Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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1922 – Dead Woman Sits Up in Coffin

Not far from the elevated roadway that leads up to the Williamsburg Bridge on the lower east side of Manhattan, once stood a five-story tenement building at 28 Lewis Street. It’s long gone, but on June 16, 1922, one of those apartments was rented by Mr. and Mrs. Grossman. Inside, the two would care for Mrs. Grossman’s 70-year-old mother, Rebecca Senst.

The Grossmans needed to go shopping, so they arranged for an old man in the neighborhood to keep a close eye on mom.  While they were gone, Mrs. Senst’s body suddenly stiffened, and she died. 

So, the old man grabbed a pin and pricked at her skin.  This was followed by some additional tests to determine that she had, in fact, died.  To paraphrase the famous line from the Wizard of Oz, he concluded that “she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.”

The old man freaked out and ran down into the street and began screaming out in Yiddish. A small crowd of neighbors, friends, and relatives began to gather around and he led a group of approximately forty people up to the small room where she had died. A number of others performed their own tests on her and each confirmed that she was truly dead.

When Mr. and Mrs. Grossman returned home, they were given the bad news that Mrs. Senst had passed on. My hunch is that the big crowd in their apartment may have tipped them off before anyone said a single word to them.

Mr. Grossman jumped into action and notified the undertaking firm of Hirsh & Schwartz.  They sent over a hearse and two of their men, Samuel Donner and Harry Sherman, to retrieve the body.  Since this was a Friday and the Sabbath was quickly approaching, they would be unable to bury the body until Sunday.  So, they brought along a box and two large tubs of ice to keep her body cool until then.

28 Lewis Street as it looked back in 1940.
28 Lewis Street as it looked back in 1940.

They proceeded to lift her body into the box and began to pour the ice on top of her. Suddenly, one of her legs twitched. It was reported that this freaked out a few people and they left, but Donner and Sherman continued to pour in the ice. 

Then, once again, one of her legs twitched, possibly from the contraction of her muscles as they cooled.

The two men continued adding ice to the box. As they did that, Mrs. Senst suddenly sat up and started screaming at them in Yiddish.

To quote the 1935 movie, Bride of Frankenstein, “She’s alive! Alive!”

The room was soon cleared out and Mrs. Senst was moved to her bed to recover. With their undertaker services no longer required, Donner and Sherman packed up and drove away.

The Grossmans then contacted Dr. Bernard Zaglin and he came to examine Mrs. Senst.  He concluded that she had suffered a paralytic stroke and that she would be fine in a few days.

While I would like to report that Mrs. Senst lived many more happy years, this was not to happen.  The good doctor had been incorrect.  She passed away the following evening and was buried that Sunday in Mount Judah Cemetery in Queens.

And, I am happy to report, one hundred years later, Rebecca Senst still has not sat up from her grave.

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