Sydney Smith: Scotland's Real Sherlock Holmes

    The pioneering forensic specialist solved gruesome crimes and created new investigative methods.

    On June 8, 1913, two farmers were walking near a quarry outside of Edinburgh, Scotland, when they spotted two small, lifeless bodies floating in the water. The corpses of William Higgins, seven, and his brother John, four, had deteriorated so much that authorities could barely confirm that they were human.

    Fortunately, Sir Sydney Alfred Smith CBE, future pioneer in forensic science, was on the case.

    Smith got his first big break in this case, setting the stage for the work of the next 50 years. Smith noticed adipocere, a white and hard fat, on one of the boy's body. Based on the fact that this type of fat takes months to form inside the human body when exposed to water, Smith determined that the bodies had most likely been inside the quarry between 18 and 24 months.

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    Smith was also able to determine that the children had eaten peas, barley, potatoes, and leeks approximately an hour before they died and—because the vegetables were seasonal—had most likely died in the autumn of 1911, rather than the winter of 1912.

    Most crucially, he found evidence that one of the children’s shirts had come from the Dysart poorhouse.

    With this key forensic evidence, police were able to arrest the boys’ father, Patrick Higgins, a widower and drunk who had put his sons in the home in 1910. When Higgins failed to pay the fees for the boys, he went to jail. Eventually, he removed them from the poorhouse—and drowned them in the quarry.

    sydney smith
    University of Edinburgh - where Sir Smith was a professor
    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

    Higgins pleaded temporary insanity at his trial in September 1913 but was found guilty and hanged on October 2, 1913.

    However, Smith received criticism after the case due to the fact that he and Harvey Littlejohn, another forensics expert, took some of the children’s body parts for research without telling the family. The forensic scientists removed limbs and internal organs before sealing up the rest of the boys’ remains in coffins for burial.

    Prior to this case, Smith had begun his career in general practice, and then become an assistant in the Edinburgh department of forensic medicine. He obtained his M.D. in 1914 and went on to as a major in the New Zealand Army Corps during World War I.

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    In 1917, Smith became a medico-legal advisor to the Government of Egypt and senior lecturer at the School of Medicine in Cairo. He would go on to establish himself as an authority in the use of ballistics and firearms in forensics and published the first edition of Textbook of Forensic Medicine in 1925.

    Through the years, as Smith built a distinguished reputation, the illicitly taken body parts of the young Higgins boys remained at Edinburgh University.

    Finally, in 2008, a cousin of William and John Higgins, Maureen Marella, asked the school to return their body parts so that they could have a Christian burial. After Marella was able to prove that she was related to the boys, they were finally given a proper funeral service in Edinburgh in 2009.

    Read more: The Scotsman; History.com; NZEdge

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    • Crime Feed
    • forensics
    • Sir Sydney Smith


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