Saved by a last minute intervention, akin to the ringing of a bell to signal the end of a round in boxing.
The expression is boxing slang, arising in the last half of the 1800s. A boxer who is still on his feet but close to being knocked down can be saved from losing by the bell ringing to indicate the end of the round. The earliest reference appears to be in the Massachusetts newspaper The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, February 1893:
“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.”
In the past, having the round end before the count of 10 was called “being saved by the bell.” If it happened at the end of the match, the fighter could theoretically win the match by ‘points.’ The knockout would only be recorded if the boxer couldn’t ‘answer the bell’ starting the next round, or chose to throw in the towel, or resign the match.
The practice of being saved by the bell in boxing became mandatory under the Marquess of Queensberry rules, introduced in England in 1867. In the mid 1900s, it also became a figurative expression for being saved, say from an unpleasant occurrence, by a timely interruption. Today being saved by the bell is no longer generally in force and in the US, for example, different states have different rules. In New York, a fighter cannot be saved by the bell in any round. In California and in Britain a fighter can be saved by the bell in the last round only.
Let’s examine the idea that ‘saved by the bell’ relates to people being buried alive. The theory was postulated that, if someone were unconscious and mistakenly pronounced dead and interred, they could, if they later revived, ring a bell that was attached to the coffin and thus be saved. The theory is plausible because the fear of being buried alive was and is real. Several prominent people expressed this fear when close to death; for example:
“Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead.” (deathbed request of George Washington)
Several of the devices were patented in England and the USA. These were known as ‘safety coffins’ and designs were registered in the 19th century and up to as late as 1955. One such coffin even had a glass screen to view the coffin’s occupant. However, we don’t know that anyone was ever saved by such coffins or even that they were ever used.
The phrase makes me think of high school, when I was occasionally saved from answering a question from the teacher because the bell announcing the end of class rang.