Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh’s Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour
Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Grave Robbing in the Old Town
The Old Town of Edinburgh has a dark and sordid history when it comes to grave robbing. This gruesome practice took place from the 1700s to the early 1800s, providing cadavers for medical research and anatomy classes at the city's esteemed universities. As the study of anatomy grew in popularity, the demand for corpses surged. But with few legal ways to acquire bodies, grave robbers took advantage of the situation.
Under cover of night, body snatchers would descend upon cemeteries and coffins to dig up freshly buried corpses. Some of Edinburgh's most afflicted graveyards included Greyfriars Kirkyard, with over 500 bodies estimated stolen, and St Cuthberts, which lost so many corpses it had to build watchtowers. The body snatchers worked quickly, avoiding detection, and passed bodies along a network leading to the anatomists.
When touring the Old Town today, you can spot the subtle remnants of Edinburgh's grave robbing epidemic. The watchtowers still stand over St Cuthberts cemetery, though now adorned with flowering vines. At Greyfriars, mortsafes remain - heavy iron cages placed over coffins that foiled the body snatchers' shovels. And the Surgeons Hall Museums provides a glimpse into the grisly tools of the anatomists' trade.
For a spine-tingling stroll back in time, join one of the many ghost tours threading through Edinburgh's cobbled closes and snickets. Most pass the centuries-old tenements where Burke and Hare murdered at least 16 people before selling their bodies for cash. Others pause inside the underground vaults near the University of Edinburgh medical school, thought to be a holding place for snatched corpses.
What else is in this post?
- Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Grave Robbing in the Old Town
- Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Inside the Underground Vaults of South Bridge
- Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Visiting the Surgeons' Hall Museums
- Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Walking Through Greyfriars Kirkyard
- Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Learning the Burke and Hare Story
- Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Seeing the Ghost of Mackenzie Poltergeist
- Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Exploring the Covenanters Prison
Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Inside the Underground Vaults of South Bridge
Hidden beneath the arches of South Bridge lies a sinister labyrinth once used to conceal the sinister dealings of Edinburgh's grave robbers and body snatchers. These decrepit underground vaults are one of the most haunted sites in the city, with reports of apparitions, cold spots, and poltergeist activity. Though access is restricted, several tour companies offer guided walks through the spine-tingling chambers.
The vaults were built along with South Bridge in 1785 to span the Cowgate valley below. Shops were meant to occupy the ground floor arches, with storage vaults rented out underneath. However, the vaults proved undesirable due to damp conditions and poor ventilation. As legal commerce dried up, the vaults attracted Edinburgh's shady characters - including the resurrection men supplying cadavers to the medical schools.
Tour guide Adam Lyons of Mercat Tours describes the vaults as "perfect for their macabre endeavors." In the labyrinth of dark, secluded chambers, body snatchers could dismantle stolen corpses and prepare them for delivery. They also reportedly used the vaults to temporarily hide bodies lifted from Greyfriars Kirkyard and other nearby graveyards.
Over the decades, the vaults hosted all manner of illicit activity - from illegal gambling dens to whiskey distilleries. People often entered and never returned. Tales of murder and torture in the vaults abound, with ghosts said to haunt the damp stone corridors today. Numerous tour companies lead theatrical tours into this subterranean netherworld, often with costumed guides dramatizing its gory history.
A highlight is the Blair Street Underground Vaults, managed by the City of Edinburgh Council. Visitors descend 20 feet below South Bridge's arches into a guided walk through stone-lined rooms once frequented by body snatchers. The cold, musty air and candlelit darkness set the scene for a spooky encounter with the vault's troubled past. Eerie tales are told, including of a ghostly boy spotted wandering the labyrinth alone.
Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Visiting the Surgeons' Hall Museums
For an up-close look at the gruesome tools once wielded by Edinburgh’s anatomists and surgeons, a visit to Surgeons’ Hall Museums is a must. Housed in a grandiose building constructed in 1832, the Surgeons’ Hall provides a chilling window into Scotland’s prominent role advancing medical science - often through questionable means.
As the illegal body snatching trade boomed in the late 1700s, Edinburgh became a leading hub for anatomy studies needing cadavers. The city’s esteemed surgeons and anatomists were at the crux of this dark history. Their instruments of dissection, anatomical models, and preserved specimens reveal the depths to which they went to advance medicine.
The museum’s centerpiece is one of the last surviving anatomy theatres in Britain. With steeply raked benches surrounding a central dissection table, it hosted anatomy lectures using illegally obtained corpses as learning aids. The surviving 19th century anatomy table bears the nicks and stains of centuries of use. Nearby a cast iron hanging cage, known as a gibbet, was used to display corpses for study.
The instrument collection showcases saws, scalpels, and scissors of all sizes employed to meticulously dismantle bodies. One particularly startling tool is a serrated scoop for removing sections of the skull. The museum also exhibits startling wax anatomical models, made by modeling actual dissected body parts. Though many specimens were obtained legally from unclaimed bodies, undoubtedly some originated from the body snatchers.
A standout display details the gruesome Burke and Hare murders. These infamous serial killers maximized profits by eliminating bodies’ decomposition, suffocating at least 16 victims and selling them straight to anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. The museum showcases Burke’s death mask and pocketbook, containing two last pennies from the hangman who executed him.
Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Walking Through Greyfriars Kirkyard
No tour of Edinburgh's dark history of body snatching is complete without an amble through Greyfriars Kirkyard. As one of the most heavily targeted cemeteries by the resurrection men, Greyfriars offers an evocative glimpse into the unrest that seized the city over the alarming rate of grave robberies. A stroll through its atmospheric grounds is akin to stepping back in time, with many original monuments and mortsafes still standing.
Greyfriars Kirkyard is located just south of the Old Town, nestled beside the Grassmarket where public hangings once took place. Its first burials date to the late 16th century, and today it is one of the oldest cemeteries left in Edinburgh. Tens of thousands have been laid to rest here over the centuries, including many renowned Edinburghers. But by the 1700s, the deceased were not permitted to rest in such peace.
As the anatomists' and surgeons' need for corpses intensified, Greyfriars became ground zero for the resurrection men - much to the outrage of local citizens. Grave robbers showed no discretion, targeting ordinary men, women, and children's plots. The kirkyard's location right beside the medical school made it dangerously convenient for midnight snatchings. Estimates suggest over 500 bodies disappeared from Greyfriars alone between 1805-1819.
Horrified by the rampant desecration of their loved one's graves, the bereaved began taking matters into their own hands. Heavy mortsafes - essentially iron cages - were placed over fresh plots to thwart the resurrection men's shovels. Some families paid watchmen to stand guard overnight. But still the body snatchers persisted.
Today at Greyfriars, over thirty mortsafes remain scattered throughout the kirkyard. These rusted contraptions provide a tangible link to the desperate measures Scots undertook to protect their dead. Many original 17th and 18th century monuments also endure, dotted with cherubs and carved skulls. And of course, it's said that some of Edinburgh's most active poltergeists haunt these grounds.
Joining a guided ghost tour through the kirkyard at night allows you to experience Greyfriars in all its eerie glory. Tales are told of the supposed Mackenzie Poltergeist that inhabits the Black Mausoleum and has assaulted visitors and vandalized the tomb. Phantom children are also said to haunt a mausoleum known as the Covenanter's Prison. Despite renovations and church additions over the years, the old spirits remain.
Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Learning the Burke and Hare Story
Of all the resurrectionists who stalked Edinburgh’s cemeteries, none reached such infamy as William Burke and William Hare. These two men took the sinister practice of grave robbing to new extremes, committing at least 16 grisly murders between 1827-1828 and selling the bodies for dissection. Burke and Hare’s killing spree shocked the nation and still haunts Edinburgh today. Learning their tale offers a chilling glimpse into this murky period of the city’s history.
Unlike other body snatchers merely digging up existing corpses, Burke and Hare expedited the process by creating their own fresh bodies. They preyed upon the vulnerable - lodgers staying at Hare’s boarding house who would not be missed. Their method was simple and sinister - Burke would clasp his hand over the victim’s nose and mouth to suffocate them, in order to leave the body unblemished.
The two delivered their murdered victims straight to Dr. Robert Knox, an eminent Edinburgh anatomist who paid handsomely for cadavers and asked no questions. For nearly a year, Burke and Hare evaded capture while claiming at least 16 lives. Their killing spree only ended after other lodgers grew suspicious and alerted the police.
Hare turned King’s evidence, escaping punishment by testifying against Burke. After being found guilty of murder in 1829, Burke was publicly hanged outside St. Giles Cathedral and his corpse dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College. To the outrage of many, Dr. Knox faced no criminal charges, though the murders wrecked his career.
Today, excursion companies like Mercat Tours vividly bring the shadowy Burke and Hare tale back to life. Costumed guides thread groups through the dripping, narrow closes and wynds where the gruesome killings occurred, conjuring the dark, fetid atmosphere of 19th century Edinburgh. They pause at actual murder sites, like Tanners Close, relaying chilling details of the crimes. The tour climaxes with a stop at Surgeons’ Hall Museums, where Burke’s death mask and Dr. Knox’s dissection table can be viewed firsthand.
For those seeking a more hands-on experience, Edinburgh Dungeon’s Burke and Hare experience allows you to walk in the murderer’s footsteps, interact with actors, and even become part of the show. Other tours visit Greyfriars Kirkyard after dark, telling of Burke’s restless ghost said to haunt his gravesite.
Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Seeing the Ghost of Mackenzie Poltergeist
Of all the specters and spirits said to haunt old Edinburgh, none rivals the infamy of the Mackenzie Poltergeist, a troublesome ghost inhabiting Greyfriars Kirkyard. This mischievous phantom has assaulted visitors to the Black Mausoleum and Covenanters Prison for centuries, earning a reputation as one of the city’s most violent and active paranormal entities. Tracking down the Mackenzie Poltergeist’s grave makes for a uniquely hair-raising experience while touring Edinburgh’s body snatching haunts.
So who exactly is this Mackenzie Poltergeist? Records trace the origins back to Sir George Mackenzie, a barrister and Lord Advocate of Scotland during the 17th century. Mackenzie earned the nickname “Bluidy Mackenzie” for aggressively persecuting followers of the Covenanter movement, who supported separation of the Church of Scotland from the government. Hundreds were imprisoned in the cramped, squalid crypts below Greyfriars Kirkyard, with many tortured and executed under Sir George’s watch.
When Mackenzie himself died in 1691, he was buried in a prominent black mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard - directly atop the site where hundreds of Covenanters had met their demise. Over the centuries, tales spread of an aggressive supernatural presence haunting the cemetery, thought to be Mackenzie’s tortured soul. Signs of poltergeist activity included physical attacks leaving visitors bruised, burns from cold spots, and objects flying through the air. The paranormal group City of the Dead Paranormal took photos in 1998 showing shadowy faces and orbs of light surrounding the mausoleum.
In 1999, a homeless man seeking shelter in the Black Mausoleum was discovered with severe bruises and cuts, claiming to be assaulted by an invisible spectre as he tried to sleep atop Mackenzie’s tomb. The man reportedly received a black eye when punched by a ghostly fist. Since then, the Mackenzie Poltergeist has only gained notoriety through assaults on paranormal investigators and tourists.
Plucky ghost hunters frequenting the Covenanters Prison crypt often report hearing cries and moans, feeling invisible hands grasping at them, and even being scratched by some malevolent presence. The paranormal TV show Most Haunted filmed an episode at the mausoleum, capturing rocks and broken glass mysteriously littering the ground after the team’s departure.
Following in the Footsteps of Edinburgh's Body Snatchers: A Spine-Chilling Tour - Exploring the Covenanters Prison
Within the timeworn grounds of Greyfriars Kirkyard lies one of Edinburgh's most foreboding and haunted sites tied to its history of religious persecution - the Covenanters Prison. This series of cramped, condemned crypts stacked beneath the church served as a wretched holding cell for over 1,200 members of Scotland's Covenanter movement in the 1600s. Imprisoned in cruel conditions by Sir George Mackenzie, hundreds died here of starvation, disease, or torture. Today, the spine-tingling vaults are accessible on guided tours for those daring enough to descend into their gloomy depths.
Between 1679 and 1688, the Covenanters Prison crypt played a key role in "Bluidy Mackenzie's" relentless suppression of the Covenanter dissenters. These rebellious Presbyterians wished for independence from state rule in religious matters - a stance the Kings saw as treason. Those who refused to pledge loyalty to the King's religious dictates were packed into the dank, lightless tombs below Greyfriars Kirk to languish and rot.
When touring the prison today, you first descend a tight winding stairwell into the claustrophobic bowels of the church. Guides relay harrowing tales of the horrific conditions prisoners endured - shackled in complete darkness, suffering outbreaks of disease, with minimal food passing through a small hatch. Prisoners left carvings in the stone walls that can still be seen, documenting their suffering and steadfast faith.
Of the 1,200 estimated to have endured this stone hellhole, only 250 survived to be released or deported as slaves to the colonies. The rest perished and were buried in mass graves in Greyfriars Kirkyard above. On your tour, you may enter the chilling "coffin room" - where some prisoners slept stacked four-high in wooden caskets. Visitors often report being grabbed by icy ghostly hands or feeling dark presences lurking in the shadows.
Given the site's tragic history, it comes as no surprise that the Covenanters Prison ranks among Edinburgh's most haunted. The tormented spirits of those left to die in confinement are said to haunt these crypts. EVP recordings have captured ghostly voices, sobs, and pleas for release. Photos reveal unexplained mists, orbs, and images of specters. Psychics visiting the vaults describe being overwhelmed by traumatic visions and sensations.