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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, England, UK
Died: 10 August 1949 (aged 40)
Wandsworth Prison, Wandsworth, England, UK
Cause of death: Execution by hanging
Number of victims: 6 or 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 a total of nine, 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 murder conviction would not be possible. The substantial forensic evidence beyond the absence of his victims' bodies was sufficient for him to be convicted for the murders and subsequently executed.[1]


Early life

Haigh was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire,[2][3][4] and grew up in the village of Outwood, West Yorkshire. His parents, John and Emily, were members of the Plymouth Brethren. 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.

Haigh won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield. 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 was removed over 20 years ago. 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[5].

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.

He then moved to London in 1936, and became chauffeur to William McSwan, the wealthy owner of an amusement park. 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.

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[6] and found it took only 30 minutes for the body to disappear.[7]

The "Acid Bath" murders

He was freed in 1944 and became an accountant with an engineering firm. Soon after, by chance, he bumped into 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 McSwann'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 today) — 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 in Leopold Road Crawley, West Sussex, and moved acid and drums there from Gloucester Road. 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.

After disposing of the bodies in acid he forged a letter from the Hendersons and sold all of their possessions (except their dog, which he kept in a pre-filled 10 gallon drum of acid) for £8,000. This 1948 amount (the previous £8,000 mentioned above was worth more due to post-war deflation) is the equivalent of £216 thousand today.

Last victim and capture

Haigh's next and last victim was Olive Durand-Deacon, 69, a widow and fellow resident at the Onslow Court. 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

It was reported that Haigh, in the condemned cell at Wandsworth Prison, asked one of his gaolers, 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.

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
  • Sadie Scott,18 March 1942

Television and radio dramatisations

  • The Haigh case was dramatised on the BBC radio series The Black Museum in 1952 under the title of The Jar of Acid.
  • John George Haigh is frequently mentioned in the 2009 BBC television series Psychoville as one of David Sowerbutt's favourite serial killers.


  1. ^ Ramsland, K. (2006). John George Haigh: a malingerer's legacy in The Forensic Examiner Vol 15 Iss 4
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ [3]
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ambler, Eric (1964). The Ability to Kill. London: Four Square. pp. 14. 
  7. ^ James H. Hodge (ed.), Famous Trials 6, Penquin, 1962, 183
  • The Times, court reports, 9 and 26 March 1949; 29 July 1949; 19 January 1951.

External links

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