Anatomical Museum

John Howison

The Curious Case of the Cramond murderer of 1832

 The skeleton of John Howison was kept at the museum due to its particular historical significance: it was the last cadaver to be given over for dissection after execution before the Anatomy Act of 1832 put an end to the tradition but this is not the only point of interest surrounding John Howison.

His crime was a gruesome one; accused of entering a lady's home, where once inside, without any obvious motive, proceeded to force a spade down and across her face laying it fully open, resulting in her death. The defence had urged a plea of insanity which was rejected due to lack of adequate medical evidence. His case, however, was used by James Simpson, a Scottish advocate who believed the British judicial system needed urgent revision in its treatment of the insane. An account of the extent of Howison's insanity can be found in the Necessity of Popular Education as a National Object, 1834, chapter  "Homicidal Insanity", pages 337 to 350. It was Simpson's belief that due to his mental state he was no longer a responsible agent and should therefore have recived the Royal mercy.

According to Simpson, he was a "solitary, silent wandering individual", frequenting only the company of a cat and child. He had become miserably superstitious, fearing supernatural enemies, and had resorted to ceremonies to protect himself such as salting his bed and head, wearing a bible around his neck or wrist and habitually wounded himself by pricking both his hands and feet. He was afflicted by hallucinations, often sitting brushing away flies off his hands for hours where no such could be found. It would seem that Howison had undergone a rapid and profound change of personality. According to his landlady, he had once been no different from any other man, until one evening, months before his crime, he had returned to his house so dramatically altered in manner and appearance (incredibly filthy and unkept whilst silent and moody) that she almost didn’t recognise him. He had also developed an excessive appetite; strangely he would often eat two pounds of bullocks liver almost raw and filthy never allowing his food to be cleaned, after which he would gorge himself on bread. During eating he was known to suckle out his own blood from either his wrists or hands between mouthfuls.

It seems clear that Howison was showing serious signs of mental illness before his crime. Today, according to the World Health Organisation's ICD -10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems) we think that John Howison was probably suffering from severe paranoid schizophrenia but in 1832, schizophrenia had yet to be recognised as an illness. Dr Watson and Dr Spens who testified that he was legally sane, did so on the grounds that he denied his guilt and this was a sufficient sign of sanity. Thus John Howison was sentenced to be executed by hanging and his body to be given to Dr Monro, of the University of Edinburgh, for dissection. On the night of his execution, Howison admitted to eight murderers in total; but, upon investigation, apart from the case of the elderly lady, no other murders had taken place.

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

James Simpson, 1834