The Dark Side of Edinburgh Blog by Daughter of Hell
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Trainspotting by John Hodge Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed- interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing sprit- crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing you last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that?
In Victorian Edinburgh, women who became pregnant out of wedlock were socially excluded (but never the man who got them pregnant in the first place...). Abortion was illegal. Backstreet abortions were life endangering, but it was that or abandon your child (and possibly hang for it if caught) - or pay a baby farmer to raise it for you. Edinburgh's most famous baby farmer was Jessie King. Jessie lived in Canonmills with her partner Michael Pearson. She had charge of several children at this point, including one named Alexander Gunn. Alexander seemed to be being well cared for, until one day he simply disappeared. Jessie and Michael moved to Cheyne Street, in Stockbridge, throwing anyone who might have been trying to trace Alexander off the scent. Shortly after that a baby girl in Jessie's care also disappeared. Another baby disappeared as well. In Stockbridge one day some boys were playing, and they discovered the strangled corpse of a male infant. Jessie was questioned again about Alexander, but insisted the child had been passed on to her sister to be cared for. The authorities were unconvinced and began to search her house. Jessie broke down and led them to the celler where the corpse of the baby girl lay. The dead child the boys found was baby Alexander. Jessie was never charged over the disappearance of the third baby as no body was ever found, but she admitted to strangling Alexander in a fit of 'drunken melancholy', and to administering too much whisky as a sleep aid to the baby girl. There was some question as to whether she was sane (I know if I was stuck in a flat in Edinburgh surrounded by screaming children, filthy nappies and not very much money, I'd be having some 'drunken melancholy' too. Oh, wait...) but was declared fit for trial and was found guilty and sentenced to death. She was held in Calton Jail, on Calton Hill before hanging. She was the last woman ever to be hanged in Edinburgh.
Rumours that the mound was built on the bodies of plague victims have been greatly exaggerated. Well it might not have been... But Leith Links and Brunstfield Links certainly were. Both these sites were mass graves. Bruntsfield Links is all that's left of the old Burgh Muir, an oak forrest that used to cover most of south Edinburgh. When the plague struck, the forrest was used to isolate victims in an effort to halt the disease. It was very well organised. All plague victims had to be reported to the proper authorities within 12 hours, and were then carried off in horse or hand drawn carts to the Burgh Muir. If they survived the journey, their clothes were boil washed and they were given bed gowns. Then they were taken to wooden huts clustered around the chapel of St Roche, the patron saint of plague victims. If they didn't survive the journey the victims were buried by the wayside. Bodies have been turning up in private gardens in what was the Burgh Muir area ever since. One outbreak of the plague was so aggressive that half the population of Leith was completely wiped out, the bodies buried in a mass grave in what is now Leith Links.
Beneath the Royal Mile and the City Chambers lies a number of closes, narrow streets packed with tenement buildings, originally seven stories high. In 1753 the council decided to build the Royal Exchange (the City Chambers), knocking down the top houses and using the lower buildings as the foundations. Mary King's Close was once the shopping street in Edinburgh with many goods available. Mary King herself ran a market stall selling fine lace amongst other things. There was also a saw maker's business that did very well, running for 150 years. There was even an urban cow shed, where cows were stored (in terrible conditions) before being taken to Fleshmarket Close to be slaughtered. You can stand in it today. It still smells of cow shit The close was permanently swimming in human waste. Twice a day people would empty their buckets full of shit, piss, vomit and food waste, directly onto their doorsteps with no more warning for those below than a quick "Garde loo!" (from the French 'garde al'eau'). You had to be quick to yell ''Haud yer han!'' and avoid it. All the muck would then trickle slowly down the close into the Nor' Loch. The upper and middle classes lived on the higher floors, away from the smell and the filth. The poorer folk had to pretty much live in it. They generally couldn't afford shoes either, so would walk about in it barefoot. Some of the ceilings in the closes are made from plague victims. They were very into recycling then, and would burn the bodies of the victims to ash, and mix it with horse hair and god knows what else, and use it to make ceilings with. The famous story goes that when the Old Town became infested with black rats from ships down at Leith Docks, and the Black Plague spread throughout the city, the council attempted to contain it by blocking up all the entrances to Mary King's close, trapping some of the plague victims inside for good. It's not true. Plague victims were actually very well cared for. Their homes were marked by a white flag outside the door or window, so everyone would know to keep away. Uninfected families would leave donations of food and other goods at their doors (though they had to be careful as it was illegal to come within 12 feet of a plague victim - penalty of death!), so that the infected families wouldn't have to come outside for anything, and pass the infection on. The council also provided supplies for this same reason. The plague doctor would be sent in. Families who were able to be moved were taken up to the Burgh Muir. For those who survived, their homes were disinfected and cleaned by special teams of people. It was actually another hundred years before the Royal Exchange was built on top. In the years since, the close had been reopened because of overcrowding in the Old Town, and many sightings of ghosts were reported, mostly disembodied men and headless animals. Most of Mary King's Close is still intact. It runs from the High Street, and before Cockburn Street was built it ran all the way to Market Street. The close was opened to the public in 2003. Now you can take guided tours through the dark, dank streets, find out about life from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Maybe you'll even meet Annie...
Maggie Dickson, a Musselburgh fish-wife, broke the 'Concealment of Pregnancy' law after an affair with an innkeeper. The baby died after the birth and she left the corpse on a riverbank. But the body was found and identified, and Maggie was hanged in the Grassmarket in 1728. Afterwards, people heard noises from the burial cart - upon opening the coffin they discovered Maggie wasn't as dead as she ought to have been. If Maggie had been hanged in England, the poor woman would have been strung up again, as English law dictated that a person must be hanged until dead. But under Scots law Maggie was legally dead - and was allowed to go free. She went on to have more children and live a long life running an ale house. There's now a pub named after her on West Port, just off the Grassmarket.
Deacon William Brodie was a skilled wood-worker, just as his father had been. By day he was a respected member of the town council, and the leader of the guild of Wrights and Masons (it's from this post that he gained the title of 'Deacon'). But at night he drank and gambled his way to near bankruptcy. Having two mistresses and five illegitimate children to support didn't help either. He began to make wax impressions of the keys to the houses in which he worked during the day, and would return at night to rob them. He joined forces with locksmith George Smith and the pair of them became very successful indeed. Two more accomplices, Brown and Ainslie, were later added. During a raid on the Excise Office in Chessel's Court on the Canon's Gait, William fell asleep (double lives are tiring!) and one of the gang, Ainslie, was captured. Ainslie then decided to accept a large reward offered by the council and turned King's evidence, grassing William up. William fled to Amsterdam, and was about to sail to America when he was caught, brought home and sentenced to be hanged in 1788 on gallows which he himself had designed and funded. It's said he designed a harness for the occasion involving a steel collar and the hangman accepted a bribe to ignore it, allowing him to escape. Sightings of him in Paris were later reported. Others say the hanging was successful and he was buried in an unmarked grave at the Parish church in Buccleuch. Deacon Brodie was the inspiration for 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'. Robert Louis Stevenson's father had furniture made by Brodie.
Edinburgh's large population of students and anatomists created a market for fresh corpses, but the law stated that only the bodies of criminals who'd been recently executed could be used. Demand was much higher than supply; along came Burke and Hare. William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants who'd both moved to Edinburgh to work on the Union Canal, although they didn't meet until Burke and his partner Helen moved out of Leith and up to West Port, just off the Grassmarket. Burke and Helen became Hare's and his partner Margaret's lodgers. In 1827, one of the other lodgers, a man called Donald, passed away. Hare was fairly annoyed about it because Donald still owed him 4 in rent. Aware of the demand for fresh bodies, Hare decided this was how Donald would settle his debt. On the day of the funeral itself, Burke and Hare replaced the body in the coffin with a sack of bark. They took the body to the anatomy offices of Robert Knox. They were asked to return after dark and when they did, they were paid 7 and 10 shillings. It was easy money, and Burke and Hare began to consider how they might create a more long term money-making scheme out of it. Grave robbing was common, so much so that the families of those who had been recently buried would hold 8 or 9 day long vigils beside the grave to prevent their loved ones being dug up. St Cuthberts, west of the castle, was a particularly popular hunting ground. Even some of the anatomy students themselves went grave robbing by lanternlight during the witching hour. It was so common the locals nicknamed them the 'Resurrectionists'. The grave robbers were so practised and quick that the graves not under constant watch could be dug up, the bodies removed, and the soil replaced, all between patrols of the nightwatchman, leaving grieving families none the wiser the following day. But generally what was dug up was not that fresh. Murder was clearly the way forward. Another lodger, Joseph, became ill not long after Donald passed, and while not seriously ill, Burke and Hare got him drunk and suffocated him. This was to be their signature method from then on. They picked lodgers and prostitutes, other people who no-one would miss. In April 1828, Burke met up with two prostitutes, Mary Paterson and Janet Brown. He invited them back to his brother's for a drink. Mary passed out, and while she slept, the others argued and Janet left. She told Burke she would collect her friend later and went off to visit her old landlady, Mrs Lawrie. Mrs Lawrie, on hearing about the morning's events, was worried for Mary and insisted Janet return to fetch her at once. A servant went with Janet for safety, but when they arrived they were told Burke and Mary had gone out. Janet insisted on waiting and sent the servant back to Mrs Lawrie's to tell her what was going on. The servant came straight back with instructions from Mrs Lawrie for Janet to leave immediately. Poor Mary's corpse was already on it's way to Robert Knox. Janet escaped. Mary's body, Mary having been a very beautiful teenage girl, was not immediately dissected, but was first drawn by the students to record it's beautiful shape, and was preserved in spirits for three months afterwards. Janet continued to ask around and search for her friend for months and months, but never heard tell of Mary again. After that, Burke and Hare became bolder, even taking the bodies to Knox during the day. They even murdered a grandmother and her twelve year old grandchild, and a relative of Helen's, Ann McDougal. But by then the two couples were begining to argue. Burke agreed to move to other premises. The next three victims were well known to the community and the students recognised them. Mary Haldane, a prostitute, and her daughter Peggy were next. After them went 'Daft Jamie', a nineteen year old who was by all accounts big and strong but with the mind of a child. He was very popular with the local children. Burke later mentioned in his confession that Jamie was very anxious and asked for his mother over and over while he was being killed. He was easily recognisable by his deformed foot, and the students were in uproar but Dr Knox point blank denied the body was that of Jamie. Jamie was the only victim who was stone cold sober and must have known exactly what was happening to him. Burke and Hare's downfall came by way of their new lodgers, James and Ann Gray. Mary Docherty, an old woman from Ireland who'd come to Edinburgh to search for her lost son, came back with Burke for a drink at the lodgings, having been convinced Burke was somehow related to her, and was offered a room for the night. Mary was given the Grays' room, and they were shifted to a room with the Hares. It was Hallowe'en, and a party with much drinking and dancing was in full swing. Later that night, Burke's neighbours were convinced they heard shouting and arguements, and a voice yelling 'Murder!', and went out to search for a policeman. Finding none, they gave up and went home. The following morning, The Grays were moved back to their original room. They were told Mary had tried it on with Burke and had been thrown out. In fact, her body was lying under the spare bed, covered in straw. During the day, Ann approached the spare bed to retrieve her child's stockings and was warned off by Burke. Curious as to why Burke was so defensive, the Grays waited until they were alone in the building, and went to investigate for themselves, finding Mary's body. The Grays confronted Helen, who offered them 10 to keep their mouths shut. The horrified Grays went to find a policeman. An anonymous tip off lead the police to Dr Knox's classroom, where Mary's body had been sent, and it was identified by James Gray. Everyone blamed and testified against each other. Burke was hanged on the 28th of January 1829, his body given to the students for dissection, and Helen was freed. Hare was later released having turned King's evidence against Burke, and Margaret returned to Ireland, although she, Hare and Helen were mobbed wherever they went. Knox was never prosecuted. Despite popular opinion, there is no evidence that Burke and Hare ever dug up any graves. "Up the close and down the stair, In the house with Burke and Hare, Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief, Knox, the man who buys the beef." childrens' rhyme
At the castle esplande there is a cast iron wall fountain. It commemorates over three hundred women who were burned alive, accused of witchcraft. Edinburgh was once considered the capital of witch burning Europe. In the 16th century more burnings were carried out on Castlehill than anywhere else in the country.
Edinburgh's first plague doctor was John Paulitious, who died in June of 1645. The man appointed as his successor, George Rae, was promised huge amounts of money to take on the job. Presumably the town council didn't expect him to survive either, and therefore they wouldn't have to fulfil their promise - but he did survive, and was still pursuing them for the money ten years later. He survived because of his clothing. He would dress head to foot in thick leather, with a mask over his face full of sweet smelling herbs. It was thought then that the plague was spread in the air - pneumonic plague - but this was bubonic plague, spread through flea bites. The fleas (come in on the rats from Leith Docks) could not bite through Dr Rae's leather clothing. There's a story that says the plague doctor selflessly volunteered to be locked in to Mary King's Close with the dying families. It's a lovely story (kind of...), but it's not true. The plague doctor's job was, obviously, to diagnose and treat the bubonic plague. One method of diagnoses involved the doctor having to taste the patient's urine. The Black Plague was so called because it caused it's victims to vomit so much and so violently that their internal organs ruptured. They would suffer massive internal bleeding and this would turn their skin black, hence the name. Buboes would form in the victim's armpits, neck and groin. Buboes are large pus filled and spot covered ('Ring a ring of roses...') boils which grew as large as a fist and then burst, the pus leaking into the bloodstream, killing the patient. George Rae, to save a plague victim, would treat them by slicing off the top of the buboe and ramming a red hot poker into the wound to cauterise it. Anethetic had not yet been invented.
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