Murdered boys' final remains laid to rest

IT is the final chapter in a remarkable story involving murder, deception, two bodies never properly laid to rest and Edinburgh's Sherlock Holmes.

The horrific discovery in 1913 of the bodies of John Higgins, seven, and his brother William, four, in a flooded quarry near West Lothian eventually led to their father being hanged for their murder – Edinburgh's first execution of the 20th century.

The story did not end there however, as the uniquely preserved bodies were considered so startling a find by pathologists at Edinburgh University that they decided to "steal" body parts for future study.

Almost a century later and the final remains of the boys have now been cremated in a funeral service, after a request from relatives in the United States.

Professor David Harrison, head of pathology at the University of Edinburgh, said it had been decades since the body parts were last shown to students.

"These events took place almost 100 years ago and clearly there has been a major change in medical ethics since then," he said.

"In the 11 years I have worked here, and before that when I was a student here, we never used these remains in classes, although we have used photographs.

"It is only right that they be properly put to rest, and there was a large number of staff from the pathology department at the service."

In a case which made headlines at the time, the bodies were found floating in the deep, cold waters of Hopetoun Quarry, near Winchburgh, where it emerged they had been drowned two years earlier.

The cold water, along with lime from the quarry stone, had led to the bodies undergoing an extremely rare post-mortem change called adipocere, where the fat takes on a consistency rather like hard soap, preserving the body.

The examination of the bodies was carried out by Sir Sydney Smith, a forensic pathologist known as the Scottish Sherlock Holmes, who later gave evidence that led to the prosecution of the boys' father Patrick Higgins.

He worked with colleague Sir Harvey Littlejohn, and the pair felt that the remains would provide valuable insights for future students of forensic medicine.

Years later Sir Sidney admitted in a book that he and Prof Littlejohn had distracted police officers before removing limbs and internal organs from the boys to use in teaching. These have remained in the care of the university ever since.

Last year Maureen Marella, an American resident who is believed to be the last living relative of the boys, contacted the university asking for the body parts to be put to rest.

In accordance with the family's faith, the University held a requiem mass at the University's Catholic chaplaincy, followed by a cremation ceremony at the Mortonhall Crematorium.

The ashes will now be held by the university for Ms Marella, who is understood to want to scatter them in Scotland.


THE high-profile discovery of the bodies in Hopetoun Quarry and the subsequent court case was reported in the Evening News of the day, pictured.

In 1910 Patrick Higgins had been given custody of his sons after the death of their mother.

He had been unable to cope with raising them and in 1911 was jailed for child neglect.

On his release he continued to struggle and eventually left the boys in the care of a friend.

One night in October 1911, the boys left to find their father at his work. Witnesses said they saw Higgins leading the boys towards the quarry.

The pair were never seen alive again and their bodies were found in the quarry in June 1913.

After Higgins identified them he was arrested and tried for murder.

Despite a plea of temporary insanity, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.