Nicola Kirk: Author and Collector of Paranormal Stories and Other Strange Encounters

Posts tagged ‘Edinburgh’


We Mean Business – A Giant Mortsafe  Designed To Protect The Dead

Having written a bit about body snatchers, or ‘Resurrection Men’ as they were also known back in the 19th Century, I began looking into all the different lengths people went to in order to prevent their deceased nearest and dearest ending up sliced and diced on the anatomist’s slab.

A few years ago, my husband treated me to a trip to Edinburgh (sometimes referred to as my ‘mega ghost busting weekend’… oh, the Edinburgh Vaults – happy days…).  On one of the ghost tours I dragged him on, we ended up in Greyfriars Churchyard.  Our tour guide, a giant Valkyrie of a woman in Doc Martens and with a magnificent booming voice, pointed some curious coffin-shaped iron cages out to us.

Disused Mortsafes

“These are called mortsafes!” she bellowed at us while we huddled together in the dark graveyard, shivering with cold but intrigued by the strange items highlighted by a dozen quivering torch beams.  “When your loved one died, these cages would be placed over the coffin to prevent body snatchers from stealing the corpse and selling it to anatomists!”  A little shudder ran through the crowd accompanied by a few nervous smiles.  Apparently, in Scotland, mortsafes have been commonly found in areas where there are medical schools nearby… funny that.

Mortsafes came in various designs, some made of stone, others made of iron comprising iron rods, padlocks and iron plates, all of which went towards making stealing bodies a very arduous task indeed.  Mortsafes were usually removed once the body was sufficiently decomposed.

Of course, if your pockets weren’t deep enough to afford a cage to lock up your dead, there were other options open to you.  It wasn’t unusual for fresh graves to be guarded day and night by friends and family members until enough time had passed for the corpse to go off and be of no use to grave robbers or anatomists.

The rich went in for huge slab grave stones which covered the graves over entirely, vaults and mausoleums, making life rather difficult for grave robbers.  Highgate Cemetery has a vast array of such Victorian monstrosities and Friends of Highgate Cemetery offer guided tours of the older cemetery, if, like myself, you’re morbidly curious and want to see what it’s like to be dead rich.

Victorian Monstrosities – Vaults at Highgate Cemetery

If you didn’t fancy spending money on a mega mausoleum or a vast granite slab, but you were too posh to spend time lurking around your relative’s grave waiting for them to go off, you could always hire someone to do it for you!  However, there was no guarantee that the man you hired wouldn’t be bribed by a body snatcher to look the other way while they excavated a big hole close by…

Some families tried mixing various items such as branches into the grave dirt to make the grave robber’s life more difficult, or they would cover the grave with stones so they could see if it had been disturbed.  Unfortunately, by the time they realised the grave had been disturbed it was probably empty too.

If you want to see how the professionals went about their business, I Sell The Dead is the film for you.  It’s a darkly humorous movie and involves undead things too – perfect.


©Nicola Kirk and 2010


Wikipedia – Mort Safes


Men At Work – Body Snatchers Stealing A Corpse

You may have heard of an exhibition called ‘Bodyworlds’.  It’s not for the faint of heart but, being of stout nature (and not to mention incredibly morbid), I’ve been to a couple of the exhibitions.  The exhibits consists of human bodies (although the creator of Bodyworlds, Gunther von Hagen, also managed to include a rather unsuspecting horse at one point) which have been skinned, plastinated (removing bodily fluids and fats and replacing them with resins and elastomers – no, I have no idea what elastomers are either…) and posed in various lifelike positions. This sort of thing, whilst a little unnerving for the average person to look at, is great for medical students and people seem to be falling over themselves to donate their bodies to the cause.  But there was a time when getting enough bodies to study human anatomy was a bit of a trial.

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, corpses for medical research were rather difficult to come by.  Only criminals who had been condemned to “death and dissection” by the Courts were legally allowed to be used by medical students and the supply of such corpses was painfully short.  Unless you were one of the ‘Resurrection Men’ or ‘body snatchers,’ as they were more commonly known.

Perhaps the most famous body snatchers were William Burke and William Hare who managed to murder 17 victims between November 1827 and October 1828 so they could make money selling the fresh corpses to medical schools.  The fresher the corpse, the more money you got for it.

Their method of killing their victims was eventually named ‘burking’ and the process generally consisted of getting the victim rip-roaring drunk so they were practically insensible before one man shoved a finger up each of the victim’s nostrils and clamped their jaw shut with his thumb and his accomplice sat on the victim’s chest to stop them breathing.  ‘Burking’ left minimal marks on the corpse (perhaps just a small bruise under the chin) so suspicions were not aroused.  The surgeon who purchased the bodies from Burke and Hare, Robert Knox, was so pleased to get his hands on a steady supply of fresh corpses that he probably didn’t look too closely at the cause of death.  The old 1960’s film, The Flesh and the Fiend, tells the story of Burke and Hare with much screaming and skullduggery – here’s a trailer to whet your appetite:

Of course, the law eventually caught up with Burke and Hare and they were finally arrested. Hare, however, betrayed Burke and testified against him to save his own neck.  Burke was hanged in January 1829 and dissected at Edinburgh Medical College.  Some students went to the effort of making a book bound with Burke’s skin and if you pop into the little police museum which, if memory serves me correctly, is on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh there is also a small wallet made out of Burke’s skin.  Having had a close look at it, you can even see the pores in the skin…

William Burke, in his confession, said that Robert Knox had no knowledge of how the corpses had been acquired and Knox was not prosecuted.

Burke’s skeleton

Becky Wash, curator of the Essex Police Museum (do go along and have a nose around the museum if you’re in the area – it’s brilliant) sent me details of the following body snatching incident at St John’s Church, Little Leighs, Essex, which took place in December 1823.

St John’s Church, Little Leighs, Essex

Body snatching used to take place mostly in and around larger towns, but as people got wise to the Resurrection Men’s tactics and went to more strenuous efforts to secure their loved ones graves, the body snatchers had to travel further afield to get their hands on valuable corpses.  Little Leighs was one such place targeted by the body snatchers.

1823 saw an unusual amount of people shuffling off the mortal coil in Little Leighs (9 people in a year, which is quite a few considering the population was only 160).  Three of those nine people died in December 1823 and were buried in St John’s churchyard.

A body snatcher called Samuel Clark left his horse and cart tied up near the graveyard while he went about his nefarious deeds only to find that, when he was ready to make his escape, the toll collector, John Redwood, thinking the horse and cart had been abandoned, had moved it to a local landlord for safekeeping.  Clark was forced to dump the body he’d dug up and go off in search of his missing horse and cart.  He was eventually arrested for his crime.  Further investigation showed that two further graves were empty but it was not thought that Clark stole those corpses.  A link to the Essex Police Museum Newsletter which contains all the details about this particular body snatching debacle is attached below under the Sources section.

It does make you wonder – how many other graves are missing their occupants thanks to the Resurrection Men?  Hundreds?  Thousands…?


©Nicola Kirk and 2010



Essex Police Museum

Wikipedia – Body Snatching

Wikipedia – Burke & Hare

Bring Out Your Dead – Plague Pits And Nasty Discoveries

We all love a bit of morbidity, don’t we?  Well, I’m pretty sure it’s not just me anyway.  A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip to Edinburgh.  Just off the Royal Mile there is a well known street that goes by the name of Mary King’s Close.  Everyone who’s remotely interested in ghosts has usually heard of this mysterious Close due to the myth that in 1645 the tenants became infected by the plague and were bricked up inside and left to die.  Their terrible plague ridden ghosts are said to haunt the close with great abandon… In reality it would seem that this horrific event didn’t actually happen, but paranormal tours don’t try too hard to enlighten their customers.  Well, where’s the fun in that?  Anyway, it got me thinking – what happened to all the plague victims in London?

According to Daniel Defoe’s, A Journal of the Plague Year:

”Tis certain they died by heaps and were buried by heaps; that is to say, without account.’

The Bills of Mortality list 68,576 plague victims in the capital but it would appear that the true figure is probably nearer 100,000.  That’s an awful lot of people.  So where did these poor souls end up?  There certainly aren’t enough individual graves littered around to account for them.

Well, the answer is that most of them were unceremoniously dumped into huge plague pits sprinkled in and around London.  One of the earliest plague pits was dug in 1348 at Charterhouse Square for victims of the Black Death.  The Black Death gained its nickname because the skin of victims turned black. Lovely.  Tens of thousands of bodies were buried at Charterhouse Square.  There was another great pit at Aldgate and also one at Finsbury Fields.

Whilst listing these pits of despair, we mustn’t forget the plague pit from the 17th century at Green Park which proved quite troublesome when the Underground network was being constructed in 1960 and construction workers managed to bore straight through the middle of it.  What a shock that must have been.  Another plague pit received unwanted attention when it was discovered in the London Depot on the Bakerloo Line.  Although no paranormal activity as such has been reported, few staff are willing to go down to the tunnels, especially at night.  Some people have no sense of adventure.

If you happen to be loitering around Bishopsgate during your lunch hour, you may notice that some office blocks do not occupy the full building plots, leaving some small areas empty.  This is because these innocent little parcels of land are plague pit sites.  Still hungry?

Recently, under the Surrey side of London Bridge, workers were horrified to discover the 17th century remains of suspected plague victims – although some skulls were found to have rather suspicious holes in them leading some to believe that their owners’ endings may have been rather more questionable.    Builders working in the vaults aren’t best pleased about working there anymore because of the unexplained noises they hear and the mysterious figures glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

Of course, there will always be someone who actively seeks out encounters with the plague ridden dead.  And no, it’s not always me.  Here we see a group of people called the Londonists doing what they do best – creeping around in the plague pit found under London Bridge:

Some people have all the fun.


©Nicola Kirk and 2010

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