Buried Alive: A Grave Situation for W.K. Moorehead

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

Example of the sheer size of an earthen wall and the dangers of excavating and tunneling into mounds.
Washout on the wall, west side of new fort, Station 363, Fort Ancient site, Ohio.
Peabody Photo Collections, Plate IX

Originally, I was going to share a blog about tuberculosis and its connection to the Peabody collections, but when this story came up in my research, it was too interesting to set aside to wait another month! For those who are intrigued by how consumption is tied to the Peabody and its collections, you’ll have to wait in anticipation for another month.

I must first give special thanks to the Peabody’s independent researcher, Adam Way, who found this story in an article from the Phillips Academy student newspaper, the Phillipian. This was hours after I asked him to keep his eyes peeled for specific details about Moorehead. What a happy coincidence this find made for my research. Thank you again Adam!

During his excavations in the summer of 1888, Warren K. Moorehead was buried by a cave-in which almost cost him his life. To best share this story, I think it would be best for you to hear some of the story from W.K. Moorehead yourself!

After all, the fall season is upon us and where many believe Moorehead’s spirit lives on within the Peabody’s walls, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate time for him to share this near-death experience in his own words. Enjoy!

According to Moorehead’s Field Diary of an Archaeological Collector, 1902, and his written account for the journal, Science, Moorehead was excavating a large mound near Frankfort, Ross County, Ohio in August 1888.

“Here a serious accident befell me… as I bent down to examine a small bone uncovered in the process of undermining, a mass of earth equal to several cartloads suddenly dropped from above.” 

– W.K. Moorehead, Field Diary of an Archaeological Collector (1902)

As Moorehead bent down to examine the bone, the workmen climbed out of the unit to cut down the undermined wall of the mound. As a result, the wall of earth fell upon Moorehead burying him alive.

“The rush of wind it causes I well remember. My head and shoulders were somewhat higher than my legs, possibly a foot. The feet were spread apart. There was little pain, only pressure, intense pressure. It forced the buttons of my light field costume partly inside the flesh; my watch-chain left a bright-red mark along my left side. I could feel the watch strongly pressed against two ribs (these were broken.) The skin over my forehead seemed being cut, but it was the pressure of my hat forcing the flesh between the laced straws. A knife in my pocket seemed burningly hot. Just under the small of my back lay a large clod. The pain at the point of contact was considerable at times, and my spinal column seemed slowly breaking. Then the pain stopped and I could feel nothing.”

– W. K. Moorehead, Buried Alive – One’s Sensations and Thoughts (1893)

Throughout this entire experience, Moorehead described being unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to even wink. He recounts how hot the earth was against his face as the pressure of the earth forced his last breath. The workmen said it took a minute or more to reach his head.

“I felt the earth move slightly above my head. That gave me hope. I had not thought much of rescue, but I gathered my remaining strength. A shovel passed across the top of my head, cutting the scalp; I remember feeling it as if a hot iron had struck me. Then they uncovered my head and removed the earth from my mouth and eyes.” 

– W.K. Moorehead, Ibid.

After he had been removed, he was partially paralyzed for several days. An article in the Phillips Academy student newspaper, The Phillipian, stated that Moorehead was paralyzed for five to six weeks and later, at the order of a spinal expert, he was placed in a straightjacket to put the weight of his upper body on to his hips to relieve his spine.

“I neglected to state that the earth above my head was about three feet thick, that over my legs was much deeper. Many persons buried in gravel pits and in earth not nearly so deep have been taken out dead.” 

– W. K. Moorehead, Buried Alive – One’s Sensations and Thoughts (1893)

The physical effects were quite severe, but it was the effects of the accident on Moorehead’s mind that remained with him throughout the rest of his life. Dreams of caving banks and recurring memories of the accident haunted Moorehead’s psyche.

“I cannot now enter a mine or cave, or stand near an overhanging bank without a feeling of horror.” 

– W.K. Moorehead, Field Diary of an Archaeological Collector (1902)

The results of this accident continued to echo throughout Moorehead’s later life, affecting his mind and his health. In my next blog these echoes will be revealed.

For more information about this story, please visit the following sources.

Buried Alive – One’s Sensations and Thoughts, Science Magazine, Vol. ns-21, Issue 522, February 3, 1893

Field Diary of an Archaeological Collector, 1902

The Phillipian: Dr. Moorhead Tells, In Book Of Explorers’ Tales Just Out, How He Was Buried Alive (January 30, 1932)

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