Mysteries engage and intrigue; keeping people on their toes. What’s more compelling are the probable theories that seem absurd but at the same time perfectly logical. Little coffins were unearthed from the volcanic hill of Edinburgh. This hill had an enigmatic history. As the name suggested, it was the fabled site of King Arthur’s Camelot. Now it was home to another secret.
July 20th, 1836
Three Scottish boys were playing around, rabbiting along the edge of Arthur’s Seat, a rocky formation near Edinburgh’s Old Town, Scotland. And as all young boys go, inquisitiveness was inherent. Their insistent sniffing led them to discover a little cave, one with a strange cache of concealed miniature coffins.
Seventeen in total. Laid out in stacks—two tiers of eight coffins each and one on the third tier. Each coffin was three to four inches in length. Inside were miniature wooden human figures carved out of wood. The figures, each dressed differently in style and fabric. These were laid out in a mimic representation of the last homage to the dead; a funeral.
The most extraordinary fact regarding these coffins was the datum. Research suggested that the coffins were deposited singly and at several intervals. The first-tier coffins were decayed and wrappings moldered away, while the third-tier coffin was relatively new.
Several contrasting theories circulated regarding the story behind these mysterious coffins. The ones that dominated varied in options and had everything to do with the fact that superstitions were not yet denounced.
Fact: Charles Hoy Fort, American Writer and researcher who specialised in anomalous phenomenon took a keen interest in those little coffins. He had addressed the London Times with a report, mentioning the discovery and probable motive.
- One such theory pinpointed the practice of witchcraft. The local people believed it to be a satanic ritual carried out by witches.
- Another theory linked the coffins to sailors. In the old days, it was believed to be a good luck omen. Sailors asked their wives to give them a mimic funeral to ward off death.
- A third theory linked back to the horrific past of Edinburgh. It was suggestive of surrogate burials as a bid to assuage the guilt of the gruesome murderer duo, Burke and Hare, and to appease the spirits of their innocent victims.
- In 2018, author and amateur historian Jeff Nisbet, a former resident of that town indicated the Radical war of 1820 as a probable reason behind the coffins’ appearance. He believed these were to commemorate the martyrs and to keep the flames of the rebellion alive.
William Burke and William Hare Murders
In the early 19th century, Edinburgh became one of the top European centers for advanced anatomical studies. Anatomy requires surgery and thus an increased demand for the supply of cadavers i.e. dead bodies. And an increased demand fed by low supply meant good money for suppliers.
Burke and Hare noticed an opportunity. In an attempt to make fast money, the duo took to committing murders and supplying cadavers to anatomy professors. In total, they committed a series of 16 murders and sold the bodies to Robert Knox, a Scottish anatomist who used the bodies for dissecting in his Anatomy lectures.
Burke was sentenced to death and publicly executed and dissected. His skeleton was donated to the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School. Hare became a government witness and was released in 1829. It is assumed that he lived out his last days on the streets as a blind beggar.
According to researchers, it was believed that someone had deposited those seventeen coffins to symbolize respect and to forgo guilt for the duo’s crimes. Some even argued about Hare being the one responsible for the coffins, to mark 16 victims and his partner, Burke. While a few others suggested a net of 17 murders where one remained undisclosed till the very end.
Fact: The Burke and Hare murders eventually contributed to the enactment of the Anatomy Act of 1832. The Act was passed under the parliament of the United Kingdom. It gave free access to doctors, anatomy teachers and medical students to dissect donated bodies, an attempt to curb the illegal trade of corpses.
The Radical War of 1820 aka The Scottish Insurrection
In 1820, several workers, weavers, and artisans launched a series of strikes against the Scottish government demanding better working conditions and pay. A state of public unrest resided in Scotland. In retrospect, the protesters were arrested, exiled, or executed for revolting. While a fraction who agreed or supported the strike was put to work, constructing a road surrounding Arthur’s Seat. Historian Jeff Nisbet believes that it was around this time that the coffins were buried.
Fact: Today only eight of those coffins survive, and are exhibited at the National Museum of Scotland.
Despite all theories and studies, the evidence fails to provide any definite reason for the presence of those coffins. Time and again historians and scholars have revisited this puzzle and are left baffled. To date, these miniature coffins remain an unsolved mystery.
- ‘Anatomy Act, 1832’ | Irish Statute Book | Available at http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1832/act/75/enacted/en/html
- ‘Edinburgh’s Mysterious Miniature Coffins’ | Smithsonian Magazine | Available at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/edinburghs-mysterious-miniature-coffins-22371426/
- ‘The mystery of the miniature coffins’ | National Museums Scotland | Available at https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/mystery-of-the-miniature-coffins/#:~:text=A%20baffling%20mystery&text=In%20a%20secluded%20spot%20on,the%20National%20Museum%20of%20Scotland.
- ‘The Story of Burke and Hare’ | Historic UK | Ben Johnson | Available at https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/Burke-Hare-infamous-murderers-graverobbers/