellar started the Spiritualism movement in America, confessed in public on several occasions that they had made the whole thing up. The movement did not lose any ground after their confession. True believers merely brushed them off. Years later, upon the renovation of the Howe Inn , various contrivances were found in the walls: wires with no discernable connection, pipes that led to or from no water source, and other devices whose function defied explanation. This discovery makes for a strong case that many of the trance sessions held by the Howe brothers and sisters were merely parlor tricks after all, perhaps with brother Edwin in an upstairs room moaning through a pipe that led to a hollow space in the wall, amplifying the voice of a long dead relative, strange and distant.
As the days and weeks passed, members of the Newcastle community avoided passing the cemetery if they could. Children were frightened and held their breaths as they passed. One can imagine the quiet of an early evening when the sun bathed the darkening world with a fire in the western sky and the wind died down leaving a deep silence, that perhaps, if you listened carefully, you might hear the quietest of sounds and wonder, is that a moan or a cry? Has Mary Howe finally awakened from her trance?