With a city as ancient as Edinburgh, fraught with historical battles, it’s bound to have more than it’s fair share of dark secrets hidden from an unknowing populace. One such secret is openly on display, but only if one knows exactly where to look. Just below Edinburgh Castle’s Esplanade is an area known as the Grassmarket, named for the grain and feed storehouses that once lined the cobblestoned streets. It’s also home to a piece of Edinburgh’s hidden history.
Here, curious travelers will find a former 16th century coaching house, turned contemporary drinking and eating establishment known as The Beehive Inn. On the second floor is a curious object that screams mid-19th century capital punishment and criminal reform. Inside this local watering-hole is the original door from the “Death Cell” of the infamous Calton Jail.
The Calton Jail was so menacing that visitors to the city would often mistake it for a medieval castle. During the prison’s heyday, a large portion of its inmate population were women. Those charged with a crime could choose to pay a bond to avoid time in the jail that eventually became Scotland’s main prison. However, most women were unable to earn wages, let alone bond out of the prison. Escape was also commonplace, including one mass attempt in 1835. Eventually, the prison was demolished during the 1930s. A few remaining sections of the original structure can still be seen from the Old Calton Burial Ground. Somehow, this door was salvaged and now resides upstairs at The Beehive Inn.
A few of Scotland’s most notorious criminals such as William Burke and Eugene Chantrelle, also known as the George Street poisoner, spent their waning moments locked behind this door awaiting execution. Burke was one half of an infamous 19th century serial killing/body-snatching duo. Burke and his partner William Hare murdered at least 16 people and sold their corpses to the city’s burgeoning medical schools. Chantrelle was found guilty of gas poisoning his wife, was sent to the gallows, and buried in what is now the west parking lot of St. Andrew’s House.