Legends of the Three Shires

A collection of myths and legends from Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire

Buried Alive: The Tale of Thomas Meaykin

The Chapel of St Lawrence, Rushton Spencer

The Chapel of St Lawrence, Rushton Spencer (click on the image to view full size).


In the north east corner of the graveyard of the Chapel of St Lawrence at Rushton Spencer there is a grave with a west-facing headstone that bears the following inscription:

Memento Mori.
Thomas Son of Thomas
and Mary MEAYKIN.
Interred July the 16 1781.
Aged 21 years.

As man falleth before
wicked men: so fell I.

Though there are a number of slight variations on the macabre fate of Thomas Meaykin, the most common is that he was a young man who left Rushton to find work at Stone, where he became employed as a groom by an apothecary. In time he fell in love with the apothecary’s daughter, and she with him. The apothecary disapproved of the relationship, but was spared the problem of what to do about it when Thomas suddenly and inexplicably died.

Thomas was buried at St Michael’s Church in Stone, but his favourite pony kept scraping at his grave until eventually, a year later, suspicious friends had the grave opened. To their dismay they found Thomas’s corpse was lying face down in the coffin. He had evidently been buried alive, and, having revived, turned over in his struggles to get out. The natural suspicion was that the apothecary had drugged him, but not fatally, resulting in his premature burial. No proof could be found, however, and Thomas’s body was returned to his native Rushton to be reburied, with a reversed grave and an inscription to reflect his fate.

Thomas Meaykin’s grave

Thomas Meaykin’s grave under a yew tree in what would have been the north-east corner of the graveyard, facing west (the stones lying beyond are in a more recent extension to the cemetery).


“Memento mori.—Thomas, son of Thomas and Mary Meaykin, interred on July 16th, 1781, aged 21 years. As a man falleth before wicked men, so fell I,—Βιά Θάνατος,” is the inscription on a grave-stone at the north-eastern angle of the churchyard, the following interpretation of which is taken from the Mathew mss: “The history of this young man, as related by elderly people who can recollect the circumstance was, that he went into very reputable service at Stone ; that while there the daughter of his master betrayed an attachment for him, which it is supposed was either discovered by or disclosed to the father.* He was taken ill shortly after ; died, and was buried at Stone. That after his interment, a pony of his master’s, of which he had been the groom, got into the churchyard, and attempted to tear up the earth over his coffin. Some suspicions were engendered in the minds of his friends, that he had not come by his death fairly, or by natural means. These became intense: at length after he had been interred some time—it is said at least twelve months†—he was taken up, the coffin opened, and hte body found to be turned over. It was then conjectured that some powerful but not sufficiently fatal narcotic had been administered ; that whilst under its influence, he had been committed to the ground ; and the discovery took place as above revealed. His remains were removed by his relations to the place of his nativity and re-interred with the foregoing memorial.”

* Pitt says his master gave him an opiate, for the sake of some money which he received from him, as a loan.
† “The body of Thomas Meaykin was bury’d at Stone, 1781, and was remov’d thence, and bury’d at Rushton, 11th July, 1782.” (Register.)

John Sleigh, A History of the Ancient Parish of Leek, Robert Nall, Leek, 1862, p 170

In the graveyard of the chapel is a stone with this curious inscription: “Memento Mori. Thomas, son of Thomas and Mary Meaykin, interr’d July 16, 1781, aged 21 years. As a man falleth before wicked men, so fell I. Bia, thanatos.” Thomas Meaykin was a Rushton boy; he died at Stone, in Staffordshire, and was buried there. A favourite pony pawed the grave open; the body was then disinterred and was found to have turned over in the coffin. It was removed to Rushton where they laid the corpse with its feet to the west, which is evident from the position and lettering of the headstone. The memory of this story is perpetuated in three languages, and was registered by the parson at the time.

Philip Lancaster Brocklehurst, Swythamley and Its Neighbourhood, Past and Present, Desultory Fragments Collected From Various Authors, Robert Hardwicke, London, 1874, p 9

RUSHTON SPENCER. It is a remarkable church we find here and a grim story that is told here. The story is of a young man buried alive—Thomas Meaykin, who has been sleeping under a stone in the churchyard since 1781.

“As a man falleth before wicked men, so fell I,” we read, and the tale is that because Thomas was in love with his master’s daughter her father had him drugged and buried alive at Stone. His friends, who are said to have opened his coffin and found him lying face downwards, brought his body to lie here in the place he had known as a child. He sleeps by the church on a wooded hilltop apart from the village, noble firs and old yews about him; one of the yews is probably 500 years old.

Arthur Mee, The King’s England: Staffordshire, Hodder & Stoughton, 1937, p 173

Burial Customs. The dead in old churchyards are always buried with their feet to the east. One supposes the idea is to greet the rising sun, the symbol of resurrection. But whenever there is a fear of the spirit walking, they are buried the other way on. Thus Molly Lee is buried “contrary-roads” in Burslem churchyard, and the murdered Meaykin was laid in Rushton churchyard with his feet to the west, to the setting sun.

W.P. Witcutt, Folklore, Vol 52, Issue 3, 1941, p 237

We cannot leave Rushton without reference to the gruesome fate which befell a young man in the late 18th century.

On a gravestone at St Laurence’s Church there is inscribed in English, Latin and Greek, the following: “Memento Mori (Be mindful of death), Thomas, son of Thomas and Mary Meaykin. Interred July 16th 1781 aged 21 years. As a man falleth before wicked men, so fell I. Bia Thanates (Death of violence)”.

This young man went to Stone in Staffordshire from Rushton to seek his fortune. An unlikely place at first glance but it was riding the crest of the wave of the Industrial Revolution at that time. He became a houseboy to an un-named apothecary and, we are told, became affectionate with the master’s daughter. Quite suddenly, young Thomas became ill and equally suddenly he was pronounced dead and was buried in St Michael’s churchyard at Stone on July 16th 1781.

Thomas's favourite pony found its way to the churchyard and began to scrape on his grave and this strange behaviour started tongues wagging but it was to be 12 months later before an exhumation was carried out. It was to be discovered that Thomas (who had been buried face upwards) was lying face down.

His master never stood trial for murder but the rumour was, quite obviously, that a drug had been administered to the youth.

His remains were taken to Rushton and re-buried on July 17th 1782, the wrong way round to prevent his ghost wandering.

Doug Pickford, Myths and Legends of East Cheshire and the Moorlands, Sigma Leisure, 1992

The ghost that haunted the churchyard of the town of Stone in the 1780s led to a most macabre discovery. The apparition of a young man was first seen in the autumn of 1781, and was soon identified as being Tom Meaykin. Tom had been buried in the churchyard of St Michael’s in July of that year, following his sudden death at the age of 21.

Thomas Meaykin had been born in the moorlands village of Rushton Spencer but had left the village to work in Stone. There he had become a houseboy to the local apothecary, with the responsibility for looking after the horses. He was happy in his work and a popular local figure. His only problem, if indeed it was a problem, was that his employer’s pretty young daughter had fallen in love with him. Tom was very conscious of the difference in their stations, but the young lady had set her cap at Tom in a very determined and public fashion. The whole population of Stone was amused by the situation, but when the apothecary finally realised what was happening, he was furious at the way his social reputation was being undermined. He remonstrated with his headstrong daughter, but she refused to budge. She wanted Tom and she would have him. Then suddenly Tom died and was buried in St Michael’s churchyard.

After the frequent appearances of his ghost throughout the autumn and winter of 1781–2, tongues began to wag. Wasn’t it rather convenient for the apothecary that the problem of his daughter’s infatuation had been solved so easily? And wouldn’t someone in his profession have all manner of deadly poisons to hand?

About a year after Tom’s death it was decided to re-open his grave and exhume the body. A terrible sight met the eyes of those present: Tom’s body was now lying face down, whereas it had been buried in the normal position. The implications were obvious. When Tom had been buried, he had not been dead! He had been deeply unconscious, but alive. As the people of Stone contemplated the dreadful image of the young man coming round in his coffin, buried six ft beneath the earth, they were horrified. It was no wonder that Tom’s ghost had returned to haunt the scene of his living death. It was widely believed that his employer had drugged the boy into a coma before having him buried, though it could never be proved.

His body was reinterred in the churchyard of St Lawrence’s, in his native village of Rushton Spencer in July 1782. The worn inscription on his gravestone can still be deciphered. In a mixture of Latin, English and Greek it tells us of his ‘death by violence, caused by the wickedness of man’. This time, Tom’s body was buried the wrong way round, with his head to the east and feet to the west. This was done in order to lay his ghost.

David Bell, Ghost and Legends of Staffordshire and the Black Country, Countryside Books, 1994

Thomas Meaykin, born in c1760, son of Thomas and Mary Meaykin, took work in Stone, Staffs, in c1780. His employer was an apothecary, whose daughter, had designs on him, or both loved each other. In July 1781 Meaykin died, reputedly of natural causes, and was buried in St Michael’s churchyard, Stone, on July 16. Meaykin’s ghost and a pony he had been fond of in life, who is said to have scraped on his gravestone, alerted the local community to the suspicious circumstances of his death. In summer 1782 his grave was opened and Meaykin was found to be buried face down, a sign that he had been buried alive. On July 17 1782 his parents reinterred him in St Lawrence churchyard, Rushton Spencer, with his feet facing W in order to lay his ghost. It was thought he had been poisoned by the apothecary who had disapproved of his daughter’s advances to him. The inscription on Meaykin’s present gravestone at Rushton Spencer implies he was murdered.

Tim Cockin, The Staffordshire Encyclopaedia, Malthouse Press, 2000


As with most stories of this type, there is little surviving evidence. However the parish register for St Lawrence’s Church contains an entry relating to Thomas’s burial (though his name is given as ‘Meakin’ rather than ‘Meaykin’). Here is the entry, which can be found among the parish records archived on microfiche at the Staffordshire Record Office at Stafford:

Thomas Meaykin entry in Rushton Spencer parish records

The entry in the parish records. It reads “The body of Thomas Meakin was bury’d at Stone 1781, and was remov’d thence, and was bury’d at Rushton 11th July 1782.”

The first mention of his having been buried alive doesn’t appear until eighty years later, in John Sleigh’s book, whose version of events seems to be the source of all subsequent accounts, which change little until that by Doug Pickford, who is the first to identify Thomas’s master as an apothecary, and David Bell, who removes the element of the favourite pony scraping at the grave, with Thomas’s ghost now being the reason for the exhumation of his body. In his retelling David Bell also elaborates on the background details a great deal, making it a fuller and more involving story.

So, could there be any truth in the story? Perhaps I’m being too much of a sceptic, but to me what stands out most is that this tale is primarily attached to Rushton Spencer, rather than Stone, which is where all the action took place. What we do have at Rushton is a reversed grave, where someone has been reburied, having died elsewhere. All that’s required is a lurid story to account for it. And that is why, I suspect, we have a tale being told in Rushton Spencer of horrible murder being committed in Stone.

Why the scepticism? Because of the crucial final word on the gravestone, Biathanatos (not Βιά Θάνατος, as John Sleigh put it; or Bia, thanatos, as Philip Brocklehurst did; or Bia Thanates, as Doug Pickford did). Though Greek-based, it is not a Greek word at all. It was coined by John Donne, who used it for the title of a tract (published posthumously in 1647) he wrote in defence of suicide. It’s a corruption of the Greek ‘biaio thanatos’, which does indeed mean ‘death by violence’, but does not refer to a victim of a murder committed by someone else. In the mid-seventeenth century even the word suicide had only recently come into being: terms such as ‘self-murder’ were more commonly used. Donne wanted to avoid the association of suicide with murder, which is why he came up with this new word. So to interpret the inscription on the gravestone as showing Thomas Meaykin was murdered is to completely misunderstand it.

While I obviously cannot prove it, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to deduce that Thomas Meaykin killed himself, and whoever paid for the headstone – presumably his family – wanted to make a statement to anyone inclined to be judgemental about it. The reversed burial would support this hypothesis, since suicide would be one reason for this to be done.

The reason for his suicide must remain a mystery, though the lines on the headstone may perhaps allude to his having become implicated in a crime. Then, as time passed, Thomas Meaykin’s sorry fate was forgotten, and a new one invented, based solely on the fact that he had been buried first in Stone, then reburied in Rushton – plus a misunderstanding of the word Biathanatos.

Detail from Thomas Meaykin’s grave

The crucial part of the text carved into Thomas Meaykin’s gravestone.