Sunday, March 23, 2014

Buried Alive in Charleston, WV

Burial vault designed to allow those prematurely buried to free themselves

Paranormal research and ghost-lore are filled with tales of people being buried alive.  In fact, during the Victorian era and earlier periods, before embalming was a widely accepted practice, the fear of being buried alive was so great that a host of inventions, such as safety coffins outfitted with bells and air chutes, became almost a norm to those who could afford them.  Sources claim that at least 30 patents for different safety coffins were issued in Germany alone during the 18th century.  However, in the 1960s, which was apparently a very weird time in history, being buried alive took on a more Houdini-esque quality as normal, everyday people shoved themselves into glass coffins and went underground as publicity stunts and tourist attractions!

Not to be outdone by the rest of the world, here in little Charleston, WV we had not one, but FOUR people buried alive in two separate stunts going on concurrently!

 I wasn't personally around in 1968, so my knowledge of these events only came about yesterday when I literally accidentally stumbled upon the following newspaper article. I've added some additional details below.  I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did!

Bill White in Austin, Texas 
From: The Charleston Gazette
Friday, June 14, 1968

By Pamela Brick, Staff Writer

Well, Charleston is now the supreme, unquestioned, undisputed world capital of the bury-people-alive business.  Promoters announced Thursday they intend to plant three "earthonauts"--a man and two women--in a single box eight feet under a Summers Street parking lot at 7 p.m. today.

There will be wooden partitions between them, "but," said one of the women, "Country Bill says he is going to take a saw down with him."

June Estep, 23, a Charleston go-go dancer and Betty Jones, 34, a grandmother and cocktail waitress, both of 223 Truslow St., will join with "Country Bill" White, 34, a country and western singer and professional burial subject from Clearwater, Fla., as the latest volunteers for burial alive.

Along with Mrs. Patricia Haverland, a Charleston divorcee who is buried at the Cherokee Trading Post on U.S. 60 east of town, they will give the city an underground population of four.  "This is the first known time anywhere that three persons have been buried together," said White.  "We challenge anyone in the world to match our stay underground."  White, who will be entering the grave for the 39th time since 1964, said the three will attempt to stay down for 102 days.  The women, neither of whom has been buried before, said they would like a stay under for at least 63 days.  "If we can stay down that long, we'll work from there," said Mrs. Jones.  

White set a world record of 63 days and 22 hours at Austin, Tex., when he came up April 26.

Why be buried alive?

Mrs. Jones said, "I have always liked to do things that are different and unusual."  She did add, however, that this is the first unusual thing she has done.  Mrs. Estep said she didn't see how anyone could live underground that long, so she's trying it to find out.

The coffin will be divided into three equal parts 2.5 feet high, 2.5 feet wide and 5 feet 10 inches long.  "Each container will have a separate lid," said White.  "This way each person may be brought out if needed without opening the entire coffin."

"Country Bill," who will be placed in the middle compartment, said each person will have his individual phone and radio and will be able to talk to the others by either yelling or phoning.  The three will be visible to the public through a chute.  It will be possible to see all three at one time, said White.

Mrs. Estep, who has a seven-year-old son living with her mother in Chicago, Ill., sat nervously toying with a piece of paper as she voiced her only fright.  "The only thing that scares me," she said, "is the sound of that dirt falling down on top."

Summers Street, ca 1960, from

So, obviously this is a fairly intriguing piece of Kanawha Valley history which I plan on doing more thorough research on in the near future, but I have managed to find out a FEW things by searching online.  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Country Bill's stunt ever got approved!  There were fears from Charleston's parking captain of the spectacle causing traffic problems and safety issues.  Then, in a newspaper article dated from June 30th, it states the project was halted by the city building inspector.  The inspector deemed the "coffin" to be a living space, thus requiring it to have 320 square feet of space, a bathroom, heat, running water, and at least two exits.

But, there was good news for Patricia Haverland!  Haverland was buried at the old Cherokee Trading Post on Rt. 60, which is close by the Daniel Boone Park....right about where the Moose Lodge is located today.  Since this location was outside of Charleston city limits, the building codes didn't apply to her.  However, her goal wasn't immediately met.  She initially had to be taken out after only 11 days due to an illness, but she persevered and went back under.

Tourists could pay a nickel to view her down in her glass-topped coffin and while she didn't beat Country Bill's record, the mother of three in her mid-30s did manage to raise $4800 for her cause of taking in and helping out unwed mothers.  As for Country Bill White, he was still alive in 2005, and was still burying himself alive to raise money for charity and to promote car dealerships.  As of 2003, he was still in the Guiness Book of World Records, after having crushed his own previous record set in Texas.

1987 Interview with Country Bill White

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