Gruesome murder weapons on display at Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh

Long thin dagger, RCPE Artefacts, accessed April 28, 2017,

Long handled axes, rusted kitchen knives and a homemade cosh are just some of the weapons that make up the collection of renowned forensic pathologist Sir Sydney Smith (1883-1969); recently acquired, researched and catalogued by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. These items can be viewed and searched on a new website which provides access to high quality digitised images of the college’s 3D artefacts collections.Some of the series of weapons retained their original evidence labels, which enabled the college to link them to murder investigations, trials and resultant verdicts using archive newspaper and high court material held by the National Records of Scotland.

One example is a short-handled axe identified as being evidence in the case against John Maxwell Muir of Dumfries who was arrested and tried for the murder of his wife in 1933. The axe was recovered from the scene with evident blood staining on the handle. Sydney Smith, as the forensic expert, gave testimony in court regarding the forensic evidence available from the weapon. Smith ascertained that the blood on the axe handle was human blood, the same type as that of the victim, and that hairs recovered from the handle were also a match to the victim. Muir was found guilty of culpable homicide for the murder of his wife, his insanity plea dismissed.

The collection will feature in the upcoming event ‘Deadly Nightshade: The Darker Side of Edinburgh’s Medical Past’. Guests can take a behind the scenes tour of the College and learn about the sinister side of Edinburgh’s medical history, through dark texts, gruesome illustrations and talks on murder trials, Burke and Hare and the history of poisonous plants.

Iain Milne, head of heritage, The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said: “This collection provides a wealth of information on early to mid 20thcentury forensic science, an era when the death penalty was in place and Sir Sydney Smith a key forensic expert in many murder trials.

“While many of the items do have a grisly history, we also believe Smith used them as teaching aids in his role as Professor of Forensic Medicine, educating the next generation of forensic experts”.