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  • Writer's pictureThe True Crime Edition

The Acid Bath Murders

John Haigh's methods for his victim's disposal are the stuff of nightmares. However, there's always evidence left behind.

John George Haigh via Sussex Live

Born into an average family, John George Haigh moved from Lincolnshire to West Riding of Yorkshire when he was younger. The boy was a fan of classical music and played the piano, which won him a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School and Wakefield Cathedral.

Haigh had an odd sense of humour and was bullied at school. A lover of strange pranks, he'd pull the stool out from under the elderly organist when she sat down to play. He also chased a pig around its sty until it died from exhaustion. For this, he was beaten.

When he finished school, Haigh worked as an apprentice engineer at a firm. He was subsequently fired for adding sugar to his boss' petrol tank. He held other jobs in insurance and advertising but was once again fired after he was accused of stealing from the cash box.

In 1934, Haigh married Betty Hamer. However, the marriage didn't last long, as he was arrested four months later for car fraud and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Whilst he was incarcerated, Betty gave birth to a daughter who was given up for adoption when Betty divorced Haigh.

In 1936, Haigh was released from prison and moved down to London. He became a chauffeur to arcade owner William McSwan, who would later become his first victim.

He left his employment with McSwan and invented a new persona: William Cato Adamson.

Adamson was a solicitor with multiple offices, including in London and Guildford, Surrey, where he sold fraudulent stocks and shares to unsuspecting victims. This scam ended when someone noticed his fictitious surname was misspelt on his letterhead.

He was handed a four-year sentence for fraud but subsequently spent several years in and out of prison.

During his last stretch in prison, Haigh realised that he kept getting caught because his victims were able to alert the authorities. From here, Haigh learned about French murderer Georges-Alexandre Sarret, who'd disposed of his victims' bodies by using sulphuric acid. Keen to try the method, Haigh began experimenting with acid and field mice in his cell.

Georges-Alexandre Sarret via

In 1943, Haigh was released from prison and was ready to begin his murder spree.

William McSwan

Haigh had a chance meeting with McSwan once he was released from prison at a pub in Kensington. McSwan was now working for his parents, Donald and Amy, collecting rent from their London properties.

William McSwan via

On the 6th of September 1944, McSwan disappeared. Haigh later confessed to enticing McSwan into the basement of 79 Gloucester Road and bludgeoning him to death. His motive was jealousy, and he wanted McSwan's lifestyle. He placed his body into an industrial barrel and poured concentrated sulphuric acid onto him. Two days later, Haigh had returned to find the remaining contents of the barrel could be poured down the drain.

79 Gloucester Road via

Donald and Amy McSwan

Haigh had told William's parents that he had gone into hiding in Scotland to avoid being drafted for military service. Haigh then took over his collection duties but kept the money himself.

Amy McSwan via

The parents became curious as their son hadn't returned from Scotland as the war was now ending. Haigh told them he was back for a visit, and on the 2nd of July 1945, he lured Donald and Amy to the house on Gloucester Road with the expectation of seeing their son. Haigh bludgeoned them to death in the basement and disposed of them in the same way their son had been.

Haigh took his three victims' possessions, including their pensions and properties, totalling £8,000 (around £250,000 now), and moved into the Onslow Court Hotel.

By 1947, Haigh was starting to run out of money due to his excessive gambling addiction. To replenish his fund, Haigh needed a new victim.

He had begun to rent a small workshop in Crawley, Sussex, around an hour from London, and brought the acid barrels down from Kensington.

Dr Archibald and Rose Henderson

Haigh met the couple when he was viewing their flat, pretending to be interested in purchasing it from them. Rose found out that Haigh played the piano and asked him to play at their housewarming party at their new property. Whilst at the party, Haigh stole the doctor's gun.

Dr Archibald and Rose Henderson via

Haigh invited Dr Henderson to the workshop in Crawley to show him an invention he had been working on. Instead, Haigh shot the doctor in the head with the gun he'd stolen from him previously. He then contacted Rose Henderson to tell her that her husband had fallen ill and needed to come to Crawley. He also shot her dead on her arrival and disposed of the bodies in the barrels once again.

He then forged a letter in the doctor's name to ensure he was given control of their assets and sold all of the possessions, amounting to £8,000. He kept their car and their dog.

By 1949, Haigh was still living in the Onslow Court Hotel and was calling himself an engineer. However, he was running out of money again, so he sought out his final victim.

Olive Durant-Deacon

Olive, 69, was a wealthy widow who also lived at the Onslow Court Hotel. She knew Haigh was supposedly an engineer, so she told him about her idea for false fingernails. Haigh took the opportunity to invite Olive to his workshop in Crawley.

Olive Durant-Deacon via

On the 18th of February 1949, Olive travelled the hour journey with him to his workshop, where he shot her in the neck with Dr Henderson's revolver. He removed her jewellery and the expensive black Persian fur coat she was wearing and put her into the acid bath.

Olive's friend, Constance Lane, reported her missing two days later.

Sergeant Alexandra Lambourne was assigned to Olive's case and visited Constance Lane. Constance told Sergeant Lambourne that Olive was an aloof woman who disliked people and crowds and was strong-minded. She said she always wore specific jewellery, including rings and a pearl necklace, whenever she left her hotel room.

Sergeant Lambourne spoke to John Haigh, who told her he saw Olive before she left the hotel that day and that she was wearing her black Persian fur coat. Lambourne found it odd that Haigh lived in a hotel whose occupants were mainly older people. She had an uneasy feeling about Haigh and thought he might be involved.

A description was sent out to all police divisions by Inspector Symes, but by that evening, he had started looking into Haigh due to Lambourne's comments.

Symes and Detective Inspector Webb returned to the Onslow to question the hotel manager, Miss Robbie. She told them that she had never seen any visitors with Haigh and that he wore expensive clothes and drove flashy cars. He was also late paying for his room recently, which he had eventually settled two days before Olive went missing.

Symes and Webb went upstairs to speak to Haigh in his room, where he invited them in. He recalled the same statement he'd told Lambourne earlier in the day. He added that Olive was carrying a red bag when she had left the lobby.

However, John Haigh didn't realise that Inspector Symes already knew him. He had questioned Haigh years earlier and knew he was a con man.

Back at the station, Symes ordered a record search on John George Haigh from Scotland Yard. The search came back with all of Haigh's convictions, and it detailed his history with crime. However, a white-collar crime like fraud didn't usually amount to murder, so he wasn't initially convinced that Haigh had killed Olive.

By the following day, Olive's image was in the newspapers and distributed to taxi drivers, but no one had seen her since her departure from the hotel. Finally, another occupant of the Onslow Court Hotel came forward to tell police that she had seen Olive in the hotel's lobby that morning. Olive had told the witness that she was driving to Crawley with Mr Haigh. He had been the only witness to see her alleged solo departure from the hotel that day. Symes set about getting inside of the workshop in Crawley.

Workshop exterior via

The workshop was sparse, with a few boxes, tools, and empty bottles of sulphuric acid littered the sideboards. The windows were painted over, and little light entered the building. The only item that looked out of place was a locked leather hatbox, which was taken into evidence.

Symes received the report on the contents of the hatbox once it had been forced open. It contained the revolver belonging to Dr Henderson, eight rounds of ammunition in an envelope, heavy red cellophane paper, and a receipt from a dry-cleaning shop near Crawley for a black Persian fur coat.

Officers canvassed the area and surrounding towns. A bookkeeper at the George Hotel in Crawley instantly recognised Olive and recalled her black fur coat and red bag. She also knew Haigh as the man who drove Olive to the hotel to use the restroom. In the nearby town of Horsham, a shop had bought jewellery that matched Olive's, and the jeweller identified Haigh as the man who sold him the pieces.

Haigh was kept at the police station whilst the investigating officers drove to the hotel to search Haigh's room. They returned hours later to the station with several items in their possession.

Their search brought back a shirt covered in bloodstains and a penknife with blood on it. They also recovered a shopping list written by Haigh that included items for which he could dispose of another body, including carboys of acid, rubber gloves, cellophane and cotton wadding. They also had the jewellery and the black fur coat with them.

"If I tell you the truth you would not believe it. The truth sounds too fantastic for belief. Mrs. Durand-Deacon no longer exists. She has disappeared completely and no trace of her can be found again. I have destroyed her with acid. Every trace has gone. How can you prove murder if there is no body?"

Haigh confessed to killing Olive, the McSwans and the Hendersons, plus three others. However, this couldn't be proved. He told police that drinking the blood of his victims was driving him insane, but there was no proof he ever did this, either.

However, Haigh hadn't considered what had been left behind, and forensics soon realised that the brown sludge behind the workshop was human remains. On closer inspection, pathologist Keith Simpson found 28 pounds of body fat, part of a foot, gallstones and part of a denture, identified as Olive Durand-Deacon's by her dentist.

Workshop exterior via

The Daily Mirror went with the headline "Vampire horror in London, SW7" for the front page of their newspaper on Thursday 3rd March 1949. The constant vilifying of Haigh saw the editor, Silvester Bolam, stand before a court and be sentenced to three months in prison with a £10,000 fine (around £300,000 now).

Daily Mirror — 3rd March 1949 via

In early August 1949, Haigh finally went to trial at Sussex Assizes in Lewes. He couldn't afford his own defence, so the News of the World newspaper offered to pay for his solicitor if he gave them an exclusive story. However, the jury took only minutes to deliberate his fate and found him sane and guilty of murdering six people. They also ordered that he wouldn't be allowed to appeal his sentencing.

When being transferred to Wandsworth Prison, Haigh asked one of the prison guards if it would be possible to have a trial run of his hanging to iron out any issues.

John George Haigh via

In prison, his physician, Dr Yellowless, noted his childhood nightmares, which Haigh claimed lured him into becoming a blood-lusting murderer.

"I saw a forest of crucifixes which gradually turned into trees. At first I seemed to see dew or rain running from the branches. But when I came nearer I knew it was blood. All of a sudden the whole forest began to twist about and the trees streamed with blood. Blood ran from the trunks. Blood ran from the branches, all red and shiny. I felt weak and seemed to faint. I saw a man going round the trees gathering blood. When the cup he was holding in his hand was full he came up to me and said "drink". But I was paralysed. The dream vanished. But I still felt faint and stretched out with all my strength towards the cup."

He told Dr Yellowless that this vision is what led him on his vicious path, but this revelation of insanity didn't help his sentencing.

On Wednesday, 10th August 1949, John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer, was hanged at Wandsworth Prison while a crowd of 500 people gathered outside.

The News of the World got their exclusive, and he donated one of his favourite suits to Madame Tussauds for this waxwork.

Madame Tussauds' waxwork of Haigh via

John George Haigh's motives were never clear, despite his insanity pleas. Some believe he thought he was a vampire who enjoyed drinking blood. Others thought he was a cold-hearted killer who believed he could get away with murder if the body was never found. If Haigh had been more meticulous, he might well have continued to get away, unhindered, with his crimes.

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