"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Case of the Kidnapped Corpse [Part Two]

Joseph Werner, "Four Grave Robbers Awaken a Ghost"

In December 1880, Alexander Lindsay, the 25th Earl of Crawford, died while on a visit to Florence, Italy.  His body was carefully embalmed, packed in a complicated array of coffins, and reverently shipped back to his home in Scotland.  By the end of that month, his remains were buried in his family vault at Dunecht House, near Aberdeen. The crypt was accessible only through a short flight of steps. After the burial, the stairway was covered by four huge slabs of granite, which were then covered in lime. A few months later, the slabs were covered with dirt, which was brightened by the addition of grass and flowers. The whole was then surrounded by an iron railing. His loved ones could be pardoned for thinking the late Earl was well and truly buried.

Life at Dunecht went on placidly until five months after the burial, when the housekeeper, who happened to be passing by the crypt, noticed a strong, but pleasant smell coming from the burial chamber. The next day, the scent was also perceived by a gardener. Curiosity about the mysterious fragrance became so intense that orders were given to examine the slabs that had been placed over the vault. A crevice between two of the slabs was noted, but the assumption was that it had been caused by recent frosts. This crack was filled with lime, cement was placed over the stones, and everyone soon forgot the matter.

Our little story would now be over, if not for an anonymous letter sent several months later to the Lindsay family solicitor, William Yeats. It read:

"Sir--The remains of the late Earl of Crawford are not beneath the chapel at Dunecht as you believe, but were removed hence last spring, and the smell of decayed flowers ascending from the vault since that time will, on investigation, be found to proceed from another cause than flowers." The note was signed, "Nabob."

Yeats immediately contacted the builder who had constructed the burial vault. On learning from him about the apparently impregnable character of the Earl's resting place, the solicitor assumed the letter was merely a sick hoax. He dismissed the incident from his mind, saying nothing about it to the Lindsay family.

Some three months later, a workman at Dunecht House was passing by the vault. He noticed that the turf around the entrance to the burial site was displaced. Police were called in to examine the crypt.

They found that the earth around the granite slab directly above the stairway had been removed. The stone itself had been propped up by about a foot and a half. And when the search party descended into the vault itself, they were horrified to find that the coffin containing the Earl's remains had been forced open. The body itself was gone. The aromatic smell noticed earlier had come from scented sawdust that had been used to fill the coffin.

Naturally, a criminal investigation was immediately launched. Everyone connected with the estate was closely questioned by police, and the grounds surrounding Dunecht were searched. No clue to the Earl's current whereabouts--not to mention the identity of the thieves--could be found.

Weeks passed without any progress in solving the crime. A £600 reward was offered for any information about the theft. William Yeats, finally realizing that the anonymous letter he had received was all too legitimate, placed an ad in the local papers asking "Nabob" to communicate with him. These efforts received no replies.

Late in December, authorities received their first possible break in the case. "Nabob" sent a letter to a Mr. Alsop, the late Earl's London solicitor:

"The body is still in Aberdeenshire, and I can put you in possession of the same as soon as you bring one or more of the desperadoes who stole it to justice, so that I may know with whom I have to deal. I have no wish to be assinated by rusarectionests nor suspected by the public of being an accomplice in such dastardly work, which I most assuredly would be unless the gulty party are brought to justice. Had Mr. Yeats acted on the hint I gave him last Sept., he might have found the remains as though by axedand [accident] and hunted up the robers at lsure, [leisure] but that chance is lost, so I hope you will find your men and make it safe and prudent for me to find what you want.

P.S.--Should they find thad an outsider knows their secret it may be removed to another place."

The case remained stalled until July 1882, when a man named Charles Soutar was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the theft. Some years earlier, Souter had worked as a rat-catcher at Dunecht House, but due to his illegal side-job as a poacher, he had been fired three years before the Earl's death. Under interrogation, he admitted writing the "Nabob" letters. When asked to say what he knew of the crime, he told a gloriously deranged story.

Soutar claimed that one night in the spring of 1881, he was poaching in the woods around Dunecht. On hearing noises, he assumed they were caused by keepers, so he fled. Soon, however, someone tripped him and threw him to the ground. Two strangers with guns held him down. They were joined by two more men. They menacingly asked Soutar what he was doing there. He replied that he was merely "looking for a beast." One of the men, who appeared to be the leader of the group, told him that if he had been a spy, they would have had to kill him. The man added, "Remember what I am going to tell you; you're known to our party, and if you breathe a syllable of what you have seen, I will have your life if you're on the face of the earth." They then released Soutar and ordered him to leave the wood.

At daybreak, the poacher returned to the spot where he had encountered the men. They had gone, but left behind "a heap of rubbish where they had concealed something." When he examined the pile, he found a dead body, which emitted a strange odor. Soutar thought it best to just cover the corpse up again and forget the whole thing.

Some weeks later, he found himself in conversation with a man named James Cowe, who had done some plastering work at Dunecht. Cowe mentioned how the Earl's burial vault had been closed up, due to the strange, sweet smell coming from it. Soutar realized that the description of this smell matched the scent he had noticed on the body in the woods, and so was able to put two and two together about the fate of the Earl's corpse.

Soutar demurred at the suggestion that he lead police to the site, explaining, "I'll rather wait until you get them that took the body; it will be safer for me then."

An intensive search was conducted around the woods surrounding Dunecht. Iron probes were used to find anything that might resemble a burial site. Finally, on July 18th, the probes found a patch of ground about five hundred yards from Dunecht House that looked promising. The place was dug up, and their efforts were rewarded when they uncovered the Earl, wrapped in a blanket. The face was still recognizable. The remains were eventually reburied in Wigan, at the Lindsay Chapel, and the Earl was finally left to continue his rudely interrupted eternal slumber.

Soutar continued to insist his innocence, but, as the authorities lacked any other suspects, he found himself on trial for grave-robbing. A number of witnesses testified to having seen the defendant in the neighborhood of Dunecht late in May 1881--just a couple of days before the sweet odor began to emanate from the vault. James Cowe asserted that he had never had any conversation with Soutar about the Earl's crypt or the strange odor. Others related how Soutar had made a number of enigmatic comments to the effect that he knew where the missing Earl's body was hidden. The prosecution suggested that Soutar had written the "Nabob" letters in the hope of collecting a reward for his information.

Soutar's lawyers made the somewhat backhanded defense that his presence in the Dunecht area in May 1881 was easily explained--after all, he was a poacher. He did not travel in any secrecy, as he surely would have done if he had been planning to expand his activities to grave-robbing. For all anyone knew, the odor from the vault could have begun weeks before it was first detected. If he was guilty, it made no sense that in the "Nabob" letters he would make the conditions that the perpetrators be caught and he himself protected, as he knew the ads specifically rejected the idea of offering immunity to anyone involved in the crime. The defendant's story of finding the body may have been extremely weird, but it was one he had stuck to consistently, and nothing had been found to refute it. In short, the prosecution had presented no proof that Soutar had been responsible for the crime.

The jurors disagreed with that statement. After deliberating only half-an-hour, they found Soutar guilty. The judge commented that the "peculiar heinousness" of the crime deserved a punishment greater than that given to the "normal" body-snatcher who stole for the purposes of anatomical dissection. (A curious bit of judicial snobbery.) He sentenced the prisoner to five years in jail.

Although there was a legal "solution" to the crime, it still ended on a very unsatisfactory note. Even if Soutar had been involved in kidnapping the Earl's corpse--which was by no means proved beyond a shadow of a doubt--it was acknowledged by nearly all observers that he must have had accomplices. No one else was ever charged, or even suspected, of the deed. Whether Souter's conviction was justified or not, somebody got away with some very bad behavior.

As William Roughead noted in his essay on the Dunecht Mystery, such cases present "a strong argument in favor of cremation."

[Note:  By coincidence, I recently came across this curious--although most likely hoaxing--epilogue to our story.]


  1. It's odd that the corpse was left near the house and still on the property for, what, a year and a half? You'd think the robbers would have come back for it in that time. And really, it seems like a lot of work to go through to obtain a 'ransom'. Grave robbing seems a very labour-intensive crime.

    1. It does seem that there are much easier ways to make a dishonest buck.

  2. And some folks say zombies have no sense of humour.


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