Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Podcasting Since January 2008

The Man Buried Alive – Podcast #44

It is said that George Washington feared being buried alive so much, that he said on his deathbed “Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead”. And he was not alone. The fear is certainly real, and it is hard to imagine anyone ever purposely choosing to be buried alive.

Yet, a quick search of any historic newspaper database shows that the 20th century had a number of people that were willing to do so. None of them had any sort of death wish. Instead, they were all out to set the world record for the greatest number of days being buried six feet under.

32-year-old Jack Loreen was one of these people. A former Alaskan gold miner having spent many days below ground, Jack was absolutely certain that he was the man that should hold that world record. He was buried on June 18, 1933, in a hole dug at 9750 South Western Avenue in Evergreen Park, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. According to Google Maps, that is the current location of the Evergreen Plaza Shopping Center, just in case you would like to go visit.

Now do not think that Jack was just thrown into a hole and covered with dirt. No one could survive that. After all, what is a proper burial without a casket? Yes, he chose to live in a casket that measured a roomy 70” long x 29” wide x 23” high. For those of you that use the metric system, that is about 178 cm x 74 cm x 58 cm. It was just large enough for him to bend his knees for a bit of exercise.

Of course, there is one problem with a buried casket – you cannot pack everything you need inside and then seal it shut tight. There are some essentials that need to be sent down from time to time – you know – food, water, and air, so a 1-foot square vertical chimney-like chute was installed. The chute was positioned right above his face so that Jack could look directly up to the surface.

The coffin was outfitted with a few comforts. First, there was a small fan at the far end of his box that circulated air. Then there was a small radio that he operated with his toes. An electric light provided much-needed illumination, while an air mattress provided a soft cushion to lie upon. A physician stopped by twice each day to check up on Jack using a very, very long stethoscope.

He did have a thermometer to keep an eye on the climate down in the hole, but that wasn’t enough to prevent one of the climactic hazards of being underground. During a heavy rainstorm, Jack awoke to find himself lying in 4-inches of water. Since he was 8-feet down, someone above came up with the idea of digging a nine-foot-deep hole alongside Jack’s coffin to pump the water out.

But the most essential accessory Jack had with him was a telephone. They purposely advertised the Evergreen Park 7282 phone number to the public to generate attention to the stunt. He was listed in the phone book as “The Man Who is Buried Alive”. My guess is that there were times when he had wished he had not done so. The phone rang off the hook day and night. The calls varied from the mundane to prank calls to marriage proposals. By the time Jack was dug up, he had received nearly 2000 calls.

Jack Loreen
Jack Loreen. Image appeared on page 1 of the October 18, 1935 publication of the Oakland Tribune.

An August 17, 1933 advertisement in the Southtown Economist announced in bold letters: “NOTICE JACK LOREEN, The man who has been buried since June 18 – 60 days – underground, Will Be Resurrected Next Monday Aug. 21st, 3 P.M. From Grave at 9750 S. Western Ave”

And that is exactly what happened. After 64 days, 1 hour, and 10 minutes, 1200 people gathered to watch Jack Loreen being unearthed from his burial box. As soon as his casket was opened, he said “It was a great summer vacation. I didn’t have to worry about money or work.” He also added, “I want to get out now and have a good stretch.”

There was just one minor problem. He emerged from the earth to find his car, which he had parked nearby, stolen.

But, as they say, you can’t keep a good man down. Err.. In Jack’s case it should be you can’t keep a good man up.

He was back in the ground 5 months later in February of 1934. He had chosen his new location as 829 Biscayne Blvd in Miami, Florida. Once again, I checked with Google and that is right near where the American Airlines Arena is located today. He had planned on 100 days in the box, but he did not make it. Why? Supposedly water from the bay kept flooding his coffin, but my guess is that there was not enough publicity and the stunt abandoned.

This advertisement for Jack Loreen appeared on page 12 of the February 13, 1934 issue of The Miami News.
This advertisement for Jack Loreen appeared on page 12 of the February 13, 1934 issue of The Miami News.

Then there was competition. On June 15, 1935, 20-year-old Gloria Graves, whose real name is Corrine Neustedt, was buried in a stainless-steel coffin at Ocean Park in California. Miss Graves insisted that this attempt was not a publicity stunt. Yeah, right… Instead, she stated that it was strictly being done for science – to show that “the mind is stronger than matter”.

So, did Gloria beat Loreen’s record of 64-days? She did not just beat the record, she slaughtered it. Gloria stayed in the ground until September 15th, for a total of 92 days, 5 hours, and 28 minutes.

Just a few days after Gloria started her record-breaking attempt, Jack Loreen was once again in a pine box being lowered into a hole on a San Francisco beach. Gloria did not keep her record for very long. On October 18th, Jack’s coffin was lifted to the surface after 119 days in his subsurface tomb. After this record-breaking achievement, Jack announced that he was done with stunts and quickly faded to –well… totally forgotten.

Gloria stayed in the news for just a little bit longer than Jack did. It was now her turn to break the record, but she didn’t get very far. Eight days into her quest, the Los Angeles police tried to arrest her. Apparently, Gloria was in violation of a city ordinance that prohibited indoor contests. One Lieutenant Jennings blurted down the hole “Hey, you’re under arrest. Come up outa there.”

Of course, Gloria could not come up, so she replied, “Come down and get me.” And they did. Eleven policemen and 14 city jail trustees grabbed shovels and dug her out. She and two attendants were found guilty on December 10th and faced the possibility of a fine or a short sentence. I was unable to locate any information on which she received.

Whenever I tell this story, I am almost always asked at least one of the following two questions:

First, how did Jack or Gloria go to the bathroom? It was never mentioned in any article I found, but one could venture a guess. They both lived on mostly liquid diets, which probably reduced the amount of solid waste somewhat. In whatever form it was passed through the body, we can be fairly certain that it was pulled up to the surface very, very quickly.

Second, how could anyone afford to take so much time off from work to be buried for months at a time? Gloria was a student, but Jack was married with children. My answer is that they both earned money through all the publicity generated. For example, Jack had nothing better to do in that hole than to call random people on the phone and invite them over. Steady crowds each paid a dime to look down the chimney-like hole and have a short conversation with Jack. And once they were pulled up, additional cash was earned on publicity tours.

Normally this is where the story would end, since being buried alive seemed to quickly fall out of fashion as the stunt of choice. But it’s not.

In the mid-1960’s people started being buried alive again in attempts to break the world record. But everyone seems to have forgotten both Gloria’s 92-day stint or Jack’s 119-day record.

Here is a quick rundown of the new attempts that I found in the newspaper archives:

In February of 1966, Bill White claimed to grab the world record with his 55-day, 23 hour, and 31 minute burial. That is about half of what Jack did back in 1935.

Mike Meaney then broke this new 55-day record two years later with his 61-day burial in April of 1968.

Then Bill White grabbed the title back within days with 63 days.

Three months later, in July of 1968, Pat Haverland broke the record with 64 days.

Two months later Emma Smith broke the record with 101 days. Make sure you keep Emma Smith’s name in mind for a bit – it will come up again at the end of the story.

Now jump forward about ten years to June of 1978, Bill White set the record again at 134 days. Now he really did break Jack Loreen’s 1935 record.

But Bill wasn’t happy enough with that. He broke his own record with 140 days in December of 1981. This time he announced that he was done. That was his 60th burial and his last.

Well, maybe not. He came out of retirement in October 1986 in an effort to raise money for liver transplant patients. Bill stopped after 46 days because only $725 had been raised. That was just a wee-bit short of his 4-million-dollar goal.

And, while we are at it, let us go for one more. The current record is held by Geoff Smith of Mansfield, England. He began his turn at being buried alive on August 29, 1998 and ended it 147 days later. What’s most interesting about his story is that his mother was Emma Smith, the woman that I told you to keep in mind with her 101 day record back in 1968. At the time Geoff broke the world record, his mom was still, after 30 years, the European buried alive champion, so he broke his own mom’s record.

Now I don’t know what you are thinking, but I can tell you that I have absolutely no desire to waste five months of my life being buried in a box to break Geoff’s record. I know that I will be in that pine box someday, but I don’t plan on being alive when it is done. Needless to say, I am in no rush…

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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