John George Haigh

Haigh as a boy
William Donald McSwan
Mrs Durand-Deacon
Amy McSwan
Mr & Mrs Henderson
Mrs Constance Lane
Police investigation

John George Haigh 1909-1949

The Acid Bath Murderer

‘Throughout his life, Haigh suffered from a recurring dream: he spoke of a forest of crucifixes that would gradually turn into trees and drip with blood. He would see a man collecting the blood into a cup but he always awakened before he could take a drink. It was the dream, Haigh would confess to the police after his arrest, that made him believe he needed blood in order to live.’

Formative years

 John George Haigh was a bright student who won scholarships to Wakefield Grammar School, to Wakefield Cathedral, as a choir boy. Unfortunately accounts of his youth suggest that he would never amount to more than the fraudulent, thieving con artist he became in later life. Some even argue, including Haigh that the seeds of his future career as one of the most notorious serial killers in English history were sown during his early religious upbringing.
Haigh’s parents belonged to a religious sect known as the Plymouth Brethren, who were purist and anticlerical. Almost all forms of casual entertainment, music, carnivals, magazines and newspapers were regarded as sinful. Only stories from the bible were tolerated.
According to his father the world was ‘evil’ and the family needed to keep themselves separate. As his father had also told him that the blue blemish on his own head had been the result of him ‘sinning’ in his youth, it is perhaps not surprising that the young George became terrified of developing a similar ‘sign of the devil’.  It is argued that the turning point in the boy’s development came when he realised that no such blemish had appeared, despite his having lied and just about broken every rule in the book. In fact he began to believe that he was invincible and could get away with anything.

Ducking and Diving

 As a young man Haigh was an inveterate pleasure seeker who enjoyed flouting society’s rules and sailing close to the wind. On leaving school he was apprenticed to a firm of motor engineers, however this only lasted a year and he scraped a living in sales, insurance and advertising and any job that demanded snappy dressing and the gift of the gab. By the age of 21 he had already been sacked for suspected theft.
In July1934, Haigh married the 23 year-old Beatrice Hamer, unfortunately the marriage soon fell apart. That same year he was jailed for fraud and Beatrice gave birth while he was in prison but she gave the baby girl up for adoption and left Haigh. Not surprisingly his family ostracised him from that point onwards.
In 1936 he moved to London and became chauffeur to William McSwan, the wealthy owner of amusement parlours. He used his mechanical gifts to maintain McSwan’s amusement machines. Following that he became a bogus solicitor and received a four-year jail sentence for fraud. He was released just after the start of World War II and somehow missed being called up, continuing as a pretty unsuccessful petty criminal and being sentenced to several terms of imprisonment.
Whilst inside Lincoln Prison he began planning the most startling series of perfect murders. He learned much from other criminals and avidly read books on acids which he found easily available in the prison library. Using glass jars from the kitchens, dead field mice brought in from the fields and small quantities of acid taken from the tinsmith’s shop, Haigh carried out experiments to see how long it would take a small body to dissolve in acid. It was not long before he had devised a formula to apply to humans.

The McSwans

 In 1944 Haigh renewed his friendship with the McSwans and rented a small basement workshop at number 79 Gloucester Road in Kensington where he allegedly worked on his ‘inventions’. On September 9th he took McSwan’s son Donald to his workshop and bludgeoned him to death. He then placed Donald’s body in a 40 gallon barrel filled with sulphuric acid. Later he covered the drum and went home to sleep. The next day the remains of McSwan were little more than cold liquid and lumps which he disposed of down a drain.
By forging various documents he obtained all Donald’s assets and then told his bemused mother that he had gone away to avoid conscription. He even sent fake postcards to them from Scotland pretending to be their son. Again using forged documentation, Haigh managed to obtain the McSwan’s property in Raynes Park, Wimbledon Park and Beckenham Park, not to mention around £4,000 in cash.
Before continuing with his plans to dispose of the remainder of the McSwan family, according to a police statement he also murdered a middle-aged woman from Hammersmith.
The McSwans disappeared on 2 July 1945. They were killed in a similar fashion to poor Donald. Haigh hit them first, killing them and then claimed to have drunk their blood, before dissolving them in acid baths.

The Hendersons

 In August 1947 Haigh met Dr Archibald Henderson and his wife Rosalie, a well healed couple whom he befriended. By this time he was renting a small basement property in Leopold Road, Crawley. On 12th February 1948 he drove Henderson to Crawley on the pretext of showing him an invention. When they arrived he shot Henderson in the head with a revolver he had earlier stolen from the doctor’s house. He then lured Mrs Henderson to the workshop, claiming her husband had fallen ill, and shot her also. After disposing of the Hendersons’ bodies in oil drums filled with acid, he forged a letter from them and sold all of their possessions for £8,000 .

Mrs Henrietta Helen Olivia Roberts Durand-Deacon

 In 1949 Haigh chanced upon his last victim Olivia Durand-Deacon, 69, the wealthy widow of solicitor John Durand-Deacon and a fellow resident at the Onslow Court Hotel. She mentioned to Haigh, by then calling himself an engineer, an idea that she had for artificial fingernails. He invited her down to the Crawley workshop and once inside he shot her in the back of the head, stripped her of her valuables, including a Persian lamb coat, and put her into the acid bath. Unfortunately this murder netted very little profit. He sold her coat and a few odd bits of jewellery which just about paid the hotel bill and covered his most pressing expenses. It was time to look for another victim.

Mrs Constance Lane

 He found one in the form of Mrs Durand’s friend, Mrs Constance Lane, who was also a retired lady living at the hotel. She was deeply concerned by her friend’s disappearance and plied Haigh with questions one of which nearly knocked him off his perch. ‘Don’t you know where she is, she told me you were taking her down to your factory? Well I must do something about that’ To avoid suspicion Haigh offered to go to the police station with her and report the matter. At Chelsea Police Station the officer on duty recognised Haigh and ran a background check on him. On February 28th the police brought him in for questioning whilst they searched his hotel room and workshop.
The search revealed not only Haigh’s attaché case containing a dry cleaner’s receipt for Mrs Durand-Deacon’s coat, but also papers referring to the Hendersons and McSwans and a diary in which he kept abbreviated details of his other murders. Further investigation of the sludge at the workshop by the pathologist Keith Simpson revealed Mrs Durand’s plastic handbag, 28 pounds of human fat, corroded human bones, three human gallstones and part of a denture which was later identified by Mrs Durand-Deacon’s dentist during the trial.
Despite the forensic evidence, it was Haigh’s very own sense of invincibility and arrogance that was to be his greatest undoing.
Haigh was of the opinion that nothing could be found from his human slaughterhouse and cockily recounted in great detail his escapades of death. As far as he was concerned, it was a case of corpus delicti, o bodies, no crime, no punishment.
When questioned by Detective Inspector Albert Webb, Haigh asked him “Tell me, frankly, what are the chances of anybody being released from Broadmoor?” The inspector said he could not discuss that sort of thing, so Haigh replied “Well, if I told you the truth, you would not believe me. It sounds too fantastic to believe”.
Haigh then confessed that he had not only killed Durand-Deacon, the McSwans and Hendersons, but also three other people: a young man called Max, a girl from Eastbourne and a woman from Hammersmith.
On Thursday March 3 1949, London’s Daily Mirror began a series of macabre stories about murder that began with the headline, “Hunt for the Vampire.” They did not name names but there were no prizes for guessing who they were referring to.

Trial and Execution

 Haigh was put on trial on Monday 18th August 1949 at the Sussex Assizes in Lewes. He had no money to pay for his defence so the News of the World newspaper did a deal with him and offered to pay for his counsel if he would provide them with an exclusive. The Daily Mirror newspaper was found in contempt of court for explicitly portraying Haigh as a vampire. The editor, Silvester Bolam, was sentenced to three months in prison. The paper also had to pay £10,000 in court costs.
The jury retired on the second day and it took just 17 minutes to find him perfectly sane and guilty of murder. Mr Justice Travers Humphreys sentenced him to death and it was announced that there would be no appeal. It was reported that Haigh, in the condemned cell at Wandsworth Prison, asked one of his prison guards, Jack Morwood, whether it would be possible to have a trial run of his hanging so everything would run smoothly. It is likely that his request went no further but  if it did, the request was denied. He also wrote to one of his solicitors saying, ’ When I was sentenced to death by Sir Travers Humphries I couldn’t stop laughing, I saw the judge don his black cap and he looked the entire world like a sheep with its head peering out from under a rhubarb leaf.’
On Wednesday 10th August a crowd of around 500 people gathered outside Wandsworth Prison in bright sunshine. At 9am Haigh was hanged by Albert Pierpoint, assisted by Harry Kirk.

After Thoughts

Haigh finished his life story for the newspaper that had paid for his trial and wrote letters to his parents who did not see him before he died. His mother sent greetings through a reporter. He also told reporters that he believed in reincarnation and that he would be back to complete his mission. Madame Tussaud’s requested a fitting for a death mask and Haigh was happy to oblige.
Haigh’s motivations for his crimes, which involved luring his prey to a fate where their blood was consumed before being dissolved in acid, have never been clearly corroborated. His claim to have been disturbed in his childhood by his strict religious parents, leading to a psychotic state of mind obsessed with religious iconography and sacrificial fantasies, has been disputed. Critics believe that instead of insanity fuelling Haigh’s vampire-like activities, he was in fact a cold-hearted killer who arrogantly believed that where there was no body, there was no crime to pin on him.
He was known to be manipulative and a compulsive liar, prone to saying anything to extricate himself from compromising positions. At the time of his arrest, his personal enquiy into what would befall him if he were found to be insane is an indication that Haigh was aware that appearing ‘bonkers’ and damaged by his childhood would possibly work in his favour when it came to court.
Most of the psychologists agreed that although Haigh suffered from mental health issues he was not ‘insane’ and had been perfectly aware of his murderous actions that had involved meticulous planning. One eminent psychiatrist believed without any doubt that Haigh had a “paranoid constitution” – the same mental disease as Hitler.
They believed he had most likely developed a paranoid personality to escape his parents’ suffocating universe in order to relieve himself from emotional pain. His upbringing had contributed to a mental state where the dividing lines between reality and fantasy had become blurred.
The result was that Haigh had an acute sense of omnipotence and believed he was above the law. He was in effect an ‘egocentric paranoiac’ who, although aware that killing people was against the law, still thought that it was part of fulfilling his destiny.
He tried to impress on the psychiatrists more details of his abnormal dreams and obsession with blood drinking, but none of them bought his efforts to portray himself as a lunatic. However, what they weren’t aware of was that Haigh had years before developed a friendship with an employee of Sussex Psychiatric Hospital and had shown a great deal of interest in mental illness. He had a talent for deception having over the years also posed as a lawyer, engineer and a doctor.
John George Haigh The Acid Bath Murderer


Serial Killers – John George Haigh [Documentary]

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THE BLACK MUSEUM – John George Haigh (Central TV, 1988)


Historical consultant David Rowland DavidRowland



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