Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John George Haigh

Missing Person

John George Haigh came from Yorkshire, England. There was no suggestion in his family of any type of mental disorder, although his mother, Emily, claimed that she had experienced acute anxiety during the last three months before he was born. She was forty and he was her first and only child. She had been married eleven years to John Robert Haigh and suddenly he had been fired from his job as a foreman in electricity works. That put the family into dire financial straits. They were forced to borrow money, which they considered shameful.

Haigh as a boy.
Haigh as a boy.

Haigh was born on July 24th, 1909. Several months later, his father found work again. They moved to Outwood, where Haigh spent the next twenty-four years of his life. He claimed that his life had been quiet and monastic, without the typical joys of childhood.

His parents belonged to a religious sect known as the Peculiar People, or The Plymouth Brethren, who were purist and anticlerical. He was told Bible stories and forbidden from participating in sports or any kind of entertainment. That was all right with him, because he developed an abhorrence for dirt. In all of his actions, his father warned him, he should take care not to "grieve the Lord." The world was evil and the family needed to keep themselves separate. Haigh's father even built a tall fence around their house and garden to distance themselves from neighbors.

John Haigh, Sr. had a bluish mark on his forehead, which he said was the Devil's brand. He had been marked because he had sinned and he warned his son never to do the same. His mother was not marked because she was an angel, and Haigh thereafter regarded mother figures in that light. He found it remarkable that he was the child of a sinner and an angel. He built up a state of anxiety over doing anything that might leave that mark on him and thereby show him to be a sinner. He vigilantly examined others for this indicator, and often stayed awake at night wondering if the mark had arisen on his face. It was not long, however, before he discovered that he would not necessarily be punished for going astray. Small pranks and lies produced no mark on his skin. He realized he had been conned.

As a boy, he showed a strong sensitivity to others, especially animals. He kept a dog and several pet rabbits as substitutes for the friends he was not allowed to have. He sometimes gave his own food to the neighbors' dogs. He made many statements to the effect that he could not bear the sufferings of others. Even those he killed he claimed had not suffered. Nevertheless, it was clear that he valued animals over humans.

He rarely misbehaved, but when he did, his mother struck the back of his hand with the bristles of a hairbrush. He later said that this treatment drew blood, which he would lick, and that's how he developed his blood craving. (Many believe he said this to build the image of insanity, but those people who later do become vampiric often report such incidents from their childhood.)

Although he attended school, Haigh generally went right home afterward rather than mingling with other children. He was a solitary individual. He also became a liar. To avoid distressing his parents, he developed the habit of inventing what he knew they wanted to hear. He became quick with his tongue and clever in his remarks.

Haigh's greatest joy was music, and he learned to play the piano and the organ. He also joined the choir, which required that he attend Cathedral services in Wakefield, three miles away. He entered a religious world that was more highly structured and reliant on designated authorities than his anti-clerical upbringing had allowed. He began to live in two different worlds with fundamentally opposing beliefs. In fact, from age ten to age sixteen, he basically participated in those things that he had been raised to believe were sinful, and his parents allowed it. He felt like he was getting away with something, and a psychiatrist would later determine that this had been the sociopathic turning point for him. Haigh had also described how he would meditate on the image of the bleeding Christ from portraits in the Cathedral, claiming that this had adversely affected him and had partly inspired his bloodlust.

Haigh also loved cars and after finishing school, he took a job as an apprentice in a firm of motor engineers. Since the work was dirty, he spent only a year at it and then left. He then became a clerk with the Wakefield Education Community, but disliked that as well. He became an underwriter for advertising and insurance, at which he succeeded for a brief period. He learned about the world of high finance and even managed to buy an expensive car, a bright red Alfa Romeo. However, at the age of twenty-one, he had a brush with the law for fraudulent practices. It seems that the petty cash box was stolen and he was suspected, but he was let go without punishment. He lost a job that seemed to have promise.

The author David Briffett makes the case that Haigh must have been aware at this time of a notorious trial that was going on in France. It filled the English papers. Maitre Sarret, a French lawyer, had devised a get-rich-quick scheme that involved insurance, murder, and the disposal of the bodies in sulfuric acid. Sarret insured a man who was dying and persuaded a female friend to marry him. She then used a decoy husband to assure insurance companies that he was no health risk. Then when the first man died, they all collected. However, the fake husband blackmailed the lawyer, who then murdered him and his mistress. He then placed the bodies in a metal tub and dissolved them with acid. He might have gotten away with it, but went on to repeat the insurance fraud for an even larger amount of money and got caught. He was sentenced to death. If Haigh did indeed read this story—and it seems likely that he did—he no doubt believed he was cleverer than Sarret and could get away with it.

In 1934, Haigh stopped attending his parents' church and got married to a young woman he barely knew named Beatrice Hammer. She was twenty-one, independent, and high-spirited. Haigh impressed her with his manners and charm, and when he asked for her hand, she immediately said yes. They kept their approaching nuptials secret, although Betty had second thoughts. To a guest at the hotel where she was staying she said, "Oh God, I wish it could be anyone else!" She was not sure about his character or the source of his money. However, on July 6th she went through with it.

Both sets of parents disapproved, although Haigh's parents allowed the couple to live with them. The marriage lasted only four months, ending when Haigh was arrested in October and sent to prison. While he was there, his wife gave birth to a baby daughter, which she gave up for adoption. Haigh saw her only once more; briefly, to tell her they were never officially wed because he already had a wife at the time. It was a lie and it's not clear why he told her that.

He viewed prison itself as a temporary setback. It seems that he had read in the newspaper an account of someone who had sold cars that had been leased. It struck him as easy money, which greatly appealed to him, although he seemed to overlook the fact that the person who had done it was now in jail. Haigh believed he could pull it off. He became the hire-purchase inspector of one of the companies, and finding the system lax, took advantage.

"When I discovered there were easier ways of making a living than to work long hours in an office," he later wrote, "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 wish to do.' And as the means lay within my power, that was what I decided.

Haigh's approach to this crime was to advertise for a garage, stating that the necessary capital was available. He would then select a garage whose owner was having financial trouble. He would take an option to purchase. During the option, the commission on any cars that Haigh sold would be divided. He would then use the name of the garage to obtain blank hire-purchase forms for a car. He would then forge someone's handwriting who lived in the vicinity of the garage and use that to create a fictitious purchase of a nonexistent car. The company advanced the money, which Haigh would endorse and cash. He got away with this for only a few months before he was arrested and imprisoned for fifteen months.

This was his first real penalty, yet it had no effect on redirecting him toward an honest occupation. It was not long before his belief in his own superiority got him into more serious trouble.