John George Haigh

John George Haigh
John George Haigh

Police photograph of Haigh
Background information
Birth name John George Haigh
Also known as The Acid Bath Murderer
The Vampire Killer
The Vampire of London
Born 24 July 1909(1909-07-24)
Stamford, Lincolnshire, England
Died 10 August 1949(1949-08-10) (aged 40)
Wandsworth Prison, Wandsworth, England
Cause of death Execution by hanging
Number of victims: 6–9
Span of killings 1944–1949
Country England
Date apprehended 1949

John George Haigh (24 July 1909 – 10 August 1949), commonly known as the "Acid Bath Murderer" , was an English serial killer during the 1940s. He was convicted of the murders of six people, although he claimed to have killed nine. He did not use acid actually to kill his victims, but rather as (he believed) a foolproof method of body disposal – dissolving their bodies in concentrated sulphuric acid before forging papers in order to sell their possessions and collect substantial sums of money. During the investigation, it became apparent that Haigh was using the acid to destroy victims' bodies because he misunderstood the term corpus delicti, thinking that if victims' bodies could not be found, then a murder conviction would not be possible. The substantial forensic evidence, notwithstanding the absence of his victims' bodies, was sufficient for him to be convicted for the murders and subsequently executed.[1]


Early life

John Harlon George Haigh was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire,[2][3] and grew up in the village of Outwood, West Yorkshire. His parents, Alfred and Emily, were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a conservative Protestant sect who advocated austere lifestyles. He was confined to living within a 10 ft (3 m) fence that his father put up around their garden to lock out the outside world. Haigh would later claim he suffered from recurring religious nightmares in his childhood. Despite these limitations, Haigh developed great proficiency in the piano, which he learned at home.

Haigh won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield. After his conviction, claims were made that a desk carved with his name remained at the school (and caretakers would run trips to the cellars to show it to first year pupils), but they were put aside when a teacher of 30 years at the school said the desk had been removed over 20 years previously. He then won another scholarship to Wakefield Cathedral, where he became a choirboy.

After school he was apprenticed to a firm of motor engineers. After a year he left that job, and took jobs in insurance and advertising. At age 21, he was fired after being suspected of stealing from a cash box. The following year he was named as a co-respondent in the divorce of Evelyn and racing driver Eddie Hall.[4]

Marriage and imprisonment

On 6 July 1934, Haigh married the 21-year-old Beatrice Hammer. The marriage soon fell apart. The same year Haigh was jailed for fraud. Betty gave birth while he was in prison but she gave the baby up for adoption and left Haigh. Likewise, his conservative family ostracised him from that point onwards.

He then moved to London in 1936, and became chauffeur to William McSwan, the wealthy owner of amusement parlours. Additionally, 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. Haigh was released just after the start of World War II and, continuing as a fraudster, was sentenced to several terms of imprisonment.

While in prison he dreamed up what he considered the perfect murder of being able to destroy the body by dissolving it with sulphuric acid. He experimented with mice[5] and found it took only 30 minutes for the body to disappear.[6]

The "Acid Bath" murders

He was freed from one term in 1943 and became an accountant with an engineering firm. Soon after, by chance, he bumped into his former employer, McSwan, in the Goat pub in Kensington. McSwan introduced Haigh to his parents, William and Amy, who mentioned that they had invested in property. On 6 September 1944, McSwan disappeared. Haigh later admitted hitting him over the head after luring him into a basement at 79 Gloucester Road, London SW7. He then put McSwan's body into a 40-gallon drum and tipped concentrated sulphuric acid on to it. Two days later he returned to find the body had become sludge, which he poured down a manhole.

He told McSwan's parents, William and Amy, that their son had fled to Scotland to avoid being called up for military service. Haigh then took over McSwan's house and when William and Amy became curious as to why their son had not returned as the war was coming to an end, he murdered them too – on 2 July 1945, he lured them to Gloucester Road and disposed of them.

Haigh stole William McSwan's pension cheques, sold their properties – stealing about £8,000 (£256 thousand when adjusted for inflation[7]) – and moved into the Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington. By the summer of 1947 Haigh, a gambler, was running short of money. He found another couple to kill and rob: Dr Archibald Henderson and his wife Rose, whom he met after purporting to show interest in a house they were selling.

He rented a small workshop at 2 Leopold Road, Crawley, West Sussex, and moved acid and drums there from Gloucester Road. He was also known to have stayed at The George Hotel, Crawley on several occasions.[8][9] On 12 February 1948, he drove Henderson to Crawley, on the pretext of showing him an invention. When they arrived Haigh 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 (except their dog, which he kept). This 1948 amount is the equivalent of £216 thousand today.[7]

Last victim and capture

Haigh's next and last victim was Olive Durand-Deacon, 69, a widow and 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 (number 2 Leopold Road) on 18 February 1949, 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. Two days later Durand-Deacon’s friend, Constance Lane, reported her missing.

Detectives soon discovered Haigh’s record of theft and fraud and searched the workshop. Police not only found 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. Further investigation of the sludge at the workshop by the pathologist Keith Simpson revealed three human gallstones and part of a denture which was later identified by Mrs Durand-Deacon's dentist during the trial and conviction.[10]

Questioned by Detective Inspector Albert Webb, Haigh asked him "Tell me, frankly, what are the chances of anybody being released from Broadmoor?" (a high security psychiatric hospital). 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.

Trial and execution

After arrest, Haigh remained in custody in Cell 2 of Horsham Police Station when it was in Barttelot Road. He was charged with murder at the nearby courthouse in what is now known as the Old Town Hall. Haigh pleaded insanity, claiming that he had drunk the blood of his victims. However, he had previously asked a police officer "What are the chances of getting out of Broadmoor"?[11]

The Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross KC, (later Lord Shawcross) led for the prosecution at Lewes Assizes, and urged the jury to reject Haigh’s defence of insanity because he had acted with malice aforethought.

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe KC, defending, called many witnesses to attest to Haigh’s mental state, including Dr Henry Yellowlees who claimed Haigh had a paranoid constitution, adding: "The absolute callous, cheerful, bland and almost friendly indifference of the accused to the crimes which he freely admits having committed is unique in my experience."

It took only minutes for the jury to find Haigh guilty. Mr Justice Travers Humphreys sentenced him to death.[12]

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, or, if it did, the request was denied. Haigh was led to the gallows and hanged by executioner Albert Pierrepoint on 10 August 1949.

The case of John George Haigh was one of the post-1945 cases which gained much media coverage at the time. Along with the case of Neville Heath, it attracted a great deal of coverage in the newspapers even though Haigh's guilt (as with Heath) was not questioned. In the case of Haigh, it was also the method of disposal which has given him his place in criminal history. The editor of the Daily Mirror, Silvester Bolam, was sentenced to a prison term for contempt of court for describing Haigh as a "murderer" while the trial was still under way.[13]

Haigh's confirmed victims

  • William Donald McSwan, 9 September 1944
  • Donald McSwan, 2 July 1945
  • Amy McSwan, 2 July 1945
  • Archibald Henderson, 12 February 1948
  • Rosalie Henderson, 12 February 1948
  • Olive Henrietta Robarts Durand-Deacon, 18 February 1949

In popular culture

  • The Haigh case was dramatized in the episode "The Jar of Acid" on the 1951 radio series The Black Museum.
  • The role of Haigh is played by Martin Clunes in the ITV drama A is for Acid.
  • Nigel Fairs played Haigh in the Big Finish audio drama In Conversation with an Acid Bath Murderer (2011), which he also wrote. The cast included Richard Franklin as "Archie Henderson", Mandi Symonds as "Olive Durand-Deacon" and Louise Jameson (who also directed) as "Rose Henderson".[14]
  • A waxwork of Haigh featured in an episode of the British comedy series Psychoville. The waxwork (along with others of Albert DeSalvo, John Christie and Jack the Ripper) comes to life in a fantasy sequence, trying to persuade the character David Sowerbutts to kill a man using sulfuric acid, rather than methods suggested by the other waxworks. The Christie waxwork mentions, disparagingly, that while he had been portrayed in film by Sir Richard Attenborough, Haigh had been portrayed by Martin Clunes.

See also

Murder conviction without a body


  1. ^ Ramsland, K. (2006). "John George Haigh: a malingerer's legacy". The Forensic Examiner 15 (4). 
  2. ^ New Criminologist archives (April 2006). "John George Haigh – 'The Acid Bath Murderer'". New Criminologist.  Archive extract published 11/10/2008.
  3. ^ "John George Haigh – Acid Bath Killer". Bedlam Asylum Crime Files. 
  4. ^ Edward Ramsden Hall v. Evelyn Muriel Hall, John Haigh & Jose Augusto Marques DaSilva, J 77/2905/9897 The National Archives, Kew (Divorce Court 1931).
  5. ^ Ambler, Eric (1964). The Ability to Kill. London: Four Square. pp. 14. 
  6. ^ James H. Hodge (ed.), Famous Trials 6, Penguin, 1962, 183
  7. ^ Inflated values automatically calculated.
  8. ^ Radin, Edward D. (2008). The Deadly Reasons. Wildside Press LLC. ISBN 1434464687. 
  9. ^ . Volume 78 of Notable British trials, W. Hodge. 1953. The trial of John George Haigh: (The acid bath murder). 
  10. ^ Harry Paul Jeffers. Bloody business: an anecdotal history of Scotland Yard. Barnes & Noble. p. 194. ISBN 0760712174. 
  11. ^ Wilson & Pitman 1984, p. 293
  12. ^ Humphreys, Sir (Richard Somers) Travers Christmas on the website of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Subscription or UK public library membership required)
  13. ^ Roy Greenslade (2004). Press gang: how newspapers make profits from propaganda. Pan Macmillan. p. 40. ISBN 0330393766. 
  14. ^ [1]
  • The Times, court reports, 9 and 26 March 1949; 29 July 1949; 19 January 1951.
  • Wilson, Colin; Patricia Pitman (1984). Encyclopedia of Murder. London: Pan Books. ISBN 0330283006. 
  • [2]

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