Newspaper editors licked their lips when details of the crimes of John George Haigh first broke in March 1949. The case had everything:
Here was a young man with the look of a matinee idol claiming to be a vampire and being accused of murdering six people and dissolving their bodies in acid.
Haigh was christened The Vampire Killer or the Acid Bath Murderer by the newspapers and the case was front page news right up until his execution five months later. Nobody will ever know whether he really drank his victim's blood or whether he just made it up in an attempt to incur an insanity defence.
His real motive appears to have been simpler - he was stony broke and killed to acquire cash, jewellery and property which he pawned to keep himself in the comfort to which he had become accustomed.
The nightmares begins
John George Haigh was born on 24 July 1909 near Wakefield in Yorkshire, the only child of a puritan couple John Sr and Emily. He grew up in nearby Outwood but his childhood was not a happy one.
His parents, members of the Plymouth Brethren, lived an austere God-fearing life and forbade their son from indulging in sport or any form of light entertainment. They preached to him about Satan and Hell and put up a 10-foot fence around their garden to keep out the harmful influences of the outside world. Haigh would later claim that as a child he had recurring nightmares about a forest of crucifixes that turned into trees and dripped blood. A man would collect the dripping blood and offer it to him, he said.
John Haigh Sr, a power station foreman, had a scar on his forehead which he claimed was the branding of the Devil and was caused by a sin he had committed when he was younger. As a boy Haigh Jr was terrified of getting the same scar but as the years went by and he remained unblemished he realised his father was lying.
He began to lie more and more and believed he was too clever for his parents or anyone else to catch him out. When he left school he got a job as an apprentice at a firm of motor engineers and was able to indulge his passion for cars.
A criminal start
But while Haigh was in love with the motorcar he was also obsessed with cleanliness - possibly a legacy of his puritan upbringing - and he could not bear the oil and grime associated with working on engines. After a year he gave up the apprenticeship and took other jobs in advertising and insurance.
He learned about the financial world and did well enough to be able to buy a sporty new Alfa Romeo car. But, at the age of 21, he was sacked after being suspected of stealing from a petty cash box.
In 1934 he married 21-year-old Betty Hammer, a lively good-time girl who had no time for the puritanical nonsense spouted by his parents.
The marriage was a disaster.
In October 1934 Haigh was arrested and sent to prison for fraud. His wife gave birth while he was in jail but she gave the little girl up for adoption and dumped him.
Prison failed to reform him. In fact it merely boosted his determination to make a good living as a criminal.
"When I discovered there were easier ways of making a living than to work long hours in an office I did not ask myself whether I was doing right or wrong. That seemed to me to be irrelevant.
"I merely said 'That is what I want to do'," said Haigh later.
On his release he engaged in a complicated fraud involving the hire purchase of cars. But he only got away with it for a few months before being caught. He was convicted and jailed for 15 months. When he came out he tried to go straight and went into partnership in a dry cleaning business.
But this was in the midst of the Depression and dry cleaning was one of the first of the little luxuries cut back on by the hard-up middle classes. When his partner was killed in a motorbike accident it was the final straw for the business, which folded.
A life of crime
The failure of this venture convinced Haigh there was no point trying to earn a legitimate living. He moved to London and obtained a job as a chauffeur to William 'Mac' McSwan, who ran an amusement park. Haigh and McSwan became good friends and could often be found drinking and carousing in London pubs. But after a year in the job Haigh left to pursue more lucrative opportunities.
He set himself up as a bogus solicitor and soon came a cropper again. This time he was jailed for four years for fraud. By the time he got out the war had started. But the hostilities made no difference to Haigh, who was soon up to his old tricks again. He was jailed for 21 months for theft and while in prison he dreamt up the scheme that would eventually make him infamous.
Of mice and men
Haigh devoured the newspapers and learned of the dissolving qualities of sulphuric acid. In jail he experimented on dead mice, of which there were many. He discovered it only took 30 minutes to completely dissolve a mouse with acid.
Haigh was impressed and thought he had found a way to commit the perfect murder.
In 1944 he was freed and obtained a job as an accountant at an engineering firm. He became friendly with Barbara Stephens, a teenager with whose family he was lodging. The age difference did not appear a barrier to their affection and she harboured hopes of becoming his wife, unaware that he was still legally married.
But Haigh was about to become a killer.
One night he came across 'Mac' McSwan by chance in a pub in Kensington. Mac was delighted to see him again and took him home to see his parents, Donald and Amy. As they chatted the McSwans let slip that they had invested in property, which was bringing in a decent income.
That was their downfall.
On 6 September 1944 Mac vanished off the face of the earth. Haigh later claimed he hit him over the head with a table leg after being overcome with a lust for blood. But the fact that he had lured McSwan to a rented basement in Pimlico suggests there was an element of cold-blooded planning in his first murder.
Haigh had already obtained large quantities of acid and a 40-gallon drum. He squeezed Mac's body into the drum and began to pour acid over it. It took hours to decompose and Haigh had to step outside several times as the fumes threatened to overwhelm him.
Two days later he returned to find the body turned into a sludge, which he was able to pour down a manhole. The whole process had been nauseating but when it was over Haigh was overcome with a feeling of euphoria.
He immediately went to see Mac's parents and told them their son had fled to Scotland to avoid being called up for military service. Fortunately for Haigh this rang true, because Mac had threatened to run away rather than face being killed by the Germans. But to back it up Haigh travelled to Edinburgh and posted cards to the McSwans, supposedly from Mac.
By the summer of 1945 the McSwans were becoming curious about their son's continued absence. With the war in Europe over, and the Pacific conflict drawing to a close it seemed strange that Mac had not returned to London.
Haigh, who was in the process of taking over Mac's property holdings, decided he would have to rid himself of the troublesome McSwans. On 2 July 1945 he lured them to his Pimlico property on a false pretence and disposed of them exactly as he had their son. He would tell anyone who asked that the McSwans had emigrated to the US.
He had their correspondence forwarded to him, including Donald McSwan's pension cheque. Then, after forging their signatures, he sold their properties and appropriated the money to pay for a room at the Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington, where he would stay for the next four years.
Haigh, a degenerate gambler, obtained a total of £7,720 from the McSwans - a tidy sum in the 1940s - but it lasted him only two years. By the summer of 1947 he was running short of funds again and needed another victim. He replied to an advert for a house for sale and met the vendors, Dr Archibald Henderson, 52, and his wife Rose, 41.
Although the deal for the house fell through - Haigh could not come up with the money - he remained in touch with the Hendersons. Haigh spent months cultivating the couple until he was finally ready to act.
He also rented a small workshop in Crawley, West Sussex and moved acid, drums and other equipment there from the Pimlico basement. By February 1948, with his debts growing and increasing reminders from the Onslow Court management, he was forced to act.
On 12 February he drove Dr Henderson to Crawley, supposedly to discuss investing in one of Haigh's inventions. Soon after they arrived he shot him in the head with a stolen revolver. He then lured Mrs Henderson to the workshop, claiming her husband had fallen ill, and shot her when she walked through the front door.
After disposing of the bodies in his acid bath he forged a letter of authority from the Hendersons and was allowed to take away all their possessions, including their car and their dog. He sold everything - accruing £8,000 - except the dog, which he kept with him at the Onslow Court.
Haigh, having paid off his hotel bills, then set about convincing Rose Henderson's brother, Arnold Burlin, that she was alive. He faked her handwriting and wrote a 15-page letter to Mr Burlin claiming the couple had had to hastily decamp to South Africa after Dr Henderson carried out an illegal abortion.
By the end of 1948 Haigh, whose gambling habit was out of control, had run out of money again.
Step into the breach Olive Durand-Deacon.
Unfortunately for the 69-year-old widow she happened to mention to Haigh an idea she had for artificial fingernails. Haigh swooped on the opportunity. He invited Mrs Durand-Deacon, a fellow resident of the Onslow Court, down to his Crawley workshop to discuss the possibility of him turning her idea into reality.
Once inside he shot her in the back of the head, stripped her of her valuables, placed her inside a drum and let the acid do its work. Two days later Mrs Durand-Deacon's friend, Constance Lee, who also lived at the Onslow Court, reported her missing at Chelsea police station.
Catching a murderer
Haigh had been unable to persuade her not to and had, in the event, gone along and professed to be equally worried about her. He told detectives she had failed to turn up for their meeting. But background checks on him soon turned up his record of theft and fraud. Detectives naturally took great interest in Haigh and decided to search the workshop.
What they found there convinced them he had not only killed Mrs Durand-Deacon but possibly several other people. Officers, led by Detective Inspector Pat Heslin, found an attaché case with Haigh's initials on it. Inside were not only a dry cleaner's receipt for Mrs Durand-Deacon's Persian lambskin coat but also papers relating to the Hendersons and McSwans, none of whom had even been reported missing.
Then a jeweller from nearby Horsham called to say that a man had pawned Mrs Durand-Deacon's jewellery the day after she went missing.
He identified Haigh and that was enough for police to arrest him.
Closer investigation of the sludge at the workshop revealed three human gallstones and a pair of dentures that were identified by her dentist as belonging to Mrs Durand-Deacon.
Initially the silver-tongued charmer sought to lie his way out of trouble but he was caught out again and again by the interviewing officers. He changed tack, deciding to tell all but layering his confessions with a veneer of insanity, including numerous references to vampirism. Haigh claimed he had not only killed Mrs Durand-Deacon, the Hendersons and the McSwans, but also three other people - a mystery woman from Hammersmith, a young man called Max and a girl from Eastbourne.
The three extra victims may have been real or they may have been part of Haigh's attempt to convince the jury of his insanity. He had already asked a policeman about conditions at Broadmoor and it appears he was angling for an insanity defence, followed by a few years in a mental hospital and then eventual release.
At his trial at Lewes Assizes, the Attorney General himself, Sir Hartley Shawcross, represented the Crown and made it clear the only question was the prisoner's sanity. Dr Henry Yellowlees claimed Haigh had a "paranoid constitution" and went on to say: "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."
Sir Hartley demolished the defence's argument by showing numerous occasions when Haigh had acted with malice aforethought. It took only minutes for the jury to agree that Haigh was guilty.
Mr Justice Humphries donned the obligatory black cap and sentenced Haigh to death.
As he awaited the sentence in Wandsworth prison Haigh was examined by two more psychiatrists, who agreed that his plea of insanity - including an occasion where he was seen to drink his own urine - was a sham.
On 6 August 1949 Haigh, who had earlier agreed to model for a death mask being made by Madame Tussaud's waxworks, was executed by hanging. He left his clothes to Tussaud's with the stipulation that his waxwork was always kept spotless, with trousers neatly creased, shirt cuffs showing and hair parted.
John Haigh's victims:
6 Sep 1944: William McSwan
2 Jul 1945: Donald and Amy McSwan
12 Feb 1948: Archibald and Rosalie Henderson
18 Feb 1949: Olive Durand-Deacon