Edwin Henry Landseer’s first show at the Royal Academy came when he was thirteen. He was a full member before he was thirty; he was knighted before he was fifty. A booming commercial trade in engravings prepared by his brother made him wealth. He was a favorite of Queen Victoria’s, and his art is still familiar today, if perhaps more for its sensibility (and commercial appeal) than its artistic merits. Before driven to drink, madness, and the creation allegorical depictions of polar bears rending explorers, he had accrued all the successes that a Victorian artist could expect, and one unexpected one. Thanks to his portrait, A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, Landseer has a tall, powerful, well-built breed of dog named after him. The dog was the distinguished member of the Humane Society, of course, because the Humane Society was not concerned with the prevention of cruelty to animals but with saving human lives, and Bob (of the Newfoundland breed that some today call “Landseer”) was not an honorary member.
The Royal Humane Society is today a charity that gives medals and testimonials to those who risk their lives to save others, similar to Andrew Carnegie’s Hero Fund and stemming from the same impulses that led to the remarkable Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice at London’s Postman’s Park. They commemorate lifesaving in all its forms: rescuing victims from industrial accidents, from being overcome by sewer gas, from being trapped in wells, but it was drowning victims who were the most frequent reason for the Society’s laurels, since they were the ones it was most frequently possible to save. From Tsar Alexander I (saved a Polish peasant who had drowned in a river) to Bram Stoker (who dived into the Thames in a fruitless attempt to save an unknown soldier) to Harry Watts (a Sunderland sailor who saved over forty drowning victims during his lifetime, the first at age 14 and the last at 66) to Bob the Newfoundland, himself a shipwreck survivor, who reportedly saved twenty-three people in his fourteen years. The Humane Society gave him membership, a medal, and food for life.
When the Society — its motto lateat scintillula forsan, “a small spark may perhaps lie hid” — began in 1774, it was the brainchild of Doctors William Hawes and Thomas Cogan. Hawes had been paying people out of pocket for trying a technique he wished to publicize: artificial respiration. (The doctors stopped awarding cash prizes when they realized that they had become a magnet for eighteenth-century short con artists.) The Royal Humane Society was once the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, and the “Apparently” was chosen with due deliberation. It was truly a society for the not dead yet, for victims about whom one could say “several of them might, in all probability, have been restored by a speedy and judicious treatment.” The drowned were in the doorway between life and death, and Hawes wanted to publicize that even those who seemed beyond hope might be saved.
They said of that great medieval theologician Duns Scotus that he was “once interr’d but twice dead” or, in the words of Sir Francis Bacon: There have been many instances of men who have been left for dead, laid out, and carried forth to burial; nay, of some who have been actually buried; that have yet come to life again. In the case of those who have been buried, this has been ascertained, on opening the grave, from the wounded and bruised state of the head, by reason of the body striving and tossing in the coffin. The most recent and memorable instance thereof was the subtle schoolman Duns Scotus, who having been buried in the absence of his servant (who appears to have known the symptoms of these fits), was by him afterwards disinterred and found in this state. That phrasing — once buried but twice dead — is used in one of the most universal folktales of early modern Europe, “The Lady with the Ring”, in which a woman is buried prematurely, only to awake in horror to discover a grave robber sawing at her hand to remove jewelery. We’ve been worried about those hidden sparks for quite a while.
The nineteenth century was a golden age for the reprentations of the horrors implicit in being not-quite-dead — Wietz’s Buried Alive, Poe’s “The Premature Burial”, the anti-vaccination campaigner William Tebb (founder, naturally, of the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial)’s Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented, various commercial nostrums along the safety coffin and escape-hatch vault line. But why shouldn’t it have been? Hawes and Cogan had discovered that the very breath of life could be restored to the seemingly dead! Burke and Hare, the kings of the resurrection men, had looted the cemeteries of Edinburgh in order that anatomists could push back the frontiers of knowledge. Bacon had written that a “physician still alive told me that by the use of frictions and warm baths he had recovered a man who had hung himself and been suspended for half an hour”; with Galvanism seemingly capable of briefly restoring life to dead tissue (and definitely inspiring Mary Shelley’s most famous work), was it really so unbelievable that Francis Bacon was right, that a shallow dive in death’s waters could be reversible?
Drowning victims suffering from deep hypothermic circulatory arrest can survive for a surprisingly long time. Martin Nemiroff, a doctor and medical diver, said in 1982 that he had personally treated patients drowned as long as twenty minutes and heard of survivors who had gone as long as forty; cold and water slow the body’s functioning to a degree even Batman might envy. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is now experimenting with draining the blood of trauma victims and running cold salt water through their veins, lowering their body temperature to 50 degrees and dropping their biological functioning to practically nothing. Why shouldn’t drowning victims occasionally survive miraculously? Herodotus tells of the musician Arion, who flung himself into the sea to escape murderous sailors; conveyed by dolphin to land, he survived and confronted his attackers. In gratitude for the dolphin’s service, Apollo raised him to the heavens as the constellation Delphinus — a different sort of immortality than that of Bob the Newfie, and one that didn’t come with a lifetime guarantee of a square meal.