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April 15, 2020

Burke & Hare Murder Dolls: The Mystery of the Miniature Edinburgh Coffins

In late June 1836, a group of boys headed out to the north-east slopes of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat to hunt for rabbits. What they found there has remained a baffling mystery ever since. In a secluded spot on the north-east side of the hill, the boys discovered a small cave in the rock, hidden behind three pointed slabs of slate. Concealed within were 17 miniature coffins.

The tiny coffins were arranged under slates in three tiers: two tiers of eight and one solitary coffin on the top. Each coffin, only 95mm in length, contained a little wooden figure, expertly carved and dressed in custom-made clothes that had been stitched and glued around them.

After this initial flurry of media interest, the coffins passed into the hands of private collectors, reappearing in 1901, when eight were donated to the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and from there to National Museums Scotland. What happened to the remaining nine? According to The Scotsman, a number were destroyed by the boys, although we don’t know how many – certainly no more have come to light since.

On surveying the evidence from The Scotsman, Edinburgh Evening Post and Caledonian Mercury, cuttings from which were donated with the coffins, the Society concluded that “the intention [of the coffins] seems to be to symbolize honorific burial.”

But the mystery has not been allowed to rest there. Who made the intricate carved figures? Who did they represent? Who placed them in their secret sepulcher… and why?

At first theories on the dolls’ significance ranged from witchcraft to child’s toys, but eventually, it began to seem that the 17 tiny figures could be effigies for the 17 murder victims a decade earlier. There is also a belief that the figurines were meant to represent sailors lost at sea who hadn’t received a proper burial. Holyrood Park, where the dolls were discovered, has a clear view of the Firth of Forth estuary. Even the nearby St. Anthony’s Chapel ruins were said to act a lighthouse. There is a possibility that these were funeral effigies.

Between 1827 and 1828, William Burke and William Hare lured in and murdered their lodgers in a scheme to provide fresh bodies to the local anatomy school. Dr. Robert Knox, a brilliant and well-known local anatomy lecturer, purchased the bodies and most likely knew that something was a bit suspicious about his supply chain.

William Burke and William Hare

The crimes were exposed when another lodger discovered the body of a previous tenant and reported it to the police. Burke and Hare were apprehended along with Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal, and Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird. Despite finding the body of this last lodger in Knox’s classroom, ready for dissection, the evidence was not truly damning until Hare turned on Burke and gave a full confession. William Burke was hanged in January 1829. His body was handed over for dissection, and his skeleton and a book bound from his skin remain in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

Although it is generally agreed that the mysterious little dolls are associated with the crimes of Burke & Hare, no one is certain who among the killers created them. While twelve of Burke and Hare’s victims were female, the corpses in the coffins are all dressed as men, but perhaps the figures were simply meant as symbols.

And yet, if they were, who buried them? Someone close to the murders, or a sympathetic onlooker? We’ll never know.

(Photos © National Museums Scotland, via the National Museum of Scotland and Atlas Obscura)


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