Reporting on the result of a boxing match in 1893, local American newspaper The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel wrote:
“Martin Flaherty defeated Bobby Burns in 32 rounds by a complete knockout. Half a dozen times, Flaherty was saved by the bell in the earlier rounds.”
This newspaper report is thought to be the earliest reference to the phrase, and the meaning is immediately clear. Flaherty was close to losing the bout earlier in the fight, but the end of each round – signalled by a bell – saved him from defeat.
Another origin story goes back another century, but it is hard to know if it is credible as there are no surviving accounts. The fear of being buried alive has led many people to say and do extreme things, and it was not always an unwarranted fear. There were times over the last few hundred years when the population was so high in England that it was a relatively common practice to reuse graves. When gravediggers opened the used coffins, they would occasionally see scratch marks on the inside of the lid.
Composer Frederic Chopin was so concerned by being buried alive that his last words were: “I implore you to have my body opened, so that I won’t be buried alive.”
To prevent this from happening, coffins were modified so that anyone unfortunate to be alive when buried could alert the world above. One such method was to tie string around the ‘deceased’s’ wrist, run it through the coffin and earth and attach it to a bell on the surface. Therefore, if a person awoke six feet under, they could tug on the string, ring the bell and be saved.
Later designs for ‘safety coffins’ included windows, so the body could be observed before burial, and a tube – so a doctor could check for the tell-tale smells of a corpse’s putrefaction.