Known as the Acid Bath Murderer, John George Haigh (July 24, 1909- August 10, 1949) was a serial killer more famous for his method of corpse disposal than how many people he killed or how he killed them. Haigh murdered at least six people between 1944 and 1949 and used sulphuric acid to disappear their remains. He was only caught when, in a moment of arrogance, he led police to the remains of his final victim, Olivia Durand-Deacon.
Haigh believed that if police could not recover the body of a murder victim then he could not be charged for murder. He would find out that to commit the perfect murder, a killer should destroy all evidence that could implicate them, not just the body.
Acid is an effective method of digesting human remains given the right resources (ventilated space and acid-proof containers) and enough time (several days). This method of disposal of human remains is common enough that forensic scientists study its effects on the human body.
Recovery and Analysis of Haigh’s Final Victim
Olivia Durand-Deacon, the 69-year-old widow of a solicitor, lived at the Onslow Court Hotel in London when she met fellow hotel tenant, John George Haigh. Durand-Deacon and Haigh were friendly acquaintances, enough for her to know that he worked as an engineer and for him to know that she was wealthy.
She made an appointment to meet Haigh on February 18, 1949 at his workshop in West Sussex, about 45 miles south of London, to discuss an idea about artificial fingernails. She was last seen alive the day of her meeting with Haigh, wearing a fur coat and carrying a red purse.
Durand-Deacon’s friends at the Onslow Court Hotel were worried when they did not see her for a couple of days. On February 20th, Constance Lane, a friend of the widow, went to the Chelsea Police Station in London to report her missing. Haigh escorted Lane when she made her report.
Police were instantly wary of Haigh and searched both his hotel room and his workshop on Leopold Road in Crawley. They came across a dry cleaning receipt for a woman’s fur coat and papers referring to people named McSwan and Henderson in Haigh’s hotel room. At Haigh’s workshop, the police found a carboy (a container used to hold acid), a steel drum, a pump and a revolver.1
Chelsea police questioned Haigh on February 28, 1949 about the evidence recovered from his hotel room and workshop. He reportedly told inspectors, “Mrs. Durand-Deacon no longer exists. She has disappeared completely and no trace of her will ever be found again.”2
When asked what had happened to her, he responded, “I have destroyed her in acid. You will find sludge that remains at Leopold Road. Every trace has gone. How can you prove murder if there is no body?”2
The day after these disturbing statements, Dr. Keith Simpson, a pathologist from Scotland Yard, searched Haigh’s workshop to retrieve what was left of Durand-Deacon and to find more evidence.3 Simpson identified “finely spattered blood stains” on one of the walls of the workshop and a puddle of “yellowish-white” sludge on the side of the building. He suspected that the pool was all that was left of Durand-Deacon.4
Simpson and his team removed about 475 lbs of soil in and around the sludge, which they sieved to retrieve human remains and other evidence.1 They discovered about 28 lbs of human body fat, a partial left foot, 18 human bone fragments from the heel and spinal column, three human gallstones, a complete set of dentures for upper and lower jaws, and a handle to a red purse.1,5
Durand-Deacon’s dental surgeon examined the false teeth and confirmed that they were custom-made to fit the widow’s mouth.4
Haigh was charged with her murder on March 2, 1949.3 The subsequent investigation and trial revealed Haigh’s background as a thief, five additional murders, and his motive.
The Acid Bath Murders
When police looked into Haigh’s background, they learned he was a thief who was in and out of jail for fraud between 1936 and 1943. Investigators also discovered that several of his friends had disappeared between 1944 and 1949.
One of those friends was William McSwan, his former employer who had gone missing in 1944. Haigh confessed that he killed McSwan in September of that year, immersed the body in sulphuric acid, and poured the dissolved remains down a drain. Afterward, he moved into his house.
To avoid suspicion, he told McSwan’s parents, Donald and Amy, that he ran off to avoid serving on the front in World War II. But his parents started to doubt Haigh’s story when the war ended and McSwan did not return. Haigh murdered McSwan’s parents in July 1945 when he was no longer able to deflect suspicion. He sold off the McSwan family property and possessions, and even cashed their pension checks for a time.
After the McSwan murders, Haigh moved to London and lived at the Onslow Court Hotel. Hurstlea Products in Crawley, a town in West Sussex, hired him as an engineer. The owner even leased him the company storeroom on Leopold Road for his personal use. It was there that Haigh murdered and disposed of the rest of his victims.
Haigh was able to live off the ill-gotten McSwan money for a couple of years. When those funds ran out, he decided to kill again.
In February 1948, Haigh lured Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife, a couple he had befriended, to his workshop in Crawley. He shot them, dissolved their bodies in acid, and sold off their belongings.
A year later, Haigh was overdrawn at the bank and owed the Onslow Court Hotel money for his room. It was about this time that he plotted the murder of Durand-Deacon.1
On February 18, 1949, Haigh picked his prey up from the Onslow Court Hotel and drove her to his workshop to discuss her artificial fingernails. He shot her, placed her body in a 45-gallon steel drum, then pumped it full of sulphuric acid. In the days after the murder he took her coat to the cleaners and tried to sell her jewelry. 1
Four days later, there was very little left of Durand-Deacon, so he dumped the sludge from the steel drum in the yard of his workshop.
The Trial of John George Haigh
During the trial, Simpson testified that the bones recovered from Haigh’s workshop belonged to a female of “advanced age” who had arthritis.4
Simpson also told the court that when a corpse is submerged in concentrated acid, the result would be an almost complete liquefaction of the human body. He stated that the reason her dentures survived was because they were made out an artificial substance that resisted acidic destruction.4
Simpson also concluded that there was no evidence of more than one body in the pool found at the Leopold Road scene.4
Haigh confessed to killing nine people, but police only confirmed six murders. Although he attempted to defend himself with a claim of insanity, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Haigh was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in London on August 10, 1949.
Forensic Research of Dissolving Human Remains in Acid
Disposal of human remains in acid is still used today by killers. For example, in 2016, a man in Mexico City was accused of murdering his Tinder date and dissolving her body in hydrochloric acid. Also in 2016, a man from Tennessee was accused of murdering his parents and attempting to use an acidic solution to get rid of the bodies.6,7
Because murderers continue to use acid to conceal their crimes, forensic scientists must understand what happens to the human body when it is submerged in acid.
In an article titled “Microscopic Residues of Bone from Dissolving Human Remains in Acid,” researchers from the Netherlands Forensic Institute analyzed two murder cases where acid was used to liquefy human remains.
Vermeij and his team found that some components of the human body, like protein and bone mineral, are vulnerable to acidic decay.5 But the solubility of fat in acid is extremely bad and may result in a thin, fatty layer. The presence of this fatty film may help preserve some bone fragments from completely breaking down.5
The only components Vermeij et al. found were resistant to acid were gallstones and artificial components, like teeth and medical implants.5 This explains why Durand-Deacon’s gallstones, dentures and some of her bones survived.
1: “’I destroyed her acid’ - Haigh’s alleged remark.” (02 April 1949). Western Morning News.
2: “Haigh £50 debt sealed the fate of Mrs. Durand-Deacon.” (18 July 1849). Yorkshire Evening Post.
3: “The ‘Acid Bath Murder’: Investigation Scenes.” (12 March 1949). Illustrated London News.
4: Haigh’s alleged confession: ‘I have destroyed her acid.’” (01 April 1949). Derby Daily Telegraph
5: Vermeij, E.; Zoon, P.; Van Wijk, M., Gerretsen, R. (May 2015). “Microscopic residues of bone from dissolving human remains in acid.” Journal of Forensic Sciences, 60 (3): 770-776.
6: Schladebeck, J. (26 December 2016). “Man accused of killing and dissolving Tinder date’s body in acid arrested in Mexico City.” Retrieved from: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/man-accused-dissolving-tinder-date-body-acid-article-1.2924615
7: “Man accused of murdering parents, dissolving bodies in acid.” (30 November 2016). Retrieved from: http://nbc4i.com/2016/11/30/man-accused-of-murdering-parents-dissolving-bodies-in-acid/
Dolly Stolze is a researcher and editor at Strange Remains, a blog site that specialized in forensic science, bioarchaeology and bizarre history. She has a master’s degree in forensic anthropology from California State University, Los Angeles.