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 KnoxHulton 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."

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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Bad Blood: The Hidden Horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

A doctor draws blood from one of the study’s subjects.
A doctor draws blood from one of the study’s subjects.

In September of 1932, Public Health Service officials visited Tuskegee, Alabama, where they recruited 600 Black men to receive treatment for “bad blood.” The men didn’t realize they had become unwitting participants in one of the most controversial medical studies in recent times.

Of the study’s participants, 399 of the men were suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis, which at that time was incurable, while the other 201 served as controls. Under the guise of offering medical treatment, the Public Health Service set out to study the effects of untreated syphilis in Black men. Doctors enticed the poor, mostly illiterate Macon County residents to take part in return for free medical examinations, rides to the clinic, and hot meals on examination days. For the participants, many of whom had never even visited a doctor, the offer seemed too good to refuse.

A Secretive Study

Nurse Eunice Rivers interacts with a few members of the study.National Archives/Center for Disease Control // Public Domain

Deception was integral to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The men did not know they were actually participating in an experiment, and were kept in the dark about the true nature of their diagnosis. They were also unaware they weren’t receiving treatment at all: The drugs they were administered were either inadequate or completely ineffective. At one point, they were even given diagnostic spinal taps, a painful and often complex procedure the doctors referred to as a “special treatment.”

Though the study was originally meant to last for six months, the Public Health Service decided to continue it when the participating doctors deemed that only autopsies could determine the damage the disease caused. In other words, the doctors would keep tabs on the men until they died.

To ensure nothing would interfere with the experiment, doctors in Macon County were given a list of the subjects and instructed to refer them to the Public Health Service if they sought medical treatment. The Public Health Service even hired Eunice Rivers, a Black nurse, to maintain contact with the men and ensure their continued participation. All the while, the experiment's subjects were left to degenerate—when untreated, syphilis can cause bone deformations, heart disease, blindness, and deafness.

A medical breakthrough came in 1947, when penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis. Despite this, the doctors involved in the Tuskegee study opted not to treat the men so they could continue to monitor the disease's natural progression. As historian Dr. Crystal Sanders tells Mental Floss in an email, “By withholding treatment, doctors subjected these men, their spouses, and their offspring to serious health problems and death.”

The End of the Experiment

None of the medical professionals involved in the decades-long study admitted to any wrongdoing.National Archives/Center for Disease Control // Public Domain

The study was not without its critics. When Public Health Service official Peter Buxtun learned about the experiment in 1966, he expressed grave moral concerns to the Centers for Disease Control. After numerous organizations, doctors, and scientists still opposed ending the study, Buxtun took matters into his own hands and leaked information about the experiment to Associated Press journalist Jean Heller.

On July 26, 1972, The New York Times ran a front page story exposing the study. Public outrage immediately ensued, but by then the damage was done. At least seven of the men had died from syphilis, while more than 150 had died from heart failure, a condition commonly linked to the infection. Forty spouses had also contracted syphilis, and 19 children were born with the condition. Some of the infected women, who believed the study was legitimate medical care, were turned away when they attempted to enroll. 

Once the study became public knowledge, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare promptly ruled that the 40-year-long experiment come to an immediate end. Yet despite the national outcry, none of the medical professionals involved in the study were prosecuted. “They maintained that they had done nothing wrong,” Sanders explains. “Some even went so far as to assert that the Black male subjects would never have been treated anyway given their financial circumstances, so their study did not harm them.”

With the experiment finally over, the government appointed Dr. Vernal G. Cave to lead a team of Black doctors to investigate. He found that while the experiment was being carried out, at least 16 articles about it had been published in various medical journals. So why had it taken so long to bring the study to an end?

“The subjects were Black and poor and did not warrant much attention from the powers that be,” Sanders says. “Additionally, very few people with the political and social capital to ask questions would have been suspicious of a study underwritten by the federal government and carried out by medical practitioners who had the respect of the local white society.”

A Public Reckoning

In 1973, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the study's participants and their families, and the following year a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached. The U.S. government also agreed to provide free medical treatment to the study’s surviving participants, as well as their family members who became infected during the experiment.

The story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was brought to the screen 14 years later in the made-for-TV movie Miss Evers’ Boys. When the study’s participants saw the film, they were disappointed by its portrayal of the series of events. It suggested the men had received treatment for their condition, and shifted the blame from the federal government to a fictitious Black doctor and a Black nurse. As a response to the film, the participants enlisted the help of attorney Fred Gray to make sure the nation understood the truth behind the study.

In March 1997, Gray wrote a letter to president Bill Clinton requesting the victims receive a formal apology. Two months later, and more than 50 years after the experiment began, Clinton delivered his apology in a speech at the White House. By that time, only eight of the men were still alive.

“The United States government did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong,” Clinton said. “What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”

Though the last survivor of the study died in 2004, the experiment has had a lasting effect on the African-American community. A 2016 study found that after the Tuskegee study was exposed, the life expectancy of Black men decreased by 1.5 years, with a marked decrease in patient-physician interactions [PDF]. “There is a long history of poor Black people seeking preventative care and getting anything but that,” Sanders says. “I wholeheartedly believe that there is a connection between present-day African American distrust of the medical field and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.”