John George Haigh was an English serial killer who became known as the Acid Bath Murderer for the disturbing way he disposed of his victims. Here is the dark story behind one of the UK's most infamous murderers.
To the permanent residents, and especially the elderly ladies, at the genteel Onslow Court Hotel, in London's South Kensington, Mr John George Haigh was the epitome of charm and well-bred good manners. At meal times he never failed to acknowledge his fellow guests with a warm smile and the hint of a formal bow as he threaded his way between the separate tables to his own reserved corner of the dining room. In the eyes of the widowed ladies, comfortably, if sometimes tediously, counting off the days in quiet seclusion, he was something of a favourite handsome nephew.
One of these widows, a Mrs Durand-Deacon, was already enjoying a growing friendship with the 39-year-old, and apparently successful, self-employed engineer. They occupied adjoining tables and, as a result of mutual confidence, Haigh already knew a good deal about her. Olive Henrietta Helen Olivia Robarts Durand-Deacon was 69, a well-preserved, well-dressed, buxom woman, who was a devoted Christian Scientist and whose late husband - a colonel in the Gloucestershire Regiment - had left her a legacy of some £40,000.
She was not the sort of person who could spend her final years in total idleness. To amuse herself, and add to her capital, she had made some paper designs of artificial fingernails which, she hoped, could be manufactured in plastic. To her delight, the kindly Mr Haigh suggested that he might be able to help, and they could choose the materials at his factory at Crawley, in Sussex.
On the afternoon of Friday, February 18, 1949, Haigh drove Mrs Durand-Deacon the 30 miles south to Crawley in his Alvis car, and at around four o'clock they were seen together in the George Hotel. From the hotel they went to a small factory in Leopold Road, Crawley - a factory that Haigh did not own, as he had said, but where he was allowed the use of a storeroom for his "experimental engineering" work.
There in the factory, he had made elaborate preparations for Mrs Durand-Deacon's visit. He had bought a carboy of sulphuric acid and a 45-gallon drum specially lined to hold corrosive chemicals. He had laid out, on a bench, a stirrup pump, of the type used for firefighting during the days of the German air raids on Britain, gloves, and a rubber apron.
It was strange equipment to assemble for what was supposed to be a discussion about artificial fingernails. But, whatever Mrs Durand-Deacon might have thought, that was not the purpose for which Haigh had brought her to the deserted workshop.
As the elderly widow turned her back to him to search in her handbag for her paper designs, Haigh slipped a revolver from his coat pocket and killed her with a single shot through the nape of the neck, Stooping beside the body he took a knife, made an incision in an artery, gathered a few inches of the still-coursing blood in a glass, and drank it at a gulp.
Haigh then began the real work for which he had lured his victim to the factory. He stripped the body and carefully placed on one side the widow's Persian lamb coat, rings, necklace, ear-rings, and a cruciform, which had hung around the neck. That done, he moved to the second part of his plan, in which he had the benefit of previous experience: the disposal of the body by dissolving it in acid.
His own later description of the operation illustrated the workmanlike way in which this 10-stone murderer put his 15-stone victim into an acid bath.
He took an anticorrosive drum, or barrel, as he called it, laid it down length-ways on the floor "and with minimum effort pushed the head and shoulders in. I then tipped the barrel up by placing my feet on the forward edge and grasping the top of the barrel with my gloved hands. By throwing my weight backwards the barrel containing the body rocked to a vertical position fairly easily and I found I could raise a 15-stone body easily.
"You may think that a 40-gallon drum standing only four feet high would be too small for such a body, but my experiments showed that as the drum tipped, the body slumped down to the shoulders and the legs disappeared below the surface of the drum."
Having stowed the body neatly in the drum, Haigh poured in the sulphuric acid ("the question of getting the right amount was only learned by experience," he later explained) and then added more to make up the correct solution by pumping it in with the stirrup pump. When that was done, he had to wait until, slowly, the acid destroyed every trace of the body.
Tired after his efforts, however, Haigh left the workshop, slipped into his car, and drove to Ye Olde Ancient Priors Restaurant, in Crawley. There he ordered a pot of tea and poached eggs on toast which he consumed with relish while exchanging good-natured banter with Mr Outram, the proprietor.
Since this was the beginning of a weekend, during which the small factory would be closed, Haigh left the body in its dreadful bath and returned to the Onslow Court Hotel. There, at breakfast the following morning, Mrs Durand-Deacon's absence was noticed by some of the other guests - and particularly by a Mrs Constance Lane who was a close friend of hers.
To Haigh's alarm, it transpired that Mrs Lane had known of his proposed visit to Crawley with Mrs Durand-Deacon. While he had been fetching his car, the previous afternoon, the two women had met in the hotel lounge and Mrs Durand-Deacon had told her friend about her imminent "business trip".
For Haigh, it was a devastating piece of information. The masterstroke in his plan had been his expectation that Mrs Durand-Deacon would want to keep the promising deal over the artificial fingernails a "company secret". Furthermore, at his suggestion, they had met for the start of their journey to Crawley not outside the hotel, but by the entrance to a large London store, some little distance away in Victoria Street. His subtle plan had now been undermined by Mrs Lane's knowledge, and Haigh knew he would be involved in the questions following Mrs Durand-Deacon's disappearance.
With his nagging fears locked within him, he spent a busy Saturday putting into practice the purpose for which he had murdered the avaricious widow. In the course of a journey that took him to South London, Surrey, and Sussex, he disposed of Mrs Durand-Deacon's jewellery for around £150. Her Persian lamb coat - which was blood-stained and not yet ready to realize its secondhand purchase price of £50 - he left for cleaning at a shop in Reigate. But, since Haigh had pressing debts - including £350 to a bookmaker - which he could no longer avoid paying, his total "gain" was a reduction of his bank overdraft to £78.
Death had brought the blood-drinking criminal little financial profit. By the next day, it seemed certain that it would bring him catastrophic personal loss. For Mrs Lane, now thoroughly disturbed by her friend's failure to return, insisted that she and Haigh should go to the police and make out a missing person report. Haigh had no choice but to agree, attempting outwardly to express a "correct" measure of solicitude and concern.
The report he made, at Chelsea Police Station, appeared plausible enough. He had arrived at the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street, on Friday at 2.30, to keep his prearranged appointment with Mrs Durand-Deacon. When, an hour later, she had failed to arrive he assumed her plans had changed and drove down to Crawley alone. He was thanked for his assistance and returned with Mrs Lane to the Onslow Court Hotel - still a free man and still not under official suspicion.
But the last grains of sand in his criminal hourglass were flowing fast, and female Police-Sergeant Alexandra Maude Lambourne helped to speed them on their way. She was sent to the hotel to gather additional information about the missing widow; but, unlike the elderly guests at Onslow Court, she did not succumb to Haigh's glib tongue and superficial charm. On the contrary, her combination of police experience and feminine intuition aroused a vague but nevertheless persistent feeling of suspicion.
After talking to Haigh she returned to Chelsea Police Station and wrote a report to Divisional Detective Inspector Shelley Symes in which she said: "Apart from the fact that I do not like the man Haigh, with his mannerisms, I have a sense that he is 'wrong' and that there may be a case behind the whole business."
Detective Inspector Symes respected her judgment sufficiently to ask Scotland Yard's Criminal Record Office to check on whether there was, in the British police phrase, "any thing known" about John George Haigh. Within a few hours they learned that something was "known", and that Haigh had served three prison sentences - two for fraud and one for theft.
On Saturday, February 26, the police forced an entry into the storeroom attached to the Crawley factory and found the stirrup pump, carboys of acid, and a rubber apron bearing traces of blood. From a holster they took a .38 Webley revolver which, after being tested by a firearms expert, was shown to have been recently fired.
Haigh was then "invited" back to the police station to answer further questions. However, before many had been put to him, he, himself, asked one which was to set the pattern of subsequent events.
"Tell me Frankly," he asked his interogators. "What are the chances of anybody being released from Broadmoor?"
Realizing he hoped to gain "sanctuary" in the notorious asylum for the criminally insane, the detectives refused to answer him. Haigh then drew heavily on the cigarette he was smoking and said dramatically: "If I tell you the truth you would not believe it. It sounds too fantastic."
Having thus set the scene he continued:
"I will tell you all about it. Mrs Durand-Deacon no longer exists. She has disappeared completely and no trace of her can ever be found again. I have destroyed her with acid. You will find the sludge that remains at Leopold Road, Crawley. Every trace has gone. How can you prove murder if there is no body? I shot her in the back of the head. Then I went out to the car and fetched a drinking glass and made an incision. I think with a penknife, in the side of the throat and collected a glass of blood which I then drank."
Two days after putting the body into the acid drum Haigh returned to Crawley, he said, "to find the reaction almost complete" with nothing left of the body but a residue composed of the chemically reduced remains of flesh and bone.
"I emptied the sludge with a bucket and tipped it on to the ground opposed the store room," Haigh explained in careful detail. Then he added: "I should have said that after putting her in the tank and pouring in the acid I went round to the Ancient Priors for tea."
Once more the police returned to Crawley and dug up and removed the patch of soil on to which Haigh said he had emptied the "sludge". When this was methodically sifted and examined at Scortland Yard's laboratory, it became clear that Haigh's assertion that no trace of Mrs Durand-Deacon would ever be found was ill-based.
Among the 28lbs of melted body fat, the pathologists found 18 fragments of human bone, partly eroded by acid but still sufficiently preserved to exhibit traces of arthritis - and this pointed to the victim having been an elderly person. In addition, a piece of hipbone was positively identified as female. But, most decisive of all, upper and lower dentures were discovered in an undamaged state, and were proved to have been made for Mrs Durand-Deacon.
Even though Haigh had failed to "completely erase" the widow's body, his work looked like that of someone experienced in acid baths and killings. Indeed, the police soon learned that he had murdered and similarly disposed of five previous victims in recent years. The first was William Donald McSwann, a young amusement arcade operator, killed in 1944, whose mother and father Haigh shortly afterwards also dispatched. The others were a doctor and his wife, Archibald and Rosalie Henderson, done to death and destroyed in February 1948.
In each case, Haigh acquired the money and other property of his victims by highly skilful forgery. Long after their acid burned remains had been buried, he wrote business and private letters in impeccable facsimiles of their handwriting, successfully staving off inquiries from relatives and friends.
In a letter postmarked Glasgow, Haigh wrote in a forged hand to Mrs Henderson's housekeeper in London:
"Dear Daisy: We are going to South Africa. Mr John Haigh has the property now and you will hear from my brother, Arnold Burlin. I want to thank you for the splendid help you have always been and I am sure you must have been while we have been away. If you would like to write, our address until we settle down will be c/o the GPO, Durban, South Africa. Shall always be glad to hear from you. Yours Sincerely, Rose Henderson"
In recalling the murders Haigh claimed that "in each case I had my glass of blood after I killed them." It soon became evident that his vampirish ritual would play an important part in his trial - on the charge of murdering Mrs Durand-Deacon - as "proof" of his insanity. He was duly detained on remand at London's Brixton Prison, and it was then that the London Daily Mirror told its 15 million readers of Haigh's supposed activities.
On March 4, 1949, the tabloid appeared with the blazoning front page headline: "Vampire - A Man Held." Underneath, the story began: "The Vampire Killer will never strike again. He is safely behind bars, powerless to lure his victims to a hideous death..."
Silvester Bolam, the then editor of the Mirror, was brought - in the King's Bench Division of the High Court - before Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice, and Judges Humphreys and Birkett and told: "In the long history of this class of case there has, in the opinion of this Court, never been a case approaching such gravity as this one of such a scandalous and wicked character."
Imposing what they described as "severe punishment", the High Court judges sentenced Mr Bolam to three months' imprisonment - in another part of that same jail in which Haigh was being held - and fined the newspaper £10,000, plust the costs of the case.
Once this had been settled, the law once again turned its attention to Haigh. On July 18, 1949, he was put on trial at Lewes, in Sussex. The prosecution was led by Sir Hartley Shawcross, the Attorney-General, and the defence by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe - two eminent lawyers who had earned high international reputations for their work at the trial of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg after World War II.
Despite lengthy legal wrangling over the definition of insanity and the alleged blood-drinking rites, Haigh was found guilty after only a 15-minute retirement by the jury, and sentenced to death.
There were no public expressions of pity for the departed John George Haigh, but there were many of curiosity. How was it, people wondered, that an intelligent boy from a good home should have grown up into such a hideous creature? At the age of 12 he had been an angelic looking choirboy at Wakefield Cathedral, in Yorkshire, and his parents were devoutly religious Plymouth Brethren.
Brand of Satan
While awaiting execution Haigh wrote:
"Although my parents were kind and loving, I had none of the joys, or the companionship, which small children usually have. From my earliest years my recollection is of my father saying: 'Do not' or 'Thou shalt not.' Any form of sport or light entertainment was frowned upon and regarded as not edifying. There was only condemnation and prohibition... It is true to say that I was nurtured on Bible stories but mostly concerned with sacrifice. If by some mischance I did, or said, anything which father regarded as improper, he would say: 'Do not grieve the Lord by behaving so.' And if I suggested that I wanted to go somewhere, or meet somebody, he would say: 'It will not please the Lord.'"
According to the same statement. Haigh's father told him that his mother was, literally, "an angel". So that no outside worldly evil might penetrate the sacred home, the couple had built a high wall around the garden of their tiny house in Outwood, Yorkshire. Mr Haigh, who was a foreman electrician at a nearby colliery, had been struck by a piece of flying coal and, as a result, bore a blue scar on his forehead.
This, the father had explained to the son, was the brand of Satan. "I have sinned and Satan has punished me. If you ever sin, Satan will mark you with a blue pencil likewise." After that, in the night, before sleep came, young John George would pass his fingers, tremulously, across his own forehead to see if he, too, had yet been stamped by Satan's mark.
During his younger days, Haigh asserted, he suffered from dreams in which flowing blood figured prominently. After a car accident in March 1944, in which blood had streamed down his face and into his mouth, the dreams recurred. He explained:
"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. Suddenly the whole forest began to writhe and the trees, stark and erect, to ooze blood... A man went to each tree catching the blood... When the cup was full he approached me, 'Drink,' he said, but I was unable to move."
The dream faded, later to become a waking nightmare for Haigh, and to bring eternal sleep to his victims.
John George Haigh was hanged at Wandsworth Prison by executioner Albert Pierrepoint on August 10, 1949.