June 8

This Day in History

Crime

Jun 8, 1913:

Forensic evidence captures a murderous father

Two farmers walking near a quarry outside of Edinburgh, Scotland, find two small, dead bodies floating in the water, tied together. Although the bodies were so waterlogged that authorities could barely confirm that they were human, Sydney Smith, the century's first "Quincy," was able to use forensics to help solve the crime.

Smith was at the beginning of his 40-year career and working as an assistant to Professor Harvey Littlejohn at Edinburgh University. The first thing he noticed about the body was the presence of adipocere, a white and hard type of fat. The level of adipocere in the bodies, which takes months to form inside the human body when exposed to water, led Smith to believe that they had been in the quarry somewhere between 18 to 24 months.

The adipocere had preserved the stomachs of the bodies and Smith saw that the children had eaten peas, barley, potatoes, and leeks approximately an hour before they died. Given the seasonal nature of the vegetables, Smith figured that the kids had died at the end of 1911. Most importantly, Smith found an indication that one of the children's shirts had come from the Dysart poorhouse.

With this information, law enforcement officials quickly found the killer. Patrick Higgins, a widower and drunk, had placed his two boys in the Dysart poorhouse in 1910. When he didn't pay the small fees, Higgins was jailed. He eventually took the young boys out of the poorhouse, but they had not been seen since November 1911.

Higgins was arrested and pled temporary insanity at his trial in September 1913. The jury rejected his defense, and, on October 2, 1913, he was hanged.

Sydney Smith went on to be a pioneer in forensic medicine.

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