February 13, 2017 4:46 pm

17 miniature coffins were discovered in a small cave on the mystical Arthur’s Seat outside of Edinburgh, Scotland in 1836. Today, only eight remain and are now on display at the National Museum of Scotland. Despite the passage of 181 years, researchers are no closer to ascertaining the creator or the purpose of the coffins, each of which contains a tiny, carefully dressed human figure. Some say that it is witchcraft. Others claim it is a symbolic burial of men lost at sea. One of the most intriguing theories is that the coffins were made in a kindly attempt to quiet the wandering souls of 17 people who were murdered for the dissection table by the notorious serial killers Burke and Hare.

An Unexpected Discovery

In June of 1836, a group of local school children was roaming the hills of Arthur’s Seat in search of rabbits. In a secluded area on the northeast side, they found a small cave (or possibly a large hole) hidden behind three slabs of slate. Inside were 17 little coffins, each nailed shut, arranged neatly in two rows of eight, with the 17th resting on top as if to start a third row.

According to The Scotsman, the first paper to write about the story, “a number [of the coffins] were destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles” (Dash, 2013). As described by The Scotsman, each of the coffins “contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funereal trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity” (Dash, 2013).

New Insights on the Creators

Since that description was written in the 19th century, further research has determined that the figures were most likely made by the same craftsman and the coffins were made by two different people. In addition, “the materials and tools used – wood, iron embellishments, nails, a sharp, hooked knife – indicate the coffins could have been fashioned by a shoemaker” (Scottish History and Archeology, 2017). Moreover, “the figures seem to form a set, and their upright bearing, flat feet, and swinging arms suggest they may have been toy soldiers. Their eyes are open, making it unlikely they were originally designed as corpses” (Scottish History and Archeology, 2017). Finally, a closer examination of the cotton used in the figures’ dressing dates their creation to the early 1830s. This means that they could not have been buried for long before being discovered by the school children.

Yet such close scrutiny has not brought people any closer to understanding the effigies’ purpose. According to the Museum of Scotland, to understand why these coffins were made, one must examine what was happening at the time.

Body Snatchers and Murderers

In the 1820s and 30s, Edinburgh was a cultural center renowned for its medical prowess. The city’s medical schools turned out some of the best doctors and each year more and more students enrolled. This influx created a problem. In the 19th century, the key to the healing arts was to understand human anatomy. And the only way this was possible was through dissection. Yet, as Edinburgh progressed, there were fewer criminals being sent to death at the gallows (the typical source of cadavers). Thus, the infamous practices of body snatching and grave robbing came into vogue.

While highly profitable, the crime scandalized the Scottish public. It was conventional wisdom at the time that in order for one to rise again to life on the day of the Last Judgment, a person must have his or her body intact. This prevailing sentiment led to a number of innovations to prevent robbers from making off with corpses, such as iron clad coffins and all night vigils. This is important to bear in mind because it may also have contributed to why somebody would make the tiny surrogate bodies.

Among the most devious body snatchers in history were William Burke and William Hare, both Irish immigrants, as well as the famous Edinburgh anatomist and scholar Dr. Robert Knox. As a once-popular children’s rhyme retells, “Up the close and doun the stair/ But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare. Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief/ Knox the boy that buys the beef” (Scottish History and Archeology, 2017).

Burke and Hare’s first transaction with Dr. Knox occurred when an elderly tenant at Hare’s boarding house died before paying off a debt to Hare. In order to recoup his losses, Burke and Hare sold the man’s body to the doctor’s anatomy school in Surgeon’s Square. It was such easy money.

“But with no-one else in the boarding house prepared to drop dead of their own accord, the pair thought they’d hurry the process along a bit. And so began a vicious killing spree that lasted 10 months, during which Burke and Hare dispatched at least 16 victims [12 of whom were female] and earned around £150 (roughly £12,000 now – no mean sum)” (Scottish History and Archeology, 2017). On the offset, they only killed vagrants who they believed would not be missed. But then they grew careless and began to kill local residents who were not only missed but also recognized at the school.

In November 1928, the men were arrested. Hare agreed to testify against Burke and was therefore granted immunity. On January 28, 1828, Burke was hanged before a crowd of thousands. His body was then sent to be dissected at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, who (on the orders of the court) preserved Burke’s skeleton as a testament to his atrocious crimes. Dr. Knox was cleared of any wrongdoing; however, the incident ruined his illustrious career. Hare was never heard from again. Most likely he went back to Ireland but there is a folk legend that says he made off to London where he fell into a lime pit and was permanently blinded.

17 Coffins for the Victims?

A popular theory holds that the 17 coffins were buried for the 17 victims. “It just seems like a particularly Edinburgh kind of thing, to try and lay these ghosts to rest by creating a symbolic image of the victims to place and give a proper burial to. Even if nobody every learned about it, it just seemed like something somebody who had known somebody who had disappeared in Edinburgh might have done to give their friend a bit of peace” (Henderson quoted in Scottish History and Archeology, 2017). Today, the remaining eight little coffins still have a grip on the popular imagination and have been on display to the public consistently since their donation to the Museum in 1901.


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This post was written by Nadia Vella