Thursday, October 11, 2018

Ep. 278 - Edinburgh Vaults

Moment in Oddity - The Winsted Wildman

There is a legend out of Connecticut that is a variation on the Bigfoot legend and this is the story of the Winsted Wildman. This creature was first reported in 1895 in the Winsted Herald as "a large man, stark naked, and covered with hair all over his body, [who] ran out of a clump of bushes." The person to witness the wildman was town selectman Riley Smith. He had been out in the woods looking for berries with his bulldog when the creature appeared terrifying both the man and his dog. Smith described it as "a wild, hairy man of the woods, six feet in height,"and "the man’s hair was black and hung down long on his shoulders, and that his body was thickly covered with black hair. The man was remarkably agile, and to all appearance was a muscular, brawny man, a man against whom any ordinary man would stand little chance." Two other men saw the Winsted Wildman and speculation started as to who or what this thing could be with the Winsted Herald speculating that the Wildman may have been Arthur Beckwith, an escaped mental patient from the nearby Litchfield Sanitarium. The  Winsted Wildman seemed to disappear until eighty years later when he was seen again in 1972. The Hartford Courant reported that a "strange, man-like creature" was observed by two young men on Winchester Road, near Crystal Lake Reservoir. They described it as "eight feet tall and covered with hair" that walked upright and finally disappeared into the woods. People said it was just a bear, but the two men were emphatic that "it was no bear." The Wildman was seen again in 1974 by two couples parked at night. They said they saw a "six-foot, 300-pound creature covered with dark-colored hair." Police could find nothing. There are those who claim the story was just made up by Louis Timothy Stone, the editor of the Winsted Herald in order to sell papers. This seems to be something he did quite a bit. But how to explain the more recent sightings? If the Winsted Wildman was anything more than just a bear, that would certainly be odd!

This Month in History - Serial Killers William Burke and William Hare Kill Their Final Victim

In the month of October, on the 31st, in 1828, William Burke and William Hare kill their final victim. The Judgement of Death Act of 1823 required judges to enter a sentence of death on the court record, but they could then commute the sentence to imprisonment. Medical and anatomical schools were only allowed to use the bodies of condemned criminals for dissection. This act made the availability of bodies very limited and thus the unscrupulous practice of grave robbing took root. William Hare immigrated to Scotland from Ireland and eventually became keeper of a lodging house in Edinburgh. William Burke was also Irish-born and he arrived at the lodging house in 1827. An old pensioner died in the house and so his rent went unpaid. Hare was upset about losing the money and stole the body from its coffin with the help of Burke and sold it to a surgeon named Robert Knox. The men were happy with their profit and decided to do more of this, only they didn't grave rob, they just murdered people and sold the bodies. It's believed they killed 15 unknown wayfarers who stayed at the lodging house. They would get the men drunk and smother them. Their last victim was Marjory Docherty, whom they killed and hid under a bed on Halloween. They tried to keep the guests who were staying in that room from entering, but they entered anyway and discovered the body. Burke's wife tried to bribe them to be quiet, but it was reported and soon the multiple murderers were discovered. Hare turned king’s evidence and was released and disappeared. Burke was tried for murder, found guilty and hanged. The Burke and Hare case inspired the horror films The Body Snatcher from 1945 and The Flesh and the Fiends from 1959.

Edinburgh Vaults

In the late 18th century, two bridges were built in Edinburgh to help the city to expand over the hills that were part of the area, the North Bridge and the South Bridge. The South Bridge linked the Old Town’s High Street with the University buildings on the south side of the city and housed a number of chambers that were first used for businesses and later became a seedy part of the city. These chambers are known today as the Edinburgh Vaults. Because of some of the illegal activity and the living conditions in the vaults, they are reputedly the most haunted site in Scotland. Join me as we explore the history and hauntings of the Edinburgh Vaults!

The Edinburgh Vaults of the South Bridge are located within chambers formed in the nineteen arches of the bridge. Construction on the vaults began in 1785 and was completed in 1788. The bridge consisted of 19 stone arches, hit 31 feet at its highest point and spanned a chasm just over 1000 feet long. There were three levels to the bridge. The street level had store fronts that included taverns and markets. The level below the street was used for cobbler and other tradesmen's workshops and storage. The third level contained 120 rooms, which were used for living space. This arrangement lasted for thirty years. The red light district would form after this time, but even before that there were some operations starting that were outside of the normal businesses like this report on Saturday 1 July 1815 in The Edinburgh Evening Courant,
"On the 24th inst. Mr McKenzie, supervisor, accompanied by Mess. Gorie and McNaugton, officers, discovered a private distillery, of considerable extent, under the arch of the South Bridge, which has been working these 18 months past, to the great injury of the revenue. The particulars of this seizure are worthy of notice, from the great pains which had been taken to prevent disclosure. The original door to the place where the operations were going forward had been carefully built up and plastered over, so as to prevent any appearance of an entrance. Behind a grate in the fireplace of a bed-room, an opening had been made, and fitted with an iron door and lock, exactly fitting the grate, which could only be seen by being removed; and this passage led to the flat above by a trap-door and ladder, where the still was working. This place again was in one of the deaf arches, immediately adjoining the middle arch of the bridge, (now The Caves venue), and the person had found means to convey a pipe from one of the town’s branches, which gave a plentiful supply of water. A soil pipe was also got at, and a hole broke through into a neighbouring vent to carry off the smoke. Besides the still, a considerable quantity of wash, and some low wines, were found in the premises; also many casks, mash ton, large tubs, etc. The spirits were said to have been conveyed away in a tin case, made to contain two or three gallons, which was again put into a green bag, and carried out by a woman under her cloak."
Things for the vaults changed after huge cracks began to form in the bridge. The South Bridge that had been considered an engineering marvel was actually flawed and these cracks that formed allowed water and waste from the city to flow into the vault’s lower levels. The conditions deteriorated rapidly and the businesses left in the 1820s. They were replaced with the poor and homeless of the city moving inside the vaults and in 1845, the vaults were overwhelmed with Irish immigrants trying to get away from the potato famine. Slum lords took advantage of the desperate people and would cram as many people into a space as they could, which usually amounted to 10 people living in a space meant for one person. Conditions were so bad that the residents began moving out in the 1860s. Proof that people once lived here was found during excavations in 1985. There were dishes, medicine bottles, toys and other household goods. Before this time, many people didn't believe that anybody had lived in the vaults. The reason why excavations needed to be done is because the vaults had been filled in with rubble to prevent squatters and effectively passed out of memory.

After the tradesmen left, disreputable businesses moved in and crime became the norm in the vaults. A vast red-light district took hold, smuggling operations were carried out and people were murdered. The cramped spaces became a hiding place for body snatchers who needed dark places to come and go more easily. There are even rumors that in the 1820s, the infamous serial killers William Burke and William Hare lurked within the vaults and may have killed some of their 16 victims there. I have found no evidence to back that up and as the Month in History details, the murders seemed to have happened at the boarding house, not the vaults. Add in the rampant disease and the vaults were a dangerous place to enter and live. So the South Bridge had a horrible reputation as being a slum.

There was a decades old belief that the bridge was cursed and the reason that it was cursed was because of the first person to cross the expanse. It was decided before the bridge was completed that a well known and respected judge's wife should be the first to cross. Several days before the bridge was opened, the woman passed away. The city fathers felt that they should keep up their end of the deal and so they decided to carry the woman's coffin across the bridge. The people of Edinburgh were a very superstitious people and they felt that carrying a dead woman across the bridge was bad luck and that the bridge was now cursed. But was this just superstition or could it really be true? And what of the claim that the Edinburgh Vaults are the most haunted place in Scotland?

One of the main areas that ghost tours in Edinburgh visit is the Blair Street Vaults, which are part of the South Bridge and can be entered through Barrie's Close. (For those who don't know, a close is basically an alleyway.) Let me give you a visual of what the vaults are like today and then imagine that this place is full of people, some with harmful intent for you. The air is dank and damp and cold. The dark grey walls seep water and are crumbling. Those decaying walls covered in slime, press in causing claustrophobia before eventually opening into cavernous spaces. This is an underground labyrinth of twists and turns. It is easy to get lost.

Mercat Ghost Tours guide Nicola Wright, who has worked in and around the Vaults for 11 years, said, “We do get an awful lot of activity and the reports have been getting more frequent in recent weeks. This is a very sinister place. There are lots of dark, dark spirits down here...Lots of guides have experiences. I train a lot of the guides and often when they are new we get a lot of activity, because the spirits aren’t used to them. They hear things, they get pushed, they hear footsteps, they see faces. Tourists feel things as well. Temperature changes - quite often the temperature will drop suddenly. We had reports of footsteps last night, people seeing figures. A lot of time people are taking pictures and they tell me ‘you realise there’s a woman standing behind you?’ but I’m fine with it.” The tours have recorded some unexplained activity. I had a friend take one of these tours several years ago and they captured a weird green mist in a couple of photos that was not visible with the naked eye. They also had a young boy on the tour who screamed in terror and wanted out of the vaults. He complained that his back hurt and upon lifting up his shirt, they discovered a red hand print as though someone had hit him.

Other visitors to the vaults have experienced the full array of ghostly activity from disembodied voices to strange sounds to cold blasts of air to full-bodied apparitions. The Wine Vault is said to be teeming with activity. The ghost of young boy named Jack is said to be here and he is known to grab the hands of visitors. The Occult Chamber is one of the creepier areas and is rumored to have been a place where satanic rituals and other occult practices were conducted. One legend that seems rather outlandish was that a woman was sacrificed on a mysterious square brick in the center of the chamber after being tortured for days.

Mr. Boots is the most well known ghost haunting the vaults. He is described as a shabby and tall man who likes to keep to the back section of the vaults. He throws stones at visitors to get their attention and occasionally pushes them. People hear his heavily booted disembodied footsteps and his voice cursing throughout the chambers. The White Room is the abode of the spirit that is thought to be the worst here and that is the Watcher. This spirit instills feelings of dread into most people, especially psychics. This specter gives the chilling feeling of being watched, which is where his nickname comes from. The tour guide Nicola says she won’t go into The White Room and that "people have come out of the room and found they had scratch marks or bruising, they’ve had their clothes torn, they feel very nauseous. If you take photographs quite often faces will appear in them. I won’t go into that particular room. He warns people not to enter, he shouts at people, he pushes people."

In 2003, a BBC Radio producer named Debbie McPhail wanted to cover the history of the vaults and she took the Edinburgh Vaults’ owner down into the underground to conduct the interview. When she returned to the BBC offices and began going through the audio, she noticed that there was another voice on the tapes that did not belong to her or the owner. This voice told the two to “get out.” McPhail told reporters, “When I was listening back to it, I could hear Norrie Rowan [the vault owner] chatting and then I heard another voice. It was close by to the microphone because you can tell if voices are far away or not. I knew it wasn’t the presenter or Norrie because the voice had a slightly Irish accent. But I couldn’t understand why no-one responded to it. When the presenter came back up I asked him who they had met in the vault and he said nobody. My husband thought it could be Gaelic and I asked a colleague who spoke the language and she said they could be saying ‘get out’ or ‘go away’. I have no reason to doubt it. You could sit forever and make explanations for it, but it’s there on the disc and that’s good enough for me.”

A bartender from a bar right next to the Vaults claims that he left an orange on the bar and when he came back, it had been perfectly peeled and no one was in the bar with him. Joe Swash spent a night in the vaults by himself in 2009 for a BBC program and picked up the EVP of a Catholic priest reciting the last rights for 20 minutes. A journalist for The Scotsman reported some experiences they had during a ghost hunt, "In another vault [our guide Ewan] sensed a room that was at one time used as a men-only drinking tavern. Ewan explained that every tour party he brings into this room splits immediately into male and female groups which, he said, was possibly due to previously being a male-dominated environment. A look around the room confirmed this to be true. The final room we entered featured a number of large stones laid out in a circle on the floor. We were told that this room had once been used by the witches who still practise today in a specially fitted-out room in the vaults. The witches had sensed a mischievous spirit in the room and had conducted a sermon to trap whatever was lurking within inside the stone circle.Those who have entered the circle are said to wake up with scratches on their legs the next morning."

The Edinburgh Vaults have an old and dark history. Many people probably lost their lives here through illness and murder. Is it possible that some of their spirits remain in the underground? Are the Edinburgh Vaults haunted? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes:
Mercat Ghost Tours:

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