'True Terror': Smallpox patient in New Orleans met his worst fear when he was buried alive for one dollar
In the 1870s, the smallpox epidemic was almost as serious as the coronavirus epidemic is today. It had caused over 6,000 deaths in the US over 20 years and had seen hospitals built around the country specifically to combat the disease.
However, it wasn't just the epidemic that people had to fear. As reports from the time suggest, cities with outbreaks were seeing a rise in scams between coroners, coffin makers, and gravediggers that were resulting in patients being buried alive, just for a profit.
Such is the story of George Banks, a 19-year-old from New Orleans, Louisiana, who was unfortunate enough to catch the smallpox virus in May 1875 and whose story is the subject of Travel Channel's new six-part horror series, 'True Terror With Robert Englund.'
Banks had fallen ill and was getting sicker as the weeks progressed. After four weeks of battling the virus, a doctor declared him dead; except, he wasn't dead. He was just too weak to protest the declaration of his demise.
As was the protocol those days, anyone from a poor family, like Banks, who could not afford funeral services would have their body sealed in a coffin to prevent the spread of the virus and then see it buried in a 'Potter's field' — a common graveyard used at the time to bury unknown, unclaimed, or indigent people.
These coffins were driven to the graveyard by 'charity wagons,' which in Banks' case was owned by a man named Jim Connors. Reports claim the 19-year-old was audibly groaning inside the coffin, only for Connors to pay no heed.
It was one of Banks' worst fears coming to life. Taphophobia — the fear of being placed in a grave while still being alive as a result of being incorrectly pronounced dead — was surprisingly common in those days too.
Some famous personalities who lived with the fear include George Washington, who is said to have requested that his body be laid out for three days before he is buried, Hans Christian Andersen, and Alfred Nobel.
Banks, however, seemed to have a guardian angel watching over him in the form of one Mary Thompson. Thompson had been walking along the street as the charity wagon drove along and heard his cries of pain. Convinced Banks was still alive, she drummed up support from the crowd around her and managed to get Connors to stop and open the coffin.
The driver begrudgingly obliged and is said to have seen Banks open his eyes inside, reports claim. But since the teenager's successful burial would see him pocket a dollar, he once again ignored him, sealed up the coffin, and went along his way despite the crowd's protests.
The gravediggers at the Potter's fields were in on the deal as well. Incapable of putting up a fight, Banks was buried alive.
Thompson, to her credit, did not stop her fight for justice despite not knowing Banks personally. She lodged a complaint with the police, who charged Connors with murder.
In the subsequent trial, he all but admitted to knowing that the teen was living and breathing inside the coffin. "Even if George wasn't dead, he was dead enough to bury," he reportedly said.
A judge ultimately acquitted him, and Connors walked out a free man.
'True Terror' premieres on the Travel Channel on Wednesday, March 18 at 10 pm ET/PT.