Dignity long denied

Adam Campbell recounts a tragic tale of murder and medical paternalism

  • Date: 01 July 2009

IT was the strangest thing I’ve ever done,” says Friar Tim Calvert of Edinburgh University’s Catholic chaplaincy. “There’s nothing else like it.” A requiem mass and a service at a crematorium are usually all in a day’s work for a Dominican priest. But bearing in mind that the recipients of Friar Calvert’s ministrations last May were two boys – brothers John and William Higgins – who had been dead for nearly 100 years, his reaction is understandable.

The service, which ended in the cremation of the boys’ heads, stomachs, a leg and an arm each and all of their internal organs, was the final chapter in a tragic story that began almost the day they were born. Murdered by their alcoholic father in November 1911, aged just four and seven, their body parts were later stolen by a leading pathologist of the day and a chief surgeon to the police and put on display in the Forensic Medicine Museum at Edinburgh University, where they remained, unbeknown to family members, until the recent ceremony.

The story of the life and death of the Higgins boys and the century-long limbo of their various body parts is one of alcoholism, poverty, violence and the absence of a social safety net. But it is also one of a paternalistic ethic that thought little of body snatching in the interests of medical science, so much so that the pathologist, Sir Sydney Smith, wrote openly about it in his 1959 autobiography, Mostly Murder, unhindered by any sense of shame or wrongdoing.

But then what he had done was not illegal. “Until the turn of this century even the General Medical Council didn’t talk about consent being informed. That was a concept that was fairly alien to UK law,” says Dr George Fernie, a senior medico-legal adviser at MDDUS. “At the time that these particular body parts were retained, that was the norm. It was thought that you were actually protecting the relatives by not telling them.”

Indeed, it was to remain the norm for some time to come. It wasn’t until 1996, when a mother discovered that her deceased daughter’s heart had been kept without her knowledge by the Bristol Royal Infirmary, thus sparking an inquiry, that bereaved relatives became aware that their loved ones’ organs were being routinely retained without their knowledge in hospitals around the country. The resulting scandal ultimately led to the Human Tissue Act 2004 and the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006, which firmly enshrined the concept of informed consent from relatives for the retention of body parts.

Exceptional specimens

But that all came too late for the Higgins brothers, whose remains were considered too scientifically valuable to be left intact by Sir Sydney Smith and his colleague Professor Harvey Littlejohn. When the pair were called in June 1913 to Linlithgow to do an autopsy on two unidentified bodies found in a flooded quarry in nearby Winchburgh, they were presented with what Smith described in Mostly Murder as “two exceptional specimens” of adipocere. Eighteen months in the cold quarry water, with an absence of oxygen and the presence of lime had caused the normally semi-fluid body fat to be converted to a firm, soap-like substance, which Smith described as “like mutton suet”.

It was a rare find. The facial features were completely unrecognisable, even as to gender, but so well preserved were the bodies that Smith soon determined they were boys aged between three and four and between six and seven at the time of death. He even found whole green peas, barley, potatoes and leeks in their stomachs – the Scotch broth that had formed their final meal.

Smith’s findings led the police quickly to determine that they were William and John Higgins who had disappeared 18 months earlier. Their father, Patrick Higgins, had claimed, and been believed, that they had been whisked off to Canada by a woman who had adopted them on the spot in a train carriage on the way to Edinburgh.

The story that was eventually pieced together by the police, however, was a much darker one. Higgins, an alcoholic ex-soldier, had for some time been trying to offload responsibility for the boys, whose mother had died in 1910. Soon after their mother’s death, the boys were getting relief from the Inspector of Poor at Wemyss in Fife and in January 1911 they were taken into the poorhouse in Dysart. When Higgins refused to pay for their upkeep, he was jailed for two months for wilful neglect. On his release in August, Higgins collected the boys and took them to Winchburgh, where he worked as a labourer at a local brickworks.

One rainy night in November, Higgins was seen walking to the east of Winchburgh with the boys. It was the last time they were seen alive. Only 18 months later when their bodies were found by two ploughmen did the truth of what happened that night come out: he had tied them together with window cord and pushed them into the waters. In their investigations the police even managed to find someone who remembered giving the boys that last meal of Scotch broth.

The boys were buried and Higgins, found guilty of their murder, was hanged at Calton Jail on 2 October 1913. To all intents and purposes, the matter was closed. But as we now know closure was a long way off, for what the rest of the family did not know was that the contents of their coffins were considerably less than was thought. It would not be until 2007, when a genealogist, Chris Paton, was helping an American, Maureen Marella, trace her Scottish roots that a relative of the boys would discover what had taken place after Smith had completed the autopsies.

Having discovered that Marella was the boys’ distant cousin, Paton directed her to the chapter in Mostly Murder that described the incident. Smith wrote: “When I was doing the autopsies at Linlithgow I thought we ought to keep a specimen of such perfect adipocere formation for teaching purposes.”

At Smith’s behest, Littlejohn persuaded the policemen to go outside with him. Smith then removed the boys’ heads, stomachs, a leg and an arm from each of them, and all of their internal organs, and parcelled them up. Before the police returned, he wrote, “I put the remains in the coffin provided, and screwed down the lid.”

Smith left nothing out of his grisly account, even describing how he transported the “purloined” body parts back to Edinburgh University in a crowded train. “We had the window open, but pretty soon the other passengers began to wrinkle their noses, sniff, and look at one another’s boots. No wonder, for the smell was mephitic.”

Fitting end

Paton contacted the university on Marella’s behalf and discovered that the remains were still being held in the display cases in which they were first put nearly 100 years before. The boys’ horrified cousin demanded the return of the body parts so they could have a Christian burial.

Professor David Harrison, the university’s head of pathology, sought advice and in the light of the recent legislative changes was only too happy to release the remains into the hands of the family, which culminated in the religious service in May.

A century later, the chances of a similar thing happening are remote, says Dr Fernie: “You never get a 100 per cent perfect system. But I think the Human Tissue Act is pretty sound. Not only does it let the public know that there is a robust piece of legislation to protect their interests, but doctors know precisely what’s expected of them.”

It’s all 100 years too late for William and John Higgins, but at least their relatives have now seen some kind of closure. Says Father Calvert: “These children were let down by so many people, not just their father. What we wanted to do was surround these remains with as much dignity as possible. And so provide a fitting end to the story.”

  • Adam Campbell is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Summons. He lives in Edinburgh.

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