Madame Blunden: A Story of Being Buried Alive

There are many tales of people being buried alive and no tale is more interesting than one from the Georgian Era about a woman named Madame Blunden. She was an elderly woman married to William Blunden, one of the richest maltsters in England. She was also described as depressed, fat, and gross and someone who freely imbibed alcoholic spirits.

Madame Blunden - buried alive

Buried alive, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One evening Ann Runnegar, the maid, poured Madame Blunden’s regular nightly cordial. The following morning when Runnegar went to Madame Blunden’s bedside she found her mistress in a “gentle slumber.” She remained in this slumber all day. Eventually, Runnegar became alarmed about her sleeping mistress, and as Mr. Blunden was in London on business, Runnegar sent for the local surgeon.

He arrived and bled Madame Blunden but there was no response. “When a glass was held before her mouth no signs of her breathing were discovered [either].”[1] However, her body was not stiff, and these contrary signs flummoxed the surgeon. He was unsure whether Madame Blunden was alive or dead, and, so, to be safe, he decided to wait forty-eight hours before declaring her dead.

During this time, Mr. Blunden was notified of his wife’s condition. He returned home and again sent for the surgeon, who once again examined Madame Blunden. He again found no signs of life and once again her body was not stiff. Therefore, the surgeon decided to wait another three days to make sure she was dead.

Madame Blunden was constantly watched by two females attendants during these three days to ensure there were no signs of life. One evening, one attendant saw Madame Blunden’s left hand move. She awakened her companion informing her of what she had seen. The companion ridiculed her but eventually both women observed Madame Blunden’s head move and saw her eyelids tremble. Believing she was alive, they ran to inform the male servants, who were stationed nearby.

When the male servants investigated, they “laughed at [the women’s] fancies, and ridiculed their cowardice.”[2] They tried to persuade the woman to go back to their posts, but the women refused. So, finally the male servants took up the watch. During the time they watched Madame Blunden, they did not perceive the tiniest signs of life nor the slightest movement.

The following night, with no signs of life the doctor finally declared Madame Blunden dead. Her corpse was then take to the parish church at Basingstoke, a town frequented by Jane Austen and her family. A midnight a funeral was held by torchlight “with great pomp.” All the town’s principal inhabitants attended, and the body was then interred at the family’s vault, which was scheduled to be closed the following morning.

Madame Blunden - Jane Austen

Jane Austen. Public domain.

The morning the vault was to be closed, several schoolboys from the nearby Holy Ghost Grammar School began to play on the open vault. As they were playing, they heard a noise come from the vault. One boy rushed to tell the schoolmaster, “who … gave him a box on the ear and sent him about his business.”[3] However, several other boys appeared with the same tale and this forced the schoolmaster to investigate.

He called the sexton and then they called Mr. Blunden telling him what the boys had heard. Mr. Blunden then ordered workmen to open the coffin. There they discovered Madame Blunden had been buried alive as there were signs that she had made attempts to get out of the coffin. The West Kent Guardian reported that her agony must have been great as she “was two inches deep in blood, whilst the knuckles, knees, forehead, heels, and toes were beaten nearly to a jelly.”[4]

Madame Blunden’s body was examined again and once again there were no signs of life. However, just to be safe, Madame Blunden’s body was returned home. This time she was examined by three medical specialists. However, there was no hope as one reported stated:

“All possible means were used to recover her to life, but to no purpose, for she, in her agony, had bit the nails off her fingers, and tore her face and head to that degree, that, notwithstanding all the care that was taken of her, she died in a few hours of inexpressible torment.”[5]

Doctors now “pronounced her gone beyond recovery.”[6] So, once again Madame Blunden was interred. This time the vault was sealed but that was not the end of the story because a few days later Runnegar was sent to Madame Blunden’s cupboard to get poppy syrup. She discovered the bottle was empty. It was then Runnegar realized she had given her mistress poppy syrup instead of her favorite cordial. Her awful mistake had sent Madame Blunden into a deep sleep, which then cost her mistress her life. This revelation was almost too much for Runnegar, who was reportedly “bereft of her reason.”[7]

References:

  • [1] “Literary Extracts,” in West Kent Guardian, 27 December 1845, p. 7.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Tebb, William and Edward Perry Vollum, Premature Burial and How it May Be Prevented, 1905, p. 84.
  • [6] “Literary Extracts,” p. 7.
  • [7] Ibid.

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