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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: November 1911
Date of arrest: 1913
Date of birth: ???
Victims profile: His sons aged six and four
Method of murder: Drowning
Location: Winchburg, West Lothian, Scotland, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging on October 2, 1913

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 called adipocere. 

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 discovery. 

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 locally.

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.


Patrick Higgins

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 into adipocere.

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 century on

Thursday, 10 January 2008

According to the BBC News website yesterday, a relative of the victims in one of Scotland’s most 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 Edinburgh University.

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.

His 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, at 233).

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.

This 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 later explained:

“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 verse:

“Two bodies found in a lonely mere,
Converted into adipocere.
Harvey, when called in to see ‘em,
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 away.

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 -

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 to change.

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 branch snapped.

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 their father.

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 warrant.

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 for mercy.

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 and weeping.

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.



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