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John Howison (c. 1788-1832)


Some skeletons are more notorious than others. Physically, human skeletons, provided they are undamaged, are

nearly all the same. The usual reported number of bones in one is 206. Strangely, this can vary; some individuals

have more or fewer cervical ribs, lumbar vertebrae, or sesamoid bones, where a tendon leads over a joint (e.g. the

patella, or knee cap). But 206 is the accepted number, including the tiny bones in the middle ear.


One of four things usually lends notoriety to a skeleton. The first is very obvious... an unusual formation of or on

the bones. Arguably the most famous example of this is the skeleton of Jospeh Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man.

Merrick is thought to have suffered a combination of Proteus syndrome and neurofibromatosis; other diseases

and conditions can leave their signature on human bones.

The second property that might make a skeleton noteworthy comes from events its owner experienced in life.

The bones of ancient warriors have been found to bear evidence of trauma. For example, sword cuts and injuries

from blunt instruments have been found, as has evidence that the unfortunate warrior had been beheaded.

Though they don't speak, skeletons can tell us a lot.

The third variable can be what is found with the skeleton. In-life trauma injuries are easy to spot and identify.

However, if the skeleton is found with weapons, jewellery or religious artefacts, we can build up a pretty accurate

record of the time of the individual's death.

The fourth and final element is, quite simply, historical evidence. This might be a particularly informative

gravestone, an accurate biography that continues beyond its subject's demise. Or, with our next exhibit, the

evidence is fully recorded. This particular specimen shares a display case with the remains of William Burke, in

the Anatomical Museum of the University of Edinburgh.


                                       burke/howison case

The bones of the male individual are accompanied by a story revealing that they qualify to share Burke's display



The Strange Story of John Howison

To find out about this specimen, we must go back to the early Nineteenth Century, 1831 to be precise. The place?

As with Burke and Hare, we are in the environs of Edinburgh. Who, then, are we going to meet? Let's find out a

little about our subject.

John Howison was born around 1788. When he was approximately 42, a change came over him. According to his

landlady, Howison at been no different from any other man. This didn't last.

One evening, the landlady heard the door of her lodging house on Canongate slam…Howison had returned. To her

astonishment, the landlady saw that his appearance has altered radically. Over the six years he had lodged there,

he had been a fastidious man with good taste in clothing. Now, Howison was unkempt and noticeably filthy. He

was also moody and silent; the landlady hardly recognised him.

This change in personality happened quickly and without any apparent reason. Over the following days, he began

showing a huge appetite. He'd sit down to eat but would never allow his food to be touched or cleaned. At one

sitting, he would swallow two pounds of bullocks liver, even though it was practically raw and decidedly grubby.

He would then go on to gorge himself on bread.

As if this wasn't bizarre enough, Howison had taken to pricking himself with a needle. In between mouthfuls of

food, he would suck fresh blood from his hands or wrists. Howison believed this helped, '…the painful affliction in

his head". He also began to suffer hallucinations, and would brush non-existent flies of his hands, for hours at a


More curious actions followed. Howison would sprinkle salt on his bed, "…to keep the fleas away." This might have

made some sense but for his also putting salt on his head, "…to keep the witches away." Howison had become

overwhelmingly superstitious and habitually wore a bible, on a cord round his neck.

Those that knew John Howison, who had previously been a hawker but became a beggar, had a good word for

him. They said he, "…"conversed rationally, and they were convinced he knew perfectly what was right or wrong;

and that they could not have believed he would have been guilty of such a crime. He was always honest in his

dealings and provided for himself." However, it was later noted that Howison was a, "… solitary, silent, wandering

individual", frequenting only the company of a cat and child."

John Howison had also developed odd religious habits. He undertook Roman Catholic rituals but at the same time,

went to the meetings held by Edinburgh's Religious Society of Friends. These Quakers were not easily drawn in by

Howison. They thought him, " deranged in his mind from his peculiar manner and behaviour." His application for

membership was refused.

Death by the Sea

cramond harbour  The scene shifts to Cramond, a seaside village that stands where  

  the River Almond enters the Firth of Forth, about five miles from  

  Edinburgh city centre. The widow Geddes, later described as, ' A

  very innocent and industrious old woman.' lived in a house in the




At about 11am on the 2nd December 1831, John Howison was seen in Cramond. Several villagers spotted him, and

described him as, ' about 44 or 45 years old, and of "very loathsome and uncouth appearance." Some gave him

money. An hour later, Howison was seen again, leaving the widow Geddes' cottage. He was seen to look around see

if he'd been observed, before rapidly making off, away from the cottage.

They found the widow Geddes lying on the floor, murdered in a way that could only be described as "inhuman."

Howison had attacked the old lady, "with a garden spade, down and across her face, which laid it fully open, in a

shocking manner, even in broad day-light."

Howison was tracked down and caught the following day. He was in Costorphine, four miles West of the city

centre. When apprehended he put up so violent a resistance that he had to be tied, hand and foot, to be brought

back to the city in a cart. He said that he'd arrived in Cramond directly from Glasgow. When three of the

witnesses who'd seen him in the village were brought in, Howison's defence was to claim that, "no person ever saw

him do it".

Claims notwithstanding, Howison was sent to be tried. They nicknamed him 'The Cramond Murderer.'


Capture and Trial

Nobody really knew what had befallen John Howison, what it was that brought about the change in him. He had

been to England and on this trip had apparently caught a fever. This, however, remained unconfirmed. But when

Howison returned to Edinburgh, only two month before the murder, he was a changed man.

The Geddes murder was more or less an open-and-shut case. Howison was adamant about having had nothing to

do with the murder and denied all knowledge of the crime. His defence counsel could see only one way of saving

Howison. A plea of insanity was submitted.

The doctors who tried to establish Howison's mental condition came to the conclusion that Howison showed no

sign of insanity at the time of the murder, or after wards. They stated, "…it was probable he had laboured under

some hallucination or mental delusion when he committed the deed." However, there was insufficient evidence of

'mental aberration before the murder, or after it. Howison could not be defined as being criminally insane. On the

contrary, there was plenty of evidence of his having painstakingly attempted to conceal the crime. This indicated

that Howison was fully aware of the serious actions he was taking in the Geddes cottage.

Howison's trial, later described as, 'interesting and impartial' , began on New Year's Eve 1831. Despite the date,

auld acquaintance could not be forgot. At 3am on New Year's Day, the foreman of the Jury stood up. He informed

the court that the jury unanimously declared John Howison guilty of all charges. The presiding judge, Lord Justice

Clerk Boyle, sentenced him to death by hanging.

John Howison was put in a condemned cell for three weeks. During this time, he staunchly maintained his

innocence. Numerous experts came along to assess his sanity; opinion regarding this aspect was divided.



By 8am on Saturday the 21st January 1832, a crowd had gathered on Lyberton Wynd, the scene of Howison's

execution, some 350 yards East of Edinburgh Castle. Howison appeared and was taken to the foot of the scaffold's

steps. He had slept well, for some considerable time. The two vicars, Reverend Mr. Bruce and Reverend Mr.

Porteous, who had tried to instill into Howison a proper sense of his misdemeanour, saw that a psalm was sung

and prayers offered for his salvation.

It was said that, on the night before his execution, Howison had confessed to a total of eight murders, including

that of the widow Geddes. His other crimes had been mostly against children. However, it was further claimed

that this confession had been lost. It's more likely that it never existed. All that was know for certain was that no

motive for the Geddes murder was ever found.

Shortly after 8am, when a devout prayer had been offered, Howison was made ready for his hanging. After a few

minutes, he reluctantly dropped the signal. The executioner released the trap and John Howison plunged to his

doom. Apparently, death was instantaneous.


Post-Mortem Proceedings

John Howison acted extremely badly but did any good come from his existence? It was obvious that he was

showing the signs of serious mental illness.

It is likely that Howison had severe paranoid schizophrenia. By today's standards, his symptoms add up to almost

a textbook description of this affliction. He fits the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and Diagnostic and

Statistical Manual (DSM) criteria almost perfectly. However, schizophrenia would not be recognised as an illness

for another 55 years. In 1832, Howison's denial of guilt was enough for him to be classed as being sane.

Scottish advocate James Simpson had been involved with Howison during the trial and afterwards. Simpson

believed that due to his Mental state, John Howison could not be considered a responsible agent. In consequence,

he should have received the Royal mercy. Two years after Howison hanged, Simpson published The Necessity of

Popular Education as a National Object, in which is a detailed account of Howison's insanity.

Simpson said, "If it be true, that there is none of the phenomena of yet imperfectly understood human nature,

over which hangs a thicker veil, to the general eye, that the phenomena of mental aberration, what are we to think

of making distinctions as if all were clear, between partial and total insanity, and drawing the line of responsibility

with perfect confidence." The way was paved for the pardoning of criminals on the grounds of insanity.


Howison's Qualification

A final point concerning John Howison deserves attention. Just as had been specified for West Point murderer

William Burke three years earlier, Howison's death sentence had an additional clause. Like Burke, he was to be

sent to the University for dissection. In fact, like Burke's, Howison's dissection was carried out by Dr. Munro.

This seems reason enough for John Howison's remains to be sharing a case with those of William Burke. Howison's

remains also became part of a study made by Edinburgh's Phrenological Society. It may be that the notion of

'having one's bumps felt' is now discredited but we can learn from John Howison, as has the legal profession. In the

end analysis, it is the records from the time that have helped the unfortunate Howison to teach us.



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