Stolen lives

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For many people keen to explore their family history, there is often an air of excitement about what may be found lurking in the mists of time.

A link to an ancient Scottish clan, an unclaimed legacy that has appreciated in value for hundreds of years, perhaps even a connection to Royal blood? For Las Vegas-based Maureen Marella, however, the search for her ancestors produced a shocking discovery. What she found out led her to demand the right to a Christian burial for two young relatives, both of whom were denied the privilege by one of Edinburgh's oldest institutions after their murder in 1911.

Having already spent some time tracing her family history in the United States, Marella asked me to try to establish what had happened to two of her great great grandparents in Scotland, both of whom had migrated from Ireland during the time of the famine in the 1840s. For a genealogist, it was a straightforward enough request, so I spent some time on her behalf at the General Register Office in Edinburgh, looking through the various birth, marriage, death and census records, and soon discovered that the family had settled in the Airdrie and New Monklands areas, where they worked primarily in the mines and on the railways. It was not until I reached a more recent generation of the family that I made a grim discovery.

Marella's grandmother had a first cousin called Bridget Johnston, who married a former soldier from the Scottish Rifles in 1902. Patrick Higgins had been discharged from the army after being diagnosed with epilepsy, with his character noted on his discharge certificate as "Bad. He has been constantly drunk".

The couple led a vagrant life, travelling around the country, with Higgins working occasionally as a labourer and poacher - he was convicted on a couple of occasions. Despite having a stormy relationship, the couple had two sons, William, born in 1904, and John, born in 1907. The year 1910 was a turning point for the family. With the couple living apart, Bridget fell ill in the poorhouse at Methil in Fife, where she had been forced to reside as a pauper with her two sons, and she died towards the end of the year. It was left to Higgins to raise his boys alone, despite the fact that he harboured doubts about whether he was truly John's father.

Higgins failed to live up to his responsibilities from the start and he was imprisoned in June 1911 for two months for their willful neglect. Upon his release he collected the boys from the poorhouse at Dysart, and took them with him to the vicinity of Winchburgh, where he had been working on and off as a labourer at the local brickworks. The boys were moved regularly between different inns and houses, with Higgins promising to pay the respective owners for the boys' upkeep, while he slept rough at the works, though these were promises he rarely kept.

Making it abundantly clear to everyone he met that the two boys were a burden he did not wish to bear, Higgins tried for several months to find a home for them in Edinburgh, but to no avail. Barnardos had refused to take them, the boys being Roman Catholic, and the local Catholic home would only take them if Higgins provided a regular sum for their upkeep, which he claimed he could not afford.

Three months later, the boys suddenly disappeared. When asked by his mother and sisters what had become of them, Higgins replied that two ladies from Tranent had taken such a shine to the boys on a train journey to Edinburgh that they had offered to take them off the labourer's hands and give them both a good home. Although suspicious, nobody challenged Higgins over his claim, and he carried on working at the brickworks. He continued to sleep rough beside the warm kilns on which he would cook his meals using his shovel.

Over 18 months later, however, on 8 June 1913, the shocking truth of what had become of the boys came out, when their corpses were found floating at the flooded Hopetoun Quarry near Winchburgh by two ploughmen.

The labourer was duly arrested, and on suspicion of having killed his two sons was sent to Calton Jail to await trail. At the murder scene, however, the question of the two little boys' disposal was still to be decided. Remarkably, their bodies had been well preserved due to a process known as hydrolysis, which had essentially turned their body fats into a soap-like substance, or "adipocere". Professor Harvey Littlejohn of the University of Edinburgh, working as chief surgeon to the police, and Sir Sidney Smith, a leading pathologist, were asked to examine the bodies, and due to the level of preservation were able to produce extraordinary evidence at the subsequent trial, such as details of the last meals that the boys had eaten.

Using such evidence, the prosecution put together a case claiming that Higgins had given his two boys a last meal of broth, and then led them towards the flooded Hopetoun Quarry on a wet, stormy night, where he subsequently tied them both together with a rope, before pushing them into the murky depths to drown. The defence tried to argue the case that Higgins' epilepsy had led to the deterioration of his mental faculties, and that he was therefore as much a victim as his two boys, but the jury found him guilty.

The judge, Lord Johnston, ordered that he be duly hanged in Edinburgh for the crime. On Thursday, 2 October 1913, the crowd witnessed the flag being lowered outside the jail at three minutes past eight in the morning, confirming that the sentence had been carried out.

Marella was shocked to hear the story, which became more real to her when she saw the original newspaper coverage of the incident. The trial papers held at the National Archives shed further light on the subsequent proceedings.

"First, I was fascinated with it, then as I read about it I just cried. The more I discovered about what had happened, the more my emotions just went all over the place. I can't help but think of my own two grandsons at those ages, running through the house after a bath and screaming happily for me to catch them if I could. They were all so innocent and sweet then, and I can't help but wonder if my two young cousins were in any way like my two grandsons," says Marella.

However, shocking as this story was, there was another blow to come. Having discovered that Sir Sidney Smith had published an account of the case in his autobiography, Mostly Murder, Marella soon learned of a much darker aspect to the pathologists' work. So impressed had the two men been by the examples of adipocere that lay before them at the initial examination, that they decided to secretly appropriate specimens for the university without telling the police, in an act which Smith later described in his account as one of "body snatching".

Littlejohn asked the two constables standing in the room with them to step outside and discuss their findings with him. With the policemen suitably distracted, Smith set about the grisly task of appropriating his specimens. He removed the boys' stomachs, their heads, a leg and an arm from each of them, and all of their internal organs, which he then parcelled up. With his ghoulish task complete, he placed the remains of the boys' bodies into two small coffins, and screwed down the lids before the police could return to the room.

With the police officers none the wiser, Smith describes in his account what happened next. "There was not much motor transport in those days, and we went back to Edinburgh by train with my parcels on the luggage-rack. The train was crowded, and it was a hot day. 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.

"The atmosphere grew thicker, and I could see that Littlejohn was getting uneasy. The true source of the stench was bound to be discovered in time. But the train reached Edinburgh by then, and we got safely home.

"We put the purloined specimens in the Forensic Medicine Museum at the University, and you can see them there to this day."

As a former employee of a forensic science department in Chicago, Marella was distressed to learn what had happened. "I read Smith's book and that really made me angry, to think that he just took it upon himself to do what he did. What right did he have to do this? It really upset me to think that my family could have allowed this to happen back then - but then, how could they have known?"

Determined to find out what had become of the boys' remains, I called the Department of Forensics at the University of Edinburgh, and was put through to Dr Tim Squires, the programme director for forensic medicine. He confirmed that the university still holds the remains, which are in the display cases they were first put in by the department more than 90 years ago. Being such perfect specimens of adipocere, they are brought out for teaching purposes when the subject is discussed. He declined, however, to comment on the circumstances surrounding how the boys' remains were appropriated.

Smith himself described his actions as an "an act of grave robbing". And the extraordinary method by which he and Littlejohn appropriated the boys' remains must surely raise questions about the university's right to hold onto them.

If the university did not seek the consent of the family to retain the specimens, is this any different to the Alder Hay scandal involving the illegal retention of children's organs, which resulted in their remains being returned to their families for disposal because of the distress that this caused?

The university, of course, requires teaching materials to prepare the next generation of forensic pathologists, but how many other "specimens" does the university hold that have been appropriated in such a highly unethical way?

Marella has written to the university to demand that the remains be released to her family so they can be buried in a Christian ceremony, but at the time of writing has not received a response.

"I want to let the boys come to rest. I want to see them given a proper burial and I want them to be remembered for the innocent children that they were, not part of some macabre collection of body parts held in jars." she says. "It's important to me because I feel like, after all this time, and because no-one really seemed to care back then, that someone should give them the respect they deserved.

"If the family knew nothing about what happened in 1913, we certainly do now, and we want to give them the respect and dignity in death that was denied them so long ago."

A former BBC television producer, Chris Paton now runs the Scotland's Greatest Story family history research service, www.scotlandsgreateststory.co.uk