In 1949, John George Haigh burst into the headlines as an inhuman monster who had been killing for profit for many years. According to his own confession, the mass murderer had dissolved his victims in acid after drinking their blood. Though some British newspapers seized upon the morbid curiosity of their readers - describing him as a vampire and gleefully repeating his colourful accounts of the crimes - Haigh was a cunning, predatory criminal who tried to cheat the hangman by feigning insanity.
Born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, England, on July 24th, 1909, Haigh was raised with strict religious discipline. His parents were ardent members of the Plymouth Brethren - a severe religious sect for whom all manner of casual entertainment, movies, carnivals, musical shows, even the reading of magazines and newspapers, was sinful.
A bright child, Haigh received a scholarship to the Wakefield Grammar School and then won another scholarship as a choirboy at Wakefield Cathedral. His life was governed by rigid routines and he was allowed no freedom to enjoy the small entertainments shared by his peers. Though the Plymouth Brethren desired to isolate their children from corrupting influences, such unrealistic and oppressive restrictions probably succeeded in inspiring as much rebellion as piety. Aleister Crowely - the black magician known as The Great Beast - was brought up by wealthy parents who belonged to the sect; like Haigh, he spent his adult life deliberately breaking social rules and seeking pleasures.
Haigh scratched for a living in his early twenties, usually working as a salesman. He was a good talker and made an effort to dress well (though he leaned towards gaudy or flashy clothes which marked him as being not quite a gentleman). He married Beatrice Hamer in 1934; their relationship quickly collapsed after Haigh was arrested in November of that year for fraud.
After serving a brief prison sentence, Haigh continued his illegal schemes; living hand to mouth through the 1930s. In 1936, he worked for a businessman called W.D. McSwan as a secretary and chauffeur. He evidently left without leaving any scams or ill-feelings in his wake, for when he met Mr McSwan and Amy, his wife again about eight years later, they trusted him and he was able to lead them to their deaths.
In 1937, Haigh was convicted of his second serious crime - attempting to obtain money by false pretences; he received four years in jail. The arrival of war caused the authorities to grant early release to many non-violent offenders. In 1940 he was set free; but the penal system had done nothing to alter his attitudes. Small-time swindles gave him a steady income; by 1943, these illegal profits enabled him take up residence at a highly reputable address - the Onslow Court Hotel in South Kensington (London) where he occupied Room 404.
The other paying guests were respectable, well-heeled professional people and retired persons of some wealth. Most of them regarded Haigh as a congenial entrepreneurial businessman. However, he made few friends because he was a bit too gregarious and showy to really fit into their social circles.
In 1944, Haigh renewed his acquaintance with the McSwan family. The McSwans owned an amusement arcade and had considerable means. At the time Haigh rented a small basement workroom at 79 Gloucester Road in Kensington (some sources place the building on Leopold Road) where he allegedly devoted time to his "inventions." On September 9th, 1944, He took his former employers son Donald to his workshop and killed him. The murder was carefully planned - having bludgeoned his victim with a club (or a similar weapon), Haigh then destroyed the body in a vat of acid. When bone and flesh had been reduced to a sludge-like mess, he poured the gooey residue onto the dirt surface of an open yard behind the building.
Haigh spent Donald McSwans cash and converted his assets to his own use via forgery. A year later, Mr. and Mrs. McSwan expressed concern over their son's disappearance. Haigh was ready with a glib answer; he explained that Donald had gone into hiding to avoid being drafted into the army, a not uncommon desire during wartime. The couple were grateful for Haighs apparent kindness; they accepted an invitation to see the workshop. There they met their deaths in exactly the same way as Donald.
By forging names on transfer deeds, Haigh was able to obtain the McSwan properties in Raynes Park, Wimbledon Park, and Beckenham, Kent, as well as £4,000 in cash. Haigh now had considerable funds; he tried to make even more money with a betting system hed devised. He believed it could predict regular winners at the dog track. However, he lost heavily and decided to restore his fortunes by turning again to murder for profit.
This time his victims were Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife Rosalie - well-to-do middle-aged retirees. In August 1947, they advertised a house in Ladbroke Grove for sale. Haigh, though he had no money, began negotiating for the purchase of the property. He later explained that one of his business deals had fallen through, preventing him from purchasing the house immediately.
The amiable Hendersons struck up a friendship with the scheming Haigh. On February 12th, 1948, he drove Dr. Henderson to his workshop where he shot him in the head and disposed of the body by dumping it into a vat of sulphuric acid. He then returned to Mrs. Henderson and told her that her husband had taken sick and needed her. She accompanied Haigh to his workshop where she met the same lethal fate as her husband. In both the McSwan and Henderson murders, Haigh emulated his victims' handwriting and sent notes to their servants, relatives and friends; he explained that they had moved to Australia or some other distant place, mentioning that "Mr. Haigh" would settle their affairs.
The profits from this double murder exceeded those in the McSwan killings. Haigh, through clever forgeries, sold off the Hendersons house and car; he also obtained more than £10,000 from their bank accounts. But, within a year, he had lost most of this money to an army of bookies.
By early 1949, Haighs financial situation was bleak. He was overdrawn at the bank and the manager of the Onslow Court Hotel was pressing him for back rent. Desperate for money, Haigh looked about for more victims. His needs were answered in the dining room of the hotel. Sitting opposite Haigh when he ate there was a wealthy, retired matron, Mrs. Henrietta Helen Olivia Robarts Durand-Deacon. The 69-year-old widow knew that Haigh was then in the business of leasing and renting expensive cars to rich patrons and believed that, as a salesman, he might be interested in promoting an idea she had about manufacturing plastic fingernails.
Haigh responded favourably to the idea and immediately suggested that Mrs. Durand-Deacon discuss the proposition further in his workshop. On February 18th, 1949, Mrs. Durand-Deacon accompanied him to the Gloucester Road address. As soon as she entered the basement premises, Haigh shot her in the back of the head, killing her instantly. He stripped her and dumped her body into a 40-gallon vat of sulphuric acid. Haigh drained the receptacle through a basement sewer; afterwards, he scraped the sludge from the vat and dumped this onto the dirt of the back yard. This was hard work and Haigh, according to his later statements, paused to go to the nearby Ye Olde Ancient Prior's Restaurant where he ate an egg on toast. He then returned to his workshop to "tidy up."
This killing produced little profit for the money-desperate Haigh. He sold Mrs. Durand-Deacon's Persian lamb coat and pawned her jewellery, obtaining only a few hundred pounds. He used this sum to pay his hotel bill and other pressing expenses; then kept his eyes open for fresh prey. However, Haigh worried because hed struck so close to home. To avoid being asked about the widow's whereabouts, he thought it clever to feign concern and make some inquiries. Haigh approached Mrs. Durand-Deacon's good friend, Mrs. Constance Lane, another retired lady living at the hotel and plied her with questions: "Do you know anything about Mrs. Durand-Deacon? Is she ill? Do you know where she is?"
Mrs. Lane shocked Haigh with her response: "Don't you know where she is? I understood from her that you wanted to take her to your factory." Haigh said that he had not taken the widow with him to his workshop because he was not yet ready to show her his operation. "Well, I must do something about that" Mrs. Lane said.
The following morning, Haigh again asked Mrs. Lane if she had heard anything about Mrs. Durand-Deacon and she said that she had not, adding that she intended to report the matter to the police that day. In an attempt to avoid suspicion, Haigh then offered to go to the Chelsea Police Station and report the matter with her. But when Mrs. Lane and the killer appeared in the police station, an officer recognised Haigh and had his background checked. His criminal record made the police suspicious and Haigh was brought in for questioning on February 28th, 1949. At first, he denied having had anything to do with Mrs. Durand-Deacon's disappearance.
The police kept him in custody whilst his workshop and hotel room were searched. At the first location they uncovered enough gruesome remains of Mrs. Durand-Deacon to make an identification. Though most of her body had been reduced to a hardened sludge that coated the back yard, forensic investigators unearthed twenty-eight pounds of human fat, the partly corroded bones of a human foot, Mrs. Durand-Deacon's plastic handbag which had resisted the acid - a plastic lipstick container cap, a full upper denture and three human gall stones. One of the bones of the hip girdle was still partly preserved and showed clearly that the remains were female.
Haigh had been sloppy in his workshop; he was equally careless in his hotel room. There investigators found a diary in which he had kept abbreviated details of his previous murders. Some personal effects from the McSwan and Henderson families were also lying around.
When informed of these discoveries, Haigh exclaimed: "Mrs. Durand-Deacon no longer exists! I've destroyed her with acid...You can't prove murder without a body." His confidence was misplaced - he had misinterpreted the latin legal expression "Corpus Delicti" and thought that it referred to an actual body, rather than the 'body of the crime'.
Haigh was charged with murdering Mrs. Durand-Deacon and placed on trial on July 18th, 1949. Prior to this, while being held, Haigh asked his jailers how hard it was to escape from Broadmoor - the UKs most famous secure mental hospital for the criminally insane. Faced with damning evidence that would surely place him on the gallows, he planned to convince everyone that he was insane.
He made long, lurid statements which implied that his lust for blood went beyond a mere compulsion to kill: "...in each case he said I had my glass of blood after I killed them." He then went on to describe in detail all sorts of ghoulish acts performed on his victims, before giving their bodies acid baths. The press had a field day. No newspaper gave the story more sensational coverage than the London Daily Mirror, which, on March 4th, 1949, bleated to its fifteen million readers: "...the Vampire killer will never strike again. He is safely behind bars, powerless to lure his victims to a hideous death." Above this front-page story, the tabloid emblazoned the headline: "Vampire -A Man Held."
The British courts were appalled at this coverage - so much so that the Daily Mirror was fined £10,000 and its editor, Silvester Bolam, was given a three -month jail term for contempt of court - the paper having been previously warned by Scotland Yard not to publish details of the case before Haigh's trial. Ironically, Bolam was sent to the same prison that held Haigh. The mass killer continued his deception while in prison; he purposely drank his own urine in front of guards and performed other irrational acts to convince them that he was a lunatic.
Some authors who specialise in writing about Crime or the Occult have published misleading and/or badly-researched information about Haighs self-professed career as a vampire. For example, Hans Holzer (an alleged psychic medium who claims to be in contact with the late Elvis Presley) uncritically repeated Haighs concocted stories - including a cracked explanation that the murderer drank his own urine because he misinterpreted a line in the Bible which instructed individuals to drink only from their own ewers (wells).
Haigh was tried before Justice Travers Humphreys with Sir Henry Shawcross prosecuting. Sir David Maxwell defended, but could do little more than suggest that his client was insane. He brought Dr. Henry Yellowlees, a noted psychiatrist, to the stand to testify that he had examined Haigh and believed him to be a "paranoiac," because of his early childhood experiences. Dr Yellowlees said that he was "pretty certain" that Haigh drank the blood of his victims. However, when pressed by the Prosecutor, he admitted that Haigh knew that his acts were wrong - thus effectively eliminating the contention that the murderer was not (in a legal sense) sane.
The jury took only fifteen minutes to render a verdict of Guilty. Haigh was sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, he penned his brief, but nightmare-filled memoirs - recounting how all his boyhood pleasures had been suppressed by his fanatically religious parents.
His father, an electrician, had an accident which caused him to bear a blue scar down the middle of his forehead. Haigh quoted his father as telling him when he was a boy: "I have sinned and Satan has punished me. If you ever sin, Satan will mark you with a blue pencil likewise." For years, Haigh, as a child, nervously ran his fingers over his forehead, frantically looking into mirrors each morning to see if a blue scar had appeared while he slept.
Haigh also related a recurring nightmare he had following a 1944 (the year that the killings began) car accident in which hed been injured and blood ran down his forehead and into his mouth: "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 realised it was 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."
These horrifying words were penned by a man who undoubtedly still thought he might be reprieved and sent to Broadmoor as criminally insane. Haigh was highly intelligent and able to contrive such lunatic images for his own ends, just as he very probably researched the methods he used in disposing of his victims' bodies, most likely reading about the exploits of Georges Sarret of France who used remarkably similar methods in 1925 to eliminate the bodies of his victims. John George Haigh's horror stories did him no good in the end. The Acid-Bath Murderer was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on August 6th, 1949.
Megan Lowry supplied the following information:
During the weeks he spent in the condemned cell at Wandsworth, Haigh wrote to one of his solicitors that when he was sentenced to death by Sir Travers Humphries, quote: "It was an effort to refrain from audible laughter when the judge donned his black cap. He looked for all the world like a sheep with its head peering out from under a rhubarb leaf."
Serial killer though he was, Haigh must have possessed some sense of humor !