Thursday 10 January 2008

Post-mortem retention of body parts,
nearly a century on

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.)

Update (10/1): Today's Scottish edition of the Times includes (on page 3) a lengthy report of the story, clearly drawing - as does this blog entry - on the account of the case in Sir Sydney's book. It also quotes Tim Squires, a lecturer in forensic medicine, who points out that the specimens have never been on public display.

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