Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Mystery of the Coffin Dolls

Our story begins like a folk-horror novel. It's the summer of 1836 and a small group of boys are roaming the slopes of Arthur's Seat outside of Edinburgh. They're hunting for rabbits but somehow discover something much more interesting when they stumble upon a small, well-hidden cave. It was here that an unknown person had hidden away seventeen tiny coffins, each one containing a wooden doll, shrouded in cotton and lovingly carved. They had been stacked in three tiers, with eight dolls on both of the bottom rows and one lone one on the top. Combined with the coffins, they each measured just under 4 inches. They were in various states of decay, with the bottom row being in the worst condition. The ones on the second row were in a much better shape, but the one on the top was so well preserved that it could have been placed there quite recently. It's clear a lot of care had been put into their creation, but they really are eerie to look at.
Whoever it was that hid these detailed little effigies had clearly expected them to remain a secret, as the cave had been carefully camouflaged behind a loose piece of stone. Still, they didn't take into account the unstoppable curiosity of children on an adventure. Only eight remain today. Some were destroyed by the boys, and others have just fallen apart over the years due to improper care. However, the ones that remained were reported on in an edition of The Scotsman newspaper (July 16th of that same year.), drawing attention to the find. They earned the nickname of the Fairy Coffins, and there was much speculation as to what was going on. Some of the ideas put forward are more likely than others, but let's take a look at them.

National Museums of Scotland

Thanks to superstition, people are often quick to point a finger at the supernatural whenever anything weird or creepy is found. But the fact remains that dolls, some similar to these, have been used in magical rituals all over the world for thousands of years. They're still used to this day and serve many purposes, from healing to harm. When the dolls were found, witchcraft was actually illegal in the UK and claiming to be a witch or have supernatural abilities could potentially land you in jail. That didn't mean that the craft had died out. It just meant that those involved had to be very careful about how they went about it. The lonely, windswept crags of Arthur's Seat would have been a perfect location to whip up a ritual or two. A lot of people at the time were concerned that that was the case, and even The Scotsman seemed to support this theory in their article, which did nothing to calm those convinced that witches were stalking the hills with ill intent. The use of witchcraft and charms actually ties into our subsequent two theories.

Sailors Charms
Some believed the coffins were placed there by sailors or their family members as a charm designed to keep them safe while out at sea. Sailors tended to be quite superstitious, so the use of charms and the consultation of local cunning folk was not uncommon.
Others believed that the dolls had been made to represent the men who had tragically drowned and were an attempt to give them a burial of sorts since their bodies could not be retrieved. Though land burials for those lost at sea do exist, there's a possibility these were performed by those too poor to afford one.
The "Daft Man"
The dolls would appear in the newspapers again in 1906, this time as part of a much more chilling tale. A woman had come forward with a story that she felt was directly linked to the dolls. A person she described as a "Daft Man," who seemed to be both deaf and mute, would sometimes visit her father at his place of work. He showed her father a picture he'd drawn of three coffins on one such visit, each one with a date written under it, 1837, 1838 and 1840. After sharing this cryptic message, he left. Following this, her Father lost one family member on each of those years; a close relative in 1837, a cousin in 1838 and his brother in 1840. The "Daft Man" wasn't seen again until after the brothers funeral, when he walked into the Father's workplace to glower at the poor man before leaving, never to be seen again. The woman believed that her Father had encountered the creator of the Coffin Dolls, that the "Daft Man" was enraged by their discovery but was blaming her Father for it for some reason.

A Hidden War Memorial
In 1820 an event occurred that would go on to be known as The Radical War. Artisans and workers took to protesting and strikes as they sought reforms that would include safer working conditions and better pay. Sadly, the authorities were having none of it. The "War" was brutally stamped out, with some of the ring leaders being sent to the gallows, whilst other supporters were split between transportation to Australia and hard labour in Scotland. Those forced into hard labour were put to work building a new footpath that curved around Arthur's Seat and was named Radical Road, seemingly to mock those tasked with its creation. It's still there today and is a popular hiking trail, although not everyone knows about its sad history. It's hypothesised that the dolls were hidden by the workers as a memorial to the executed leaders and an odd sign of hope to those who wanted to see the cause continued.

Discarded Playthings 
Where they were just toys? Creepy, oddly well-detailed toys that had been forgotten by those who used to play with them. Handmade toys were more common in those days because the big toy-making factories we have today just didn't exist. There are some unusual and flat out disturbing ones out there, including Frozen Charlotte; a jointless, porcelain doll originally meant as a bath toy for young children, but one that would occasionally come with accessories such as a miniature coffin. They really sound familiar, don't they? Frozen Charlotte was first mass-produced in Germany in the 1850s, but it's possible there could have been similar toys around before her and that the ones found in that cave are an example of that. The cave itself seems to have been a small one, so it would have made an excellent den for a child, or small group of children, to play house in. Eventually these children would have grown up, moved away or died, due to the high mortality rate in children of this era. The dolls could have just been forgotten.

Burke and Hare's victims
You might not know what they did, but I bet you've heard of them. In a time when body snatching was rife, William Burke and William Hare became masters of their trade and real-life boogeymen. Local anatomy schools would pay a pretty penny for a fresh corpse, and many poor people turned to grave robbery as a way to pay their rent. But for these two men, digging up the recently deceased wasn't good enough, as the death of one of Hare's lodgers made them realise that they could acquire fresher merchandise by making it themselves. And the fresher the corpse was, the more doctors and medical schools were willing to pay for it. After selling the body of the first lodger, they started to kill, slaughtering 16 people in a period of about 10 months between 1827 to 1828. They were only caught when another lodger became suspicious of their shifty behaviour and stumbled upon the poorly hidden body of their last victim.
Some experts and historians believe the dolls represent these victims, with the dolls on the first two rows being the bodies of those murdered and the one on the top being the lodger who died of natural causes. 

National Museums of Scotland
Will the mystery of the Coffin Dolls or whoever tucked them away in their little tomb ever be solved? Probably not. Maybe, sometime in the future, another stash of dolls will be found and give us more clues. Sadly the way in which the surviving dolls were discovered means we'll get no hint from them since they were found by bored children and not Archaeologists. I'm no expert either, but I favour two theories; Witchcraft and the memorial for Burke and Hare's victims. As I've previously stated, the area would have been perfect for a witch to practice their craft. It was quiet and, for the most part, offered the privacy they would have wanted to do whatever it was they were doing. But I also like the idea that someone out there wanted to honour the poor souls cut down by Burke and Hares greed, even if no one else would ever know about the memorial.
If you want to see the dolls for yourself, then you're in luck because you can! They're on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, which is now open again. Depending on Lockdown rules and if you're able to safely travel, then why not stop by and pay them a visit? 

While you're here, why not head down to the comments and share any stories you might have about these dolls or similar ones? What theory do you think is most likely? Or, if you want, tag me in a Tweet and let me know there.