The Enigma of Edinburgh’s Miniature Coffins

National Museums Scotland
National Museums Scotland

It was a group of boys out hunting for rabbits who found the coffins one summer’s day in 1836. They were roaming a rocky peak known as Arthur’s Seat that overlooks Edinburgh, Scotland, when their attention was caught by a small cave, its entrance carefully covered with pieces of slate. After pulling back the slabs of stone, the boys found 17 coffins, each about 3.7 inches long, arranged in three tiers—two rows of eight, and a solitary coffin at the start of a third row. Inside each was a small wooden doll, its face carved with wide-open eyes, dressed in plain cotton clothes that covered the thin body from bare head to flat feet.

The question of who carved the figures and coffins—and why—has been a mystery ever since. Were the objects tools of witchcraft, part of a pagan ritual, or a memorial to one of the era’s most notorious killing sprees?

A STRANGE DISCOVERY

The Scotsman was the first to report on the discovery, on July 16, 1836, noting that the "Lilliputian coffins" were all "decently 'laid out' with mimic representation of all the funeral trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead." Stranger still, it seemed "evident that the depositions must have been made singly, and at considerable intervals—facts indicated by the rotten and decayed state of the first tier of coffins and their wooden mummies [… while] the coffin last placed, and its shrouded tenant, are as clean and fresh as if only a few days had elapsed since their entombment."

From the beginning, theories swirled around the discovery of the so-called "fairy coffins," with some declaring them ritualistic offerings, and others describing them as creepy child’s playthings. The Scotsman wrote, "Our own opinion would be, had we not some years ago abjured witchcraft and demonology, that there are still some of the weird sisters hovering about Mushat's Cairn or the Windy Gowl, who retain their ancient power to work the spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.” Indeed, the moody Arthur’s Seat has long drawn tales of witches casting spells on its volcanic hill; Edinburgh’s dark history includes an estimated 300 people sentenced for witchcraft, with more burned there in the 16th century than anywhere else in Scotland.

Nor are witches the only aspects of folklore to be mentioned in connection with the coffins. Later in 1836, the Edinburgh Evening Post posited that the coffins might be related to an "ancient custom which prevailed in Saxony, of burying in effigy departed friends who had died in a distant land." The Caledonian Mercury chimed in, saying that they had "also heard of another superstition which exists among some sailors in this country, that they enjoined their wives on parting to give them 'Christian burial' in an effigy if they happened [to be lost at sea]."

Yet as George Dalgleish, keeper of Scottish history and archaeology at National Museums Scotland, says in a 2015 video, there’s little evidence of such ceremonial burial practices in Scotland. And if a doll were created for witchcraft purposes, he notes, it’s likely it would have been mutilated or destroyed rather than carefully bundled in stitched cotton clothing and hidden within a cave.

In the 1990s, a new theory emerged—linked to one of the darkest chapters in Edinburgh’s history.

“ATROCIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES”

Scottish doctor Robert Knox
Scottish doctor Robert Knox
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the early 19th century, Edinburgh was home to a thriving underground trade in dead bodies. The buyers were medical students and their teachers, who required the corpses for training and study but who were legally limited to a small number of executed convicts for their supply.

William Burke and William Hare saw an opportunity. Their gruesome business plan was sparked when, in 1827, one of the lodgers at Hare’s boarding house died suddenly while still owing £4 in rent, and they sold his remains to anatomist Dr. Robert Knox for 7 pounds 10 shillings (about $820 today). Rather than waiting for more spontaneous deaths, the pair turned to murder, targeting travelers and downtrodden characters whose disappearance was not likely to be noticed. After making a small fortune from the sale of their victims to Dr. Knox, they were caught when a lodger discovered a body in a pile of straw. Hare turned king's evidence on Burke, agreeing to testify against his fellow murderer for immunity. Burke was hanged, dissected as punishment, and his skin bound into a book.

But what do these infamous murders have to do with the enigmatic coffins? As author Mike Dash notes for Smithsonian.com, the link was first proposed by two visiting fellows at the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh—Professor Samuel Menefee and Dr. Allen Simpson, a curator at National Museums Scotland. The pair examined the construction of the coffins and concluded that they had all been deposited in the 1830s. They also noted that the 17 coffins found in the cave match the number of Burke and Hare victims (including the first, who died a natural death).

As to why someone would create such a strange tribute to the murders, the answer may be tied to the belief in the need for a complete body on Resurrection Day. This is part of the reason dissection was often used as a punishment for criminals. Menefee and Simpson theorized that perhaps the coffins were crafted to return corporeality, or at least some symbolic dignity, to the dissected victims. As they write, "it would not be unreasonable for some person or person, in the absence of the 17 dissected bodies, to wish to propitiate these dead, the majority of whom were murdered in atrocious circumstances, by a form of burial to set their spirits at rest."

Close-up of the coffins discovered in Edinburgh in 1836
National Museums Scotland

Of course, correlation does not imply causation, and there are many holes to be poked in the Burke and Hare theory. For one thing, all the wooden bodies were dressed in men’s clothing, but the pair’s victims were mostly women. Furthermore, the eyes of the figures are open, not closed like a corpse. Some have even speculated that Burke himself made the coffins, as their woodworking and tin decorations suggest the hand of a shoemaker—Burke’s profession when he was not suffocating Hare’s guests.

Eight of the coffins have been on display almost continuously at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland since 1901. (As to what became of the nine other coffins, the Scotsman wrote in their initial report that "a number were destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles.")

David S. Forsyth, principal curator of Renaissance and early modern history at National Museums Scotland, says the coffins still draw comments from museum goers. "It’s the mystery behind them that makes them so compellingly intriguing, no one can solely own their story," he tells Mental Floss. "They can be linked to the more intangible aspects of our culture and history, or to real episodes such as Burke and Hare."

In December 2014, there was a curious twist in the case. A box was delivered to the museum with no return address. Inside was a detailed replica of the coffins found in 1836, down to the metal details on the lid and the roughly carved face of its figure. A note included with the object cryptically began "XVIII?," suggesting this was an 18th addition to the group, and quoted Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story "The Body Snatcher" (1884), itself inspired by Burke and Hare.

The handwritten text declared the miniature coffin a "gift" to the National Museum of Scotland, "for caring for our nation's treasures." Especially the eight that cannot be explained.

5 Fast Facts About Billy the Kid

On September 23, 1875, Billy the Kid was arrested for the first time. Whether you think he was a misunderstood old West hero or nothing but a cold-blooded killer, it's impossible to argue that he was an interesting man. Here are five facts to prove it.

1. HIS "REAL" NAME IS A TOPIC OF DEBATE.

Billy the Kid's real name? Henry McCarty. Or maybe William Bonney. Or Henry Antrim. Take your pick. He was born Henry McCarty, but there's some speculation that his dad may have been a man named William Bonney. Billy the Kid started using his name at some point in 1877. Antrim was his step-father's last name; he went by that for some time as well.

2. HE WORKED AT A CHEESE FACTORY.

Billy the Kid wasn't always engaging in illegal activities and shooting people; he once worked at a cheese factory—at least he did according to Charlie Bowdre, a man who would later be in Billy's posse, and was part owner of the cheese factory. Bowdre's descendants have said this is where the two of them met, although his employ was short.

3. HIS LEGEND MAY BE A BIT OF AN EXAGGERATION.

You may have heard the legend that Billy killed 21 people—one for each year of his rather short life. It's just that: legend. We only have evidence that Billy killed four people, two of them prison guards. He may have "participated" in the deaths of up to five more people.

4. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, HE PROBABLY WASN'T LEFT-HANDED.

The reason this notion became widespread is because of the famous ferrotype of him that shows him wearing a gun belt with the holster on the left side. It was later discovered that the image has been reproduced incorrectly and flipped to show the mirror image of what really was. The picture actually shows Billy with his gun on his right hip.

5. SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE HE FAKED HIS OWN DEATH.

Many people—including some claiming to be Billy himself—have said Billy didn't actually die on July 14, 1881 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, which is the official story. Many claim that Sheriff Pat Garrett didn't kill Billy, but actually helped him fake his death and happily ride off into the sunset. No evidence has ever been found to support this, though.

Men claiming to be Billy include Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts and a man named John Miller. Brushy Bill started claiming to be Billy the Kid in 1949, and knew quite a few intimate details about Billy's life and the Lincoln Country War. But there were several gunfights he was pretty clueless about, and photo comparisons using sophisticated computer programs show the men to have completely different bone structure and other features.

As for John Miller, his claims were basically put to rest in 2005 when his bones were disinterred and DNA samples were taken. They were compared to a blood sample thought to be Billy the Kid's and there was no match.

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

iStock
iStock

This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.


iStock

By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

Michael Faraday
iStock

At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

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