On a dry, sunny day in August 1949, the Wandsworth prison gallows opened for John George Haigh. With his sentencing unanimous, this saw the end of the Acid Bath Murderer and supposed vampire, but how did he end up there?
John George Haigh was born on the 24th July 1909 in Stamford, Lincolnshire. His parents were John, an engineer, and Emily. The family moved to Outwood, West Riding of Yorkshire when John was younger, and were members of the Protestant church, Plymouth Brethren.
Haigh was a fan of classical music and played the piano. He was a good student who won scholarships to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School and Wakefield Cathedral, where he became a choirboy.
Haigh had an odd sense of humour and was bullied at school. He would 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. He was arrested four months later for car fraud and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Whilst in prison, Betty gave birth to a daughter. She left Haigh and gave the child up for adoption.
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 office locations including London and Guildford, Surrey, where he sold fraudulent stocks and shares to unsuspecting victims. This scam came to an end when someone noticed Guildford was misspelt on his letterhead.
He was handed a four-year prison sentence for fraud but subsequently spent time in and out of prison for the next several years.
During his last stretch in prison, Haigh realised the reason he kept getting caught was that his victims were able to alert the authorities. From here, Haigh learned about French murderer, Georges-Alexandre Sarret, who had disposed of his victims’ bodies by using sulphuric acid. Haigh began to experiment in his cell with acid and field mice.
In 1943, Haigh was released from prison and began his murder spree.
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.
On the 6th of September 1944, McSwan disappeared. Haigh later confessed to enticing McSwan into the basement of 79 Gloucester Road and bludgeoning him. His motive was jealously, 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.
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 in reality, he wanted to keep the money himself.
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 July 1945, he lured Donald and Amy to the house on Gloucester Road, with the expectation of seeing their son. Haigh once again 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 in 2020), 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. He 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.
Haigh invited doctor Henderson to the workshop in Crawley, to show him an invention he had been working on. Haigh shot the doctor in the head with the gun he had stolen from him previously. He then contacted Rose Henderson, to tell her that her husband had fallen ill, and she needed to come to Crawley. He also shot her dead on her arrival. Haigh disposed of the bodies in the barrels again.
To ensure he was given control of their assets, he forged a letter in the doctor’s name. He 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. He was running out of money again, and so he sought out his final victim.
Olive, 69, was a wealthy widow who also lived at the Onslow Court Hotel. She knew Haigh was supposedly an engineer, and so she told him about her idea for false fingernails. Haigh took the opportunity to invite Olive to his workshop in Crawley.
On the 18th 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 that he saw Olive before she left the hotel that day and that she was wearing her statement 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 may be involved.
A telediscription 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 went back 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 had told Lambourne, earlier in the day. He added that Olive was carrying a red bag when she had left the lobby.
What Haigh didn’t realise was 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 next morning, Olive’s image was in the newspapers and distributed by officers to taxi drivers, but no one had seen her since her departure from the hotel. Another occupant of the Onslow Court Hotel came forward to tell police that she had seen Olive in the lobby of the hotel 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.
The inside of the workshop was sparse, with a few boxes, tools and empty bottles of sulphuric acid littered the sideboards. The windows were painted over and there was little light entering 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 to 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 the black fur coat and the red bag she was carrying. She also recognised 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. The jeweller identified Haigh as the man who sold him the pieces.
Haigh was kept at the police station whilst Symes and Superintendents Barratt and Mahon 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. Additionally, 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, as well as three other people, however, this couldn’t be proved. He told police that drinking the blood of his victims was driving him insane, however, there was no proof he ever did this.
Forensics soon realised that the brown sludge behind the workshop was human remains, and on closer inspection, pathologist Keith Simpson found 28lbs of body fat, part of a foot, gallstones and part of a denture, which was identified as Olive Durand-Deacon’s at the trial by her dentist.
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, stanood before a court and sentenced to three months in prison with a £10,000 (around £300,000 in 2020) fine on top.
In early August 1949, Haigh was put on 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. The jury took only minutes to deliberate his fate. They found him sane and guilty of murdering six people, and that he would not 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.
In prison, his physician, Dr Yellowless, noted his childhood nightmares, which Haigh claimed lured him to become 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.
On Wednesday 10th August 1949, John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer, was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, while a crowd of around 500 people gathered outside the prison.
The News of the World got their exclusive and he donated one of his favourite suits to Madame Tussauds.
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 think he was a cold-hearted killer who believed that he could get away with murder if the body was never found. If Haigh had been more meticulous, he may well have continued to get away unhindered with his crimes.