A pandemic outbreak of Asiatic cholera swept over most of the world between 1829 and 1851, reaching from India, across Asia and into Europe.  By 1832, Dundee had been hit – the pandemic itself still in its infancy.  From there the pandemic swept across to the Americas, devastating lives wherever it fell.  In Dundee, large numbers of citizens were rapidly falling ill as the disease took hold.

Cholera caused more deaths, more quickly, than any other epidemic disease in the 19th century.  Classic cholera symptoms include watery diarrhoea, which leads to dehydration and mineral imbalances.  It is spread by contaminated water and food that has been contaminated with human faeces, and humans are the only species of animal susceptible to the disease.  Back in Dundee, with no clean water and no real means of sanitation, the situation worsened as people fell gravely ill and died.  With such a staggering number of cholera deaths, our gravediggers couldn’t work fast enough to dig burial holes as the bodies began to literally pile up!

It became clear very quickly that there was just not enough time in the day (or night) to keep digging individual holes for people, so work got underway to build a trench along the southern wall of the Howff.  This was to be a mass grave for the victims of cholera – people of all sorts, many of them unknown to each other in life, but now destined to lie together in death.  Thankfully, they were still allowed to be buried in coffins, so it wasn’t as though the bodies were just flung in the trench unceremoniously! These coffins were all piled up in rows on top of each other until they came close to the surface, and then the trench was filled in.

It was probably a horrible decision for a family to make – burying your loved one in a mass grave – but with no other options available due to limited land and manpower, it was the only way to deal with such a deluge of bodies.  The only remaining gravestone which indicates the location of the trench, is that of William Forrest Esquire, a Lieutenant Colonel with the Hon EIC Bengal Army, and inspector of their Militaty Stones in London.  Died of Cholera Morbus on 20th July 1832 on the passage from London to Dundee, deeply lamented by his family and friends.

Gravestone of William Forrest Esquire in Dundee Howff graveyard, who died of Cholera in 1832. This gravestone marks the site of a cholera mass grave.
Gravestone of William Forrest Esquire in Dundee Howff graveyard, who died of Cholera in 1832.

When we were in Dundee University Archives recently, we came across a trio of photographs relating to a vault that had been discovered during the excavation work to build Bell Street car park over the site of the Constitution Burial Ground in December 1972.  With it is a memo from the then-Director of Parks to Dr Scott of the University of Dundee, relating specifically to the potential problem of cholera and its continued infectivity.  Whilst there was no further correspondence on the matter in the archives, the memo did go on to say that the vault had been filled with dry sand after the photographs were taken to allow the building work to continue.

The images show three adult sized coffins, all lying side by side, barely a foot apart from each other in an open, dark vaulted space with brick walls on the sides that are visible in the photograph.  They are covered in mould, bits of earth and some debris, and are severely decaying.  The first coffin (in the immediate right of the picture) and the second central coffin both appear to be marginally larger than the third, which is on the left of the overall image.  Between the second and third coffins, there appears to be lying a much smaller coffin.  It looks like this coffin had initially been laid between the two coffins, perhaps on some kind of elevation, but it has since fallen over, losing its lid slightly in the process.  The small coffin, perhaps one eighth the size of the others, sits at a strange angle to the floor, its lid askew (but not enough to reveal its contents).

The first coffin has a series of what appears to be metal riveted edging along the base and on the lid of the coffin – presumably some kind of grave-robbing deterrent, but, due to the decay of the other two coffins, it is hard to tell if they too had some kind of metalwork on them.  The same riveted work can be seen on the small coffin.  Whilst the vault may have been infilled, we know they are still under the car park, biding their time in their dirt and mould-ridden coffins.  Perhaps future building and excavation will uncover them once again, or else we will rebuild over the car park in time, pushing them further into the recesses of forgotten history.

Sources FDCA website www.fdca.org.uk

Dundee University Archives

Wikipedia (cholera symptoms)

Mini_Header_DeadCentre
 Dead Centre Walking Tour 

Take the Dead Centre Walking Tour which visits the cholera pit and the rest of the dead under our feet in the city centre. This tour starts at the Howff graveyard, and ends at the City Square.

Find out more and book tickets

In Dundee, body snatchers, graverobbers, or “Resurrection Men” turned over a considerable amount of business.  When Cholera struck in 1832, the memories of Burke and Hare’s atrocities were still very much at the forefront of people’s minds. Even though Burke had been executed in 1829 (whilst Hare spent the rest of his years in relative seclusion, having been granted his freedom in exchange for Burke’s conviction), there were still real and valid concerns over secret pacts between the Sextons of Scotland and the medical profession. People were in a high state of alarm over the frequent exhumations made in their churchyards and it was shrewdly suspected that this was done for the purpose of supplying the Edinburgh doctors with viable dissection subjects.

The churchyard of Dundee, then popularly known as the Howff was laid under heavy contribution to the cause of science.  In an effort to deter would-be grave robbers, watches were set, but, often aided by whisky to deter the cold, their vigils were often unsuccessful.  The Resurrection Men were too sharp for them, for it was almost a matter of certainly that the body of anyone who died of a peculiar disease would disappear within a few days after it had been interred.  However, there are records of a gun fight between the tombstones, people falling into open graves in the night during their watch, and a grave robber who couldn’t get away fast enough, and ended up with the sharp point of a bayonet stuck up his bum!  So, whilst they were sometimes unsuccessful, the graveyard watchers still had their fair share of excitement from time to time.

The Logie Cemetery was another frequent location for Resurrectionists, as well as a host of drunks, highwaymen and many others of ill-repute.  The cemetery was so overcrowded that graves were dug in the pathways and onto the roads.  On 13th May 1824, The Dundee Advertiser ran a story about two graveyard watchers who had been assaulted by a pair of body snatchers during their shift.  They managed to fend off the attack and the offending duo ran off, but a second attempt to steal from the grave was carried out the following evening.  Thankfully, this attempt was also foiled, and the Resurrection men fled empty handed once more.

The most notorious of local Resurrectionists was Geordie Mill.  He was the Sexton of Dundee, and was believed to have had dealings with doctors and professors in Edinburgh.  His neighbour, Donald M’Nab, suspected Geordie of graverobbing, but, unable to catch him in the act, he is believed to have penned the following song:

” THE ROOND-MOO’ED SPADE.”

Geordie Mill, wi’ his roond-moo’ed spade,
Is wishin’ aye for mair fouk deid
For the sake o’ the donnal an’ the bit short-bread
When he gans wi’ the spaiks i’ the mornin’.
An’ if the tale that’s tauld be true,
A greater gain he has in view,
Which mak’s his fryin’-pan richt foo
To skirl baith nicht and mornin’.
A porter cam’ to Geordie’s door,
A hairy trunk on his back he bore,
Which the Quentin Durward frae Leith shore
Brocht roond that very mornin’.
This trunk, I’m tauld, contained a line
Wi’ sovereigns to the amount o’ nine.
The price o’ a well-fed, sonsie quine
They had sent to Monro ae mornin’.
But Geordie, to conceal their plan,
A story tauld as fause as lang,
Sayin’ the trunk belanged to a travellin’ man
That wad call for it next mornin’.
Noo Geordie doon to Robbie goes.
The doctor’s line to him he shows,
Which wished frae them a double doze
By the coach on Wednesday mornin’.
Says Robbie, ” Is the box come back ? ”
“Oh, yes,” says Geordie, giein’ the purse a shak’,
“An’ we maun gae an’ no’ be slack
To flirt again ere mornin’.”
Quo’ Robbie’s wife, ” Oh, sirs, tak’ tent,
sure a warnin’ I’ve been sent,
Which tells me ye will yet repent,
Yer conduct on some mornin’.”
” Ye fule,” quo’ Robbie, ” Hush yer fears,
While I’ve the keys fat deil can steer’s ?
We’ve been weel paid for’t ten past years,
Think o’ auchteen pounds i’ the mornin’.”
Sae aff they set to Tarn an’ Jock,
The lads that used the spade an’ pock,
An’ wi’ Glenarf their throats did soak
To keep them brisk till mornin’.
The hour grew late, the tryst was lain
Amang these Resurrection men,
When each his glass did freely drain,
Sayin’, ” Here’s success to the mornin’.”
But Robbie noo does sair repent
His slightin’ o’ the warnin’ sent,
For the noise o’ a second coffin’s rent
Caused in Dundee a deil o’ a mornin’.

Such was the popularity of the song, it sparked outrage and M’Nab was brought before local Magistrates to be examined and questioned on his alleged ditty.  As nothing could be proved, he was released without any charge.  Geordie Mill himself, was suspended from his duties, but was never prosecuted.