Date Of Execution: 10 Aug 1949
Execution Place: Wandsworth
Executioner: Albert Pierrepoint
John George Haigh, the "acid-bath murderer", at Wandsworth.
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. 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.
Haigh was born on 24th July 1909 at Stamford in Lincolnshire. He was brought up in Outwood, Yorkshire, where his ultra-religious, Plymouth Brethren father was a colliery foreman. He left school at seventeen and was apprenticed for a time to a motor engineer. He left home and on the 6th July 1934 he got married.
Not wanting to work for someone else he started in business for himself by forging vehicle documents. He was soon brought to justice for this and he received fifteen months at Leeds Assizes in November 1934. His wife divorced him and, on his release he started a dry-cleaning business with a partner. This was quite a successful venture, until his partner was killed in a car crash and the business collapsed.
He moved to London in 1936 where he was able to get a job as chauffeur to the McSwann family but discovered another swindle that, at Surrey Assizes in November 1937, cost him four years' penal servitude. Released in August 1940 he was back inside within a year, doing twenty-one months for stealing. It was plain to see even at this early time that he was never going to earn an honest living. This time on his release he became a salesman for a firm in Crawley, an occupation he followed until 1944.
In the summer of 1944 he happened to bump into William Donald McSwann who he had first met in 1936. On 9th September 1944 the two men went for a drink at The Goat in Kensington High Street. They then went to 79 Gloucester Road, where Haigh had a workshop. Here Haigh smashed McSwann's skull and put his body in a water-butt that he had filled with acid. He then went around to see McSwann's parents, with whom he got quite well with, and told them that their son had gone into hiding to avoid the call-up. He was able to maintain this deception, by sending the couple letters purporting to be from their son, until July 1945 when he murdered the McSwanns and disposed of their bodies in the same way.
Acting as William McSwann he managed to obtain legal control of all their possessions and sold everything, making over £4,000 in the process, which in 1945 was a great deal of money .
In 1947 he met a couple named Henderson during a property deal. In February 1948 he took them, one at a time, from the Metropole Hotel, Brighton, where they lived, to his new workshop in Crawley. Here he shot them and popped them in the now familiar drum full of acid. He paid their hotel bill and removed all their valuables.
By February 1949 Haigh had been living in the Onslow Court Hotel, South Kensington, for four years. One of the other residents was Mrs Olive Henrietta Olivia Robarts Durand-Deacon. She was a 69-year-old widow who had lived at the hotel for over six years. The two often exchanged pleasantries at mealtimes and Haigh had told her that he was an engineer and inventor. At lunch on the 14th February, Mrs Durand-Deacon showed Haigh some false fingernails that she had designed and asked Haigh if could improve the idea to a product that would be marketable. He told her that he would think about it.
On the 18th the two of them drove to Haigh's ramshackle workshop in Crawley in his Alvis. Here he shot her in the back of the head and, after removing her jewellery and fur coat, put her body in a 45-gallon corrosion resistive drum and filled up the tank with sulphuric acid. He returned to Onslow Court Hotel and ate a three-course dinner.
The next day, Saturday, guests at the hotel, who were getting anxious about the absence of Mrs Durand-Deacon from breakfast, asked Haigh if he knew of her whereabouts. He told them that he had arranged to meet her but that she had failed to turn up for their appointment. By the Sunday, it was obvious that something was wrong. Haigh approached Mrs Lane, who had shown concern the day before, and asked if anything had been heard from the missing woman. Mrs Lane told him that she had had no news and that she intended going to the police that afternoon. Haigh offered to accompany her and drove her to Chelsea police station. The policewoman, Sergeant Lambourne, was suspicious of Haigh from the start.
On Monday, Scotland Yard's Record Office was contacted and Haigh's criminal record came to light. Haigh had driven to Crawley that morning and emptied the sludge from the tank onto the ground outside the workshop. He had then gone to Horsham and had Mrs Durand-Deacon's jewellery valued. When he returned to the hotel the police were waiting for him. He gave them a statement re-iterating his story about the missed appointment.
Thursday saw the police back at Onslow Court Hotel for another statement from Haigh, which was largely the same as his first statement but with a few extra details. Saturday 26th February and the police visited the workshop at Crawley. The door to the workshop was forced and the detectives noted the rubber apron, gas mask and empty carboys. They also found a recently fired .38 Enfield revolver and a dry-cleaning receipt for a black Persian lamb coat.
At 4.15pm on Monday 28th February, Detective Inspector Albert Webb was waiting at Onslow Court when Haigh returned. Webb took Haigh back to Chelsea police station to 'assist them with their enquiries.' Later that night he confessed to Webb saying, 'I've destroyed her with acid. You'll find the sludge that remains at Leopold Road. Every trace has gone. How can you prove murder if there's no body?' He went on to add the McSwanns and the Hendersons to his confession, claiming that he had killed them all so that he could drink their blood.
On Tuesday 1st March, Home Office pathologist, Dr Keith Simpson examined the Crawley workshop. He found bloodstains on the walls and a hat-pin at the bottom of the 45-gallon drum. After Dr Simpson had noticed a gall stone in the sludge in the yard all the residue was collected and taken to the police laboratory. Here it was processed and it produced a list that included 28lb of animal fat, part of a foot, two more gall stones and a full set of dentures. These, once identified by Mrs Durand-Deacon's dentist, sealed Haigh's fate.
Haigh was charged with the murder of Mrs Durand-Deacon on 2nd March and removed to Lewes Prison. His trial began at Lewes Assizes on 18th July 1949 and finished the following afternoon. It took the jury seventeen minutes to find him guilty. He was hanged by Pierrepoint at Wandsworth on 10th August 1949.