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John Haigh

Crime Files
John Haigh

One of the most bizarre and disturbing cases of mass murder is that committed by John Haigh, a respectable, well dressed, middle-class man with a surfeit of charm who, in the late 1940s, disposed of at least six victims in a manner that led some to label him a vampire.Haigh’s motivations for his crimes, which involved luring his prey to a fate where their blood was consumed before being dissolved in acid, have never been clearly corroborated. His claim to have been disturbed in his childhood by his strict religious parents, leading to a psychotic state of mind obsessed with religious iconography and sacrificial fantasies, has been disputed. Critics believe that instead of insanity fuelling Haigh’s vampire-like activities, he was in fact a cold-hearted killer who arrogantly believed that where there was no body, there was no crime to pin on him.John George Haigh was born on 24 July 1909 in Stamford, Lincolnshire. The family moved to Outwood, West Yorkshire, where Haigh spent the next 24 years of his life. He was brought up in a fanatically religious household where references to ‘the Lord’ were used frequently to remind the young Haigh that he was always observed by a higher and disapproving deity. Haigh himself claimed that his childhood was bleak and lonely. His only friends were his few pets and caring for the neighbour’s dog.A tall fence around the house, put up by his father, kept out prying eyes or any social contact with the outside world. Haigh’s parents belonged to a religious sect known as the Plymouth Brethren, who were purist and anticlerical. Bible stories were the only form of entertainment. Even participating in sports of any kind was forbidden. According to Haigh Snr, the world was ‘evil’ and the family needed to keep themselves separate. As his father had also told him that the blue blemish on his own head had been the result of him ‘sinning’ in his youth, it is perhaps not surprising that the young Haigh became obsessed and terrified by developing a similar ‘sign of the devil’ due to the slightest misdemeanour. He was told that his mother had no ‘mark’ as she was an angel.

Started to believe that he was invincible

It is said that a turning point in the boy’s developing psyche came when Haigh realised that no such blemish would appear, despite having lied or committed some other questionable behaviour. He then started to believe that he was invincible and could get away with anything. Claims of being afflicted by dreams of Gothic, nightmarish proportions, where trees would turn into crucifixes weeping blood, have to be viewed with caution. Haigh was later known to be manipulative and a compulsive liar, prone to saying anything to extricate himself from a compromising position.

At the time of his arrest for murder, his personal enquiries into what may befall him if he was found to be insane, is an indication that Haigh was aware that appearing ‘bonkers’ and damaged by his childhood would possibly work in his favour when it came to court.

In 1934 Haigh stopped attending his parents' church and married Beatrice Hammer, a 21-year-old woman he barely knew. Despite having been impressed by Haigh’s manners and charm, she was uncertain about his character but still went ahead with the marriage on 6 July 1934.

Haigh's parents allowed the couple to live with them although the marriage lasted only about four months, ending when Haigh was arrested in October 1934 and sent to prison for fraud.While he was incarcerated, Beatrice gave birth to a baby daughter, whom she gave up for adoption. Haigh saw her only once more; briefly, to lie by telling her that they were never officially wed because he already had a wife at the time. Despite his abilities Haigh spent a considerable amount of time in prison for mainly fraudulent practices that involved various illegal enterprises.

During a brief period he worked at an amusement park run by a Mr William ‘Mac’ Donald McSwan and his parents Donald McSwan and wife Amy. The family liked Haigh, promoted him in the business and were sorry to see him leave when he decided he wanted glittering prizes elsewhere.His next project, involving setting up a false solicitor’s office, earned him four years in prison. It was while he was incarcerated that he thought up a new scheme to become rich quickly, instead of toiling for a living. His plan was simply to go after rich, older women. Haigh had also convinced himself that if there was no corpse, then there could be no conviction. Such a belief no doubt prompted him into working with sulphuric acid in the prison's tin shop where he experimented on mice and made studies of the effects of acid on animal tissue. After Haigh was released from prison, he set out to carry his heinous plan. In the interim he stayed with the Stephen family, beginning a close friendship with one of the daughters, Barbara, who, despite the 20-year age gap, believed that she could become the next Mrs Haigh.

In 1944 Haigh was involved in a car accident where he suffered a wound to the head, which bled into his mouth. He later referred to this event as having been the catalyst that reawakened his blood-filled nightmares. Shortly afterwards he rented a basement space at 79 Gloucester Road, where he set up his ‘workshop’, a grim death trap to lure unsuspecting victims.

The Aftermath

Haigh finished his life story for the newspaper that had paid for his trial. He also wrote letters to Barbara Stephens and to his parents who did not see him before he died. His mother sent greetings through a reporter. Haigh told Barbara he believed in reincarnation and that he would be back to complete his mission. Madame Tussaud’s requested a fitting for a death mask and Haigh was happy to oblige.On 6 August 1949, Haigh was hanged at Wandsworth Prison.Madam Tussaud’s erected a wax figure of Haigh, complete with his very own clothes that he bequeathed to the institution.

Haigh finished his life story for the newspaper that had paid for his trial. He also wrote letters to Barbara Stephens and to his parents who did not see him before he died. His mother sent greetings through a reporter. Haigh told Barbara he believed in reincarnation and that he would be back to complete his mission. Madame Tussaud’s requested a fitting for a death mask and Haigh was happy to oblige. On 6 August 1949, Haigh was hanged at Wandsworth Prison. Madam Tussaud’s erected a wax figure of Haigh, complete with his very own clothes that he bequeathed to the institution.


24 July 1909: Haigh born in Stamford, Lincolnshire6 July 1934: Haigh marries Beatrice Hammer9 September 1944: kills ‘Mac’ Donald McSwan Jnr2 July 1945: kills Mr & Mrs McSwan12 February 1946: kills The HendersonsJune 1948: Haigh arrested18 July 1949: trial at Lewes Court6 August 1949: Haigh hanged at Wandsworth prison

The Trial

On 18 July 1949 four thousand people crowded into the small town of Lewes hoping to get a seat in the court. Mr Justice Humphries presided.Haigh had no money to pay for his defence so 'The News of the World' newspaper did a deal with him and offered to pay for his counsel if he would provide them with an exclusive. The 'Daily Mirror' newspaper was also found in contempt of court for emphasising Haigh being a vampire. The editor, Silvester Bolam, was sentenced to three months in prison. The paper also had to pay £10,000 in court costs.Haigh pleaded not guilty. The prosecution rested its case of deliberate premeditated murder for gain. Haigh’s defence counsel tried to rely on the issue of the defendant’s insanity, describing for the court how his ‘mental illness’ would have affected his ability to appreciate the morality of his acts.It was clear that Haigh was aware that what he was doing was wrong in the eyes of the law, as evidenced by his attempt to cover up his crimes. With that admission the defence collapsed.

There was only one issue to be decided, the question of the prisoner's sanity. The defence's psychiatrist failed to prove that Haigh’s judgment was impaired. Also, because Haigh had initially enquired about getting released from Broadmoor, it appeared as if he was thinking of using ‘insanity’ to get him off the hook.The prosecution declared that Haigh was simply a man who believed he had discovered the perfect crime, committed murder for gain and then pretended he was insane when he was caught.The jury were left to decide whether paranoia could be considered a mental disease or defect. It took them only fifteen minutes to come to a conclusion. Haigh was found guilty.The judge asked Haigh if he had anything to say for himself. Haigh cocked his head and said, "Nothing at all". Donning a black cap, the judge sentenced him to be hung until dead.

The Arrest

Beside his parents, the one person who was profoundly affected by news of Haigh being a callous mass murderer was Barbara Stephens, the woman he was supposed to love and marry. She visited him regularly in prison trying to understand what kind of man she had been involved with. Did he intend to kill her, she asked? He never entertained the idea, was the seemingly genuine reply. However, Barbara knew that at some point she may have succumbed to a similar fate when Haigh saw her as an inconvenience.There appeared to be no remorse on Haigh’s part and he revelled in revealing his grisly escapades which were recounted in the newspapers.ForensicsEven although the acid had destroyed a great deal of evidence, not everything had been eliminated. Ghoulish relics such as small bones, dentures, Mr Henderson’s foot and a gall bladder were all discovered, as the forensic team sifted through tons of mud and sludge. Technicians had to wear rubber gloves and cover their arms in Vaseline to protect themselves from the acid. They found the following items.1. 28 pounds of human body fat2. 3 faceted gallstones3. Part of a left foot, not quite eroded4. 18 fragments of human bone5. Upper and lower dentures, intact6. The handle of a red plastic bag7. A lipstick container

Despite the forensic evidence, it was Haigh’s very own sense of invincibility and arrogance that was to be his greatest undoing in finding him guilty.Haigh was of the opinion that nothing could be found from his human slaughterhouse and confidently recounted in great detail his escapades of death. As far as he was concerned, it was a case of corpus delicti. No bodies, no crime, no punishment.Psychiatric EvaluationOn 1 April 1949, EG Robey opened the case for the prosecution before ten Sussex magistrates. Haigh was in a confident mood and even made light banter throughout the proceedings, as if he was unaware of the magnitude of his crimes. If ever there was an illustration of sociopathic tendencies, that is the inability to empathise and recognise human feelings and emotions, Haigh was the perfect embodiment of such dysfunction.Haigh had during an early confession not only admitted to many of the deaths but also enquired as to what the outcome would be with anyone who was declared insane. It seemed at this stage that Haigh had been mulling over the possibility of appearing mad in order to escape the noose and had most likely invented the stories of nightmarish dreams and claims to be a vampire in order to literally save his neck.During court proceedings, EG Robey called thirty-three witnesses to prove premeditation of murder for gain. He laid out his case in the form of a basic chronology that showed how rational Haigh's movements were and how they had not been the actions of someone with diminished responsibility.Haigh was also examined by several doctors and psychologists who were interested in the defendant’s claims to have a need to drink blood. Such a compulsion, if genuine, is part of a sexual deviation and related to the act of violence itself. However, Haigh, who it appeared had little interest in sex, gave no indication that he suffered from such a disorder.Most of the psychologists agreed that although Haigh suffered from mental health issues he was not ‘insane’ and had been perfectly aware of his murderous actions that had involved meticulous planning. One eminent psychiatrist believed without any doubt that Haigh had a 'paranoid constitution', the same mental disease as Hitler.Haigh, they believed, had most likely developed a paranoid personality to escape his parents’ suffocating universe, in order to relieve himself from emotional pain. His upbringing had contributed to a mental state where the dividing lines between reality and fantasy had become blurred.The result was that Haigh had an acute sense of omnipotence and believed he was above the law. He was in effect an ‘egocentric paranoiac’ who, although aware that killing people was against the law, still thought that it was part of fulfilling his destiny.Haigh tried to impress on the psychiatrists more details of his abnormal dreams and obsession with blood drinking but none of them bought his efforts to portray himself as a lunatic. However, something of which they were not aware was that Haigh had years before developed a friendship with an employee of Sussex psychiatric hospital and had shown a great deal interest in mental illness. He possessed a talent for deception, having over the years also posed as a lawyer, engineer and a doctor.

The Crimes

At a public house in Kensington, Haigh chanced upon former employer 'Mac' McSwan again. Mac was happy to see him and took Haigh to see his parents. During the friendly reunion they told Haigh of their recent investments in property. This information was to seal their fates. After socialising with Mac for several weeks, Haigh carried out his plan on the 9 September 1944.In Haigh's diary, he claimed that he had a sudden need for blood so he hit McSwan over the head with a blunt instrument. Then he slit his throat. He says, "I got a mug and took some blood, from his neck, in the mug, and drank it."Haigh later found a 40-gallon barrel in which to put McSwan’s body and then filled it with sulphuric acid. He described in his confession how, when the body was finally submerged in liquid acid, the fumes overwhelmed him and he had to go outside. Later he covered the drum and went home to sleep, leaving his former employer and friend to dissolve into a liquid sludge. It was during the night that he supposedly suffered from more surreal and blood-filled nightmares.The next day the remains of McSwan were little more than cold liquid and lumps which Haigh disposed of down a drain. Knowing that he had killed someone and removed all traces of them gave Haigh a feeling of euphoria.Haigh managed to convince McSwan’s parents that their son had gone away to avoid conscription. He even sent fake postcards to them from Scotland pretending to be their son. However, Haigh’s main concern was to acquire the rest of the McSwan assets.The next murder would be committed with the addition of new equipment to deal with dissolving bodies. A stirrup-pump, DIY tin face masks and even a bath tub made of steel, painted to make it more resistant to corrosion, were all employed by Haigh in his obscene workshop of death.The McSwan MurdersAccording to a police statement, before Haigh hit upon his plan to cruelly dispose of the remainder of the McSwan family, he also murdered a middle-aged woman from Hammersmith.The McSwans disappeared on 2 July 1945. They were killed in a similarly tragic way to their son. Haigh hit them first, killing them and then claimed to have drunk their blood, before dissolving them in acid baths.After informing the McSwans' landlady that the couple had gone to America, Haigh had all of their mail forwarded to him, including Mr McSwan's pension. He then set about forging their son’s signature on a Power of Attorney form. By forging a deed on a property owned by Mrs McSwan and appropriating it into a false name, Haigh managed to make nearly £2000 from selling the property. That, along with securities and sales of possessions, totalled £6000.For a while Haigh managed to swindle people through a variety of scams, including posing as a liaison officer dealing with patents and setting up fake branches in several towns. It was also around this time that he later claimed in a police confession that he had killed and disposed of a young man called Max from Kensington. 


Haigh’s spoils from the McSwans were running out fast and the evil sociopath needed money from new victims. This time he chose a more worldly couple, Dr Archibald Henderson, 52, and his wife, Rose, 41, who were selling their home.Cultivating a relationship with the couple, based on a shared passion for music, Haigh encouraged them to reveal information about their properties.Renting a storehouse on Leopold Road in Crawley, London, Haigh moved his possessions from Gloucester Street and began setting up his obscene workshop once again. This time he ordered three carboys of sulphuric acid and two 40-gallon drums without tops.On 12 February 1946, he drove Dr Henderson to Crawley and shot him in the head with the doctor's own revolver. He then left the body in a storeroom and set off to get Mrs Henderson. After some reluctance she was driven to the storehouse. Haigh shot her from behind and after trussing up both her and her husband’s bodies, left them overnight. Haigh later claimed to the police that he drank blood from both of them.Haigh dissolved both bodies in acid but this time the grisly act did not erase all traces, as Mr Henderson’s foot was left intact. This did not seem to bother Haigh too much, as he dumped all the remains including the foot in the corner of a yard. The psychopath by now felt immune to being captured.Efforts to maintain the impression that the Henderson’s were still alive were methodical and time consuming. Haigh even forged letters by Rose Henderson, writing a lengthy letter to her brother. After selling their properties and possessions he acquired around £8000 in total. Showing a sickening contempt for his victims he even gave his girlfriend Barbara some of Mrs Henderson’s clothes to wear.Unexpectedly, Rose Henderson’s brother Burlin was prepared to go to the police. Haigh managed to convince him that the couple had emigrated to South Africa on the grounds that Dr Henderson had carried out an illegal abortion.As an indication of Haigh’s depravity and sociopathic tendencies, he even planned on visiting the mother of a recently deceased school friend whom he had spotted in the obituaries section of a local newspaper.No doubt Haigh had intentions to dispose of the grieving mother and misappropriate any possessions he could. His plan was foiled when the frail woman unexpectedly died herself.

Haigh’s money once again started to run out, mainly due to gambling and expensive tastes which included staying at an upmarket hotel. While there he had socialised with a wealthy elderly woman, Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, and thought up murderous plans to dispose of her.In June 1948 Haigh claimed that his car was stolen but the Lagonda was found smashed at the foot of a cliff. Less than a month later, an unidentified body was found nearby. However, the police decided that the two incidents were unrelated. Haigh denied having anything to do with the body, even after his arrest.Haigh had told girlfriend Barbara that he wanted to collect the car insurance and even took her to the spot where the Lagonda had been written off. It was then that she began to become suspicious of her soon-to-be husband.In the meantime, despite having killed Mrs Durand-Deacon, his money was running out again and he needed to pay off loans. Even although he tried to invite other people out to his Crawley den of death, no-one took him up on his offer.Also, Rose Henderson’s brother was once again causing problems for Haigh by insisting that the police locate his sister due to a death in the family. Haigh realised that he would have to silence him too.Before Haigh could carry out his callous intentions, he was arrested. His first comment to the reception officer when he first arrived at Lewes prison was, "This is the result of doing six people, but not for personal gain". Haigh then confessed to everything.


The Key Figures

Beatrice Hammer: Haigh's wife (divorced)Barbara Stephens: Haigh’s girlfriendBurlin: Rose Henderson’s brotherVictims (named):William ‘Mac’ Donald McSwanAmy McSwanDr Archibald HendersonRose HendersonOlive Durand-Deacon