John George Haigh (July 24, 1909-August 10, 1949) was a serial killer in England in the 1940s. Authorities attributed to Haigh the murders of six people, although he claimed nine, and dissolved their bodies in sulphuric acid before forging papers to sell their possessions and collect substantial sums of money. He acted under the mistaken belief that police needed a body before they could bring a charge of murder. Consequently, he was convicted through forensic evidence and sentenced to death. Haigh was executed by hanging on August 10, 1949.
Haigh was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire and grew up in the nearby village of Outwood. His parents, John and Emily, were members of the Plymouth Brethren. He was confined to living within a 10ft 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.
Haigh won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, where a desk carved with his name remains. He then won another scholarship, his parents having switched their belief from the nonconformist brethren to the high church of Wakefield Cathedral, where he became a choirboy.
Haigh, however, developed a passion for cars — and dishonesty. After school he was apprenticed to a firm of motor engineers, which at least satisfied one of his hobbies.
After a year, possibly because he did not care for the oil and grime in the garage, he took cleaner jobs — in insurance and advertising. They would account for his other hobby. Aged 21, he was sacked after being suspected of stealing from a petty cash box.
In 1934, Haigh stopped attending his parents' church. 
Marriage and imprisonment
On July 6, 1934 Haigh married Betty Hammer, 21, a lively woman described in some accounts as a good-time girl. The marriage soon floundered. The same year Haigh was jailed for fraud. Betty gave birth while he was in prison but she gave the baby up for adoption and left Haigh.
On his release he was jailed again — this time for 15 months — for a fraud involving cars bought on hire purchase. This time, when freed, he tried to go straight with a dry cleaning business, but it failed when his business partner was killed in a motorcycle accident.
He then moved to London and became chauffeur to William McSwann, wealthy owner of an amusement park. Haigh and McSwann became friends but Haigh still wanted to set himself up in business. He did — but as a bogus solicitor, earning himself four years in jail for fraud. Haigh was released just after the start of the Second World War, then jailed again for theft.
While in prison he dreamt up what he considered the perfect murder: removing the body by dissolving it with acid. He experimented with mice and found it took only 30 minutes for the body to disappear.
The "Acid Bath" murders
He was freed in 1944 and became an accountant with an engineering firm. Soon after, by chance, he bumped into McSwann in the Goat pub in Kensington. McSwann introduced Haigh to his parents, Donald and Amy, who mentioned that they had invested in property. On 6 September, 1944, McSwann disappeared. Haigh later said he hit him over the head after luring him into a basement at 79 Gloucester Road, London SW7. He then put McSwann’s body into a 40-gallon drum and tipped 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 McSwann’s parents their son had fled to Scotland to avoid being called up for military service. Haigh then took over McSwann’s and when Don and Amy become curious about why their son had not returned after the war was coming to an end, he murdered them too. On July 2, 1945, he lured them to Gloucester Road and disposed of them.
Haigh stole Donald McSwann’s pension cheques, sold their properties — making about £8,000 — and moved into the Onslow Court hotel, Kensington. By the summer of 1947 Haigh, a gambler, was running short of money so he found another couple to kill and rob: Dr Archibald Henderson and his wife Rose, whom he met after purporting to show interest in a house they were selling.
He rented a small workshop in Leopold Road Crawley, West Sussex, and moved acid and drums there from Gloucester Road. On 12 February 1948, he drove Dr Henderson to Crawley, on the pretext of showing him an invention. When they arrived he shot him 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.
After disposing of the bodies in acid he forged a letter from the Hendersons and sold all their possessions for £8,000, except their dog, which he kept.
His last victim and capture
Haigh’s next and final victim was Olive Durand-Deacon, 69, a widow and fellow resident at the Onslow Court. She mentioned to Haigh, by then calling himself an engineer, an idea she had for artificial fingernails. He invited her down to the Crawley workshop on 18 February, 1949, and once inside he shot her in the back of the head, 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 McSwanns. Further investigation of the sludge at the workshop by the pathologist Keith Simpson revealed three human gallstones and a pair of false teeth.
Questioned by Detective Inspector Albert Webb, Haigh asked him: “Tell me, frankly, what are the chances of anybody being released from Broadmoor?” 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 McSwanns and Hendersons, but also three other people — a young man called Max, a girl from Eastbourne and woman from Hammersmith. The three others might have been part of Haigh’s attempt to convince the police of insanity.
Trial and execution
After arrest, Haigh was remanded in custody in Cell 2 of Horsham Police Station when it was in Barttelot Road. He was charged with murder at the nearby courthouse in what is now known as the Old Town Hall.
The Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, KC, (later Lord Shawcross) led for the prosecution at Lewes Assizes, and urged the jury to reject the prisoner’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 Humphries sentenced him to death.
It was reported that Haigh, in the condemned cell at Wandsworth Prison, asked one of his jailers, Jack Morwood, whether it would be possible to have a trial run of his hanging so everything would run smoothly. It’s likely his request went no further, or, if it did, the request was denied. Whatever the case, Haigh was led to the gallows by Chief Executioner Albert Pierrepoint on August 10, 1949. There were no delays and everything ran smoothly.
- William McSwann, 6 September 1944
- Donald and Amy McSwann, 2 July, 1945
- Archibald and Rosalie Henderson, 12 February, 1948
- Olive Durand-Deacon, 18 February, 1949
In popular culture
- One of the Subordinates (antagonists) in the video game “Clock Tower 3”, Corroder, is based on and named after the killer.
- Haigh had agreed to model for a death mask being made by Madame Tussauds waxworks. He left his clothes to Tussaud’s with the stipulation that his waxwork was always kept spotless, with trousers neatly creased, shirt cuffs showing and hair parted.
- Haigh has been compared to the French serial killer Marcel Petiot. It is possible that Haigh had read about the exploits of another Frenchman, Georges “Sarret” Sarrejani, the Marseilles lawyer who used similar methods in 1925 to destroy his victims’ bodies.
- On 25 March, 1949, Silvester Bolam, editor of the Daily Mirror, was jailed for three months and the newspaper’s publishers fined £10,000 for contempt of court in its reports of early proceedings in the case against Haigh. It was said that the reports and photographs — described by the Lord Chief Justice as a disgrace to English journalism — could have prejudiced Haigh’s defense.
- In 2002, Martin Clunes played Haigh in an ITV drama, A is for Acid.
- The Times, court reports, 9 and 26 March 1949; 29 July 1949; 19 January 1950.