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Britain's "Acid Bath Killer"
America may have spawned more serial killers than any other country in the last 200 years, but not necessarily the most vicious. A case in point is Britain’s John George Haigh. Haigh made banner headlines in 1949 as the “Acid Bath Killer.” He was described as a vampire who drank his victim’s blood before dissolving them in a 40-gallon vat of sulfuric acid.According to his own admission he had been killing people to rob them of their money for years.
Haigh was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, England in July of 1909. His parents were strict religious disciplinarians who considered casual entertainment and even reading magazines or newspapers as a sinful act. Even so, he was a bright student who received several scholarships.
Unfortunately, Haigh used his brilliance to swindle people out of their money. He found it easy as he was known to be a charming, silver tongued individual. These attributes became a useful tool while in his early twenties working as a salesman. The one drawback which kept him from mingling with the upper crust of society was his manner of dress. He liked flashy clothes, but they were usually a bit to gaudy for sophisticated taste.
In 1934 he married Beatrice Hamer but the marriage lasted only a few months. Haigh was arrested for fraud and she left. Some say smarts don’t always equal common sense. And in the case of Haigh it proved to be true. Soon after his release from prison he was once again pursuing his chosen profession as a con man and swindler.
About two years later he struck up an acquaintance with businessman W.D. McSwan who offered him a job as his secretary. But in 1937, Haigh was once again arrested for another con job and sentenced to four years in jail. However, he was granted an early release, along with many other non-violent offenders, due to World War 11.
Haigh had few friends other than the McSwan family and in 1944 he renewed his acquaintance with them. The McSwan’s owned several successful amusement arcades and were quite well heeled. For some inexplicable reason they liked him, which unfortunately, would lead to their untimely deaths.
Haigh lured the McSwan’s son Donald to his workshop and bludgeoned him to death. After rifling through Donald’s pockets and robbing him of all valuables he dragged the lifeless body to a vat of acid and dumped it in. When it had been reduced to a gelatinous mass he disposed of it out behind the building.
Using his forgery skills he transferred Donald’s considerable assets over to himself. Sometime later, when the McSwan’s began wondering about their son’s disappearance, he explained Donald had gone into hiding to avoid being drafted into the army. They bought the lie, but the scheming Haigh knew it was just a matter of time before they would again be wondering about him. He used a similar ploy to get them to his workshop where they met the same fate as their son.
By forging their names on legal documents, Haigh became sole owner of their properties. But, Haigh was also greedy. He devised a system he felt certain could predict winners at dog races. However, his system didn’t work and he lost most of his ill gotten fortune. Therefore, he returned to his murder for profit routine.
His next target was a Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife Rosalie. They were moderately rich retirees who were advertising a house for sale. Haigh began negotiating to buy the property even though he was broke. He told the Henderson’s he couldn’t pay immediately because of a failed business venture but he would have funds shortly.
The Henderson’s were a friendly couple and they fell under Haigh’s charm. It was February 12th, 1948, when he took Dr. Henderson to see his workshop. Haigh shot him in the head and disposed of the body in his usual manner. He then told Rosalie her husband was sick and was asking for her. She too became another statistic.
Haigh again began forging documents and letters to their employees and friends explaining they had suddenly decided to move to another country and that "Mr. Haigh" was to handle any business affairs as their representative.
But, his penchant for gambling soon lost him this fortune also. By 1949, he was overdrawn at the bank and was being pressed for back rent. In desperation Haigh began searching for another victim. It didn’t take long. At a hotel dining room where he frequently ate he met a 69 year old retired wealthy widow…Henrietta Helen Olivia Robarts Durand-Deacon.
When Haigh told her his business was leasing and renting expensive cars to affluent patrons she believed he might be interested in an idea she had been toying with, manufacturing plastic fingernails. Of course, Haigh immediately jumped at the suggestion and invited her to his workshop to further discuss the matter. Once there Haigh shot her in the back of the head, and proceeded as he always had. However, the murder netted him less profit then he had anticipated and he worried because he’d struck so close to home.
To cover his tracks he feigned concern asking about Durand-Deacon's whereabouts with some of her close friends. Haigh approached another wealthy retired lady living at the hotel and asked if she knew where her friend was. Obviously, she didn’t and decided to report her absence to authorities.
Haigh offered to accompany her to the police station. That was to be his undoing. As soon as the couple entered the Police Station an officer thought Haigh looked familiar and had his background checked. Haigh was hauled in for questioning on February 28th, 1949.
After his workshop and hotel room had been searched enough evidence had been found to tie him to Durand-Deacon's murder. A dairy was found in which Haigh had recorded details of his previous murders along with a few personal effects from the McSwan and Henderson families.
Faced with evidence that would certainly have him executed he proceeded to try and convince everyone he was insane. He made statements describing gruesome acts he performed on his victims, before dumping them in acid. But, the authorities weren’t buying it. He was unceremoniously thrown into prison to await trial where he continued to try and convince everyone he was a lunatic. As an example, he purposely drank his own urine in front of guards, but to no avail. His trial lasted about fifteen minutes and he was given the death penalty.
The Acid Bath Killer was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on August 6th, 1949.