John George Haigh: The Acid Bath Murderer

John George Haigh was one of a number of notorious serial killers who stalked the bomb cratered streets of post-war London and other cities but unlike the sadist Neville Heath and the necrophiliac John Reginald Christie, Haigh’s motivation for murder were always financial.

He was born on 24 July 1907, in Stamford, Lincolnshire, but was raised in the village of Outward, West Yorkshire.

His parents, Amy and John, were committed members of the Plymouth Brethren, a strict nonconformist, evangelical religious sect that similar to its puritan forebears spurned all forms of entertainment. As such, the young John’s upbringing was unusual to say the least, the family home was fenced off from its neighbours, music and the radio were banned, and the playing of games frowned upon. Even the reading of newspapers and books wasn’t permitted.

Not allowed to mix with the other children or participate in sports or any extra-curricular school activity his evenings at home were spent reciting the Bible often in the presence of his parents.

He was taught that all this was necessary because the world outside was evil and that every misdemeanour, either in deed or thought was known by the Lord even before it was committed.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the young John grew into adulthood with little empathy for his fellow man and a callous indifference to the suffering of others.

Despite the limitations placed upon his imagination he proved to be a bright child and won a scholarship to Wakefield Cathedral even being permitted to sing in the choir. But often appearing distracted and disinterested he did not perform well academically and upon leaving school he was apprenticed to a firm of motor engineers.

An inveterate liar he was nonetheless polite, impeccably behaved, and a dapper if somewhat flashy dresser, and surprisingly perhaps given his background charming and a good conversationalist.

He resigned his apprenticeship after just a year to work in a profession more suited to his particular talents – insurance and advertising but he was to be sacked from this along with many other jobs for stealing from petty cash and it wouldn’t be long before he was serving his first prison sentence.

It was becoming increasingly clear that he would never hold down a proper job.

On 6 July 1934, he married Beatrice Hammer, a woman he barely knew but who had been bowled over by his obvious if shallow charms. Just four months after they tied the knot Haigh was jailed for fraud and not long after Beatrice gave birth to a daughter whom under pressure from her husband she gave up for adoption.

Haigh was never to see his child and upon his release from prison only met his wife to inform her that their marriage had never been valid because he was already married to someone else. It was a lie but a convenient one, and he never saw his wife again.

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Haigh, who was in and out of prison for much of the 1930’s in-between times worked as a chauffeur for Donald McSwan who along with his parents ran a chain of Amusement Arcades.

The McSwan’s took a liking to the charming young Haigh who would often be invited to dine with them but he was to leave their employ on the pretext that he’d had the offer of a better job elsewhere.

What he had actually done was set up a fake solicitor’s office with the intention of fleecing his clients. He believed it would make him a fortune instead it earned him a four year prison sentence.

In prison for an extended period of time his mind turned to murder – why work for a living when there were easier ways to feather one’s nest. But the problem with murder is how to dispose of the bodies, he thought. He would dissolve them in sulphuric acid and he experimented upon mice whilst in prison – it worked a treat.

Haigh was released in 1940 as part of the general amnesty for non-violent offenders that followed the outbreak of the Second World War. He continued his criminal activity and was living fairly comfortably in Kensington on the proceeds of a series of financial scams when in 1944 he had a chance encounter with Donald McSwan in The Goat Public House.

McSwan was bowled over as usual by Haigh’s superficial charms and insisted they visit his parents who would be delighted to see him again and over dinner they blithely told him they had recently invested heavily in property.

Haigh saw his opportunity.

On 6 September 1944, Haigh invited Donald McSwan, on some pretext or other, to his basement flat at 79 Gloucester Road. Once there he crushed the unsuspecting McSwan’s skull in with a blunt instrument disposing of the body in a 40 gallon drum of concentrated sulphuric acid.

Returning two days later he found that the body had turned to sludge and poured the remains down the drain.

Donald’s parents soon became concerned that they had not seen or heard from him son for some time and questioned Haigh as to his whereabouts. He told them that Donald had fled to Scotland to avoid being called-up for military service but when the war ended in May 1945, and still nothing was heard from him they began to believe they had been lied to. In particular, they wanted to know why he had the keys to their son’s house.

Haigh was concerned that the McSwan’s, who were by now expressing their suspicions to friends, would report the matter to the police thereby leading to his own arrest. He decided to act.

On 2 July, he lured both John McSwan and his wife Amy to his address at Gloucester Road claiming that Donald was there waiting to meet them. He then killed them both in turn before dissolving their bodies in the same drum that he had used to dispose of their son.

The murder of the McSwan’s netted Haigh some £8,000 as he forged cheques in their name, cashed in their pensions, and sold their property.

But he was an inveterate gambler and it wasn’t long before he was again in need of money.

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On the pretext of buying their house Haigh befriended Dr Archibald Henderson and his wife Rose.

On 12 February 1948, with some difficulty he persuaded Dr Henderson to accompany him to his new workshop in Crawley, East Sussex, where he said he had an exciting new invention to show him that he might like to invest in.

Once there he shot Dr Henderson in the head with the service revolver he had earlier stolen from his home. He then telephoned Rose to tell her that Archibald had fallen ill and that he would pick her up to take her to the hospital.

Instead he took her to his workshop where she met the same fate as her husband. He disposed of their bodies in the now familiar way and told any inquisitive friends that they had left for Australia.

Again he netted around £8,000.

With money in his pocket once more, Haigh could afford to stay at the upmarket Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington where he was popular with his fellow residents even if in such a well-heeled company he was considered somewhat common and a social climber.

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One of the residents he befriended was a 69 year old widow, Olive Durand-Deacon who told him she had an idea for making false nails which if properly marketed she was sure would make a great deal of money. Haigh replied that he was an engineer and could put her idea into production, she should visit his workshop.

She agreed, and on 2 February 1949, they drove to his workshop at 9 Leopold Street where he again shot her in the head. He then stripped the body and placed it in the ever-reliable acid bath; but as it turned out Mrs Durand-Deacon was not as wealthy as he had thought, and frustrated at having wasted his time he was reduced to selling her well-worn fur coat.

But things would get worse for unknown to Haigh, Mrs Durand-Deacon had told her friend Constance Lane that she was spending the day with him. When he returned to the hotel without her Constance confronted Haigh as to her whereabouts, and not receiving a satisfactory answer she reported her friend missing to the police.

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To try and pre-empt any police investigation Haigh also reported her missing saying that he had dropped her off at the hotel alive and well but just a cursory glance at his criminal record was enough for the police to arrest him on the spot and a search of his hotel room found a diary that contained barely disguised descriptions of his activities.

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A visit to his workshop later found 28Ibs of human fat, two gallstones, a plastic handbag, some lipstick, and a set of dentures. The pathologist Keith Simpson stated that he believed the remains to be those of an elderly woman, a belief confirmed by an orthodontist who certified that the dentures found were indeed those of Olive Durand-Deacon, and it was the dentures that would convict him.

Haigh was charged with murder but remained confident of acquittal, however. He told the police:

“Mrs Durand-Deacon no longer exists. I have destroyed her with acid. You can’t prove murder without a body.” He had studied the law, he said, and knew this was so.

But he had misunderstood the legal term “corpus delicti” which refers not to the physical body but the body of the crime.

The case of the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’ as he soon became known was to dominate the press for weeks and Haigh believing he could still cheat the hangman played it for all it was worth telling anyone who was willing to listen that he intended to plead insanity. He even asked if anyone had ever been released or escaped from Broadmoor.

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To emphasise his insanity he made up lurid stories of drinking the blood of his victims, of hearing voices, of being tormented by nightmares, and of having his mind corrupted by warped religion. He even claimed to have murdered many other people.

A psychologist who had interviewed him stated in his defence:

“The absolutely callous, cheerful, bland, even friendly indifference to the crimes he freely admits having committed is almost unique in my experience.”

Despite this Haigh’s plea of insanity was rejected, and it took just 15 minutes for the jury to return with a guilty verdict.

Haigh wrote at how the Judge’s passing of the death sentence had amused him, and requested to be allowed a trial run of his execution it would be interesting, he said, to witness in advance his own death.

The request was denied.

John George Haigh, “the Acid Bath Murderer” was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on 10 August, 1949.

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