A prosecution thanks to preservation
In 1913 two small bodies were discovered in a disused
quarry. The waterlogged bodies were found at post mortem to be those of
two little boys, whose ages were put at seven and four years old. Barely
recognisable as human, the bodies had been converted to a substance
Home Office Pathologist Dr Dick Shepherd talks about
the extent of the adipocere which meant that the pathologist Sydney
Smith, who on this case began a legendary career in forensic science,
could put the time of the boys’ death at about eighteen months prior to
The adipocere had also preserved their stomach
contents and it was established that they had eaten just an hour before
their deaths, and that the meal had been of vegetables known to be grown
With this information the identity of the boys was
quickly established and their father, a drunk who worked at a local
brickyard, was arrested.
An interview with a local historian depicts the
poverty of the time and the sort of man Patrick Higgins was. In the end
he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
In a murder case in Scotland to be known as the
Hopetoun Quarry case the presence of adipocere was particulary helpful
in solving the case. It all happened on a winters evening in November
1911, Patrick Higgins who was a labourer found himself looking after his
two children alone after his wife had died the year before. The fact
that they were a burden to him was no secret but no-one would have
suspected what he would do.
He arrived in the local bar without the children on
this night and when asked where they were he explained that he had been
in to Edinburgh and had met two young ladies who had offered to take and
look after the children. He simply said that the boys would be much
better off in their new home. Nothing more was seen or heard of the two
boys William and John.
It was more than eighteen months later that an object
was seen floating in the local quarry. The quarry was disused and was
constantly flooded. When the object was fished from the water they
could see it was a small body. As they landed the body they were
shocked to see another body attached by a peice of rope. The bodies
still retained there basic shape even though they were badly decomposed
and it later was confirmed that the bodies had almost entirely turned
The post mortem was carried out by Professor Harvey
Littlejohn. Although the bodies had been in the water for nearly two
years the stomach contents had been preserved so well that they were
able to tell that the little boys had eaten a meal of Scotch broth
about an hour before they were murdered.
From laundry marks on their clothes the police were
able to track down a lady who confirmed that she had given soup to John
and William Higgins on the last day they were seen in the village. The
police soon arrested Patrick Higgins and charged him with the murder of
his own two children.
It took the jury one hour and twenty five minutes to
return a verdict of guilty with a plea for mercy as so much time had
passed since the murders had taken place. The judge at the trial, Lord
Johnston did not feel as lenient as the jury and placing the black cap
on his head he sentenced Higgins to death. Higgins showed no emotion as
he was led below to the cells. On the 2 October 1913 the official
Hangman John Ellis was ready to see that the sentence as passed by the
court was correctly carried out.
Post-mortem retention of body parts, nearly a
Thursday, 10 January 2008
According to the BBC News website yesterday, a relative of the victims
in one of
notorious murder cases has called for the return of body parts which
were taken by the two pathologists in the case, Sir Sydney Smith and
Harvey Littlejohn, and are held by
Patrick Higgins stood trial for the murder of his two sons in September
1913, the case against him being that he had assaulted them and thrown
them into the water-filled Hopetoun Quarry. He was found guilty, was not
reprieved, and was hanged on Wednesday, October 1, 1913.
trial is of some legal significance, because the judge, Lord Johnston,
told the jury that they could not consider the partial defence of
diminished responsibility, which was gradually coming to be recognised
as a basis for reducing murder to culpable homicide. Lord Johnston told
the jury that he could “understand irresponsibility, but I cannot
understand limited responsibility… I desire very humbly to enter my
protest against this doctrine being accepted as part of the criminal law
and practice of Scotland until the matter is more deliberately dealt
with by a larger Court” (HM Advocate v Higgins (1913) 7 Adam 229,
Interestingly, Sir Sydney Smith wrote quite openly about the
“body-snatching” (as he termed it) in his popular 1959 book, Mostly
Murder, which sheds some light on the decision to retain specimens
from the post-mortem.
was not, it seems, the arbitrary retention of body parts which simply
happened to be available to the pathologist. The bodies of Higgins’
children had been in the water for almost two years before they were
found, which meant that an unusual process had taken place. As Smith
“When a body is left for a long period in water, or
buried in damp ground, it undergoes a distinctive change. Human fat,
which is normally semi-fluid, is gradually converted to a fat that is
quite firm, like mutton suet. This is adipocere. The conversion is a
slow process, but permanent when complete. We were interested from a
purely medical point of view, because extensive transformations are
rarely come across, and these specimens were quite exceptional.”
According to Smith, a university magazine “at the
time” went so far as to describe Smith and Littlejohn’s actions in
“Two bodies found in a lonely mere,
Converted into adipocere.
Harvey, when called in to see
Said, “Just what I need for my museum.””
Despite what this might suggest, the retention was hardly open and
honest. At the post-mortem in Linlithgow, Smith arranged with Littlejohn
for the latter to distract the attention of the two police officers
present by asking them to leave the mortuary so that he could confer
with them. While they were outside, Smith packed up a substantial part
of the bodies (the heads, internal organs and half of the limbs), put
the remains in a coffin and screwed down the lid. Smith and Littlejohn
then took the train back to
Edinburgh with the body parts
parcelled up and placed on the luggage rack, in a crowded carriage on a
day so hot that the pair feared that the smell would give their plot
Although the children’s mother had died a year before them, their
grandmother was still alive and gave evidence at Higgins’ trial, as did
two of his sisters and his brother in law (see The Scotsman, 11
September 1913, p7). From Smith’s account, it seems that none of them
would have had any reason to doubt that the coffin contained the
complete remains of their relatives. In 1959, according to Smith, the
specimens were still on display at the university and used to illustrate
adipocere formation to students.
Interesting legal questions might well arise in this situation, but in
any event they have been forestalled by a statement from the University
that it will return the remains provided that the relative who has made
the request (Maureen Marella) can provide proof of her relationship to
the two boys and that other surviving relatives agree. (As the case
involves Edinburgh University, I should point out that I have no
knowledge of the request and the current circumstances beyond what has
been reported by the BBC.)
Dad couldn't cope... so he drowned his sons aged six and four
By Reg McKay - DailyRecord.co.uk
October 17, 2007
VICIOUS monsters lived in the quarry
waters. You could die in those waters, parents warned their children.
The local myth in Linlithgow frightened kids into staying away from
disused Hopetoun Quarry.
It was a dangerous place, with no one sure how deep
the pool was or what lurked down, there. But two men were about to
discover the real horrors of Hopetoun Quarry.
It was was a sunny day in June 1913, yet still the
quarry's dark pool looked menacing. Not so menacing as to worry
ploughman Thomas Duncan and his pal, James Thompson. But that was about
As the men walked past the quarry, as they had done
throughout their lives, Thomas Duncan thought he spotted something in
the water. A dead sheep maybe? If only.
When Duncan and Thompson moved closer, their blood
froze. Two young boys lay there, their bodies tied together, lifeless
eyes staring up at them.
Fetching a long branch, Duncan eased the tiny corpses
towards dry ground. But when they had almost reached the bank, the
Another effort brought one child towards shore but
the other floated free. Duncan and Thompson were hardy farming types but
this was too much for them. They fetched the local bobbies.
An hour later, the two bodies lay on dry ground. They
were bloated and covered in algae, but the freezing cold water had done
the cops a favour by preserving the corpses very well.
Good-looking boys, they had been aged around six and
four. They were recognisable as brothers, even in death.
Unaccustomed to major crime, even the local police
knew it was murder. The rope tying the bodies together was a giveaway.
It didn't take the cops long to suss that only two
kids had moved from the area in the past few months. Or had they?
Some neighbours said the boys had gone to a relative
in Canada. Others said they were with an aunt in Edinburgh, or had died
in some accident.
Maybe if Patrick Higgins had stuck to one story he
would have avoided suspicion. Maybe not. Either way he was arrested and
jail, just prayers and charged with murdering his sons, William, six,
and four-year-old John.
Those who knew Higgins were shocked. They saw him as
a decent enough man fallen on bad times.
He'd seen active service in India, and since
returning to civvies he'd complained to his GP of being forgetful and
suffering frequent headaches.
The doctor was sympathetic but could do little to
help. Higgins, like so many of that time, just had to grin and bear it.
Then disaster struck.
In 1910, Higgins's wife died. He had no extended
family to help care for the children and the welfare state had not even
been conceived of. He would just have to struggle on.
Higgins was a labourer and had to travel around the
Linlithgow area searching for work. If he didn't work, they didn't eat.
In those dark days his two boys had no choice but to go with him.
A labourer's measly wages couldn't feed the three of
them properly, never mind provide a decent home. They often slept rough
and ate stolen potatoes roasted in camp fires.
At one point, someone reported Higgins to the police
and he was charged with child neglect. The boys were taken into care and
placed with a woman in Broxburn.
But back then, a parent - even a neglectful one - had
to pay for his children's keep.
Higgins fell behind with the payments. His sons'
foster mother couldn't have that and promptly delivered them back to
Nobody seemed to notice that the two young boys were
again being cared for by a man who had been judged incapable of caring
for them. By turning a blind eye, they were signing the boys' death
Loneliness, the constant struggle to earn a crust,
and now the burden of caring for two needy young boys had driven Patrick
Higgins to booze, which, of course, just made his problems worse.
One rainy night in November 1911, Higgins was seen
out walking with his boys. Locals were used to the bedraggled threesome
trailing the streets, and paid no attention.
But this time Higgins wasn't looking for shelter. He
knew exactly where he was going.
Down by Hopetoun Quarry, he took a rope from his coat
pocket and tied the two youngsters together.
Then the father picked his sons up and threw them as
far as he could into the murky water.
Did Higgins feel a pang of remorse? It is now
impossible to say. But what we do know is that after killing his boys,
he went to a pub in nearby Winch-burgh. To drown his sorrows?
Higgins pled not guilty to the murders. Not that he
denied killing his sons, but he claimed he was insane at the time.
Scotland's most eminent neurosurgeon was called to
assess if Higgins had epilepsy.
It didn't wash with the judge, Lord Johnston, who
declared that the accused's "callousness, cold-bloodedness and
deliberate cruelty were not insanity."
Higgins was unanimously found guilty but the jury
took a most unusual step. They felt some sympathy for Higgins and asked
The judge sympathised but was compelled to sentence
him to death.
Lord Johnston pronounced the death penalty but did
not don the customary black cap. A symbolic statement of his unhappiness
at events and Higgins's fate? It seems so.
The judge wasn't finished. He slated the lack of
professionalism of those paid to protect the two children.
Wee William and John would have still been alive, he
said, if those officials had done their jobs when the boys were given up
by the foster parent. His words echo many a modern child care tragedy.
When the murders of the wee boys first became public,
the people of Scotland were horrified. Gradually, some began to see the
boys and their killer as victims.
A larger crowd than usual gathered outside
Edinburgh's Calton Jail on October 2 1913 for the execution by hangman
John Ellis. The usual drunkenness and frivolity were not evident. Many
held prayer vigils round bonfires.
When the black flag was hoisted telling the world
that Higgins was dead, there were no cheers. Instead, there were prayers
Was this the start of a public mood in favour of
taking more care of our vulnerable?
Maybe the sad lives and sadder deaths of wee William
and John Higgins were not in vain.
Maybe the hanging of their father had a greater
purpose than punishment.