John George Haigh

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John George Haigh
Police photograph of John Haigh (1949)
Born (1909-07-24)24 July 1909
Stamford, Lincolnshire, England
Died 10 August 1949(1949-08-10) (aged 40)
Wandsworth Prison, Wandsworth, England
Cause of death
Execution by hanging
Other names The Acid Bath Murderer
Criminal penalty
Motive Profit
Victims 6–9
Span of killings
Country England
Date apprehended

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 used acid not to kill his victims but in what he believed to be a foolproof method of body disposal: he would dissolve their bodies in concentrated sulphuric acid before forging papers to be able 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 meaning of the term corpus delicti, thinking that, if victims' bodies could not be found, 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[edit]

John George Haigh was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire,[2][3] and grew up in the village of Outwood, West Riding of Yorkshire. His parents, John Robert, an engineer, and Emily, née Hudson, 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. 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 sacked after being suspected of stealing from a cash box.

Marriage and imprisonment[edit]

On 6 July 1934, Haigh married the 23-year-old Beatrice 'Betty' Hamer. The marriage soon fell apart. The same year Haigh was gaoled for fraud, Betty gave birth while he was in prison but she gave the baby girl up for adoption and left Haigh. His conservative family ostracised him from that point onwards.

He then moved to London in 1936, and became chauffeur to William McSwan, a wealthy owner of amusement parlours. Additionally, he used his mechanical skills to maintain McSwan's amusement machines. Following that he became a bogus solicitor and received a four-year prison sentence for fraud. Haigh was released just after the start of World War II and continued as a fraudster, and was sentenced to several terms of imprisonment.

While in prison he dreamed up what he considered the perfect murder: being able to destroy the victim's body by dissolving it with sulphuric acid. He experimented with mice[4] and found it took only 30 minutes for the body to disappear.[5]

The "Acid Bath" murders[edit]

John Haigh 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 gone into hiding 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 (£300,000 in 2015, when adjusted for inflation)[6] – 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 murdered 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. Haigh was also known to have stayed at The George Hotel, Crawley, on several occasions.[7][8] 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).

Last victim and capture[edit]

Haigh's next and last victim was Olive 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 Leopold Road workshop on 18 February 1949, and once inside he shot her in the back of the neck with a .38 calibre Webley revolver [9] , 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[edit]

After arrest, Haigh remained in custody in Cell 2 of Horsham Police Station when it was in Barttelot Road.[11] He was charged with murder at the nearby courthouse in what is now known as the Old Town Hall.[12] Haigh pleaded insanity, claiming that he had drunk the blood of his victims. He confessed to having dreams dominated by blood as a young boy. When he was involved in an auto accident in March 1944, his dream returned to him: "I saw before me a forest of crucifixes which gradually turned into trees. At first, there appeared to be dew or rain, dripping from the branches, but as I approached I realized it was blood. The whole forest began to writhe and the trees, dark and erect, to ooze blood...A man went from each tree catching the blood...When the cup was full, he approached me. 'Drink,' he said, but I was unable to move." [13] However, as stated above he had previously asked a police officer, "What are the chances of getting out of Broadmoor?"[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

Haigh's confirmed victims[edit]

  • The McSwan family:
    • William Donald McSwan (9 September 1944)
    • Donald and Amy McSwan (2 July 1945)
  • The Henderson family:
    • Archibald and Rosalie Henderson (12 February 1948)
  • Henrietta Helen Olive Robarts Durand-Deacon, née Fargus (18 February 1949)

In popular culture[edit]

  • The Haigh case was dramatised in the episode "The Jar of Acid" on the 1951 radio series The Black Museum.
  • A fictionalised version of Haigh appears as a boss character in the video game, Clock Tower 3.
  • Appears in a vision to psychopathic manchild David Sowerbutts in black comedy Psychoville.

See also[edit]


  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 RAcid Bath Murderer'". New Criminologist.  Archive extract published 11/10/2008.
  3. ^ "John George Haigh – Acid Bath Killer". Bedlam Asylum Crime Files. 
  4. ^ Ambler, Eric (1964). The Ability to Kill. London: Four Square. p. 14. 
  5. ^ James H. Hodge (ed.), Famous Trials 6, Penguin, 1962, 183
  6. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2014), "What Were the British Earnings and Prices Then? (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  7. ^ Radin, Edward D. (2008). The Deadly Reasons. Wildside Press LLC. ISBN 1-4344-6468-7. 
  8. ^ . Volume 78 of Notable British trials, W. Hodge. 1953 [The trial of John George Haigh: (The acid bath murder) The trial of John George Haigh: (The acid bath murder)].  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. ^ Hall, Angus (1976). Crimes of Horror. Phoebus Publishing. p. 6. 
  10. ^ Jeffers, Harry Paul. Bloody business: an anecdotal history of Scotland Yard. Barnes & Noble. p. 194. ISBN 0-7607-1217-4. 
  11. ^ "Sussex Police Headquarters, Old Police Station, Barttelot Road". Hidden Horsham. Retrieved 2012-12-16. 
  12. ^ "Old Town Hall, Market Square". Hidden Horsham. Retrieved 2012-12-16. 
  13. ^ Hall, Angus (1976). Crimes of Horror. Phoebus Publishing. p. 12. 
  14. ^ Wilson & Pitman 1984, p. 293
  15. ^ "Humphreys, Sir (Richard Somers) Travers Christmas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34053.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  16. ^ Greenslade, Roy (2004). Press gang: how newspapers make profits from propaganda. Pan Macmillan. p. 40. ISBN 0-330-39376-6. 
  17. ^ IMDB
  18. ^ Radio Times
  19. ^ "1.3. In Conversation With an Acid Bath Murderer - Drama Showcase". Big Finish. Retrieved 2012-12-16. 


  • The Times, court reports, 9 and 26 March 1949; 29 July 1949; 19 January 1951.
  • Wilson, Colin; Pitman, Patricia (1984). Encyclopedia of Murder. London: Pan Books. ISBN 0-330-28300-6. 

External links[edit]