Archaeologists Make Rare, Gruesome Find in Portugal

Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the small city of Estremoz, near Portugal’s border with Spain, archaeologists recently excavated three graves located at the edge of a medieval cemetery. They were intrigued by the graves' isolated location and odd burial style. Within, they found something shocking: All three people had amputated hands and feet.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Estremoz was an important village located between the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile. In the mid-13th century, Christians colonized the area, driving out the Moors. The famous castle of Estremoz, parts of which still stand, was built to house the royal court. The nearby cemetery of Rossio Marquês de Pombal dates to this period. It's on the edge of this cemetery that the archaeologists found the burials.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, researchers from the Universities of Évora and Coimbra describe the young to middle-aged men found in the graves with cut marks to their forearms and ankles. The cuts are clean through the bones but not quite at right angles, and appear to have happened just before or just after death. Even more interesting, the bones from the severed hands and feet were also found in the graves—but not in the right places.

Field drawing of the skeletons. The arrow points to one of the men's right hand lying below his left elbow.T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the case of a late-teenage male, both of his feet and his left hand were buried under his left hip, while his right hand was under his left elbow.

In another grave, they found evidence that one amputation took more than one try to complete. The man's right leg had a second set of cuts, likely inflicted after a failed first attempt to cut off his foot. The researchers think that a sharp implement such as a machete, sword, cleaver, hatchet, or axe was used to deliver the blows swiftly and with high force.

The archaeologists believe the cuts were made while the men were still alive—or very near death—and almost certainly restrained. Lead author Teresa Fernandes tells Mental Floss that “due to the absence of any artifact, we cannot state for sure that the feet were bound; yet considering the historical evidence, prisoners were normally bound with the legs straight while hung."

Why had the men been treated like this?

Generally, amputations occur throughout history as the result of a medical therapy, accident, ritual, intentional violence, or punishment. While there is evidence from the same cemetery for foot disease, these particular men had no other indications of problems with their bodies, meaning medical treatment can be ruled out. So too can ritualistic post-mortem amputation, since there are no historical or archaeological accounts of amputation of hands and feet after death. And their injuries were clearly not the result of an accident.

The researchers think these amputations were a punishment.

Historical records of amputations related to criminal cases are relatively rare. But medieval kings in the Iberian peninsula had the discretion to mete out capital punishment—including hanging, drowning, and even boiling someone alive—as they saw fit. They could also use mutilation as punishment. The researchers found one mention specifically of the amputation of both hands and feet of traitors during a civil war in 14th-century Portugal.

“These skeletons may represent the testimony of vigorous application of justice as an act of royal sovereignty in a peripheral but militarily strategic region,” Fernandes' team writes.

Other researchers agree with this interpretation. Piers Mitchell, a palaeopathologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Mental Floss that because "the amputations are all at similar locations, and are symmetrically placed on the limbs, deliberate amputation as a punishment seems the most plausible interpretation."

Lost to the ages, however, is what these men may have done to merit this extreme punishment. Execution "could be enforced in the event of treason, theft, making false currency, or myriad sexual crimes," Fernandes says. “But the form of execution isn’t stipulated by law."

Archaeological evidence of judicial amputation is extremely rare, according to Jo Buckberry, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bradford who has done similar studies on ancient British skeletons. "The evidence of cut marks and the inclusion of severed hands and feet make this Portuguese case especially compelling,” she tells Mental Floss. Mitchell explains that often, "the extremities are absent in the graves of those who underwent amputation," which makes it noteworthy that these graves contained the spare body parts.

The fact that amputees were all young men also intrigues scholars. "This pattern has been seen in execution cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon England,” Buckberry says, “leaving us wondering if young men are more likely to commit crimes, or to be caught doing them, or if punishments are especially harsh for this demographic group."

These three unfortunate men may never tell us exactly what they did or who they are. But their bones show the most severe case of amputation as judicial punishment to date, revealing just one of the extreme penalties for committing a crime in medieval Portugal.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

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Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

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Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.