Gadaichebairn, the Knave of Edinburgh


In 1789, 9-year-old Benjamin MacMaster was tucked into bed by his mother. It had been a long day for them both. Young Ben sold cigarettes on the streets of Edinburgh while his mother, Sarah, worked as a washerwoman. As usual, Ben asked his mother to check under his bed for monsters. With a weary sigh, she complied. He then asked for her to latch the window even though it was an unusually stuffy night. Sarah did so, then sang softly to her imaginative young son. In minutes, Ben was breathing deeply, his eyes closed.

Ben was woken from his dreams by a tap-tapping on the window. Blinking sleep from his eyes, Ben looked and saw the silhouette of a man with a tall hat staring in at him through the window. The man’s face was completely hidden by shadows but his eyes shone with eerie, white light. The man was rapping on the glass with white fingers as thin as spindles. Ben lay under his blankets, frozen by fright. He was soon drenched in sweat. After struggling for several minutes, he found his voice again and screamed. At once, his mother came rushing into his room with a candle.

In tears, Ben told Sarah what he had seen. When Sarah looked out the window, she saw no one. It took her a long time to coax Ben back to sleep as he was beside himself with terror. And he only agreed to fall back asleep if she stayed with him and held his hand while she sang lullabies. When Ben was asleep again, Sarah left him. Though rattled, she wasn’t particularly disturbed, since Ben often had frightful and vivid dreams.

What did disturb her was when she was woken the second time by her son’s screams. Ben rarely had nightmares two times in a single night. Ben reported the same thing to his mother: a strange man with scary eyes that looked at him through the window. Ben had been woken up by the window coming unlatched. Indeed, when Sarah entered the room, the window was open, letting in a warm breeze

Truly disturbed now, she latched the window then roused her husband. Tobias MacMaster was sleeping off a large amount of gin. When he finally stirred and listened to his wife, he reluctantly agreed to check outside. Tobias walked around his family’s first-floor tenement but saw no sign of anyone having been there. Grumbling at his wife, he went back to sleep. So did Sarah, though she felt uneasy. Her son was truly terrified by something. However, Tobias told Ben to go back asleep and refused to let him sleep in their narrow cot, which was crowded enough with just Tobias and Sarah.

Sarah and Tobias were both woken in the gray hour before dawn by a piercing scream that struck both like ice water. They ran into Ben’s room to find the bed empty, the window open. A soft breeze passed over the rumpled sheets. Sarah ran outside, screaming her son’s name. But no matter how hard Sarah screamed or how many neighbors Tobias asked, no sign of their son was ever seen again.

This is the earliest story to involve Gadaichebairn, the terrifying child-snatcher of 19th century Scottish legends. Stories of the lanky, stove pipe hat-wearing kidnapper proliferated in the years after Benjamin MacMaster’s disappearance. No one could ever decide if the figure was a legend or in fact real. And if real, his exact nature was subject to debate.

Over the next ten years, as many as 100 children vanished from their homes in Edinburgh and its suburbs. In a city that was beginning to industrialize, its population swelling with each new year, people went missing daily. But these children were taken right out of their homes, the culprit never leaving a trace nor allowing himself to be seen, except in chance glimpses by bystanders.

Gadaichebairn could steal children from anywhere. Even through locked doors and windows. It didn’t even matter if the child’s room was at the top of a tenement building; Gadaichebairn could still reach them. Officially, all the cases involving Gadaichebairn were given various causes. Police said the children wandered off in their sleep; had been kidnapped earlier in the day; were simply out late and had gotten lost; or their own parents gotten rid of them and then blamed the fictional Gadaichebairn as a scapegoat.

In 1867, one family, having recently heard of someone being taken by Gadaichebairn, decided to have their daughter sleep in the bed with them. However, in the middle of the night, the girl was tormented by night terrors—as she had been for the past three, sleepless nights. Then long arms shot out of the darkness above her. The girl’s scream awoke her parents just in time to see Gadaichebairn, scuttling on all fours, their daughter tucked under one, long arm, disappear out the window. The parents rushed from their home, but saw no sign of Gadaichebairn or their daughter. They later learned that a steel worker, stumbling his way home after a long day of work, had thought he’d seen a tall man slip down into the sewers, a parcel of some kind clutched in his arm. The worker had thought it odd but was too exhausted to think about it until later.

Disappearances linked to Gadaicheairn ebbed and flowed in number during the rest of the 19th century. The 1800s and 1810s had the most number of reported unexplained kidnappings. The annual reports decreased until the 1850s and 60s, where there is another upsurge in missing children: as many 80 from 1858 to 1862. Gadaichebairn became something of a joke to the Edinburgh police, who took to naming him chief suspect of every crime. There was a city-wide investigation headed by Chief Constable Ernest G. Hardwick in 1864 to catch Gadaichebairn (or whoever was causing such a ruckus in the city) but apparently nothing came of it.

Like the boogeyman before him, the mere mention of Gadaichebairn’s name snapped most children into obedience. “If you stay out late, Gadaichebairn will snatch you away”. “If you’re lazy and don’t do all your chores, Gadaichebairn will come and get you while you sleep”. A popular—if morbid—rhyme from the 1830s shows how widespread the tales of the Edinburgh child-snatcher had become:

One, two, three!

Be sure to say your prayers ‘fore you sleep

Else the child-stealer will take you away

Four, five, six!

Do all ‘o your chores ‘fore you rest

Else the glow-y man will carry you away

Seven, eight, nine!

He’ll beat the naughty girls ‘till they weep

And work the lazy boys ‘till they protest

If you say his name, he’ll visit you soon

Gadaichebairn! Gadaichebairn!

Now everybody: run away!

In retrospect, Gadaichebairn seemed to have been in it for sport. There was no discernible pattern to his kidnappings. He stole boys and girls, those belonging to families and orphans. There was no way to know if your child was next. Only the vivid night terrors heralded Gadaichebairn’s visit within the coming nights. Few accounts of what was contained in these nightmares survives to the modern day. Presumably, the children saw Gadaichebairn in their room or climbing through their window. It has been noted by experts that, according to all accounts, Gadaichebairn’s victims were all healthy children with no physical or mental handicaps. He is never known to have taken cripples, invalids, or sick children.

Theories of the fate of Gadaichebairn’s victims ranged widely. Some said he took them to the vaults to murder them; others said he was a predator and abused his victims; some more patriotic Scots said he was working for the English and sold the children to slavers. A theory that grew in popularity because of its outlandish nature was the one that said he spirited the children away to a nightmare world where they served Gadaichebairn until they were old and worn out, at which time Gadaichebairn cast them out onto the street to be beggars.

Inside the Edinburgh Vaults

No one could ever agree if Gadaichebairn was a highly-skilled kidnapper or something else, something non-human. The idea that he came from an otherworld developed early on. Stories circulated of a barren estate, eternally bound in night, dominated by a Gothic manor house that Gadaichebairn called home. As you can see, Gadaichebairn had many of the qualities of older, Celtic fairy creatures. Some have pointed out the similarities between Gadaichebairn and a bodach, a boogeyman-like creature of earlier Scottish folklore that kidnapped misbehaving children.

Many people noticed Gadaichebairn’s appearance happened shortly after the completion of the Southgate Bridge in 1788. Many thought the infamous Edinburgh Vaults—the 19 arches of the bridge—were used by Gadaichebairn to store the bodies of his victims. Others thought the gateway to his home was in one of the bridge’s arches. In the immediate years following the completion of the Southgate Bridge, it turns out that all of Gadaichebairn’s early victims were children of the bridge’s workmen; Tobias MacMaster, father of poor Benjamin, was one such workman.

Gadaichebairn was never caught. Most of the disappearances liked to him are officially, unsolved. An amusing story from 1905 has a drunken maintenance worker, Woodrow Stork, shooting a man he took to be a mugger in the vaults. The man was never identified and the story says he sported a top hat. Many want to believe this story is true and that the man shot was Gadaichebairn. If so, then his long reign had a rather abrupt end. If not, then for all we know, Gadaichebairn is still out there to this day, slumbering in darkness. Perhaps he sated his desire to cause misery or perhaps his unearthly estate is full of weary slaves, their childhoods and lives stolen from them by a a cruel, tall man with glowing eyes and a stove pipe hat.


Recreation of a 16th century Italian sketch of Invortus

This next one comes out of a recent rabbit hole of mine: strange stories from the ancient world. And my oh my is it a deep rabbit hole.

The story I chose comes out of a little-known Roman text written by a man named Tullus Trebonius Mundus in 118 AD. The text is titled Codex Primarius Romanus in Latin—which translates to “The Principle Roman Codex”.

The Codex was a monumental work when completed, numbering some 30 volumes. Unfortunately, only fragments survive. However, the Codex is interesting as it gave an exhaustive view of daily life in the Roman Empire, particularly the capital city itself. Not only did it chronicle the daily routines and habits of its citizens, but also some of the stories they told each other. Effectively, the Codex includes what we would today call “urban legends” of ancient Rome.

One of the most interesting of these “urban legends” is of a being named Invortus. No where near Olympian status, this minor deity appeared to people in dreams and trances, offering them wishes. But he always asked a steep price.

This wish-granting demon was nicknamed “the Pauper of Rome” (Vir Pauper Romae in Latin) or “the Fool of the Aventine” (Asinus Aventini). According to the Codex, Invortus had been living in Rome since the most ancient times. The first story to involve Invortus said that he helped to overthrow the Roman monarchy by making a deal with the conspirators. Brutus, one of the Republic’s first consuls, was killed that same year at the Battle of Silva Arsia. That was Invortus’s price for overthrowing a government.

Invortus made his home in a cave in the Aventine Hill that overlooked the Tiber River. During the day, Invortus was in his cave or else down in the sewers and catacombs of the great city. Some said he was guarding an entrance to the underworld that lay beneath the Tiber; others that he did not like sunlight. Invortus appeared as a bald fat man with dark, mottled skin and wearing a senator’s toga. His skin was filthy and he oozed tar, leaving black smears on the ground and on anything he touched.

Modern garden built on top of Invortus’s cave

Invortus greeted any he met jovially, treating them like long-lost friends. He was indeed a friend to all, rich or poor. He made deals with any who wished, so long as they were at least 25 (25 being the age of full maturity in Roman law). If someone wanted to make a deal with Invortus, he would often come to them in their dreams. But there are a number of instance where people met him at night in the streets of Rome.

When meeting them in the waking world, he always asked politely for a penny, since according to the Codex, he always claimed poverty. Giving Invortus a penny was seen as a courtesy: to refuse would be to incur his malice. And Invortus had a wicked sense of humor.

One freedman, Hippocrates, who refused to give Invortus a penny was later taken to surgeons with a burning pain in his colon. When the surgeons drugged him, they found ten copper pennies lodged in the man’s rectum. Hippocrates survived the surgery, but his bowels never did work the same again.

When one did make a contract with Invortus, they were bound to it. Invortus was clever and an expert in legalism. There was no loophole that one could exploit to escape their contract. And the price that Invortus asked always had unexpected consequences.

There was really only one thing that would prevent Invortus making contact with someone. Invortus loved filth: he was filthy himself and lived in dark, disgusting places. Therefore, it made sense he hated baths. There are no instances of Invortus ever entering a bathhouse or getting too near a water reservoir.

There is an account of a young man, Valerius Nummus, fleeing his debt to Invortus by hiding in a public bath. Valerius  hid in the baths for two days. Thinking Invortus had left, Valerius exited the building. At once, the man was struck by a runaway cart and killed.

The stories written in the Codex make it appear Invortus was active all times of the year. Though, his favorite time to mingle openly with the people of Rome was during the festival of Saturnalia in December. During this 6-day long celebration was marked by public feasting, pranks, gift-giving, and the reversal of social norms. Masters served their slaves, that sort of thing. Understandably, Invortus loved this. He would spend the holiday going to the evening feasts and spending long hours of the night at the orgies of wealthy men and the brothels of the poorest neighborhoods. It became a tradition as well not to bathe on the last day of Saturnalia. Romans would also drop pennies down wells or fountains to please Invortus.

The most famous historical event Invortus is linked to in the Codex is the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. The young emperor Nero sought Invortus fervently. The palace was in a perpetual state of Saturnalian lopsidedness with the emperor parading around dressed as a slave girl. Every day, slaves dumped pennies into the cities’ fountains and some slaves were sent down into the sewers to find Invortus.

At last, Invortus appeared to the emperor in a dream. Nero asked to be made the best harp-player in the Empire. In return, he promised to give Invortus yearly offerings. In addition, Invortus asked for one tenement building in the city to be given to him. It was agreed and when Nero woke up the next morning, he found he could play the harp like no other. He shocked the palace slaves and visiting senators by his extraordinary skill, moving many to tears by the beauty of his music.

All was well for Nero for about a month. Then for a building project, Nero sent men to tear down a certain tenement building in poor condition. Nero had quite forgotten this was the building he had given to Invortus. That night a fire started in the upper floors of the building. The fire spread, raging for 6 days and devouring much of the city of Rome.

As the flames rose higher and higher, Nero stood by a window, playing his harp. With each passing moment his prodigious skill left him. Nero wept, not so much for his city but for the gift he had now lost.

Mundus’s Codex treats Invortus as if he were a curiosity, though one that was still around. The author had not made up his mind if Invortus was real or a popular myth among the city’s residents. However, there is one source outside of the Codex that mentions Invortus, though only in passing. An account of work done in the city during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) states that a “cave on the Aventine, long associated with a pagan spirit of the [Tiber] river, was filled with rubble and sealed in with cement”. There is a good chance this is referring to the home of Invortus.

That is the last textual reference to Invortus. For all we know, the Fool of the Aventine was buried by rubble in his cave. There are anecdotal rumors of occultists in the Renaissance seeking Invortus in the ancient sewers of Rome. And even today, some theorize Invortus now lives in the Vatican Archives where he offers wishes to the Vatican. As is his way, he asks for little presents in return or promises which prove unexpectedly hard to keep.

This may all be fairy tale talk. But many in the ancient world took Invortus’s existence seriously. He was a genie, of sorts, with a twisted sense of humor. Who knows if this mythical granter of wishes was ever real or just a story the people of Rome told themselves to explain the often capricious nature of life.

The Roman sewers: once home to a wish-granting demon?