John George Haigh was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and grew up in the village of Outwood, West Yorkshire. His parents, John Robert, an engineer, and Emily, née Hudson, were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a conservative Protestant sect who advocated austere lifestyles. He was confined to living within a 10 ft (3 m) fence that his father put up around their garden to lock out the outside world. Haigh would later claim he suffered from recurring religious nightmares in his childhood. Despite these limitations, Haigh developed great proficiency in the piano, which he learned at home.
Haigh won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield. After his conviction, claims were made that a desk carved with his name remained at the school (and caretakers would run trips to the cellars to show it to first year pupils), but they were put aside when a teacher of 30 years at the school said the desk had been removed over 20 years previously. He then won another scholarship to Wakefield Cathedral, where he became a choirboy.
After school, he was apprenticed to a firm of motor engineers. After a year he left that job and took jobs in insurance and advertising. At age 21, he was sacked after being suspected of stealing from a cash box.
Marriage and imprisonment
On 6 July 1934, Haigh married the 23-year-old Beatrice Hamer. The marriage soon fell apart. The same year Haigh was jailed for fraud, Betty gave birth while he was in prison but she gave the baby girl up for adoption and left Haigh. Likewise, his conservative family ostracized him from that point onwards.
He then moved to London in 1936 and became chauffeur to William McSwan, the wealthy owner of amusement parlors. Additionally, he used his mechanical gifts to maintain McSwan's amusement machines. Following that he became a bogus solicitor and received a four-year jail sentence for fraud. Haigh was released just after the start of World War II and, continuing as a fraudster, was sentenced to several terms of imprisonment.
While in prison he dreamed up what he considered the perfect murder of being able to destroy the body by dissolving it with sulphuric acid. He experimented with mice and found it took only 30 minutes for the body to disappear.
He was freed from one term in 1943 and became an accountant with an engineering firm. Soon after, by chance, he bumped into his former employer, McSwan, in the Goat pub in Kensington. McSwan introduced Haigh to his parents, William and Amy, who mentioned that they had invested in property. On 6 September 1944, McSwan disappeared. Haigh later admitted hitting him over the head after luring him into a basement at 79 Gloucester Road, London SW7. He then put McSwan's body into a 40-gallon drum and tipped concentrated sulphuric acid onto it. Two days later he returned to find the body had become sludge, which he poured down a manhole.
He told McSwan's parents, William and Amy, that their son had fled to Scotland to avoid being called up for military service. Haigh then took over McSwan's house and when William and Amy became curious as to why their son had not returned as the war was coming to an end, he murdered them too – on 2 July 1945, he lured them to Gloucester Road and disposed of them.
Haigh stole William McSwan's pension cheques, sold their properties – stealing about £8,000 (£260,000 as of 2013, when adjusted for inflation) – and moved into the Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington. By the summer of 1947 Haigh, a gambler was running short of money. He found another couple to kill and rob: Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife Rose, whom he met after purporting to show interest in a house they were selling.
He rented a small workshop at 2 Leopold Road, Crawley, West Sussex, and moved acid and drums there from Gloucester Road. He was also known to have stayed at The George Hotel, Crawley on several occasions. On 12 February 1948, he drove Henderson to Crawley, on the pretext of showing him an invention. When they arrived Haigh shot Henderson in the head with a revolver he had earlier stolen from the doctor’s house. He then lured Mrs. Henderson to the workshop, claiming her husband had fallen ill and shot her also.
After disposing of the Hendersons' bodies in oil drums filled with acid, he forged a letter from them and sold all of their possessions for £8,000 (except their dog, which he kept). This 1948 amount is the equivalent of £216 thousand. With each murder, he wore a gas mask and rubber clothing to protect himself against the acid.
Last victim and capture
Haigh's next and last victim was Olive Durand-Deacon, 69, the wealthy widow of solicitor John Durand-Deacon and a fellow resident at the Onslow Court Hotel. She mentioned to Haigh, by then calling himself an engineer, an idea that she had for artificial fingernails. He invited her down to the Crawley workshop (number 2 Leopold Road) on 18 February 1949, and once inside he shot her in the back of the head, stripped her of her valuables, including a Persian lamb coat, and put her into the acid bath. Two days later Durand-Deacon’s friend, Constance Lane, reported her missing.
Detectives soon discovered Haigh’s record of theft and fraud and searched the workshop. Police not only found Haigh’s attaché case containing a dry cleaner’s receipt for Mrs. Durand-Deacon’s coat but also papers referring to the Hendersons and McSwans. Further investigation of the sludge at the workshop by the pathologist Keith Simpson revealed three human gallstones and part of a denture which was later identified by Mrs. Durand-Deacon's dentist during the trial and conviction.
Questioned by Detective Inspector Albert Webb, Haigh asked him "Tell me, frankly, what are the chances of anybody being released from Broadmoor?" (a high-security psychiatric hospital). The inspector said he could not discuss that sort of thing, so Haigh replied "Well, if I told you the truth, you would not believe me. It sounds too fantastic to believe".
Trial and execution
After the arrest, Haigh remained in custody in Cell 2 of Horsham Police Station when it was in Barttelot Road. He was charged with murder at the nearby courthouse in what is now known as the Old Town Hall. Haigh pleaded insanity, claiming that he had drunk the blood of his victims. However, as stated above he had previously asked a police officer, "What are the chances of getting out of Broadmoor?"
The Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross KC (later Lord Shawcross), led for the prosecution at Lewes Assizes, and urged the jury to reject Haigh’s defense of insanity because he had acted with malice aforethought.
Sir David Maxwell Fyfe KC, defending, called many witnesses to attest to Haigh’s mental state, including Dr Henry Yellowlees who claimed Haigh had a paranoid constitution, adding: "The absolute callous, cheerful, bland and almost friendly indifference of the accused to the crimes which he freely admits having committed is unique in my experience."
It took only minutes for the jury to find Haigh guilty. Mr. Justice Travers Humphreys sentenced him to death.
It was reported that Haigh, in the condemned cell at Wandsworth Prison, asked one of his prison guards, Jack Morwood, whether it would be possible to have a trial run of his hanging so everything would run smoothly. It is likely that his request went no further, or, if it did, the request was denied. Haigh was led to the gallows and hanged by executioner Albert Pierrepoint on 10 August 1949.
The case of John George Haigh was one of the post-1945 cases which gained much media coverage at the time. Along with the case of Neville Heath, it attracted a great deal of coverage in the newspapers even though Haigh's guilt (as with Heath) was not questioned. In the case of Haigh, it was also the method of disposal which has given him his place in criminal history. The editor of the Daily Mirror, Silvester Bolam, was sentenced to a prison term of contempt of court for describing Haigh as a "murderer" while the trial was still under way.