British Executions

Patrick Higgins

Age: 38

Sex: male

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 2 Oct 1913

Crime Location: Hopetoun Quarry, Abercorn, West Lothian

Execution Place: Calton Gaol, Edinburgh

Method: hanging

Executioner: John Ellis


Patrick Higgins was convicted of the murder of his two sons William Higgins 6 and John Higgins 4 and sentenced to death.

He drowned them at Hopetoun Quarry, Abercorn in West Lothian on 25 October 1911.

However, their bodies were not discovered until June 1913 by a ploughman and his friend who were walking by the quarry.

The charge against Patrick Higgins at court was of having between 25 October 1911 and 1 January 1912, at a disused quarry known as Hopetoun Quarry, in the parish of Abercorn, Linlithgowshire, in which there was then a large quantity of water, assaulted William Higgins and John Higgins, his children, and tied them together with a cord, and thrown them into the quarry and murdered them.

The case was notable for the fact that the bodies in the lake had been well preserved through a rare but natural process, and the food in their stomachs could still be identified. It was found that they had eaten Scotch broth only an hour before their deaths and that the vegetables in their stomachs were known to be grown locally.

Laundry marks were also found on the remains of their clothing that allowed the police to track down a woman who said that she had given William Higgins and John Higgins Scotch broth on the last day they were seen in the village.

It was heard that suspicion had already fallen on Patrick Higgins before the bodies were found after he had told people various stories to account for the absence of his children, saying that he had given them away to a couple of women on a train, that they had gone off to Canada, that they were with an aunt and also that they had had an accident.

A miner who lived in Winchburgh who knew Patrick Higgins said that one Monday or Tuesday night in early November 1911, he saw Patrick Higgins with his boys passing along the road towards Winchburgh. He said that it was a wet and stormy night and that it was between 7pm and 8pm, and that that was the last he saw of the boys.

The miner said that later that night at about 9.40pm he saw Patrick Higgins come into the Tally Ho! public house, noting that he was not with his boys and said that Patrick Higgins told him that he had got a good home for his boys, saying that he had met two ladies on the train and that they had taken a fancy to them. The miner said that Patrick Higgins told him that he didn't have the address of the ladies but said that he had given them his address. The miner pointed out that Patrick Higgins didn't have an address, and said that Patrick Higgins said that he did, saying that it was Patrick Higgins, Winchburgh Brickworks.

The minor said that Patrick Higgins told him that he had got out of the train at Ratho and had run back to the Tally Ho! in order to be in time for a drink.

The miner noted that there had been nothing peculiar about Patrick Higgins's behaviour when he saw him passing along the road, and added that Patrick Higgins had given him no indication by his manner or demeanour when he had seen him in the pub that he had just committed a horrible crime.

The Inspector of Poor for the parish of Uphall, said that they had been providing outdoor relief for the boys and that Patrick Higgins had been arrested and accused of deserting his children. The Inspector of Poor said that he had called at the brickworks in October 1911 and had told Patrick Higgins that if he did not take charge of his children, steps would be taken against him by the Parish Council and said that he understood that Patrick Higgins would therefore take steps to do something for his children. The Inspector of Poor said that the Parish Council had nothing further to do with the children and said that he had assumed that Patrick Higgins had procured a guardian for them.

A professor who carried out the post-mortems on the children said that both of the bodies had been in an advanced state of decomposition but that their outward forms had been well preserved although their clothing had been partially destroyed. He said that they both appeared well nourished and developed. He said that in the forehead of the taller child there was a hole that might have been the result of an injury but said that there were no other injuries on the bodies or signs of disease and that he was unable to determine their cause of death. He said that he thought that they had both been in the water for about two years.

It was noted that the bodies had been preserved by a unique chemical process known as adipocere which was due to the cold water they had been submerged in and the lime from the quarry stone, which had caused the body fat in the boys to take on the consistency of a hard soap.

The process was described in context by a forensic scientist that the University of Edinburgh thus: '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'.

At his trial, Patrick Higgins's defence stated that he had a history of fits and had a certain amount of mental enfeeblement and that he might have suffered from epilepsy and that he had been insane at the time of the murders.

When the judge at the trial summed up he said that there was no doubt that the bodies of the two children were William Higgins and John Higgins, and that it was equally certain that they had drowned, adding that no man had better knowledge of that than Patrick Higgins. He said that no man in their senses would suggest that the two children of tender years would have wandered on a dark night to the lonely, sequestered spot where they were found and to have then fallen into the lake by accident, noting that the cord which bound them attested to the contrary. The judge said that the only question was whose hand had done the deed?

The judge noted that the defence claimed that if Patrick Higgins had done the deed in November 1911, then he was probably insane, but noted that no one was claiming that he was insane then, in 1913 at the time of his trial. The judge then said however, that the question of Patrick Higgins's sanity was a question for the jury.

It was heard that Patrick Higgins had seen active service in India and that since returning to Scotland he had complained to his doctor of being forgetful and of having suffered frequent headaches. However, it was said that when his wife died in 1910, he struggled with his children. It was later noted that although the Inspector of Poor had been in contact with Patrick Higgins regarding him deserting his children, all they had done was charge him and although he was said to have been earning well, he had struggled to manage his children on his own.

The judge then said, 'It is plain beyond dispute that if he did this deed the motive was obvious, although horribly inadequate. The prisoner found that although he was earning a good wage his children were burdensome to him; they were a nuisance. He deliberately made up his mind that he preferred to spend the money which he could well earn, on his own self-indulgence, and that he would not spare a single penny to support his own offspring. There is no insanity about that. He was just a cold, callous, morally depraved creature, who preferred his own self-indulgence to discharging his obligations as a parent to his children. Counsel thought the prisoner would have been well pleased if he could have got rid of the children in any other way than drowning them. The defence that the man's intellect was impaired by epileptic fits or any kind of fits was simply ridiculous'.

The judge also scathed the parochial authorities saying that it was scandalous that when the relations between the parochial authorities, the Inspector of Poor for the parish of Uphall, and Patrick Higgins ended, that William Higgins and John Higgins should just be allowed to disappear within the parish with no questions asked. He said that he thought that the matter should be brought before the Local Government Board in order that they could look into it, noting that the parochial authorities had a duty beyond avoiding expenses of child maintenance and recovering small sums they might disperse, he said that they had a duty to paupers, for who they were responsible and most especially for helpless dependents of such a man as Patrick Higgins, especially so when those dependents had been, as they were, so emphatically brought before them.

He was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death, however, the jury recommended him to mercy on the grounds of the length of time that had elapsed between the commission of the act and the trial of Patrick Higgins.

Before his execution he requested that a priest make it know that he considered that his sentence was just and that drink was the cause of his ruin.

It was noted that the trial further held some legal significance after the judge told the jury that they could not consider the partial defence of diminished responsibility which was more commonly being used to reduce murder charges down to manslaughter and culpable homicide. He said, 'I 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'.

It was noted that the process of adipocere was so rare, that the professors and pathologists at Edinburgh University had taken body parts when the police were not looking to use for research and teaching. However, it was reported that in 2009, after requests by relatives of the children in America, the body parts were collected and cremated in a funeral service. The head of the pathology department at the University of Edinburgh in 2009 said that it had been decades since the children's body parts had been shown to students and since the body parts were taken 100 years earlier, that there had been changes in medical ethics and that it was only right that the body parts be properly put to rest.

see National Records of Scotland - AD15/13/43

see Grantham Journal - Saturday 04 October 1913, p8

see The Scotsman

see Murderpedia

see Daily Record

see Criminal Letters