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True Grue: John George Haigh, a/k/a The Acid Bath Murderer

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Welcome to “True Grue,” a weekly article that dives into real life, harrowing horrors. For the interest of good taste, this graphic feature aims not to be exploitative, but rather informative, and rest assured, there are many different territories that will be strictly off-limits. But for those with a hungry mind and a strong stomach, read on at your own discretion…

There are some murder plans articulated and executed with such meticulous consideration that it’s hard to figure out where exactly they went wrong. No matter how smooth John George Haigh played his ignorance to the media or how prepared his murderous deeds had become however, the man known as “The Acid Bath Murderer” found his folly in misunderstanding the concept of ‘corpus delicti’. And from Haigh’s woeful naiveté came one of the strangest cases of serial murder in Britain’s history was born.

The peculiar circumstances in the story of John George Haigh didn’t start in his homicide, but rather during his upbringing. Haigh was born in 1909 in Stamford, Lincolnshire, to John and Emily Haigh, both strict members of the Plymouth Brethren. Haigh was raised a solitary lifestyle, confined within a 10-foot fence around his home built to separate the family from the outside world. This environment inspired religious nightmares and Haigh turned his attention to music and his studies, and his polite demeanor had made him all the more unassuming.

It wasn’t until the age of 24 when Haigh began running into trouble rather regularly. In 1934, he was jailed for fraud, where he resided when his wife gave up his newborn daughter and left. The dissolution of his marriage caused his conservative family to become estranged from Haigh, and he was soon arrested again for cutting fraudulent checks to pay for vehicles. Following that prison stint, Haigh met William McSwann, a wealthy amusement park owner who, along with his parents Donald and Amy, took a liking to Haigh immediately.

In 1936, Haigh was once again arrested on fraud charges on which he served four years in prison, and was arrested again within a year of his release for theft. During his 21-month stay in prison for that offense, Haigh became fascinated with the concept of ‘corpus delicti,’ the legal precedent that states that a crime must be proven to have been committed in order to convict someone of said offense. Haigh misinterpreted this term as to think that if prosecutors had no body, they could not prove that a murder had taken place, and therefore he could not be convicted. To Haigh, it was the perfect crime.

Haigh experimented with sulfuric acid on mice in prison, and found that their bodies dissolved within 30 minutes, leaving almost no trace of their existence. Once released from prison, Haigh suffered a head wound in a car accident, which he referred to as the event that spurred on his bloodlust. Haigh rented a workshop in London, where he filled a 40-gallon drum with sulfuric acid and waited for the perfect opportunity.

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Haigh found such in a chance reunion with William McSwann, who bragged about his family’s lucrative real estate investments. Seeing profit in his plan, Haigh lured the man to his workshop several weeks later, bludgeoning McSwann in the head and then slitting his throat. Haigh’s crime became even stranger when the killer collected McSwann’s blood in a mug and began to drink it before dropping the body into the acid vat, leaving it to dissolve overnight. Despite a self-described evening of surreal night terrors, Haigh discovered McSwann was nothing more than acidic sludge by the morning, which he was able to dispose down the drain. Haigh felt euphoric from the lack of evidence, which gave him a boost of confidence and led to him stocking up a more efficient inventory for his further crimes.

Haigh tested his new tools on a still-unidentified Hammersmith woman before repeating his crime on McSwann’s parents, allegedly drinking their blood as well, and disposing of them the same way. Haigh then schemed to forge their signatures and gave himself Power of Attorney, which allowed him to liquidate their estate for a hefty profit. The money ran out sooner than expected however, and Haigh set his sights on another wealthy couple: Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife, Rose, with whom Haigh shared a passion for music and real estate.

Haigh soon moved his wretched workshop to Crawley, where he bulked up his stocks and tested them on another random citizen, a young man from Kensington allegedly named “Max.” Haigh then finally carried out the deed, shooting both Hendersons, drinking their blood and placing them within his acid drums. This time around, Rose’s foot had not dissolved completely, which Haigh then buried in the yard of the workshop with the Hendersons’ remaining clothing. Despite a time-consuming effort to maintain their lively identities, including forged letters to Rose’s brother which claimed the couple fled to South Africa after carrying out an illegal abortion, Haigh turned an even higher profit than from the McSwann estate.

Once again, Haigh’s expensive tastes and penchant for gambling led to his need for more money. He set his focus on elderly socialite, Olive Durand-Deacon. After befriending and ultimately killing her in 1949, her disappearance led detectives to investigate Haigh’s storied past with fraud and the multiple dalliances with missing citizens. It wasn’t long before Haigh was caught, and not only did Haigh confess to his crimes, but he created a spectacle of them, recounting every grisly detail to any newspaper that would listen.

Forensic teams dug through the mud and sludge surrounding Haigh’s workshop, finding bones, dentures, 28 lbs. of body fat and Rose Henderson’s left foot. Haigh was riding high on his own ego,  still under the presumption that with no body, he couldn’t be punished. But after the discovery of the evidence, Haigh began to mull over the option of having himself declared insane, not so subtly investigating the ease of escaping a mental institution and the chances to avoid the noose. Between witnesses, the chronology of his crimes and the testimony of leading psychology experts, Haigh was proven to be sane and aware of his crimes.

Haigh, stripped of the money he had stolen, turned to tabloid magazine The News of the World to pay for his legal counsel, trading exclusive tales of his egocentric depravity as restitution. Their insanity defense crumbled under Haigh’s initial confession, and it only took 15 minutes for the jury to unanimously find Haigh guilty of his crimes. The judge sentenced Haigh to hang, and he spent his last days recounting his stories, sending his final words to his parents and his fiancee Barbara, and fitting his death mask to Madam Tussaud, who erected a wax figure of him complete with his own clothes.

Unrepentant and claiming he’d be reincarnated to finish his murderous work, Haigh was executed by hanging at Wadsworth Prison in August 0f 1949. Since his crimes, Haigh has inspired many fictional characters, the most recent of which being “The Stewmaker” in the television series THE BLACKLIST. You can see pictures of Haigh, as well as crime scene photographs of the excavation process, below.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Content Manager for FANGORIA, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, a graphic novel and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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