Crying in the Library

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Heather Christle*


In 1906, Alvin Borgquist–a little-known graduate student at Clark University–published the world’s first in-depth psychological study of crying, and then appears to have vanished back into a quiet, private life in his native Utah.  His study is moving, strange, detached, threaded through with the racist and colonialist assumptions common to this era (and, distressingly, our own). The questionnaire he crafted to solicit data on typical crying behaviors fascinates me, forming as it does a kind of accidental poem.  Here, for instance, is Borgquist’s first question:

As a child did you ever cry till you almost lost consciousness or things seemed to change about you?  Describe a cry with utter abandon. Did it bring a sense of utter despair? Describe as fully as you can such an experience in yourself, your subjective feelings, how it grew, what caused and increased it, its physical symptoms, and all its after effects. What is wanted is a picture of a genuine and unforced fit or crisis of pure misery.[1]

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‘To be buried alive is, beyond question, the most terrible of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.’

Cases of being accidentally buried alive date back to the 14th century when the corpse of philosopher John Duns Scotus was reportedly found outside his coffin with bloodied hands. Since then, there have been countless tales of people hearing cries and wails of the dead, longing to get out of their coffins. As recently as 2014, there was a noted case of a woman being buried alive in Peraia, Greece. The woman succumbed to cancer. Not long after her burial, her children heard screams coming from her grave. She was exhumed, and it was discovered that she actually died of cardiac arrest. To the horror of her family, it was discovered that her death occurred after she was in the grave.

The Historical Medical Library has an array of materials that touch on this subject – a subject that was, and is, still a fear to many.
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