The destination for history

The ‘Acid Bath’ murders


John Haigh was a dangerous man to know. If you were a friend of his, and rich, the chances were you ended up with a bullet in the back of your head and your body dumped into a vat of sulphuric acid. His theory was if there was no body, then there was no crime, and he got away with it five times. 

His crimes fuelled a life of luxury, living in an expensive London hotel, driving fast cars and having his suits made in Savile Row. To his friends and future victims he was a man of culture and taste, eager to treat you to afternoon tea or an evening drink in his hotel, and maybe take you up the road to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, until he knew you well enough to talk about your finances, the properties you owned and where he’d find your savings.

He’d tell you about his strict Plymouth Brethren upbringing in Yorkshire where his parents built a seven foot fence around the house and wouldn’t let him bring any school friends back in case he was contaminated by the outside world. 

He was always a little vague about how he made his money, and the explanation that he was a civil engineer and inventor seemed convincing enough – he even had a small workshop down in Crawley where if he really liked you he might take you to discuss business deals. But once the door was closed behind you things became far from friendly.

This was the fate of his sixth and last victim, a kindly and talented lady who was also a resident in the hotel. Mrs Olive Durand Deacon was the widow of a war hero and had been an active suffragette in her day, even spending a night in the cells after throwing a brick through a window. But now she was a respectable lady in her late sixties – and rich. She was delighted to hear that nice Mr Haigh, who sat on the table opposite her in the hotel, was an inventor. She had a scheme herself to produce and patent artificial fingernails. This was 1949 and the post-war period when women wanted a bit of glamour. Mr Haigh liked the idea, and suggested she come down to the workshop to look at a few blueprints he’d knocked up for the project. That was the last they ever saw of her.

When Mrs Durand Deacon appeared to have vanished off the face of the earth, her friends and family were desperate. It was John Haigh who took her best friend to the police station to report the matter. But a lady police sergeant became suspicious of Haigh’s jaunty manner, and investigations showed he’d sold off Mrs Durand Deacon’s jewellery in the last few days and even had her fur coat cleaned. When they came to search through the rubble in the yard outside Haigh’s workshop, an observant pathologist spotted what he recognised as a couple of human gallstones and then, more recognisable, a set of false teeth. This was all that was left of Mrs Durand Deacon.

Inside the workshop police found a large metal drum and beside it several containers of acid, a wartime revolver and gloves and an apron splattered with acid. Haigh confessed to the murder, and to five others over the years, always shooting his victims first using the revolver he’d stolen from one of his victims, and then disposing of them in metal drums filled with acid. After a couple of days the resulting sludge would be poured down a drain or out into the workshop yard. He said in the case of Mrs Durand Deacon he’d even had time for a cup of tea and a fried egg on toast at the local café between shooting her and starting the acid bath treatment. 

Then Haigh made a further confession, as if what he’d already said wasn’t bad enough. He said his main motive for the murders was his urge to drink his victims’ blood. He’d cut a nick in their necks and filled a glass or two with their blood to quench his thirst. A knife was found in the glove pocket of the expensive Alvis car sitting outside his hotel. 

But was the vampire story just another ploy by the ever confidant Mr Haigh to avoid the gallows and be sent to Broadmoor Hospital as a madman? This was the task of the jury to decide at his trial, and it only took them half an hour to reject the insanity plea and dispatch him to the condemned cell at Wandsworth Prison.

Haigh’s last few days were spent making sure he went down in history as a vampire who’d perfected a way of finding his victims, and that using his forgery skills to put their money into his own bank account didn’t have much to do with it. He’d have his barber come into the prison to cut his hair, and only stopped receiving visitors when he had to start wearing prison clothes.

He welcomed Madame Tussauds into his cell on the afternoon before his execution and they took an exacting three hours making a life mask for the wax model they put up the day after his death, even wearing the clothes specially chosen and donated by Haigh himself.

Meticulous in his eye for detail to the last, he asked the prison governor if he might meet the hangman to check he’d got his weight right as, he explained, his spritely walk suggested a man of less weight that he was and this should be taken into account when calculating the drop on the gallows. The governor assured him Mr Pierrepoint, the notorious and experienced executioner, would make provision for this without having to meet him.

John Haigh remains in the public eye in a special exhibition at the Museum of London, where a collection of grisly relics are open to public view from New Scotland Yard’s infamous Black Museum. The gloves and apron Haigh used to protect himself from burns from the acid are on show, together with Mrs Durand Deacon’s gallstones and dentures, and the revolver.

Perhaps one of the saddest casualties in all this was Haigh’s young, attractive girlfriend, Barbara Stephens, who’d stuck by him for five years fully intending to marry him. Haigh had managed to compartmentalise his life to such an extent that she had no inkling of the dark side of the man she loved. She admitted later in life that had she ever found out then the chances were that he probably would have got rid of her as well. 

John Haigh made friends wherever he went. The police liked him, the chaplain who knelt to pray with him in his cell minutes before his execution spoke affectionately about him. His parents still loved him and firmly believed God would forgive him. Even the judge at his trial, Mr Justice Humphreys, must have had a certain curiosity for the man sitting in the dock spending most of the time doing the crossword, because a few years later Mr Humphreys in his retirement decided to become a resident himself in the very same hotel as the late Mr John Haigh and his last victim! 

By Gordon Lowe

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books