Red wine, ice cream, a warm bath – these are wonderful ways to unwind after a long day at work. But as we’ve seen time and again, even the most soothing of activities can be twisted into terror by a madman’s dark imagination.
Such is the grisly case of John George Haigh, a serial killer from England who used bubble baths of acid to dispose of his victims.
Born in 1909 to an ultra-religious Plymouth Brethren family, John George Haigh was raised in Yorkshire, England. His upbringing was strict, to say the least – his father reportedly constructed a 10-foot fence around their yard as a means of blocking out the neighbors.
With no playmates, young John grew up alone. At night, he was haunted by nightmares.
The first signs of trouble appeared in his early 20s. After a series of odd office jobs, John was canned on the suspicion that he’d stolen company money.
His life took a brief turn for the better in 1934, when he married a woman named Betty Hamer – but the marriage fell apart. Soon after, John landed himself in jail for fraud.
While behind bars, Betty gave birth to a baby girl, whom she put up for adoption. John’s conservative parents refused to accept the decision, and forever shunned their son from the family.
Alone, John moved south to London, where he picked up work as a chauffeur for a wealthy businessman named William McSwan in 1936. Yet his criminal ways bubbled back up. For the next seven years, John was in and out of jail for various crimes. It was during this time that he dreamed up the perfect murder.
How can one kill and then truly get rid of the body? Sulfuric acid, of course.
To test his plan, John caught mice and submerged their helpless bodies in acid. There he saw it: the critters were gone within 30 minutes.
In 1943 John was freshly released from prison and reconnected with his old boss, William McSwan. William invited the freed convict to dinner at his parents’ home in celebration.
Shortly thereafter, William disappeared.
John told William’s parents that the man had gone into hiding to avoid being drafted into World War II. But the truth was far grislier: John had lured William into his basement where he cracked him on the head, then dumped him into a 40-gallon barrel of sulfuric acid.
Within a couple of days, William went from grown man to goop.
Afterward, John moved into William’s estate, claiming the businessman had asked him to do so. But with WWII drawing to a close, William’s parents wondered why their son remained in hiding.
They soon voiced their suspicions to John. He knew of one way to quiet the fussy couple – give them an acid bath.
With the entire McSwan family now out of the picture, John began cashing William’s pension checks. He sold off their belongings for around £8,000 (£300,000 in today’s pounds). With money in hand, the killer moved into the Onslow Court Hotel in London’s posh Kensington district.
Eventually, however, the funds ran out – especially after John gambled much of it away.
While on the hunt for more cash, the killer spotted a promising real estate ad in the local paper. He traveled to the home of Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife, Rose (pictured above). Pretending to be an interested buyer, John soon struck up a relationship with the affluent couple.
In February of 1948 John convinced his newfound friends to take a drive into the country and visit his new workshop in West Sussex.
Upon arrival, John gunned down the Hendersons and dumped their bodies in the baths. He then collected their belongings and pawned it off for money.
Yes, the Acid Bath Murderer had cooked up quite the chilling racket – lure wealthy acquaintances out to his workshop of horrors, send them to the vats, then sell off their possessions for cold hard cash.
John’s next and final victim was Olive Durand-Deacon (pictured below), a wealthy widow living at the Onslow Court Hotel.
Of all possible things, Ms. Durand-Deacon wanted to meet with John to discuss a brilliant new idea – artificial fingernails. John happily invited her to his West Sussex workshop, where he shot her dead and submerged her body in acid.
This time, however, the Acid Bath Murderer failed to cover his tracks. Detectives soon connected the missing woman to John, and began looking into his lengthy record of prior arrests. When authorities searched his West Sussex workshop, they found evidence of Ms. Durand-Deacon plus some papers referring to his earlier victims.
As for the body-erasing acid baths? The plan was not as foolproof as John thought. A pathologist identified three gallstones and a piece of a denture amongst the remaining sludge – objects that could withstand a slathering of sulfuric acid.
Authorities arrested John and charged him with murder. He soon confessed to the killings. The man pled insanity, claiming he had been driven mad by a childhood nightmare that returned to him as an adult.
“I saw before me a forest of crucifixes which gradually turned into trees,” John recounted of the dream. “At first, there appeared to be dew or rain, dripping from the branches, but as I approached I realized it was blood. The whole forest began to writhe and the trees, dark and erect, to ooze blood…A man went from each tree catching the blood…When the cup was full, he approached me. ‘Drink,’ he said, but I was unable to move.”
The courtroom had little interest in John’s strange vision. A guilty verdict was handed down on all counts. In August 1949, John George Haigh was put to death by one of England’s longest serving executioners, Albert Pierrepoint.
Photos: Murderpedia; Wikimedia Commons; Hulton Archive / Getty