On this day in history : 10th August 1949 – The execution of serial killer John George Haigh – otherwise known as the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’….

John Haigh – Police photograph taken at Horsham Police Station, 1949 – Public domain

Haigh was born into an affluent family in Stamford, Lincolnshire and he was brought up in the village of Oakwood, in the West Riding of Yorkshire…. His parents were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a conservative, non-conformist, evangelical Christian movement….

Academically bright Haigh won several educational scholarships and was fond of classical music…. He often attended concerts and he himself was a talented pianist…. He won a scholarship to Wakefield Cathedral where he became a choirboy…. However, by the time he was 21 things began to manifest as signs of what was to come…. He was dismissed from his job after being accused of stealing from the petty cash box – then in July 1934 he got married….but in the same year was jailed for fraud…. His new wife left him and had their baby daughter adopted; his parents disowned him….

On release from prison in 1936 Haigh moved to London and found employment as a chauffeur to wealthy amusement arcade owner William McSwan…. At the same time he continued to live his fraudulent life, masquerading as William Cato Adamson, a solicitor with offices in London, Guildford and Hastings…. He ‘specialised’ in selling phoney stocks and shares…. However, as academically bright as he may have been, spelling was obviously his Achilles heel…. His scam was uncovered after a schoolboy error was noticed on his ‘official’ solicitor’s letterhead – he had missed the ‘d’ out of Guildford…. He was sentenced to a further four years in prison….

He was released at the beginning of World War Two and immediately resumed his life as a career fraudster – resulting in several more prison sentences…. The problem was that his victims kept reporting him – it eventually dawned on him that they couldn’t if they were dead! He spent the remainder of his latest prison sentence devising the perfect way of getting rid of them….

Haigh became fascinated with the methods used by French murderer Georges-Alexandre Sarret – who dissolved bodies by using sulphuric acid…. Haigh started to experiment using various types of acid on mice…. He discovered it took 30 minutes to dissolve a field mouse – he began to calculate how long it would take and how much acid he would need to dissolve a full grown man….

After being released from prison he took a job in the accounting department of an engineering company…. Then one day he happened to bump into his former employer, William McSwan – who had now become a landlord with tenants in multiple properties, owned by his parents…. He had an extremely lavish lifestyle and Haigh was insanely jealous….

A few months later he arranged to meet McSwan and then lured him to the basement of a warehouse he had rented…. He hit McSwan over the head – and then after putting his body into a 40-gallon drum poured sulphuric acid over him…. When he returned two days later he found the body had turned to a sludge – and so he tipped it down a convenient manhole….

Haigh told McSwan’s parents that their son had gone into hiding to avoid being called up for military service…. He then took over the collecting of rents from the tenants…. When McSwan’s parents became suspicious when their son failed to return at the end of the War Haigh was to lure them to his warehouse basement, where they too met the same fate…. Haigh then sold their possessions for around £8,000 by forging their signatures and moved into Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington…. He kept their car and dog though!

Haigh developed an acute gambling habit and so the money did not last long…. He began to look for his next victims…. He also decided he needed bigger premises, where he could store more drums of acid – and so he rented a larger warehouse on Leopold Road, Crawley, West Sussex….

He then went to view the house of Dr Archibald Henderson and his wife Rose, which was on the property market…. He made up some pretext to get the doctor to visit his warehouse and once there, shot him in the head…. Receiving a call from Haigh to say that her husband was unwell Rose rushed to Leopold Road – where she too was shot…. The bodies of the husband and wife were then dissolved in acid….

Haigh was still living at Onslow Court Hotel and was befriended by a wealthy fellow resident, 69 year old widow Olive Durand – who fancied herself as a bit of an entrepreneurial inventor…. On hearing that Haigh worked for an engineering company she sought his advice on an idea she had for artificial fingernails…. On the 18th of February 1949, feigning interest and a desire to help her, Haigh took her to his warehouse – and murdered her….

Now, Haigh had overlooked one important factor when he rented his new warehouse – it had no convenient manhole…. He had to resort to dumping the sludge from his acid drums on a pile of rubble at the back of the building….

It did not take long for this to be discovered…. 28lbs of body fat, part of a foot and gall stones were found, along with a piece of denture, which was identified as belonging to Olive by her dentist…. Haigh was arrested and taken to Horsham Police Station; he confessed to the six murders – and to three more…. He claimed to have also killed a girl from Eastbourne, a woman from Hammersmith and a man called Max – although no evidence could be found….

Peel House, the former Sussex Police Headquarters at Horsham – where Haigh was held

At his trial Haigh pleaded insanity – even saying that he drank the blood of his victims…. His claim was dismissed…. It took the jury just minutes to find him guilty…. Mr Justice Travers Humphreys passed the death sentence and he was taken to the condemned cell at Wandsworth Prison…. Haigh was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint on the 10th of August 1949….

Haigh in custody – Image credit : Mitch Hell via Flickr

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