British Myths, Legends and Unsolved Tales

In the winter of 1809, the English industrial town of Blackburn, Lancashire was victim to a spate of child disappearances. Over the course of several months, 12 children vanished from their homes and authorities mounted a search of the (then) dense countryside and farmlands. The only evidence found was of several dozen uprooted trees; with no discernible pattern to this trail, adverse weather was blamed for the uprooting.

During their investigation, the mother of one of the children, Joanne Cowling, reported seeing a well-dressed, unusually tall and emaciated looking man in the area around her house for several nights prior to the young Cowling’s disappearance. Investigations into the scene of the abduction turned up no traces of foul play.

On December 1st of that year, a local farmer, Paul Henshall, reported seeing the body of a child hanging from a tree on his grounds. Police were called to the scene but found no body and no evidence to support Henshall’s claim. He was questioned and released shortly afterwards with no evidence against his name.

When any evidence or hint to the location of the children had failed to show up by the following summer, the pace of the investigation (and local interest in it) began to slow down as town interest began to turn towards the ever growing industrial presence. All children were declared dead.

It wasn’t until 1856 that the case took its next step forward. During the landscaping of Corporation Park (now the main formal park in Blackburn), workers uncovered a burrow with the incomplete skeletons of 11 small children inside. One worker (Nathan Kay, an Accrington resident and recreational hunter) described the inside of the cavity as resembling an animal’s burrow used for hibernation. It appeared to be recently vacated.

The grisly discovery, however, was widely ignored by the local media with a concerted effort being made not to tarnish the opening the new recreational area.

The skeletons were all missing their left hand and the second and third ribs on the right side of the rib cage. Several of them were also missing their humerus and left scapula. The exact cause of death and reason for the precise removal of certain body parts has never been ascertained, although a form of ritualistic murder and practice is one of many official theories passed around. The location of the 12th skeleton remains a mystery to this day. (Jean Adair, 1989: 117)

Adair, J. (1989) British Myths, Legends and Unsolved Tales, London: Pan Books.

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