The Unexplained? The mystery behind the dolls in the coffins

Were they designed as funeral effigies for those who could not be buried the regular way? 

One of those agonizing mysteries came to the light of day when some young boys—being boys—made a discovery in the hills of Scotland in June of 1836.  Their hunt for rabbits was nipped in the bud as they came upon the macabre discovery along the slopes of Albert’s Seat, a topographical feature that oversees the Firth of Forth—in the distance.

Their rummaging around had revealed a tiny cave behind three pointy slabs of slate.  What could be inside?  There were seventeen miniature coffins 95mm in length, or about 3.75 inches apiece.  The well-crafted coffins contained equally well-carved and meticulously dressed dolls.  The clothing was glued and sewn to the tiny wooden dolls.

When the discovery was made public, the creations ended up in the hands of private collectors, and some went to local museums.  Museums were where most of the remaining eventually ended up—nine of the original group has been missing, probably destroyed or mislaid by the boys who found them.

Who made the coffins and dolls—the eight that remain—and what did they represent? 

Were they children’s toys?  No, not in any way. 

Were they instruments of witchcraft?  No, again. 

It was apparent that they were designed as symbolic burials for those who could not be buried the regular way. 

The first thing that comes to mind is that they represented sailors who were lost at sea and could not have a traditional funeral.  After all, the cave looked straight out onto the Firth of Forth. 

It has been decided that sailors are not the answer either.  

The answer is that the dolls and their coffins were made by one of the notorious murderers of the day: Burke or Hare.

William Burke and William Hare were at a loss for steady employment that was agreeable to them.  They did have some lodgers that brought in a little easy income.  Between 1827 and 1828 they devised plans to murder their lodgers and sell the bodies to the area anatomy school.  The purchaser was the anatomy lecturer, Dr. Robert Knox.  He must have been suspicious, but he turned a blind eye.  He had an anatomy school to run.

Quite by chance, one of the current lodgers came upon the body of a previous lodger laid out for dissection in one of Knox’s classrooms.  There was an investigation, and William Burke and William Hare—and their two women—were all brought in for questioning. 

The hanging of William Burke in Edinburgh, Scotland

They might have gotten away with the murders, but Hare got nervous and spilled his guts, blaming the whole series of escapades on Burke. 

The women backed him up. 

Burke was hanged in 1829.

In a stroke of irony, Burke’s own body ended up at Knox’s school for dissection.  His skeleton is still on display at the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, along with a death mask.  We still do not know which one of the murderers carved the odd little prizes and put them in the cave.  Were they funeral effigies for honorary burial? We will never know.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of It Rises from The Pee Dee. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.


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