John George Haigh: The Acid Bath Murderer

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John George Haigh: The Acid Bath Murderer

John George Haigh


Perhaps the most common problem encountered by murderers is the disposal of the body. In a hugger-mugger isle such as Britain, it is rare indeed for a body to go undiscovered, regardless of the measures taken. In fact, it sometimes seems that finding a corpse is an occupational hazard for dog-walkers.

John George Haigh took the matter very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the precise number of his victims remains unknown. His grisly soubriquet 'the acid bath murderer' hints at the method of disposal, but this strange, outwardly respectable man harboured a full range of unsavoury deviancies.

Haigh's parents belonged to a religious sect of particular zeal: The Plymouth Brethren. Sports were forbidden and the only form of 'entertainment' allowed was reading the Bible. For most of the first 24 years of his life, young John Haigh lived his life in practical seclusion in the quiet Wakefield suburb of Outwood - his father extolling the "evil" of the world outside. Later in life, Haigh would claim that his dreams around this time became infected with fantastical visions, and that he developed the belief that he was invincible when he discovered that lies did not actually bring down damnation from God.

He was, however, the supreme manipulator and liar so whether his childhood was as tortured as he later liked to claim will never be known. He certainly showed enough intellectual aptitude to win a scholarship to "Queggs" (The Queen Elizabeth Grammar School) in Wakefield and his musical skills were sufficient for him to also join the choir at Wakefield Cathedral. Clearly the picture he later painted sat slightly uneasily with this outward skein of normality.

Leaving school, he soon fell into petty larceny - fired from his job on suspicion of stealing from the petty cash, and named as a co-respondant in a divorce case. He married briefly and fathered a child who was born when he was serving time for fraud - lying to his wife that the marriage was invalid because he was already married (he wasn't) and seeing his son on just one occasion before he was given up for adoption.

By his mid 20s, his experience in gaining financial advantage through fraud had led him to believe that pursuing older, wealthier women could be the shortcut to riches. While in prison and working in the prison metalshop, he had conducted 'experiments' on mice with acid - discovering the effect that sufficiently strong acid had on flesh. Clearly, whatever mental aberrations may have afflicted Haigh, his plans were coalescing into the form that his modus operandi would eventually take.

The first stage was to isolate the victim from any familiarity around them (escorting them to his "workshop", which was nothing more than an adjacent room next to a factory). In all of the cases, his victims were always led under a pretence of discovery, which was based upon his initial friendship established with each of them. Put quite simply, they had absolutely no reason to suspect Haigh of performing anything unusual, until it was too late.

The next stage was to cleanly render his target incapable of responding to his attack, via the use of a .38 Webley revolver. He concealed the gun upon his person once he had coaxed his intended target inside his workshop. Then Haigh would seize any opportunity to kill the victim with as little effort as possible on his part.

Finally, was the disposal of the body using vats of industrial acid. It was Haigh's mistaken belief that a corpse could be completely disposed of via the acid. Unfortunately for Haigh, certain parts of the human body are more resilient than most people realise, either by their very nature (such as teeth and bone) and artificial items (such as false teeth) and are usually picked up as trace evidence by forensic experts. Haigh's false assumption that murder could not be proved without the body was to have lead to his downfall.
One other key element in all the murders is the violations performed on the victims in the consumption of blood. No evidence of this was ever adduced, and many suspect that Haigh claimed this in a bid to be declared insane and thus avoid the hangman's noose.

Though the murders were very important to Haigh, he also saw the need to sustain himself financially, and would thus strip the body of any valuables that he could use himself (things such as jewellery, and ration cards which he later used for himself). These would later be found at his home, which provided further damning evidence against him.

Suspected by some of killing up to 15 people, he was eventually charged with just six murders - although he himself claimed his tally to be 9. 

  • 9th September 1944 William McSwan, Gloucester Road, Chelsea
  • 1945 Donald and Amy McSwan  Gloucester Road
  • February 1948 Dr Archibald Henderson, and his wife Rosalie, in Crawley
  • 18th February 1949 Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, in Crawley
He was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in 1949.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 3rd September 2014 | © Weird Island 2010-2020
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