Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies


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Theatrical image of Sarah Egerton as Meg Merrilies. Public domain [?]

Old Meg she was a gipsy;
And liv’d upon the moors:
Her bed it was the brown heath turf,
And her house was out of doors.

Her apples were swart blackberries,
Her currants, pods o’ broom;
Her wine was dew of the wild white rose,
Her book a church-yard tomb.

Her brothers were the craggy hills,
Her sisters larchen trees;
Alone with her great family
She liv’d as she did please.

No breakfast had she many a morn,
No dinner many a noon,
And ‘stead of supper she would stare

Full hard against the moon.

But every morn, of woodbine fresh
She made her garlanding,
And every night the dark glen yew
She wove, and she would sing.

And with her fingers old and brown
She plaited mats o’ rushes,
And gave them to the cottagers
She met among the bushes.

Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen,
And tall as Amazon:
An old red blanket cloak she wore,
A chip hat had she on.
God rest her aged bones somewhere–
She died full long agone! [1]

John Keats by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery.

This poem was written by John Keats for his sister Fanny, in either the July or August of 1818, whilst on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Charles Brown. The beauty of the Kirkcudbrightshire coastline with its “craggy moors towering inland[2] reminded Brown of Sir Walter Scott’s evocative descriptions in his book ‘Guy Mannering’. Brown recounted the story to Keats who was unfamiliar with the book.

The character of the gypsy Meg Merillies in particular caught Keats attention. In the novel Meg plays a pivotal role in moving the plot forward and is instrumental in bringing the story to its happy and resolved conclusion. Scott eschews the widely held view of gypsies as criminal (e.g. horse thieves) and sinister and instead presents a romanticised version. Meg is portrayed as mysterious and enigmatic fulfilling the traditional role of the kind and generous wise woman and healer who uses her otherworldly senses to help those around her.

Scott based his character of Meg on the famous Scottish gypsy Jean Gordon who lived in the first half of the 18th century. Jean is described in contemporary sources as being unusually tall (six foot), having a remarkable appearance and an unusual dress sense[3]. She was regarded by all who knew her as honest and respectable, unfortunately for her, her sons were not. On the 5th June 1730 her three sons and two of their wives were hung for sheep stealing at Jedburgh. Two years later, Jean herself was arrested possibly for vagrancy and banished. In 1746 she was grabbed and drowned in the River Eden after angering a crowd with her vocal support for Bonnie Prince Charlie.


View of the highlands of Scotland.  Lenora.

Keats’s Meg is as much a part of the physical landscape as she is the world of people. The verses emphasise the harshness of the life she leads and her poverty but for me the overriding impression it leaves is one of freedom. Despite the overall beauty of the words it is the first line of the last stanza ‘Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen’ which always catches my eye. Although it refers to the Scottish Queen Margaret, it conjures up in my mind the image of another Margaret, another queen who fits the theme of the poem so perfectly, that is, Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies.

Gypsy Hill

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Roma generally travelled around the country making a living as best they could, returning to London and its outskirts during the winter months. The largest identified group of Roma congregated in Norwood, Surrey. The main families were believed to be the Lees and the Coopers who “were reputed to be rich, [and]…were not held in disrepute like poorer gypsies in some other areas”.[4]


Old postcard showing Gypsy Hill Norwood, early 20th Century. Bromley Historic Collection.

The popularity of Norwood was due to its “remote and rural character, though lying so handy for both London and Croydon[5] and this is one of the reasons why Finch and her community decided to settle there. A hill in Norwood originally derogatorily nicknamed Beggar’s Hill eventually due to its strong historical and cultural association with the Roma became known as Gypsy Hill.


Gypsy encampment. Source uncertain.

A leader of her people

As so very little is known about the life and background of Margaret Finch, her role as the Queen of the Gypsies has to be gauged from other sources. To be named as the Queen is the ultimate accolade so the fact that Margaret was elected to the role shows how important and respected a person she would have been in her community.


Gypsy fortune-teller. Source unknown.

How old she would have been when she was elected is unknown, it could have been at any age depending on when her predecessor decided to name a successor. Evidence from a newspaper article published on the 2nd August 1899 gives some idea of the characteristics needed to fulfil the role of Queen. The article reports on the election of Laurel Harrison, 17, to replace her grandmother Snake Mary who at the time was 94. Laurel is described as carrying “herself well and has the dignity befitting her new position. She is said to possess the gift of intuition to an unusual degree, being this especially well fitted for her future as the principal fortune teller of her people[6]. It is more than likely that as in the case of Laurel Harrison the role of Queen was passed on in Finch’s own branch of her family as after Margaret’s death her niece ‘old Bridget’ took on the role. After Bridget’s own death in August 1768, her niece, another Margaret became Queen.

In her role, Margaret’s advice would have been sought on any important issues affecting the Roma society. The Roma have an extremely complex socio-political structure made up of nations or ‘natsiia’ which are then broken down into other subgroups with the family being the smallest unit. One of the most important components of the structure is the Kris or Council of Elders which deals with any issues or disputes which are too complex or grave to be dealt with by the bandoliers (rulers of the Communities). Margaret would have had the power to choose each bandolier for each community and would have used her wisdom and experience to choose a suitable candidate. She would have also elected the head of the Kris which unlike the other Elders was a permanent position. As the leader of the combined Gypsy nations she would have had the final word in all decisions or instructions among the tribes with all the members pledging loyalty to her.

It is not surprising then that when Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies chose to settle in Norwood in Surrey it became the beating heart of Gypsy London.


Queen of the New Forest Gypsies, Hannah Lackey, died 1903.  Photographer John Short c1900.

The most famous gypsy of her age

Finch was a unique individual. As the Queen of the Gypsies she must have inspired fear, devotion and respect from amongst her own people. Not much information is known about her early life but more than likely she had spent the first half traveling throughout Britain. It is only when she grew older and settled permanently in Norwood that descriptions of her appeared. As an old woman she was described as “a withered, wild and grotesque[7] figure with bony, claw-liked hands who lived with an emaciated terrier and smoked a pipe.


Margaret Finch etching: Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Her singular appearance and behaviour fascinated people who travelled large distances to visit her and ask her advice. According to one report Margaret lived in a conical shaped hut made out of branches at the base of an ancient tree at the lower end of Gypsy Hill.

A report published by James Caulfield a year after Margaret Finch’s death stated that the “oddness of her figure and ye fame of her fortune-telling draw a vast concourse of spectators from ye highest rank of quality, even those of ye lower class of life”[8]

Margaret Finch’s reputation was such that she was considered the greatest and most famous gypsy of her era. This may have been the reason why in his History of Signboardsthe author Larwood tries to suggest the possibility that Margaret was one of the gypsies that Samuel Pepy’s wife visited along with some of her companions in August 1668 at Lambeth[9]. Although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Margaret was at Lambeth on that date and some of his calculations are suspect (he states that Margaret was seventeen at the time but if her age at the time of death was roughly correct, she would have been in her thirties), it does show the depth of her fame.

The role of fortune telling ♠ ♣ ♥ ♦


Gypsy fortune-teller.  Source unknown.

As a foreign people in a foreign land, looked on with suspicion due to their unusual lifestyle, looks and customs, gypsies would have had limited employment choices and so had to make a living as best they could. Their numbers added to those already travelling through the country searching for work i.e people forced off their land due to land enclosures and later the Industrial Revolution as well as war veterans. With the limited opportunities open to them they became pedlars, hawkers, street performers and fortune tellers.

Fortune telling has been an important source of income for many gypsies over the centuries. In general fortune tellers were regarded with suspicion. This situation was not helped by the fact it was known that groups of professional vagabonds disguised as gypsies travelled to fairs to rip off anyone they could. By the late 18th century it was not uncommon to find male con artists dressed in a green robe and wearing a false beard (beards equalled wisdom) purporting to be from the mystical East. Stories abounded of young serving girls allowing in pretend gypsy women who promised to tell them their future for a shilling and then proceeded to steal their master’s silver plate or cloth. It was nearly impossible for most people to differentiate between genuine and fake gypsies. This combined with the pervading fear of the other, those who did not fit into the commonly accepted pattern of social behaviour, made gypsies both fascinating and frightening.

NT Felbrigg_hall_sm

Gypsy fortune-teller with girls.  Felbrigg Hall, National Trust.

Not only was fortune telling a way to earn money but it would have given Margaret an aura of mystery and magic as well as an opportunity for her to make contacts amongst non gypsies. Usually gypsy society is insular with contact with non gypsies (except when it is necessary) disapproved of but the role of Queen was also seen as a contact point between the two societies. From the people that came to her to find out their futures, Margaret would have been able to learn about changes in the social and political climate and to discover secrets and useful information[10]. Gypsies used many different divination methods to predict the future such as crystal gazing, tea leaves and palmistry, the method that Margaret was believed to favour was cartomancy.


Cartomancy, whereby a meaning was ascribed to each card in a standard deck was extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Louisa Lawford in her 1851 book The Fortune-Tellergives a list of the card meanings[11]. Although there is no surviving written record of the meanings that Margaret would have assigned to her cards it is highly possible that they would have been very similar for example,

Ten of Clubs – fortune, successes or grandeur; reversed, want of success in some small matter

Ace of Clubs – signifies joy, money or good news; reversed, the joy will be of brief duration

King of Hearts – a fair liberal man; reversed, will meet with disappointment

Seven of Hearts – pleasant thoughts, tranquility; reversed, ennui, weariness

Ten of Spades – tears, a prison; reversed, a brief affliction

Queen of Spades – a widow; reversed, a dangerous and malicious woman

Seven of Diamonds – satire, mockery; reversed, a foolish scandal

Nine of Diamonds – annoyance, delayed; reversed, either a family or love quarrel

Above all Margaret must have been a shrewd woman as she ran a highly successful business. She would have been well aware how much her image contributed to her popularity. She would not have been so successful if she had given people unfavourable or distressing readings. In was in her interest to keep her clients happy and that included maintaining an exotic and bizarre appearance.

The end of an era

When Margaret Finch died on the 24 October 1740 she was reported to be about 109 years old. She had spent over half a century telling fortunes. She was buried in St George’s, the Parish Church of Beckenham. It is said that a large crowd gathered to see her on her final journey accompanying her body in a procession which included two mourning carriages. In death as in life she remained a strange and unique character. She had to be buried in a deep square box because due to her habit of sitting with her chin resting on her knees, her muscles had become so contracted that she could not alter her position.



Funeral Procession by Thomas Bewick

In one way Margaret was lucky to die when she did as only four years later King George II’s Vagrancy Act was passed. Although bills against vagrancy had been in existence since the mid-16th century (when the number of people with no fixed abode rose due to the dissolution of the monasteries) with punishments fluctuating in severity from slavery and death to whipping and branding and where at one point it was illegal just to be a gypsy, this new law ushered in a new era, establishing strict guidelines on how to deal with ‘vagrants’. The Act allowed the authorities to arrest anyone they didn’t like and those without a visible means of subsistence such as “unlicensed pedlars, fencers, jugglers, bearwards, minstrels, fortune tellers and gamesters[12].

As the century finally due to a close the situation of the Norwood gypsies was becoming increasingly precarious. In August 1797, 30 men and children were arrested under the Vagrancy Act and in 1802 the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought charges against the Norwood fortune tellers. Faced with forced enclosure of the Common and persecution, the gypsy families including the Lees and the Coopers finally left Norwood for good. By 1808, the area was being referred to as the place which was “once the haunt of a numerous horde of gipsies[13]. Remarkably the small building which Finch had lived in was still standing.


Gypsy Encampment.  Source unknown.

Things did not get any better. In the Vagrancy Act of 1824, Section 4, it is clear that gypsies were being singled out and closely monitored as the authorities attacked them through one of their main means of survival “every person, pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects[14] were to face the full force of the law. The Roma were only removed from the Vagrancy Act in 1989!

The legacy of Margaret Finch


Romantic image of a gypsy.  Source unknown.

Margaret Finch was considered one of the most remarkable people of her time and her fame and those of the Norwood gypsies continued after her death. For instance, in 1777 a very success and popular pantomime called ‘The Norwood Gypsies’ was performed in Convent Gardens. A number of publications believed to be either written by or inspired by the Norwood gypsies were published including the Norwood Gypsy Fortune-Teller which was extremely popular with all levels of society. The book claimed to be able to teach its readers the art of divination including telling fortunes by grounds of tea or coffee and by lines in the hand, the science of foretelling events by cards and ‘directions to choose a husband by the hair’!

Not only did Margaret earn money for herself and her community but her presence generated income for local businesses, Norwood, and the roads leading to it; on a fine Sunday, resembled the scene of a fair; and, with the greatest difficulty only, could a seat or a mug of beer be obtained, at the place called the Gipsy-house.”[15]. From that time onwards there has always been a pub near the site which has taken it name from its famous inhabitants including the Gypsy Queen and Gipsy Tavern (both of which have now closed). The latest inheritor of the title is the ‘Gipsy Hill Tavern’.

On a last note, in the Victorian artist John McCullum 1851 painting of the lych gate at St George’s Church you can see the small figure of a woman on the right. Many believe this to be Margaret Finch. Even today crystals mainly amethysts are left at the lych gate[16]. Amethysts are believed to be a calming and meditative stone which help people make contact with the psychic and spiritual realms. The stones are only ever to be found at this spot in the churchyard. Maybe they are left as a tribute to Margaret Finch or as recognition of the spiritual essence of the place, or simply as a reminder of this area’s unique nature. Whatever the reason the memory of the gypsies of Norwood and their famous Queen lives on.


John McCullum’s 1851 painting of the lych gate at St George’s Church


Keats: Poems Published in 1820, John Keats
Summary and Analysis of Meg Merillies by John Keats,
Jean Gordon,
The Norwood Gypsies,
The Norwood Gypsies,
Reading Eagle, August 2nd 1899,
South London Gypsy History
The History of Signposts by John Camden Larwood, 1868
The Gypsy!,
The Fortune-Teller or peeps into futurity, Louisa Lawford, 1861
Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes,
The Norwood Society,
Margaret Finch,
Vagabands and Beggar,
Gypsies and Travellers,
19th century fortune telling from the drawing room to the courtroom,
Romani people in fiction,
Gypsies – Sociopolitical Organization


[1] Keats: Poems Published in 1820, John Keats
[2]Summary and Analysis of Meg Merillies by John Keats,
[3] Jean Gordon,
[4] The Norwood Gypsies,
[5] The Norwood Gypsies,
[6][6][6] Reading Eagle, August 2nd 1899,
[7] South London Gypsy History,
[8] ibid
[9] The History of Signposts by John Camden Larwood, 1868
[10] The Gypsy!,
[11] The Fortune-Teller or peeps into futurity, Louisa Lawford, 1861
[12] Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes,
[13] The Norwood Society,
[14] Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes,
[15] South London Gypsy History,
[16] Margaret Finch,


Enon Chapel – Dancing on the dead in Victorian London


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Slums, sewers, corpses, a corrupt clergyman, a pyramid of bones, and …dancing on the dead. Sometimes the Victorian’s failed, quite spectacularly, to live up to their prim and proper reputation.

Bunhill Fields burial Ground, London.

London’s burial grounds: a mass of putrefaction

GFK_King Death

London in the mid nineteenth century had a problem: a burgeoning industrial and commercial centre with a population pushing at 2.5 million living souls, it also had an ever growing population of the dead. Inner city burial had been carried out in London for centuries -it has been observed that London, even today, is one huge grave, if you only know where to look. But by the mid nineteenth century fears of disease spread by the miasma from inner city graveyards and a fashion for wealthier people to be buried in suburban cemeteries, meant that London’s remaining inner city burial grounds were often terribly overcrowded and unsanitary. One such place, the ‘Green Ground’ on Portugal Street, a burial ground for the nearby workhouse, was described by George Walker as:

‘[A] mass of putrefaction’ and ‘The soil of this ground is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence,’ the author noting that ‘The living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated by the odour of the dead.’ [1]

It was not uncommon for gravediggers to chop into or even discard earlier burials in order to cram new ones into overcrowded graveyards:

‘What a horrid place is St Giles Churchyard! It is full of coffins up to the surface. Coffins are broken up before they are decayed, and bodies are removed to the “bonehouse” before they are sufficiently decayed to make removal decent’

So reported the Weekly Despatch in September 1838.

No wonder that women rarely attended burials. Yet these places were often the only resort open to the poor. One scandalous case that provided a catalyst for a change was the infamous Enon Chapel….

Dudley street, seven dials: 1872

Dudley Street Slums, London, 1872. Image source Public domain [?]

Enon Chapel – undercutting the competition

Close to the Strand, on the west side of St Clement’s lane, an insalubrious neighbourhood was to be found. Accessed via a narrow court, Carey Street offered slum housing and overcrowding to the poorest of the poor. It was here in 1822, that an enterprising and cynical Baptist minister, Mr W Howse, founded his ministry: saving souls and selling burials. Enon Chapel itself, fitted into this down at heel locale, sited, as it was, above an open sewer which ran though its vault.


Image by Hogarth. Public domain [?]

In 1822, fear of the resurrection men was still strong. Burke and Hare had yet to set up their fearsome murder trade north of the Border, but before them were others, stealing fresh corpses from graveyards for the anatomists table. This popular fear may have been one of the factors in Mr Howse’s calculations in setting up his burial business at Enon. It had a vault. At barely 59 feet by 12 feet it wasn’t a large vault, but Mr Howse was an enterprising individual and knew how to spin a profit from almost nothing. In 1823 Enon was licensed for burials.

GFK Covenantors Prison_gravediggers markBurials in the vault at Enon Chapel were a mere 15 shillings. This compared very favourably to the competitors – close by at St Clement Danes it cost £1.17s2d for an adult burial, and £1.10.2d to bury a child – and that only covered a churchyard burial.[2] At a time when poor families would often have to warehouse their dead in their homes until they had saved enough for burial, Enon Chapel had a clear advantage over the competition: offering both secure and, more importantly, affordable burials.

Things went well for Mr Howse for a number of years, if people marvelled at how capacious the tiny vault was, nobody asked any awkward questions. Even when worshippers retched into their hankerchieves or fell unconscious at the noxious stink that was rife in the chapel, especially in warm weather, they said nothing. It may have been harder to ignore the long black flies that emerged from the decaying coffins, or the ‘body bugs’ that would infest worshippers hair and clothes, and neighbours of the chapel noted that meat, if left out, would putrefy within an hour or two. By the 1830’s rumours were beginning to circulate, but still nobody suspected the true scale of the horror beneath their feet.

A Modern Golgotha uncovered


In 1839, following some concerns with goings on at Enon, the Commissioner of Sewers inspected the open sewer under the Chapel with the view that it should be covered or vaulted. However, their investigations took a grusome turn when they discovered human remains, some of them mutilated, discarded in the sewer – whether by design or accident, it was not clear. Oddly enough, despite the sheer horror of this discovery, the remains were not removed and burials did not stop. Mr Howse continued his profitable venture burying up to 500 people a year in the vault until his death in 1842. In total around12,000 people were buried in a vault measuring only 59 feet by 12.

In part, he appears to have managed to cram so many corpses into so limited a space because he discarded the coffins (he and his wife used them for firewood).  This would no doubt have increased the stench exponentially – Julian Litten, in his book The English Way of Death, notes that intramural vault burials usually required a triple encasing for the corpse, in both wood and soldered lead, so as to ensure that the coffin was water-tight and air-tight [3].  Discarding the outer shell of the coffin, Howse disposed of the occupants in deep pits filled with quicklime to help the bodies decompose.

It was also said that extensive building work, such as at Waterloo Bridge, allowed Howse to secretly remove upwards of sixty cart loads of decomposed human remains for use as landfill and bone-meal in the building trade; other remains were unceremoniously dumped in the Thames. It said that it was not uncommon to find a disembodied skull rolling down the streets around Enon Chapel.[4]

Dancing on the dead


Contemporary image of Enon Chapel’s notorious ‘Dancing on the Dead’. Image Source: Wellcome Images.

When Howse died in 1842, burials ceased and Enon Chapel was closed. The new tenant, Mr Fitzpatrick, took up residence in 1844. Despite making the surprising discovery of a large quantity of human bones buried under his kitchen floor, he was not put off, and simply reburied them in the chapel. Later tenants, a sect of Teetotallers, went one better. In the true spirit of Victorian enterprise, combined with a large and profitable dash of Victorian ghoulishness, they reopened Enon Chapel for dances using the great marketing tagline of  ‘Dancing on the dead’:

‘Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings’

Who says teetotallers don’t know how to have fun!

The Poor Man’s Guardian, somewhat disdainfully, reported on these events in 1847:

‘Quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath”

The dances seem to have been very popular, proving that even the Victorian poor, many of whom may have known people interred beneath them, had a dark sense of humour. That, or a pragmatic view of their own mortality and the fleeting nature of pleasure.

George ‘Graveyard’ Walker

George 'Graveyard' Walker

George ‘Graveyard’ Walker. Image source: Wellcome Institute.

Not everyone appreciated this grim humour.  George ‘Graveyard’ Walker, a surgeon whose practice was in the vicinity of Enon Chapel, and who had a side-line as a public health campaigner, was Not Amused. And with good reason, he had had the misfortune to have viewed Enon Chapel vault in all its gory glory, first hand. In his book, Gatherings from grave yards, a survey of 47 London burial grounds,  published in 1839, Walker described it thus:

‘This building is situated about midway on the western side of Clement’s Lane; it is surrounded on all sides by houses, crowded by inhabitants, principally of the poorer class. The upper part of this building was opened for the purposes of public worship about 1823; it is separated from the lower part by a boarded floor: this is used as a burying place, and is crowded at one end, even to the top of the ceiling, with dead. It is entered from the inside of the chapel by a trap door; the rafters supporting the floor are not even covered with the usual defence – lath and plaster. Vast numbers of bodies have been placed here in pits, dug for the purpose, the uppermost of which were covered only by a few inches of earth….Soon after interments were made, a peculiarly long narrow black fly was observed to crawl out of many of the coffins; this insect, a product of the putrefaction of the bodies, was observed on the following season to be succeeded by another, which had the appearance of a common bug with wings. The children attending the Sunday School, held in this chapel, in which these insects were to be seen crawling and flying, in vast numbers, during the summer months, called them “body bugs”..’ [5]

As well as a genuine disgust at the way material gain had trumped over moral and religious scruples at Enon Chapel, Walker, and many others at that time, considered the proximity of these putrefying burial grounds to human habitation to be injurious to public health.  It was believed that, similar to sewage, badly overcrowded burial grounds were giving off a deadly graveyard miasma. Walker, himself, had a flair for the dramatic, describing the miasma as ‘the pestiferous exhalations of the dead’.

This miasma was believed to cause diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Gravediggers and those living close by cemeteries were at particular risk, but the threat was to the population as a whole.

A Court for King Cholera

Victorian Image showing a slum court, with the living and the dead side by side.

The public scandal of Enon Chapel and its ilk, along with the tireless campaigning of philanthropists such as George Walker and reformer Edwin Chadwick, led to a Parliamentary Select Committee being set up in 1842. The committee was tasked to look at improving London’s overcrowded and unsanitary burial places. The law took it’s time, but pressure from Walker and The National Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns eventually forced the government into action. The Burial Act of 1852 would seal the fate of London’s overcrowded inner city burial places, allowing the government to close them down. It also and allowed the creation of suburban garden cemeteries such as Highgate and Brookwood. Cemeteries that were designed as much to be enjoyed by visitors, as to bury the dead.

Roll up, Roll up – for the gravest show on earth!

There was to be one last macabre act in the tale of Enon Chapel. In 1848 Walker purchased the Chapel with the promise that he would give the inhabitants of the vault a decent burial, at his own expense, at Norwood Cemetery. This philanthropic gesture however, was somewhat marred by Walkers morbid sense of theatre. Rather than discretely disinterring the bodies and having them respectfully removed to their final resting place, he chose to open the event to the public. To drum up interest he had attendants strolling up and down the street holding skulls, a sure fire way to entice in the average Victorian death lover. And the public came in their droves – upwards of 6000 came to tour Enon Chapel and to view the immense pyramid of bones unearthed by Walker.

A Pyramid of Bones, photograph by John Sullivan.

A Pyramid of Bones. Image source: John Sullivan public domain.

Despite criticism, Walker defended his approach in a typically Victorian way, he emphasised that the spectacle was educational (the same argument used by Madame Tussaud to elevate her Chamber of Horrors to a moral level) and he wasn’t precisely selling tickets – but he did accept contributions from visitors. Less educational and more sensational was the highlight of the Enon tour. Visitors came face to shrivelled face, with the long-dead proprietor Mr Howse. ‘A stark and stiff and shrivelled corpse’ identified by his ‘screw foot’ [6]

A case of poetic justice, the greedy speculator responsible for the desecration of so many of the deceased, found his own final resting place disturbed in the most unseemly way.

Footnote – it’s all in a name

It is interesting to note, as Catherine Arnold does in her fascinating book Necropolis, London and its dead, that if you look beyond the traditional explanation for the name Enon (the place near Salim where John the Baptist baptized converts), a far darker etymology emerges. Arnold points to Hitchcock’s Bible Names Dictionary which provides one possible meaning for Enon as ‘Mass of darkness’ – how very, very apt.

Enon Chapel is long since gone, the London School of Economics sits on its site now and the bones of the dead lie in an unmarked communal grave at Norwood.

If you want to find out more about London’s hidden dead, see the excellent and funny You Tube video by Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris at the end of the sources section)

Sources and notes

Images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.

Arnold, Catharine, Necropolis: London and its dead, 2007 [1] [2] [4]

Cochrane, Alex

Fitzharris, Dr Lindsay

Gibbon, Andrea, [5]

Jackson, Lee [6]

Jackson, Lee

Litten, Julian, ‘The English Way of Death, the Common Funeral since 1450’,1992 [3]

Valentine, Carla,

Find out where the secret burials of London are with Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris:


Lovey Warne of the New Forest: the smuggler in scarlet


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Smugglers by John Atkinson. Public domain.

Britain has an amazing selection of local beers and ales which you can often only find at a few select pubs close to where they are produced. Many of them have been given names which have a strong regional historical or cultural relevance. Manufactured at the Ringwood Brewery, Lovey Warne is one such ale. Classified as a golden or blonde ale, it has a moderate toasted malt and caramel aroma and a bitter citrus taste[1]. It is named after a famous local figure, the female smuggler, Lovey Warne and its amber colour is meant to symbolise her scarlet coloured cloak.

When people think of smuggling in the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain they immediately think of the coasts of Cornwall and Dorset. Books such as Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier set in the wild, remote landscape of Bodmin Moor and Winston Graham’s Poldark series have also helped cement this connection in people’s minds. People tend to forget that smuggling went on all over Britain and how well organised and sophisticated the smuggling network became at its height.

Free trading: A respectable occupation

Smuggling or Free Trading as it was otherwise known became an important source of income for many families hit hard by exorbitant taxes. These unpopular taxes implemented to help pay for the wars on the continent and fill the Treasury’s coffers, had left many families on the brink of starvation. So in order to augment their meagre or in many cases non-existent wages many people turned unsurprisingly to smuggling. People from all levels of society were involved in the trade with the high-duty goods such as brandy, tobacco, lace and tea bringing the best profits.

Revenue men in a gangs lair. Copyright National Maritime Museum.

Smuggling was considered by many to be an honourable trade and a recognised occupation. In addition many people even though not directly involved in the trade themselves were sympathetic to the smugglers’ cause. One such sympathiser, a farmer by the name of Burt Chubbs helped rescue smugglers being chased by excise men. He hid them in his barn and then misdirected the officers by claiming the smugglers’ wagon had broken his leg whilst heading towards Burley[2]. This attitude together with the deep mistrust rural communities felt towards outsiders and especially the King’s men known for their corruption meant that it was nearly impossible to convince anyone to become an informant and most rewards for information were left unclaimed.

A centre of smuggling: The New Forest

The New Forest. Source Wikipedia.

One such area which became well-known as a centre of the smuggling trade was the New Forest. The New Forest (one of the most beautiful areas in England) in Hampshire lies inland away from the harbours of Christchurch and Bournemouth in Dorset. The dense forest which would have then extended much further south made an ideal hiding place for contraband transported from the coast. Indeed many of the villagers who lived within the boundaries of the forest played an important and active role in the distribution of these goods and it was once claimed that every labourer in the forest was either a poacher or a smuggler or both. In the mid-18th century, it was written “We hear from the New Forest in Hampshire that smugglers have got to such a height in that part of the country that scarce a week passes but great quantities of goods are run between Lymington and Christchurch[3]. Another source showing the scale of the operations stated that he had heard of “twenty or thirty wagons laden with kegs, guarded by two or three hundred horsemen, each bearing two or three tubs, coming over the Hengistbury Head, making their way, in the open day past Christchurch to the Forest[4]. Some parts of the forest are still known as ‘the Boatyard’ despite being miles from the sea.

Smugglers Road and Vereley Hill in the distance. Image by Jim Champion via Wikimedia Commons.

A smuggler’s refuge

The picturesque New Forest village of Burley with its traditional cottages and pretty lanes is located about 4 miles south east of Ringwood. Today it is a charming stop for tourists visiting the New Forest but go back about three hundred years and the village reveals its much darker past. The village once a close-knit secretive community was a main centre for smuggling in the region. The village was so infamous that the revenue men preferred not to enter it unless they absolutely had to as they were aware that the villagers were able to raise an armed mounted troop of men at short notice more than capable of dealing with the King’s officials.

Burley in the 1940’s. Image source: new forest explorer website.

One of the main pubs in the village, The Queen’s Head Inn was used to store contraband and not long ago during building work a secret smugglers’ cellar was discovered. In the room the workmen also found some long forgotten loot including pistols, cutlasses, brandy bottles, coins as well as several straw hats from Italy[5]. It is even claimed that prior to the discover of the cellar, strange noises such as groans were heard coming from their direction, these sounds promptly stopped after the discovery. I wonder were the noises warning people away from or directing them to the cellar?

The infamous Warne Brothers

Hiding contraband. Source Copyright National Maritime Museum London.

In Burley you will find a small street called Warnes Lane named after the notorious Warne family who lived nearby. The Warne brothers Peter and John were believed to have run the Christchurch smuggling fraternity in the first quarter of the 1800s. They possibly acted as ‘landers’. The lander’s role was to move goods away from shore and inland as quickly as possible. They would then either hide the contraband somewhere safe such as a pub or a church or pass it on to their clients. It is rumoured that there was an oak tree in Burley where the gang would meet to discuss their plans. Peter and John lived with their sister Lovey in a house at Crow Hill Top called Knaves Ash. Knaves Ash was perfectly positioned for moving contraband unseen due to the number of tracks that converged at the house[6]. One of the most famous of these sunken tracks was known as Smugglers’ Road. It begun near the inlet village of Chewton, passed through Burley, continued onto the turnpike road at Picket Post and ended at Ridley Wood.

Not much is known about the Warne family but their father may have owned or managed one of the pubs in Burley[7]. If he did then there is a possibility that it could have been the Queen’s Head Inn. Although it was the brothers who were a leading force in the smuggling ring it is their sister Lovey (probably short for Loveday) who has passed into New Forest folklore.

The legend of Lovey Warne

The legend goes that Lovey would walk along Vereley Hill watching for any sign of the revenue men. If she saw them she would turn her cloak inside out to display a red lining which she would wear to warn the smugglers. The romantic image of Lovey wandering the heath in her red cape has captured people’s imagination and she has been immortalised not only in alcohol but also in music and books.

Lady Smugger. Source: public domain [?]

Signalling to the smugglers was not the only contribution Lovey made to her brothers’ business. For a while she took an even more active role. On orders from her brothers she would ride on her pony (most likely one of the New Forest ponies, known for their sturdiness and stamina) to pre-arranged meetings with ships’ captains in Christchurch harbour. There she would go to the captain’s cabin, undress, wind herself in valuable silks, put her clothes back on and return home[8]. As she left the ship she would have passed by the inept and oblivious revenue men who even if they were suspicious were under official orders not to search women. At home the silks would have been removed and possibly sold at the market at Ridley Wood which dealt in both legal and illegal goods.

The scam continued for a time until one incident when Lovey’s luck nearly ran out. One day as she left a ship she was stopped by a revenue man and invited for a drink at the Eight Bells in Christchurch, an offer she would have been unable to refuse without arousing suspicion. Once at the pub, the revenue man became a little too friendly, touching her legs and thighs and getting a little too close to the hidden silks. Acting quickly she jabbed the man in the eye with her elbow and fled whilst the landlady sat on the man pretending to tend to his damaged eye allowing Lovey the time she needed to get away[9]. It is believed this incident put an end to Lovey’s front line participation.

Lovey and her brothers pretty much disappear from history at this point. The only further brief glimpses we have is a possible record of Lovey marrying at the age of seventeen in Christchurch in around 1814 and a story surrounding her death. The church of St John the Baptist was built in Burley in 1839 and Lovey was one of the first villagers to be buried there. According to the story she wanted to be buried with her beloved pony but permission was not granted and instead the pony was buried in the middle of a ring of fir trees outside the churchyard[10].

Old Postcard of St John the Baptist Church, Burley. Source FGO Stuart.

The usefulness of a good, sturdy petticoat

It was not unusual for women to play a prominent role in the smuggling trade. Although they may not have been physically able to move the heavy tubs, they did contribute in other ways. Like Lovey they could act as look outs, be responsible for keeping the cargo hidden or deliver messages. Again just as Lovey had done many women would wrap themselves in silks and carry them hidden but openly past the revenue men who were powerless to do anything about it.

Rigging out a smuggler by Thomas Rowlandson.

Women would also transport alcohol by hiding cow or pig bladders filled with brandy and gin underneath their thick petticoats. In 1799 George Lipcomb described meeting some of these women. He was initially shocked by their “grotesque and extraordinary” appearance “till upon enquiry, we found that they were smugglers of spirituous liquors…and, indeed they were so heavily laden, that it was with great apparent difficulty they waddled along[11]. Sometimes being so overburdened was useful, in Gosport a woman called Maclane was the only survivor when the Queen Charlotte boat sunk, she was saved from drowning by “being buoyed up with a quantity of bladders”[12]. In Folkestone women would disguise themselves as laundresses and hide liquor in baskets covered with linen.

Women were also involved in processing commodities. They would cut and dry ordinary leaves to mix in with the tea leaves to increase its bulk for selling and dilute French brandy. Brandy was shipped in its pure form, which made it easier to transport in large quantities but was undrinkable. The women would also heat the liquid and change its colour from clear to the honey colour which the British preferred[13].

Despite the fact that women were not allowed to be searched a number of them were arrested on smuggling related offences such as the 70 year old Catherine Winter, a Weymouth seamstress who served an 18 day sentence in 1844. Other evidence from the Register for Dorchester Gaol between 1782 and 1853 lists the names and occupations of more than 64 women from the surrounding villages and towns in prison on smuggling charges[14]. The end of the Napoleonic War together with the tax reforms of 1830 finally brought the country much needed social and economic relief and as a consequence made smuggling much less appealing.

Although smuggling did of course continue albeit on a much lesser scale the golden era of Free Trading was over and the New Forest shook off its disreputable reputation and eventually become what it is today, a beautiful and popular tourist destination.

Lovey Warne, still famous today. Source: unknown.


The New Forest, Bournemouth & Poole – smuggling,


Lovey Warne,

Lovey Warne of the New Forest,

The New Forest Smugglers,

New Forest Smugglers,

Burley 1958,

Smugglers Cove,

Women and the smuggling trade,

Smuggling in the eighteenth and early nineteenth Century,

Dorset – Smugglers Coast,

Cindy Vallar, Smuggling,

Smuggling in and around Burton Bradstock,


[1] Lovey Warne,

[2] Burley 1958,

[3] The New Forest, Bournemouth & Poole – smuggling,

[4] The New Forest Smugglers,

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] Lovey Warne of the New Forest,

[8] The New Forest, Bournemouth & Poole – smuggling,

[9] Lovey Warne of the New Forest,

[10] Burley 1958,

[11] Smuggling,

[12] Smuggling in and around Burton Bradstock,

[13] Women and the smuggling trade,

[14] Dorset – Smugglers Coast,


Greyfriars Kirkyard: Covenanters, Bloody MacKenzie and things that go bump in the night.


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Edinburgh is a city rife with duality, it is a city where surgeons shake hands with murders, superstition vies with enlightenment and the cruel compete with the sentimental. And in a city like Edinburgh, the dead, like the poor, will never be far away. Greyfriars Kirkyard crouched behind the Grassmarket, protected by high walls and overlooked by the tall tenements of Candlemaker Row, is famous as the resting place of the great and the good: from Buchan to Greyfriars Bobby. But those walls also encompass darker tales: of plague pits, resurrectionists and the brutal suppression of religious dissent.

Mary Queen of Scots and a surfeit of bodies

King Death.

From the 1400’s to the 1500’s the Kirkyard was a Franciscan convent garden situated on the outskirts of the town; however by the mid sixteenth century pressure on the existing burial ground at St Giles led Mary Queen of Scots to make a gift of the land for use as a cemetery [1]. This was in 1562 and was not a moment too soon, as plague ravaged the city in 1568 and many of its victims ended up in plague pits in the Kirkyard. To further add to its grisly history, the severed heads of criminals executed on the Grassmarket were displayed at entrance of Greyfriars Kirkyard closest to it. As the body-count rose, so too did the ground level[2]. It is worth remembering that as with most old cemeteries, there are a lot more bodies than there are visible monuments…so tread carefully, because every step is likely to be over someone’s grave.

Tenements and Grave Monuments back to back.

The pale gold Dutch-barn-style church that visitors see today looks timeless but it is not the original Greyfriars Kirk. A late Gothic-style church was begun on the site in 1602 and took nearly twenty years to complete. The old kirk didn’t have much luck; it was damaged during the Civil War and partially destroyed in 1718 when the town’s gunpowder supply, which some bright spark had decided to store in the church tower, blew up. Eventually a new kirk was added to the surviving old kirk, but ill-fortune dogged that too, and a fire in 1845 destroyed the remaining old kirk and damaged parts of new. All seems peaceful now, although if you look closely you can still see some remaining scorch-marks on the brickwork, a reminder of its eventful past[3].

Greyfriars Kirk

The National Covenant of Scotland

One of the most tragic elements of the history of Greyfriars, and one with potentially long lasting psychic consequences, is its link to the doomed Covenanter movement of the seventeenth century.  An old legend about the conversion of Scotland to Christianity claims that there was a covenant between God and the community of Scotland before the first king, Fergus, began his reign (c310AD). To many Scots this cemented the idea that Scotland, not England, or even Rome itself, was the first true Godly Kingdom; it reinforced the belief that no king could stand between the Scots and their covenant with God. In England, the King was the head of the Church but traditionally in Scotland the Kirk had no such figurehead. This would prove a sticking point between the Scottish Covenanters and King Charles I [4].

King Charles I. Image source unknown.

Charles I, despite his Scottish birth, critically misread the mood of the Scots when he and Arch-Bishop Laud introduced the Authorised Prayer Book in1637, it was an attempt to bring the reformed Catholic Church, epitomised by English Episcopalianism, to Scotland, and it was required that the book be read out in Scottish Kirks. This was not a wise move by the king. Described as ‘This Popish-English-Scottish-Mass-Service-book’ by John Row, a minister at St Giles [5] its attempt at introducing a national church, with the king as its head, served only to inflame calls for Scottish religious independence.

On 23 July 1637 the reading of the Authorised Prayer Book in Scottish Kirks led to the Prayer Book Riots, in which stools were hurled at the Dean and Bishop of Edinburgh in St Giles, and the Bishop designate of Argyll was shouted down at Greyfriars Kirk for trying to introduce popery by the backdoor.

The Prayer Book Riots in Scotland, 1637. Image source Wikipedia.

Charles I and Arch-bishop Laud were attempting to introduce an Arminian inspired version of the church across Britain. The Arminian view considered that the Church of Rome was a true church even if misguided. In short, Charles and Laud wanted to introduce a reformed Catholic Church across England and Scotland. This was a red-rag to a bull for Scottish Presbyterians, as Simon Schama wrote: ‘The mere notion that the Church of Rome was not actually the abominable institution of the Antichrist, sent them into a paroxysm of wrath.’ [6] Something had to be done to protect the godly church in Scotland from the corrupt and popish church that Laud and his bishops were trying to impose on Scotland.

Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Image source Wikipedia.

The King, far removed from his Scottish roots, would not renounce Arch-bishop Laud, Bishops in general, or his idea of what the church should be, and tensions were running high. In fact, Charles thought much of the resentment was being fanned by France, rather than local sentiment, and made it clear he would treat such views as traitorous. The ground was ripe for religious rebellion.

On 28 February 1638 before the pulpit in Greyfriars Kirk, the National Covenant was signed. Prayers were offered, Psalms sung and sermons delivered. The New Jerusalem was to be in Scotland. Over the next days and weeks the covenant was displayed and signed by multitudes, rich and poor, young and old, men and women alike. Simon Schama notes that such was its importance to the national psyche it became almost a measure of patriotism– to be a true Christian and a true Scot you must sign the covenant [7].

The Signing of the Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, by William Allan 1838. City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

On the surface the document maintained the Kings Peace, but under the condition that the king could be lawfully challenged if he broke the covenant. Schama also points out that Covenanters did not see their demands as threatening to the King as such, with the proviso that if the King should threaten them in their religious freedom, then they would take up arms [8]. This was unlikely to go down well with the autocratic Charles I.

National Covenant of 1638.  source National Library of Scotland.

Later in 1638 the Glasgow Assembly went even further and broke the links between the Scottish Church and English government. The die was cast and the King would have to take decisive action.

So began half a century of unrest, punctuated by Civil War, regicide, the protectorate and finally the restoration of a king in exile. In fact Charles II was assisted on his return by the Scottish Covenanters, on the proviso that he agree to leave Presbyterianism well alone in Scotland. However, Kings have short memories once their crowns are secure, and he soon went back on his word and began persecuting the Covenanters. The scene was set for the final tragedy that was to play out in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The Covenanters Prison

Fast forward to1679, following the final defeat of the Presbyterian Covenanters at the battle of Bothwell Brig on the 22nd June, around twelve-hundred Covenanter prisoners were marched in disgrace to Edinburgh. Declared rebels and traitors they faced execution or at best, transportation to the colonies to work as indentured slave labour. However, many had much worse suffering to endure in the months ahead.

The Covenanters Prison.

Today, the visitor can view the prison through locked gates – a wide grassy avenue is flanked by unremarkable family vaults of pale stone; however things were very different in the seventeenth century. Inner Greyfriars yard covered about 3 acres, with high walls and only one gate (not the current gates that visitors see) [9]. Facilities to house and accommodate the prisoners were non-existent – they were effectively penned up in the open air for upwards of four months and given a miserly ration of 4oz of food per day. Vulnerable to exposure, malnutrition, disease and despair many died during their internment, especially as the year turned towards winter. The conditions in the Covenanters Prison were so harsh that it has been called the first concentration camp [10].

Location of the Prison in Inner Greyfriars Yard. Source Early Modern Commons website.

Such a huge influx of people created a logistical nightmare in Edinburgh; this is why Inner Greyfriars Yard, as it was known then, was used as an overflow prison. Estimates vary as to how many prisoners were held here, certainly the number reduced over time. Dr Mark Jardine’s view that there were initially1184 prisoners housed in Greyfriars Yard and Herriot School (next to it) seems compelling, it is based on the evidence of how many penny loaves were issued as rations to the prisoners (1184 on 1 July, one for each prisoner).  The numbers rapidly reduced during the summer as many were released after being, often forcefully, encouraged to swear the Kings Peace, an oath of loyalty to the King that some hardcore Covenanters called ‘the black bond’. Added to this, others of course would have died from the terrible conditions, or been executed or transported thereby further reducing numbers as time went on [11] [12]. It must have felt like a bitter irony for the Covenanters to have been imprisoned next to the place from which their movement first took wing.

Eventually judicial fate met those who remained and many were executed on the Grassmarket. By Mid November only around 250 prisoners remained in Greyfriars. They were condemned to transportation, and having survived the privations of the Covenanters Prison, they must surely have felt some relief. However, fate, proved to be merciless when the ship carrying them, The Croune, sank off the Orkneys, and of the 250 or so chained prisoners only 60 or so made it back to dry land alive [13] [14].

The Covenanters Memorial in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The Killing Time and Bloody MacKenzie

Sir George MacKenzie. Image source Wikipedia.

Presbyterian historians refer to the period of persecution during the reign of Charles II until the Glorious Revolution in 1688, as The Killing Time. During this time, countless Covenanter ministers were forced out of their livings, ordinary people were fined if they didn’t attend the King’s church and torture and extortion were routinely used to break the spirit of the Covenanters. Unable to practice their religion in public, Covenanters resorted to meeting in fields in ‘conventicles’ but that soon became perilous, with a death penalty for any preacher caught in the act.

The Sanquhar Declaration of 1680 brought matters to a head, Covenanters renounced allegiance to Charles II, in response to this treasonous behaviour, the Scottish Privy Council went all out against the Covenanters allowing field executions of those in arms or refusing to swear loyalty to the King. The Oath of Abjuration, as it was called, was, in itself, designed to offend, thereby revealing hardened Covenanters for summary execution.

Margaret Wilson, one of the Wigtown Martyrs. Executed by high tide in 1685. Source Wikimedia.

Sir George MacKenzie (1636/8-1691) is a name that has become synonymous with the persecution by the crown of the Covenanters, earning him the epithet Bluidy Mackenzie. He persecuted them from the bench, while John Graham of Claverhouse earned the name Bluidy Clavers for his summary field executions.
But Sir George Mackenzie wasn’t entirely evil. As an essayist he was enlightened in his views against the persecution of witches, and one of his lasting legacies was the Advocates Library, later the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh. In fact, during the 1660’s when Mackenzie was a budding lawyer, he actually defended a number of Covenanters. Things changed from 1677 though, when he was made Lord Advocate – the king’s representative in Scotland.

It has be argued by Bruce Lenman and J Mackie in their book A History of Scotland, that as Lord Advocate, Mackenzie was responsible for executing King Charles II’s policy regarding suppression of the Presbyterian Covenanters, therefore Mackenzie effectively had no choice but to execute government policy. He and Bluidy Clavers may have acted entirely within law in their dealings with Covenanters – although I doubt the Covenanters felt that justice was being served to them [15].

It is easy to romanticise the persecuted Covenanters, fighting to preserve their religious independence and perhaps Scotland’s independence as well; however they did not speak for all Scots – many highlanders, after all, were Catholic. And to modern eyes, they can be viewed as hard-line religious extremists, ready to bring down the government in order to impose their austere religious ideology. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between, with most ordinary people simply wanting the freedom to choose how they worshipped their God. What is not in doubt is the terrible suffering endured by the people immured in Greyfriars by order of their King, and such suffering may well have left a permanent imprint…

Flowers left at the Covenanters Prison gate.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist

The Black Mausoleum, Bluidy MacKenzie’s final resting place.

Mackenzie died in 1691 and somewhat tactlessly, was interred in his elegant mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard, within spitting distance of the Covenanters Prison. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing in 1897, reported the evil reputation that Mackenzie and that part of Greyfriars Kirkyard had acquired:

‘When a man’s soul is certainly in hell, his body will scarce lie quite in a tomb however costly, sometime or other the door must open, and the reprobate come forth in the abhorred garments of the grave’ . He went on to report a local children’s game: ‘Fool hardy urchins [thought it] a high piece of prowess to knock at the Lord Advocate’s Mausoleum and challenge him to appear. “Bluidy Mackenzie, come oot if ye dar”’ [16]

The doors to the Mausoleum.

One such foolhardy urchin, in the form of a homeless man looking for shelter one stormy night in 1999, took the dare and got more than he bargained for. Breaking into the Mausoleum he found an underground chamber containing the coffin of Bluidy Mackenzie. Perhaps thinking it contained valuables, he tried to break into it, but in the darkness he stumbled and fell into an open pit filled with the bones of plague victims. The terrified man burst screaming from the Mausoleum, just as a grounds man, walking his dog, approached it. The combined terror is thought by some, to have amplified the dark energies held within the tomb, and given rise to what has become known as the Mackenzie Poltergeist (see Jan-Andrew Henderson’s The Ghost That Haunted Itself, for more on the Pheromone Theory.)

Interior of the Mausoleum, showing the entrance to the crypt.

Since then the phenomena around the mausoleum and the Covenanters Prison has escalated, visitors have reported being pushed and scratched and feeling nauseous to the point of passing out. The death of popular local Spiritualist Colin Grant, following an exorcism at the Mausoleum and prison, in January 2000 added a tragic dimension to the growing legend of the poltergeist.

Grant believed there were many spirits  trapped there in pain, plus ‘something else as well, something much stronger.’ [17]The local tour company City of the Dead, who hold keys to the Covenanters Prison, have reported many such instances that would support this view – after all, the poltergeist is undoubtedly good for business! Having been on one such tour, I can certainly attest to the eerie feeling walking into the Covenanters Prison on a dark night. During that tour I took some photographs which are below, and there were some interesting anomalies. Lots of orbs, especially in the Prison, and what may be either Pareidolia (the human desire to see faces where there are none) or just possibly, a misty face above a grave stone. I leave you to be the judge.

The Black Mausoleum

Nightime shots at Greyfriars Kirkyard

I have to admit that not being an expert on paranormal investigation, or external physical causes of light anomalies in photographs, I am yet to be convinced that ‘orbs’ are evidence of spirits.  However, I do find them fascinating and have captured some previous images at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, and now at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

Conditions at the time:

  • Early March
  • Dry and cold
  • No visible insects
  • Early blossom on the trees – loose petals could have caused some anomalies
  • Although the graveyard was very dark, lights from surrounding buildings could have created anomalies
  • Building work on the Kirk during the day could have created dust in the atmosphere

Pareidolia or paranormal? On the right, hovering above the gravestone, a misty face?

Detail of above, area where a face may, or may not, be discerned.


Is that an orb, inside the doorway of this vault?

Inside Covenanters Prison: two, maybe three, orbs in the vault of the roof? (the tomb itself is of later date).

Inside the Covenanters Prison – orbs hovering above the vaults?

Not much happening here – house lights in the distance, perhaps another factor in the light anomalies?

No orbs, but evidence of early blossom in the trees which could have contributed to the anomalies.

Bloody MacKenzie’s mausoleum by night. Unfortunately, no orbs here – does that mean the poltergeist is not at home………?

Visit Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard is open to the public.  You can also do nigh-time tours of the Kirkyard and enter the Covenanters Prison with City of the Dead Tours.

Sources and notes

All images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.

Forde, Matt,   [1] [2]

Hayden, Gary, [10] [16]

Henderson, Jan-Andrew, ‘The Ghost That Haunted Itself’, 2001, Mainstream Publishing [2] [13] [17]

Jardine, Mark, [9] [11] [14]

Schama, Simon, ‘A Hisory of Britain:The British Wars 1603-1776’, BBC [4] [5] [6] [7] [15] [12]


Part Two: Thomas Edison: The Wizard of Menlo Park and his ‘spirit phone’


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Click here to read Part One

A telephone line to the dead?

Thomas Edison with his phonograph. Source CNN.

“…I am now at work on the most sensitive apparatus I have ever undertaken to build, and I await the results with the keenest interest.”[13]

Many people believe that Edison was working on a device to contact the spirit world up until his own death in 1931. As to what the device was opinions differ. Edison never mentioned in any articles or in interviews that he was trying to create a ‘spirit phone’. The term ‘spirit phone’ was first devised in the 1940s and the term seems to have been applied to Edison’s experiment retrospectively. It may have been because for many people Edison’s name is intrinsically linked with the development and refinement of the telephone.

Whenever Edison does refer to a device, which would have the potential to contact the dead, in either an interview of in an essay he invariably described it as a valve and not a telephone. This valve he claimed would have to be so sensitive that it would respond to the very slightest movement and record and amplify the barest whisper of the life units.

A practical application

Some people claimed that Edison had said that he had made a pact with his engineer William Walter Dinwiddie that whoever died first would contact the other through the machine. Another story exists that Edison had stated that one of his employees who had been working on the device had died and that “he ought to be the first to use it if he is able to do so”[14]. For some these stories are all the proof they need for others it is an essay which appeared in 1933 in Modern Mechaix.

Thomas Edison in later life. Source [unknown].

The essay claims to depict an experiment which Edison undertook to try to contact the spirit world. This secret experiment was purported to have taken place in 1920 in Edison’s lab. The author also goes on to describe how Edison set up a beam projector and photoelectric receiver which were sensitive enough to register any movement across the beam. According to the paper, the experiment was a complete failure with the scientists sitting for hours waiting for something to happen[15].

It seems doubtful that the experiment ever took place as why did it take thirteen years for the article to be published and why was it only ever mentioned in one publication? Also the one man that could refute or confirm the article’s authenticity was no longer around.

A hoax on the world?

Thomas Edison – shining a light on the spirit world…or not? Source [unknown].

1920 Edison caused a media sensation when he told B.C. Forbes of American Magazine that he was working on a spiritual communication device. Other newspapers immediately jumped on the bandwagon and the story spread. The reaction to Edison’s statement was unprecedented. The editor of American Magazine received around 600 letters from members of the public. Gerald Falons, Museum Curator of Sound Recording at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park has grouped the letters under headings and summarised the content. The letters include offers of help with the design; people claiming that such a machine already existed; one man asking how to place a call once he had reached the afterlife (he apparently had not long to live); and people wondering whether they could purchase the machine early or would have to wait until it was in the shops. Some of the contents of the letters reveal panic among the newspaper’s readers such as those that thought that contacting the dead was going against religion whilst others were convinced that only evil spirits would answer. What is really interesting is that the most popular response was whole-hearted support for the machine’s creation and that three of these letters were from people from a science background who had been formally educated in the field. The furore that was caused is not surprising. Edison was a national hero, a man hailed as one of the most brilliant men to ever live and someone whom people trusted. It would never have occurred to the majority of people that Edison would have been teasing them or even worse deceiving them.

Edison in Scientific American. Source [?] on Pinterest.

A year later in an article in ‘The Scientific American’ Edison again referred to the subject stating that if personality survives death then it makes sense that those “… who leave the Earth would like to communicate with those they have left here…then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.”[16] The article then went on to report that Edison had said that his apparatus was still in its experimental stage suggesting that he had already developed a prototype. The lack of details except for the fact that it was a valve does raise doubts about Edison’s research. Was it because Edison did not have a concrete idea on how to devise his instrument or did he simply want to keep his plans close to his chest or was it because he never had any intention of creating an instrument to communicate with ‘spirits’. The latter argument could be used to support Edison’s admission in an interview with the New York Times in 1926 that he had only said what he said to Forbes because “I really had nothing to tell him [Forbes], but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirit is, but it was all a joke”.[17]

It seems strange that Edison would have made such a statement as a joke and let it fester for six years. If it was a prank was Edison really that bored or was it simply that he had been developing such a device but that it hadn’t worked. Is that why there are no pictures, plans or models or even a reference to the contraption in his diary? Or was it that Edison did invent a machine but could not get it to work and therefore embarrassed by his lack of success erased all evidence of his research, preferring instead to pretend it was said in jest rather than admit failure.

The missing evidence rediscovered?

For those who believe Edison did create or at least research the possibility of a ‘spirit communication device’ it is vital therefore to find some tangible evidence. In 1948 Edison’s book Diary and Sundry Observations detailing his research was published by the Edison Estate. It has often been cited that the last chapter comprising 80 or so pages detailing his spiritual investigation research were removed from the English version of the diary. In March 2015 an article published on the internet claimed that the French edition had been discovered with the missing pages intact. These pages were reprinted by Philippe Baudouin, a French radio presenter and philosopher in his book “Le Royaume de l’Au-dela” (The Kingdom of the Afterlife)[18]. Could these pages be authentic? I am not sure and I haven’t found any reviews yet on the book. I hope to read it soon but will have to wait until an English translation is available.

Edison’s Journal, to do list. Source Len Wilson website.

From beyond the grave: The last words

Years after Edison’s death, his ‘spirit phone’ was not forgotten. Despite the fact that Edison had little time for the work of mediums he seems to have on two separate occasions used their services. Participants at a séance in 1941 claimed that Edison had contacted them and told them that three of his assistants had the plans for his ‘spirit phone’. At another séance the participants reported that Edison had given instructions on how to improve the phone[19]. The thing which is strange is that if Edison was so successful at communicating through the mediums why was the ‘spirit phone’ even needed!

A deathbed confession?

Edison died at 9pm on the 18th October 1931 at his home in New Jersey at the age of 84. He had been suffering from complications as a result of diabetes which had left him in a coma. Just before he passed away he awoke and said quietly to his wife, Mina “It is very beautiful over there”[20]. Was Edison dreaming or did he really see something? We will never know but it would be an ironic twist if this brilliant and unique man who had spent his life promoting science over the spiritual had at the very end changed his mind.

So was Edison interested in creating a device to which would record the voices of the dead? In my opinion, yes it is more than likely he was. Did he build an instrument? He was an inventor, so again I think he probably did try. Did the device work? No, I am pretty sure it didn’t. Did Edison destroy his plans? Yes more than likely. Edison once said “A good idea is never lost. Even though its originator or possessor may die without publicizing it, it will someday be reborn in the mind of another”[21]. Edison was right! Ever since he made his announcement which astonished and frightened the world, people have been trying to create devices which can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the existence of the spirit world. Will anyone ever succeed? Maybe. Possibly a more pertinent question is, if they do succeed will they ever be believed?

A modern day Spirit Box, used by many paranormal investigators to attempt to contact the spirit world. Source Ghost Hunt Now website.


The Biography of Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison,

The religious and political views of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison’s Telephone to the Afterlife

Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

Edison and the Ghost Machine,

Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine,

How Thomas Edison Pranked the 1920s With His “Dead People” Phone

Inventions by Thomas Edison (That You’ve Never Heard Of),

Edison’s ‘Lost’ Idea: A Device to Hear the Dead,

Edison’s Lost Plan To Record Voices Of Dead,

Edison’s forgotten ‘invention’: A phone that calls the dead


[13] Edison and the Ghost Machine,

[14] Edison and the Ghost Machine,

[15] Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

[16] Thomas Edison’s Telephone to the Afterlife

[17] ibid

[18] Edison’s Lost Plan To Record Voices Of Dead,

[19] Inventions by Thomas Edison (That You’ve Never Heard Of),

[20] The Biography of Thomas Edison,

[21]The Biography of Thomas Edison,

Part One: Thomas Edison: The Wizard of Menlo Park and his ‘spirit phone’


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‘Addle-brained’ young Thomas Edison. Source Wikipedia. Public domain.

This is the first part of a two-part post by Miss Jessel, looking at the extraordinary Thomas Edison (1847-1931), inventor and freethinker.  Famous for developing everything from the phonograph to the light bulb, he was also instrumental in bringing a scientific approach to the investigation of the spirit world. Lenora.

Thomas Edison was born on the 11th February in 1847 in Milan in Ohio, America. When he was seven his teacher described him as ‘addled-brained’ because of his constant questions and so a decision was taken to home school him. Edison’s mother believed her son’s unusual demeanour and appearance were due to his extraordinary intelligence. The lack of formal education meant that Edison was able to develop his own approach to learning which included the importance of practical applications to test scientific theories.

A turning point in Edison’s life was when at the age of 14 he saved the 3-year-old son of a station master from being killed on the railway tracks by an oncoming box car. As a thank you the station master taught Edison morse code and the workings of the telegraph and as a result Edison began a career as a telegraph operator.

Edison’s experiments on improving the telegraph system and the use of electricity formed the basis of all his later inventions. In his life Edison registered 1093 patents either singly or jointly. His most famous inventions included the first practical electric lightbulb; dictaphone; memeograph; fluoroscopy; alkaline storage battery; and motion picture camera, the kinetoscope. Edison also set up the first industrial research lab at Menlo Park in New Jersey in 1876. The success of Edison’s research and inventions led him to be dubbed ‘the father of the electrical age’, ‘the greatest inventor who ever lived’ and my personal favourite ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’[1].

Replica of the Menlo Park Lab. Source Andrew Balet via Wikimedia.

Probably the most controversial of Edison’s inventions is a device which many believe he never invented and others that the plans and models of were destroyed. This invention was an instrument which could communicate with the souls of the dead.

Atheist, Free-thinker or Deist

Edison has been labelled at different times and depending on the sympathies of the author either an atheist, free-thinker or deist.

Thomas Edison c1922. Source Wikimedia.

On being accused of atheism, Edison replied that he had never made such as a denial but that “what you call god I call nature, the supreme intelligence that rules matter”[2]. Although Edison is often described as a free-thinker he seems to have shared a very similar viewpoint to Thomas Paine who in his book ‘The Age of Reason’ expresses his opposition to institutionalized religions and the Bible. Edison’s belief in deism and the idea that although a creator existed beyond that it was only the laws of nature that ruled the world, is clear when he stated “I do not believe in the god of theologians, but that there is a supreme intelligence I do not doubt”[3].

A New Sixth Sense

A story is told about Edison’s first introduction to someone who claimed to be a clairvoyant. A stranger came to Edison’s lab and asked to see him. Edison was a little concerned about the man and so asked his assistant to come into the room. The man asked the assistant to write down a number of names which he then proceeded to repeat perfectly without looking at the paper. Edison then wanted to test the man’s ability and asked if he could write down a question. The man agreed. His response was ‘No, there is nothing better’. The question was whether there was anything better for a storage battery than nickel hydroxide. The man then left and Edison never saw him again[4].

Burt Reese 1851 -1926, Medium. Source Wikimedia.

This event may have been why Edison was so keen to test the famous medium Dr Bert Reese. Reese’s ‘divination method’ involved asking members of his audience to write names on pieces of paper which he would then roll up into small balls and rub on his forehead. He would then ‘read’ the paper with his mind. His accuracy amazed people as he would reel off the names correctly. Reese was revealed to be a charlatan by Harry Houdini at a séance but Edison was firmly convinced that Reese was genuine since he himself had never seen any evidence of Reese cheating[5].

These two experiences convinced Edison that clairvoyance was not due to some form of magical power but was proof of a new sensory ability which anyone could develop. It may have also confirmed and cemented Edison’s standpoint that the afterlife could also be deciphered by science.

Spiritualism vs Science

“I believe that if we are to make any real progress in psychic investigation we must do it with scientific apparatus and in a scientific manner, just as we do in medicine, electricity, chemistry, and other fields.”[6]

The Victorian era was the age of invention. Ideas that would have been seen as impossible a few decades earlier were now becoming a reality. Science was disproving many long-held beliefs. This new reality left some people uncomfortable and frightened. The desire to reconcile religion and science was one of the reasons for the rise of spiritualism. Some scientists felt that by scientifically proving that spirits and the afterlife existed they could then justify why so many people felt the need for religion.

Séance, 1872. Source Wikimedia.

Although Edison himself had no tolerance for people who believed in an afterlife or in the supernatural, Because we are as yet unable to understand it, we call it immortal. It is the ignorant, lazy man’s refuge. There are plenty of savages, you know, who still call fire immortal”[7] it would have been strange for someone with his questioning personality if he had not got caught up in the spiritualism debate. Therefore it makes sense that Edison would have wanted to find answers using technology and if they exist give ‘spirits’ a better opportunity “to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and Ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication.” [8]

Edison was first and foremost a scientist and so it is impossible to think that he would have ever conceived of the spirit or soul in the same way theologians or spiritualists did. There is evidence to prove that he was in contact with other like-minded scientists such as the British inventor, Sir William Crookes who claimed to have captured spirit images on photographs but what Edison always demanded wasProof, proof! That is what I always have been after; that is what my mind requires before it can accept a theory as fact.”[9] It may have been this need for proof which was behind him thinking about building a device which could allow the souls of the dead to communicate.

If Edison did try to create such a device, the ‘spirits’ which he would have envisaged would not have been what spiritualists and religions refer to as shades, ghosts, phantoms or manifestations but a very scientific version i.e. what Edison called life units[10].

Swarms of life units

Edison’s idea of how life existed was quite unusual. He thought that animate objects were made up of extremely tiny particles which he called life units. These life units were even smaller than electrons and had yet to be officially discovered. Edison’s theory was based on the scientific concept that energy was interchangeable and that the energy which made up all lifeforms could not be created or destroyed. Therefore when an animate object died these life units broke up into their respective individual units, left their human vessel, created swarms and joined another form[11].

Since these life units made up all human functions they would also naturally make up the Broca’s Area of the brain which Edison believed wrongly was responsible for both personality and memory. Therefore as life units could not be destroyed, a person’s memory and personality would continue to exist after death[12].

It was these life units that Edison if he did create an instrument would have tried to contact.

Swarms of life units… Original Image by Bin im Garten via Wikimedia. Altered by Lenora.

In part two, Miss Jessel will look at whether Edison’s spirit phone was ever created, and evaluate the evidence as to whether Edison’s alleged invention was genuine or a hoax.  Click here to read Part Two.


The Biography of Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison,

The religious and political views of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison’s Telephone to the Afterlife

Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

Edison and the Ghost Machine,

Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine,

How Thomas Edison Pranked the 1920s With His “Dead People” Phone

Inventions by Thomas Edison (That You’ve Never Heard Of),

Edison’s ‘Lost’ Idea: A Device to Hear the Dead,

Edison’s Lost Plan To Record Voices Of Dead,

Edison’s forgotten ‘invention’: A phone that calls the dead


[1] The Biography of Thomas Edison,

[2] Thomas Edison,

[3] Thomas Edison,

[4] Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine,

[5] Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine,

[6] Edison and the Ghost Machine,

[7] The religious and political views of Thomas Edison

[8] Edison and the Ghost Machine,

[9] The religious and political views of Thomas Edison

[10] Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

[11] Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

[12] Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins – shades of Burke and Hare?


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Edinburgh Castle viewed from the Grassmarket.

Edinburgh. The elegant New Town, the Athens of the North, home to writers, philosophers and surgeons – the cradle of the Scottish Enlightenment.  But entwined with this respectable façade there is also the Old Town, with its narrow wynds and closes, rife with tales of squalor, plague and sudden death.  And looming in the distance, the ancient extinct volcano called Arthur’s seat.

A Strange Discovery

Salisbury Crags and Arthurs Seat.

Late June, 1836, a group of lads out rabbiting made their way up the North East flank of Arthur’s Seat. Poking about in the undergrowth they came upon a small cave or recess, blocked by three slate slabs.  Intrigued, they removed the slates and found within, 17 miniature coffins laid out in three rows – two rows of eight and a top row, apparently just begun, comprising one coffin.  Boys being boys, as opposed to trained archaeologists, they then began to pelt each other with the mysterious little coffins.  Despite this rough treatment, enough of the coffins made it down from their resting place and into safer hands.

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

The find was described by The Scotsman newspaper, at the time:

” [Each coffin] contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funereal trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity.”

The discovery of the Arthur’s Seat coffins gripped the public imagination as both local and national newspapers began to speculate as to who put them there? How long had they been there? What was their purpose?

Media speculation and public fascination

16th Century woodcut of witches. Public Domain[?]

At some point shortly after discovery the boys had relinquished their treasure and the coffins eventually went on display in a private museum, run by Robert Frazier an Edinburgh Jeweller.  Although sealed when originally found, they were soon opened and it was  discovered that each neatly made coffin, contained a carved wooden figure, individually dressed – care had clearly gone into the construction of the strange artefacts.  It was noted that some of the coffins in the lower rows appeared more decayed, some of the grave-clothes were completely missing, and this seemed to infer that they had been laid down over a considerable period of time.  Theories were quickly developed as to the possible meaning of the ‘fairy ‘coffins.

The First newspaper report was in The Scotsman, 16 July 1836, which while managing to maintain an air of rationalistic superiority at the very idea of such superstitious nonsense as witchcraft or demons, at the same time seemed to revel in giving the paying public exactly the sensationalism that they wanted:

“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 the Mushat’s Cairn or the Windy Gowl, who retain their ancient power to work spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.”

Sensing a good story, other newspapers followed suit offering their own, slightly more restrained, theories:

The Edinburgh Evening Post suggested the coffins could be an example of a tradition, found in Saxony, of symbolically burying those who died overseas.  While the Caledonian Mercury suggested the origin was a tradition for family members to provide a ‘Christian Burial’ to sailors lost at sea.  [1]  This theory was supported, in the 1970’s, by Walter Havernick of the Museum of Hamburg who also proposed that the Arthur’s Seat Coffins represented a stockpile of such charms, stored there by a merchant for later retrieval.[2]  However, this would seem to me to be rather an extreme measure to take in storing merchandise that did not appear to have any real monetary value, in addition to which, the place of concealment was not even weatherproof resulting in damage to some of the coffins.

Some coffins show signs of deterioration – a sign of age or just weathering?

The National Museum of Scotland boasts many examples of charms against witchcraft that have been found in Scotland, charms were in use as late as the nineteenth century.  Nevertheless the theories that the coffins were connected either with witchcraft or honorific burials for those who died abroad or were lost at sea, are hard to evidence in Scotland’s known folk traditions. [3]

Charms on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

Until recently though, two things did seem to be agreed upon: the coffins appeared to have been placed there over a period of time (differences in deterioration of individual coffins seemed to support this theory) and their most likely purpose was some sort of honorific burial.  These conclusions were supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (later the National Museum of Scotland), who were gifted the remaining eight coffins in 1901.

The West Port Murders and the Day of Last Judgement

One of the most compelling recent theories is that proposed by Professor Samuel Menefee and Dr Allen Simpson.  They studied the coffins in the 1990’s and although their published findings are hard to locate online, their work is quoted from extensively by Mike Dash in his detailed article on the Coffins, available on the Charles Fort Institute website (CFI).[4]

Details of the Arthur’s Seat coffins – tiny corpses both dressed and undressed.

Menefee and Simpson were able to identify that one or at most two individuals made the coffins (based on stylistic differences in coffin shape) and the tools used suggested the maker was a shoemaker, rather than a carpenter, as a sharp knife and not chisel was used to hollow out the coffins.  The tin decorations were of the type used in shoemaking or leather-making further strengthening this theory. Their findings also indicate that the figures themselves were probably originally toy soldiers dating from the late eighteenth century.  Perhaps the most important revelation from their study relates to the thread used in the clothing.  Three ply cotton thread was used to sew the grave-clothes for one of the figures, this thread was not in use in Scotland before 1830.  Other figures using one or two ply thread may have been earlier, but as Mike Dash suggests the date range could be as short at 1800-1830 – so it would seem that the infamous Scottish weather was to blame for the deterioration of some of the coffins, rather than the passage of time.

In fact Menefee and Simpson’s theory supposes a date after 1830 and they draw attention to the number of coffins in place as being a significant indicator that the placement of the coffins was event-driven, rather than part of a long-standing folk tradition. Dash provides the following quote from their work:

“It is arguable, that the problem with the various theories is their concentration on motivation, rather than on the even or events that caused the interments.  The former will always be open to argument, but if the burials were event-driven [..] the speculation would at least be built on demonstrable fact.  Stated another way, what we seek is an Edinburgh-related event or events, involving seventeen deaths, which occurred close to 1830 and certainly before 1836.  One obvious answer springs to mind – the West Port Murders by William Burke and William Hare in 1827 and 1828.” [5]

Burke and Hare. Image Source National Museum of Scotland.

Burke and Hare made a living out of death, selling bodies to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.  They began their careers as opportunists following the death of Hare’s lodger, Old Donald.  Old Donald died owing a substantial amount of rent, so Hare and his friend Burke decided to sell his body to the local anatomists to recoup the loss.  So profitable was this enterprise that their initial opportunism soon blossomed into a full-scale murder spree, tallying sixteen victims before they were caught.  While Hare escaped the hangman’s noose by turning kings evidence, Burke was hanged for his crimes on 28 January 1829 and his body sent for public dissection.

Mort safe in Grey Friars Kirkyard.

What made both the work of the anatomist surgeons and the murders carried out by Burke and Hare so dreadful to people at the time, was they were in effect denying the deceased the chance of salvation at the Last Judgment.  Christians at the time held a strong belief that the dead would literally rise up on the final day of judgement.  So, if a loved one’s body was dissected and destroyed it was on the one hand a horror in the physical sense, but on the other hand, a deeper metaphysical horror at the spiritual consequences of the destruction of the body.  People went to great lengths to protect their departed relatives from this fate, as the mort-safes in Grey Friars Kirkyard attest.

Menefee and Simpson’s study suggests that the event that triggered the interment of the seventeen coffins on Arthur’s Seat was the West Port murders of Burke and Hare.  They propose that the coffins were a symbolic burial for those whose bodies were destroyed because of the actions of Burke and Hare.  A way that the dead could still stand for their last judgment. So although their scientific analysis of the material used to make the coffins explodes one theory (of their antiquity) they do support the long-held view that they represent honorific burial.[6]


So, were the coffins evidence of satanic rituals, witchcraft, protection for sailors on the high seas, or mock burials for those who died abroad?  Or a reminder of the grisly crimes of Burke and Hare?

It would seem that one of the earliest theories, that the coffins represented honorific burials, might not have been too far off the mark, even if the motivation for them was event driven rather than an ancient tradition.

If the crimes of Burke and Hare are the inspiration behind the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, some questions still remain: who made the coffins – a relative of one of the victims or someone who knew Burke and Hare and wished to make amends?  If they are related to the West Port Murders, then, as Min Bannister of the Edinburgh Fortean Society points out, why are they all male figures when the victims included twelve women?  Could this simply be because the offering was a token gesture and not meant to represent the actual individuals?  Is it also possible that the single coffin at the top represents the first ‘victim’ old Donald, whose death by natural causes gave Burke and Hare the idea for their terrible crimes?  Chances are we will never know for sure, but perhaps that is part of their enduring fascination…

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins are on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Sources and notes

Images – unless otherwise credited all images by Lenora. [1] [2] [3]  The Miniature coffins found on Arthur’s Seat by Mike Dash [4] [5] [6]


John Middleton and Laird Bocconi: A Ghostly Bromance


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Images source unknown.

The image of the vengeful ghost is one which is very common in literature, films and folklore. Usually the spirit returns to wreak revenge on someone who had wronged them when they were alive or to seek help in carrying out their revengeful plan or even just to curse those who unluckily come into contact with them. Famous fictional examples include The King in Hamlet, Samara from The Ring series and Jennet Humfrye from The Woman in Black. There are also people who claim that evil spirits intent on causing them harm share the same house. For instance The Cage in St Osyth which was labelled as one of the UK’s most haunted houses by the TV series, Great British Ghosts is reported to be occupied by the vengeful spirit of Ursula Kemp, one of 13 women accused of witchcraft who were chained up in the house prior to their execution[1].

The flip side of the coin is spirits who return to help the living rather than to harm them. There are many reasons given as to why they return such as to bring comfort to grieving family and friends, to impart a message such as the location of important documents or family heirlooms or to give a warning. One of the most often repeated stories involves a pact made between two close friends, John Middleton and Laird Bocconi to help each other from beyond the grave.[2]

A Career Soldier

John Middleton, 1st Earl of Middleton, in later life. Source Wikimedia.

John Middleton, 1st Earl of Middleton, pictured in later life. Source Wikimedia.

John Middleton born around 1608 was the eldest son of a Robert Middleton, Laird of Caldhame in Kincardineshire in Scotland. Middleton’s origins are obscure which probably indicates that he was from a humble background. Some sources say that he enlisted as a regimental pikeman when he was just thirteen but all agree that by 1632 he had joined the regiment raised by Sir John Hepburn for service in France. Whatever the truth of his origins, Middleton was a career soldier and a good one. It was due to his skill and ability that he worked his way up the ranks to become captain of the Covenanter army led by Earl James Graham of Montrose during the Bishops’ Wars[3].

Victory at the Battle of the Brig O’Dee

The Book of Common Prayer, Scotland 1637. Source Wikimedia.

The Bishops’ Wars (1639-1640) were triggered by Charles I desire to remove the Presbyterian system (without bishops) favoured by the Church of Scotland and replace it with an episcopal system (with bishops). Charles I also wanted to force the Scots to follow the Book of Common Prayer.
The determination and success of the Scottish rebellion led to Charles I eventually admitting defeat and accepting the decisions of the General Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. Middleton played a vital role in the Covenanter army. In June 1639, he successfully led an attack on the Royalists at the Brig o’ Dee outside Aberdeen. The battle at the Brig o’ Dee was the only ‘substantial action’ that took place during the First Bishop’s War.

Covenanters petitioning Charles I. Source: Bridgeman Art Library.

The Parliamentary Cause

At the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the Covenanter army allied themselves with the Parliamentarian cause against the Royalists. Middleton volunteered and fought at the Battle of Edgehill and in 1644 he was promoted to the rank of the Lieutenant-General in the Regiment of Horse in Sir William Waller’s Southern Associate and served in the Oxford Campaign and at the Battle of Cropredy Bridge. In 1645 Middleton returned to Scotland and joined the Army of the Covenant with the rank of major-general. In February 1646 Middleton was given the rank of commander-in-chief by the Committee of Estates and fought a campaign against the Royalists in the Highlands. Middleton also helped to negotiate the final terms for the surrender of Montrose (who he had formerly fought under) in July 1646[4].

The Battle of Edgehill. Source: Bridgeman Art Library.

A Fraught Partnership

Although between 1642 and 1647 the Covenanters and the Parliamentarians fought on the same side, the alliance was often on shaky grounds. Differences of religious ideology made them uneasy bedfellows. The parliamentarians were unhappy with the Scottish aim to impose a Presbyterian system on the Church of England and the Covenanters were equally uncomfortable with the increased radicalisation of the parliamentarian troops and the popularity of the levellers’ ideas in the New Model Army. The conflict between the two allies came to a head shortly after the Covenanters handed over Charles I to the parliamentarians after the king had surrendered to them at Newark in 1646. This led to an alliance or the Engagement between the Scots and the Royalists with Charles I promising to impose Presbyterianism on the Church of England for a period of three years once he was reinstated on the throne[5].

Charles I insulted by Cromwell’s soldiers. Source: wikipedia

A Change of Heart

As the covenanters changed alliances so did Middleton and as a result he found himself for the first time fighting for Charles I instead of against him. In August 1648 Middleton was amongst those who were taken prisoner by the Roundheads after the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Preston. Middleton broke parole and made his way back to Scotland to join up with Sir Thomas Mackenzie of Pluscardine in an abortive Royalist uprising in the Highlands in the Spring of 1649.

A Ruffian’s Penance

Sack cloth and ashes. Source: unknown.

Middleton’s support for both the Royalists and the Engagement brought him into conflict with the Presbyterians of the godly Kirk. Middleton was probably not someone whom the Presbyterians would have been too fond of anyway because of his reputation as a notorious ‘hard-drinking ruffian’[6]. As a punishment they excommunicated Middleton in October 1650 and then forced him to undergo a public penance. Middleton was made to wear a sackcloth at St Mary’s Kirk in Dundee[7]. This humiliating experience left Middleton with a deep hatred of and grudge against the Presbyterians. As a result of his degrading treatment Middleton became a loyal supporter of the Royalists and in particular Charles II. His grit, experience and ability made him indispensable to Charles II and a dangerous foe to the Presbyterians who he was once willing to put his life on the line for.

A Ghostly Visitation

The Tower of London. Source:

In September 1651 whilst fighting on behalf of Charles II, Middleton was captured at the Battle of Worcester. In a bad state and wounded Middleton was sent to the Tower of London to await trial for treason. It is whilst he was a prisoner that one of the strangest stories of a ghostly apparition was reported to have occurred. One night while he was lying in bed feeling depressed, Middleton saw the ghost of his friend, Laird Bocconi appear before him. Many years before Middleton and Bocconi had made a friendship pact that if one of them died before the other and if the survivor was in trouble, the deceased friend would return to help him. Middleton first asked Bocconi if he was alive or dead[8]. Bocconi’s ghost replied that he was dead and that he had died a long time ago. Bocconi then continued that Middleton’s life was in serious danger and that he needed to make his escape sooner rather than later. Middleton did in fact manage to escape three days after receiving this ghostly advice by disguising himself in his wife’s, Lady Grizel’s clothes. His escape was even more remarkable since he manage to get out his cell despite the door being tripled locked! Did he have inside help? Did his wife change places with him? No one knows and no other details about how he got away have ever emerged.

Source: wikipedia

Bocconi’s appearance up to the point of his warning seemed to follow a typical pattern for manifestations of this type but then after delivering his message Bocconi did something very bizarre. Middleton reported that Bocconi started to do a frisk i.e. jigged around the room and recited a short rhyme,

Givanni, Givanni, ‘tis very strange,

In the world to see so sudden a change[9]

Then Bocconi vanished. Why did Bocconi’s ghost suddenly decide to prance around the cell and chant and what if anything did the rhyme have to do with Middleton’s situation? Bocconi’s use of the Italian equivalent of the name ‘John’ does show that Bocconi was addressing Middleton directly but the rest of his chant is confusing. Was the ghost referring to Middleton’s personal change in circumstances i.e. from a free man to a prisoner or to the remarkable change in his allegiances or more generally to the tumultuous times Middleton was living in? Could the message have been a prediction about Middleton’s future and his rise in the world? No one has ever managed to explain the ghost’s actions or to be fair I don’t think anyone has ever tried.


Middleton managed to get to France and join the exiled Charles II in Paris. By 1653 he was made commander of the Royalist forces and was at the forefront of the military campaign to restore the Stewarts to the English throne. When Charles II became king he was given the title of the Earl of Middleton. Middleton was appointed in 1660 as the Royal Commissioner to the (Scots) Parliament[10] using his position to help the king root out Presbyterianism from Scotland. His rapid rise from humble beginnings caused resentment amongst the established nobility, in particular the Earl of Lauderdale who contrived to destroy Middleton. Lauderdale succeeded for a while with Middleton being stripped of his position and offices but he was soon back in favour. In 1663 he was made Governor of Rochester and later in 1668 he was appointed as the Governor of Tangiers. Middleton remained in Tangiers as governor until his death in July 1674[11]. It is believed he died from injuries sustained after falling down some stairs whilst extremely drunk[12].

Image Source: Franz Hals[?]

A Final Note

On a historical note, Middleton had the last laugh as despite the Scottish aristocracy contempt for him, his descendant is currently sitting on the throne of England! Queen Elizabeth through her matrilineal line is a direct descendent of John Middleton[13]. The only mention of Bocconi I could find was in relation to his ghost, who he was, what he did and how he met Middleton seems so far to have vanished from the pages of history. Maybe they met when Middleton was fighting on the continent. Bocconi sounds Italian but the title of Lord was given in its Scottish form. Does that mean anything? probably not. As to the ghost story, it is a unique tale revealing very strange behaviour on the part of the spirit, from a dignified and ominous entry to a rather silly exit. I would also be fascinated to know if anyone ever manages to work out the meaning of Bocconi’s last words on earth!


Image source:[?]


John Middleton, 1st Earl of Middleton,

Royal Middleton Roots,

Alisdair McRae, How the Scots won the English Civil War: The triumph of Fraser’s Dragoons

Brave or bonkers? Man chooses to live in ‘Britain’s most haunted house’ where poltergeists BITE guests,

Magnus Bennett, Royal wedding: Prince William ‘has Middleton ancestry’,

Owen Davies, The Haunted: A social history of ghosts

Horace Welby (editor), Signs Before Death: Authenticated Apparitions

John Middleton, c.1608-74,


Bishops’ Wars,’_Wars

Tristan Hunt, The English Civil War: The Endgame – 1646 – 1649 – Introduction,

John Middleton, 1st Earl of Middleton,,_1st_Earl_of_Middleton

Middleton name already part of Prince William’s family tree,


[1] Brave or bonkers? Man chooses to live in ‘Britain’s most haunted house’ where poltergeists BITE guests,

[2] Owen Davies, The Haunted: A social history of ghosts

[3] John Middleton, c.1608-74,

[4] ibid

[5] Covenanter,

[6]Royal Middleton Roots,

[7] Alisdair McRae, How the Scots won the English Civil War: The triumph of Fraser’s Dragoons

[8] Horace Welby (editor), Signs Before Death: Authenticated Apparitions

[9] ibid

[10] Middleton name already part of Prince William’s family tree,

[11] John Middleton, c.1608-74,

[12] Magnus Bennett, Royal wedding: Prince William ‘has Middleton ancestry’,

[13] Magnus Bennett, Royal wedding: Prince William ‘has Middleton ancestry’,

Memento Mori…Victorian post-mortem photography


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~A note to the faint-hearted: this post contains photographs of dead people ~


The Victorian celebration of death

It has been noted by many other writers, that today when a loved one passes over, we celebrate their life, often avoiding or glossing over the distressing fact that they have died… almost as if it would be rude to mention it.  Not so our Victorian ancestors, they positively revelled in rituals that celebrated death.  This was unsurprising as it was all around them – poverty, incurable diseases and insanitary housing meant that had you lived in early Victorian England (the 1830 and 40’s) you would have been lucky to make it to your late thirties; while a fifth of children born at that time would not reach the age of five.[1]

Yet despite these grim statistics, the Victorian fondness for funerals and funeral rituals grew out of more than just a pragmatic realisation that they would undoubtedly be attending an awful a lot of them.  It was far more than that, the spiritual and religious beliefs of Victorians lead them to the view that death was something to prepare for, and that the dead should be remembered, not just in their living but in the manner of their passing.  To have a ‘good death’ was important, to settle ones affairs not only materially, but spiritually as well, in preparation for the transition into the next phase of the souls existence.  One aspect of this tradition which can seem macabre and slightly voyeuristic to the modern eye, is that of post-mortem photography. But creating images of the dead was not invented in the nineteenth century.

How the dead were remembered: from oil paintings to Carte de visite

Lady Venetia Digby on her death bed by Van Dyke.

Lady Venetia Digby on her death-bed, by Van Dyke.

Preserving the memory of the dead has a long history (and pre-history). From the monumental (think pyramids, mausoleums and tombs) to the personal and portable (such as jewelry and images).  While we might find it odd to want an image of a loved one in death, in the past it was not unheard of. In the seventeenth century, when the beautiful Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, died unexpectedly in her sleep, her distraught husband had her final portrait painted, post-mortem, by non other that Sir Anthony Van Dyke. But such extravagant memento mori (translated as ‘remember that you have to die’) were the preserve of the wealthy upper classes…until, that is, the advent of photography.

Capturing the soul

Post Mortem photography was popular in the UK, USA and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, its popularity peaking in the 1860’s and 70’s. Its rise began in the 1840’s with the birth of photography.

Louis Daguerre, one of the fathers of photography, developed his eponymous Daguerreotype in 1839.  Daguerreotype images were produced on treated silver-plated copper sheets, protected by glass.  The images are strange to look at and change from positive to negative, depending on the angle.  The process was expensive and time-consuming – it could take up to 15 minutes to develop an exposure, and the images created were fragile (often having to be protected in cases or frames).[2][3] Nevertheless it wasn’t long before they were being used to capture the likenesses of the deceased.

Post Mortem Daguerreotype. 1862. Source Astronomy Pictures.

Post Mortem Daguerreotype. 1862. Source Astronomy Pictures.

In 1850 the cheaper Ambrotype method superseded the Daguerreotype.  This process created a positive image on glass.  As with the daguerreotype, the finished product was fragile and each image was unique and could only be reproduced by the camera.[4]

Victorian Post Mortem Ambrotype, in case. Source unknown.

Victorian Post Mortem Ambrotype displayed in a case. Source unknown.

The 1860’s and 1870’s brought the tintype photograph to prominence, which as the name suggested was created on a thin sheet of metal.  This method easy to produce and was popular with itinerant photographers on the move.  So the photographer was able to extend beyond the studio setting to other arenas…such the open battlefield, or the private deathbed.[5]

Tintype post mortem photograph. Source unknown.

Tintype post-mortem photograph. Source unknown.

The biggest revolution in democratizing photography was the Carte de Visite method, patented by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854.  His method produced small images made up of albumen prints on card.  The truly revolutionary aspect of this method was that he developed a way of producing up to eight negatives on one plate, thereby driving down costs.[5] This meant that images could more easily be shared amongst family and friends.  With post-mortem images, it allowed family members who were not able to be present at the deathbed or funeral, to have a final image of their loved one.

Carte de visite post mortem image. Paul Frecker collection.

Carte de visite post-mortem image. Paul Frecker collection.

Post Mortem Photography and The Good Death

In the early and mid-Victorian period, evangelical Christianity had a strong influence on attitudes towards death and dying.  Professor Sir Richard Evans noted in his lecture The Victorians: Life and Death, that the emphasis was on a ‘good death’ – ideally a peaceful and gentle transition in to the afterlife, witnessed by family and friends; where a deathbed struggle with fever or delusion occurred, it could be seen as a metaphor for the Christian struggle for redemption.  Post mortem photography represents part of this tradition, offering a memento mori – an object of reflection to the yet living – as well as, more prosaically, providing symbol of social status because not everyone could afford them.

That is not to say that all Victorians were comfortable with the idea of snapping images the dearly departed – far from it.  As Catharine Arnold notes in Necropolis, photographic images such ‘Fading Away’, created by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858, which used actors to depict the death of a beautiful young girl, were not universally praised.[6] Unlike the tasteful and idealised deathbed scenes depicted in oils, the disturbing intimacy and realism created by the medium of photography seemed to intrude on the very personal and private realm of grief.

'Fading Away' by Henry Peach Robinson, 1858. The Royal Photographic Society at the National Media Museum.

‘Fading Away’ by Henry Peach Robinson, 1858. The Royal Photographic Society at the National Media Museum, Bradford.

In the case of ‘Fading Away’, the image was saved from censure when Prince Albert bought a copy, thereby ensuring its popular appeal. It’s a good thing he liked images of deathbeds, because Queen Victoria commissioned both a painting and a photograph of him on his own deathbed, in 1861.  These images are available to view in the Royal Collection (See links at the end of this article).

Styles of post-mortem photography ranged throughout the nineteenth century and varied from the UK and Europe to the USA.  Broadly speaking the earlier images focused on head shots and close ups, with the subject apparently ‘asleep’, later more ‘naturalist’ poses were adopted -where the subject was posed as if in life, and later still the funeral group – with the family gathered round for one last photo with the dearly departed in their coffin – became popular.  However the significant difference between these images and images such as ‘Fading Away’, is that post-mortem photography was intended to be viewed in the private sphere, whereas Peach Robinson’s staged image was clearly for public consumption.

Mirrors with Memories [7]

Deceased man. Source Wikipedia.

Deceased man in a naturalist pose c1860. Source Wikipedia.

So, why did the Victorians do it? Why have a stranger come into your home, while you are grieving, and interfere with your loved one, simply in order to take a photo?  Well, it seems that a number of factors collided to produce the right climate for it: evangelical Christianity, with its concept of the good death, technological developments, and the rise of the middle classes, along with a large dash of Victorian morbidity.

In some cases, these images may have been the only images taken of the individual, this is particularly possible with images of babies and young children. And, practically speaking, they were a way of sharing the death of a loved one with relatives unable to attend the actual deathbed.

Deceased child surrounded by flowers. Image Source BBC.

Deceased child surrounded by flowers. Image Source Wikipedia.

However, as well as a personal remembrance of the individual, they were also used as a way to reflect upon death – demonstrating Victorian preoccupations with both piety and morbidity. The images allowed for a dialogue between the living and the dead – a reconciliation that the viewer too will die.  A Victorian viewing these images would have been able to ‘read’ them in a very different way than we do now -identifying the spiritual narrative, shared social values, the moral lessons in these images.

Jo Smoke, writing in Beyond the Dark Veil,[8]suggested that as well as a moral and spiritual purpose, Memento Mori can also be seen as expressing class goals by equating ‘taste and beauty as metaphors for status and style’ – after all these images were often displayed in beautiful and expensive frames or jeweled cases and not every one could afford them.

He concluded that post mortem photography successfully encompassed both the spiritual and the consumerist nature of Victorian society, stating that they ‘symbolised tangibility by stretching the inevitability of human decay into the future by investing memory into materials of great physicality’.[9]

Identifying Post Mortem Photography

Today, the internet is flooded with images purporting to be Victorian post mortem photographs. Sometimes a sort of ‘check-list’ is deployed to identify them and although one can probably assume that an individual depicted in a coffin, is almost certainly dead, other signs such as closed or painted eyes, blank expressions, visible standing frames, or strange posture aren’t necessarily proof-positive of a post mortem photograph.

The tradition of depicting the deceased as though living, often accompanied by living relatives and children, has created even more difficulty in differentiating between what may simply be an awkward and uncomfortable looking living individual and a posed corpse.

Deceased young girl, with her parents. Source BBC.

Deceased young girl with her parents. Source BBC.

In the above post mortem image, the dead girl is propped up by her parents, with her head on one side.  She appears notably sharper than her living parents who appear slightly blurred. Even when developments in photography led to reduced exposure times, it was still difficult to remain still during the process (unless of course, you were dead).  This was such a problem that the living were often supported with apparatus, such as a Brady Stand.  The use of these stands has led to what some call the ‘Myth of the standing corpse’ [10] – whereby any images of a slightly suspect individual, where a stand is visible, may be identified as post mortem (a particular problem on commercial selling sites).

The Stand is visible, but is this man dead? Source hchronicles blog.

This man has decidedly odd eyes and is supported by a Stand – but is he dead? Source: hchronicles blog.

This image has often been described as a post mortem photo - but the jury is out. Image source - unknown.

This image has often been described as a post mortem photo, demonstrating the use of the stand – but the jury is out. Image source – unknown.

However there seems to be a strong argument against the possibility that the Brady stand, or any other stand (even combined with wires), could have ever actually support the dead-weight (pardon the pun) of a corpse, in anything approaching a natural manner. [11][12 – see the video at the foot of this post for more on this debate.]

The girl in the middle is said to be dead. Petrolia Archive Collection.

The girl in the middle is said to be dead. Petrolia Archive Collection.

The image above, originally from the Petrolia Archive, appears on many sites online as a post mortem photograph. The young girl in the middle is supposed to be dead – her painted on eyes are cited as evidence for it. However, given the ease at which a photograph could be spoiled by a sudden twitch or blink during the long exposure time, it can be argued that this is not necessarily certain proof that the subject is dead. [13] And in fact, this could explain a lot of the blank, dead-eyed stares that gaze out from us from some of these photographs.

Other images are more obviously photo-shopped, such as this fabulously gruesome image of two sisters, which would stretch even the Victorians capacity for morbidity!

Image often cited as Victorian Post Mortem, but actually an art project from 2009. [Artist unknown]

Image often cited as Victorian Post Mortem, but actually an art project from about 2009. [Artist unknown]

The original picutre [Source Unknown]

The original picture before manipulation [Source Unknown]

 Changing attitudes

It has been said that the advent of the Kodak box brownie, allowing families to document entire lives from birth to death, caused the Post Mortem Photograph to fall out of favour, [14] but there was more to its decline than technical innovation.  By the end of the Victorian period and beginning of the Edwardian, there was a fundamental shift in attitudes to death. For one, evangelical Christianity, with its particular interpretation of the ‘good death’, had waned. By the Edwardian period a ‘good death’ had transformed into one more familiar to us today – a death without suffering or one that took the subject unawares, such as in their sleep.  As such, conversations about death and dying became less acceptable than they had been in the early and mid-Victorian periods.  Catastrophic conflicts such as the First World War, also played their part in changing attitudes.  Such brutal conflicts took death away from the intimate family setting, and while death could be presented as a patriotic sacrifice to the state, it often occurred violently, or to far from home to allow for a photographic memento mori to be either desirable or practically possible.


In this modern world, where we have become desensitized to the graphic images of death reported in the media, we have shut death out, except in its most extreme and impersonal form.  In contrast, these quiet, contemplative and very personal images of the dead offer us the opportunity to open a dialogue with death, and to reflect on that great leveler.  And of course, they also provide an ever so  gentle reminder that we too will die.

Memento Mori.

By Philippe de Champaigne - Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Post Mortem Images on the net

Anne Longmore-Etheridge Collection:

Petrolia Heritage

Royal Collection:

The Burns Archive:

The Thanatos Archive:

Sources and notes

Arnold, Catharine, ‘Necropolis: London and its dead’ 2007, Simon and Schuster [3] [6] [1]

Evans, Professor Sir Richard, [this article contains some disputed post mortem photographs] [13]

Mord, Jack, ‘Beyond the Dark Veil’, 2013, Grand Central Press [7][8][9][14] [4] [5] [2] [5] The Myth of the stand alone corpse [10][11][12]



The deathly stoop chair of Thomas Busby


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Thirsk Museum. Image source Trip Advisor.

Thirsk Museum. Image source Trip Advisor.

If you visit the small jewel of a museum in Thirsk you will see the rather strange sight of an oak chair hung from the ceiling in one of the display areas. The chair was suspended at the explicit request of its owner to prevent anyone from ever sitting on it including maintenance and cleaners[1]. The museum has never broken its promise in over 30 years despite numerous requests and even the threat of legal action[2].

A notorious ruffian


Portrait of Thomas Busby. Image source:

Local legend has it that the chair belonged to Thomas Busby, a thug, thief and drunkard who lived in North Yorkshire in the latter part of the 1600s. Busby married Elizabeth, the daughter of a small time petty crock, Daniel Awety who lived near the village of Kirby Wiske. Awety had purchased a farm after moving to the area from Leeds. His house which he called Danotty Hall was ideal for Awety, enabling him to continue with his illegal coining activities in relative seclusion. It was even reported that Awety had built within the house a hidden chamber which was connected to the cellar via a secret passageway[3]. Busby who was also the original owner of an inn near Sandhutton and just three miles from Danotty Hall became Awety’s partner in crime.

A crime of passion

The details of what happened that fatal last day of Awety’s life are vague. Awety and Busby may have argued earlier that day but over what is not known, it could have been something to do with Elizabeth, the coining business or almost anything else. Their relationship was known to be far from harmonious with Busby often in a foul mood with Awety for some reason or another.

Gibbet. Source unknown.

Gibbet. Source unknown.

What is clear is that later that day a drunken and volatile Busby returned to his inn only to find Awety waiting for him threatening to take Elizabeth home with him. Busby’s mood only blackened when he saw Awety sitting in his favourite chair. Whatever their second argument of the day was over Busby forcibly removed Awety from the chair and threw him out.

That night Busby still seething grabbed a hammer, stormed over to Danotty Hall and bludgeoned Awety to death. Busby then tried to hide his handiwork in the woods. Concern over Awety’s sudden disappearance led to a local search of the area being made. On finding the body, Busby was arrested at the inn and charged with murder.

In the summer of 1702 Busby was tried and sentenced to death for murder at the York Assizes. His punishment was to be gibbeted i.e. hung from a gibbet, his body dipped in tar and his remains displayed on a stoop (post) attached to the gibbet, in full view of his inn. The inn was soon after renamed the Busby Stoop Inn, a name which it retained until it closed in 2012.

The Busby Stoop Inn. Image taken from

The Busby Stoop Inn. Image taken from

Busby’s final warning

Busby's favourite chair. Image source:

Busby’s favorite chair. Image source:

It is here that the story veers away from historical certainty and moves into the realms of local folklore. One version recounts how Busby was granted his last wish which was to have a final drink at his own inn and sit in his favorite chair. On leaving the inn to make his final journey to the execution site Busby cursed the chair declaring that death would come shortly to anyone who sat in it. Another version tells how Busby drunkenly shouted out the curse whilst being taken to the gibbet to be hung. Whichever way you look at it, Busby was determined that even from beyond the grave he would never allow anyone to enjoy sitting in his beloved chair.

Busby’s spirit was believed to have haunted his old pub as well as the area where he was gibbeted[4] but it’s his precious chair, the focus of his curse which became irrevocably linked to his revengeful spirit. According to local legend, this seemly innocuous piece of furniture has been responsible for more deaths than most serial killers (one estimate puts the number of its victims at over 60!).

The chair’s first victim?

250px-chimneysweep2The first reported death alleged to be associated with the death chair is that of a chimney sweep who along with a friend sat in the chair whilst having a drink one evening in 1894. The sweep never made it home that night, being completely inebriated he laid down on the road to sleep. The next morning his body was found hanging from the post next to the gibbet. His death was ruled as a suicide but in 1914 the friend with whom the chimney sweep had spent his last hours with admitted on his death bed to having robbed and murdered his friend.

Dead man’s chair or Don’t sit down!

During the Second World War, the pub became a popular drinking spot with RCAF airmen. The airmen would goad each other to sit in the chair. Those that took up the challenge never returned from their missions.

In 1968 a couple of years before Tony Earnshaw took over the running of the pub, he overheard two airmen dare each other to sit in the chair. They both did. Returning to the airfield their car left the road and crashed into a tree. They both died on the way to the hospital.

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

Through the early 1970s the chair seemed to claim a number of victims including a cleaning lady who was diagnosed with a brain tumor after knocking into the chair; a number of cyclists and motorcyclists who suffered fatal road accidents; a hitch-hiker who was run over after having spent two nights at the pub and; a local man who died of a heart attack shortly after sitting in the condemned chair[5].

A group of builders having a drink at the pub cajoled the youngest of their group into sitting on the chair. Back at the site the man fell through the roof of the building and landed on the concrete ground below. This death proved to be the final straw for Earnshaw and he banished the chair to the cellar.

A delivery man from the brewery was in the cellar one day when he decided to try out the chair. He commented to Earnshaw that it was far too comfortable to be left down there. He was killed shortly afterwards when his van went off the road. Soon after Earnshaw must have decided that the chair despite being a profitable tourist attraction was too dangerous to keep any longer. In 1978 Earnshaw donated it to the Thirsk Museum

A grim legacy or tourist gimmick?

There are so many questions that have been left unanswered and probably unanswerable. Did Busby really commit murder over a chair? Could any person truly hold such deep affection for a carved piece of wood? Is Busby’s revengeful and jealous spirit still attacking anyone who dares sit in his seat? Or was the murder over something far more important, something which we will never know about? Is the chair really haunted or was it a money-making gimmick? Is the chair just really an extremely unlucky piece of furniture? Is this chair really the same chair that Busby fought over[6]?

The chair is safely out of reach now. Image source:

The chair is safely out of reach now. Image source:

Many people believe the deaths were just an unlucky coincidence. Another explanation could be simply that the majority of those brave enough to defy the curse were just risk-takers, prepared to push their luck[7] (it is interesting how many of the deaths happened on roads and thousands of men of Bomber Command never returned from sorties) and were simply unlucky.

On one hand, it would be intriguing to test the chair to see if the legend about this unusual haunting is really true…but on the other hand, sometimes it is better not to know…


Thomas Busby’s Ghost – The Busby Stoop Inn:

Busby’s stoop chair:

The infamous Busby Stoop Chair:

The Busby Stoop Curse – The full story:

The Cursed Busby’s Chair:

Chair of death:

Busby’s Stoop Chair of Death:


[1] Busby’s stoop chair:

[2] The Busby Stoop Curse – The full story:

[3] ibid

[4] Thomas Busby’s Ghost – The Busby Stoop Inn:

[5] The Cursed Busby’s Chair:

[6] The Busby Stoop Curse – The full story:

[7] Death chairs