AUTHOR SUNDAY – Make sure she’s dead – I wonder how many times this happened during epidemics

(This true story is hard to think about today, but it probably happened many times–particularly during epidemics.)

Make sure she’s dead


Peg Crum

My grandparents lived in Mount Creek, Alabama. There had been a malaria outbreak, which was very common during this time frame, and my Grandmother Leloa came down with the disease. After a week of being sick she stopped responding. A neighbor and her husband declared that she had passed away. There was no doctor to declare she was truly dead or paper work to confirm her death. Since there were no funeral homes at this time, Maw, as we kids called her, was laid out in the bed she died in.Artist Max Heldman's depiction of Wooster helping the sick and dying during the cholera epicdemic in Alabama

Neighborhood women dressed her in her best dress

The neighborhood women as was the custom at this time came to bathe her and dressed her in her best dress. The men were outside building her coffin out of various woods that could be found. Her funeral and burying had to be done quickly because there was also no embalming at this time. Also no one was quite sure how the disease was spread.

casket crop

They were shocked

The entire neighborhood and her family were very shocked and alarmed when Maw after being washed by the women with cold water, awoke! The bath had revived her! Maw was not dead, but just in a very weakened stated from the disease. She said she woke up to the sound of the men hammering on her coffin and the women bathing her. My grandmother became stronger, survived malaria, and lived fifty more years. Maw said she always worried after that how many people were buried alive. She always had nightmares about the event and what could have happened to her.

Thought she was a witch

The neighbors were always kind after this, but they changed their attitudes toward the family. They honestly thought Maw was a witch. To them that was the only reasonable explanation for her returning from the dead. They never accepted the fact that she was not dead and that the bath of cold water could revive her. They still felt she had been truly dead. Grandmother Leloa always laughed about being called a witch and said it kept the neighbors from getting too nosy. Maw lived long enough to see the death certificate and the requirement of a doctor to prove someone was dead. But Maw always told my mother to make more than sure she truly was dead before she was buried when her true time came.

“Read about an actual witch trail in the historical series by Alabama author Donna R. Causey”  in Faith And Courage



  1. Every story has been enjoyable. My great-great-great grandparents came to Alabama from other southern states and to travel to Alabama early on it was necessary to have a passport.

  2. I knew that going to Florida “back then” was like going to a foreign country, but I did not realize that one needed a passport to go to Alabama. Is that because it was not one of the original 13 colonies? Mary70

  3. I so enjoy all your writings. I have lived in Alabama all my life and have never heard of some of this stuff and so I find it very interesting. Keep’em comin!
    Diane Wisham
    Guin, AL

    1. Hi Diane We enjoy finding and writing about the forgotten stories. Thank you for your kind comment!

  4. I also read that they used to bury folks with a bell to ring “just in case”… there are also elaborate “safety coffins” of that time, too. Fear of being buried alive was quite real! Great article.

  5. Was unabbe to locate a mount creek. Think story should read mountain creek al, which is north of Prattville.

    1. It is Mountain Creek. Peggy Crum

  6. This reminds me of the story of my Great Great Grand dad, John Baney. My great Aunts told the story of how he died several times, the doctor would be there to pronounce him dead and they would go on down the street to the undertaker to order up his coffin. They’d come back to the house, only to find John sitting near the stove, with his feet in hot water and a blanket around his shoulders alive as could be! Scared the whiskers out of them. 🙂 He lived to be 104 years old.

  7. My mom told me stories similar to this !