FRESNO, CA — Joseph W. "Amazing Joe" Burrus thought he had it figured out: how to be "the next Houdini and Greater."

But his death-defying escape from the grave ended Wednesday night in Fresno with death the victor — exactly 64 Halloweens from the day the Great Houdini died.

Burrus died under 3 feet of dirt topped by about 6,000 pounds of wet concrete. The combined weight, estimated at about 7 tons, crushed a clear plastic coffin in which Burrus attempted to perform his trick.

Burrus, 32, had set everything up. Although friends, associates, a radio station and even adoring children said his plan meant certain death, he had himself chained and handcuffed inside the coffin and buried in a 7-foot grave at Blackbeard's Family Fun Center. His plan was simple, but an above-ground trial run showed the outcome probably would be fatal.

His plan was simple, but an above-ground trial run showed the outcome probably would be fatal.

He tried it at Pumpkin King, a Halloween pumpkin lot at Blackstone and Shaw avenues, where Burrus entertained children with tricks for two weeks. Derrick Scelzi allowed him to place the clear coffin on a wooden platform near several haystacks.

Pumpkin King's David Byrd said Burrus told him he would have to get out of his chains, handcuffs and the coffin in one minute, before the concrete covered him. But by the time he emerged from the clear coffin, covered by an orange drape on the wooden platform, five minutes had passed.

Not only that, Byrd said when he closed the coffin lid, he heard a crack.

People at Pumpkin King asked Burrus, "You sure your equipment's all right?"

Burrus said he didn't know. He'd get the thing fixed.

He sought endorsement from radio station KTHT-FM but didn't get it. Randy Rahe, the station's general manager, said Burrus placed the station's call letters on his "Buried Alive" posters without permission.

The station thought it was too dangerous and ordered him to remove the call letters.

The night of his death, Burrus took a shower, changed into a white tuxedo and slipped on white patent-leather shoes. He meditated. Then he got into a white limousine.

The audience of 150 people included children 5 years and older. His own children, Joey and Joshua, 13 and 10, were also in the audience. Burrus did magic tricks before climbing into the coffin.

A camera projected the burial onto a large video screen. Assistants lowered the plastic glass coffin and then shoveled dirt. Burrus made a signal, and the crew opened a window in the dirt. Burrus adjusted his chains, and the crew poured the heavy concrete.

It took 10 minutes to fill the hole to a point one foot from ground level. One attendant said, "Stop. That's enough."

Another said, "No, he wants it all the way to the top."

They kept pouring until the concrete suddenly dropped two feet. It was obvious that the plastic coffin had collapsed.

The audience crowded around. Something had gone wrong.

After workmen pulled Burrus out of the hole, paramedics tried to revive him, but he was dead.

Burrus' assistant said details frequently got lost in his grandiose plans. The Fresno County Coroner's Office said Thursday that the cause of death was asphyxia. It was uncertain whether Burrus had died because dirt and concrete filled in his available air pocket or because the weight pressed so heavily on his chest that he couldn't breathe.

J.D. Bristow, the stuntman's assistant on the fatal night, said details frequently got lost in Burrus' grandiose plans.

Bristow said Burrus made no attempt to calculate the weight of the dirt and wet concrete and tested the strength of the plastic coffin simply by jumping on it.

Although Burrus worked as a tree trimmer, he never lost sight of his dream to be famous. He carried the coffin and promotional placards on a truck as he traveled throughout Fresno.


I Was There:, Dec 27, 2001
  An eyewitness account of a live burial.