Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John George Haigh

Missing Person

While in prison, Haigh was ostracized from the Brethren for his sin. He was shocked, and his mother afterward said to anyone who would listen that this expulsion had affected his future outlook. After prison, he returned to his parents' home and then went into the dry-cleaning business. He succeeded well until his partner was killed in a motorcycle accident. The subsequent liquidation of the business soured him. He left his hometown and went to London.

William Donald McSwan
William Donald

Reading about a job listing for a secretary/chauffeur for an amusement park, Haigh applied. That began a whole new chapter in his life, although it was only by chance that the person who had hired him would one day become his first victim. The amusement park owner was Mr. William Donald McSwan, nicknamed "Mac," a young man with good prospects. He liked Haigh and thought he was an excellent employee. Haigh never mentioned his past transgressions. Mac introduced him to his parents, who approved of him at once. The two young men became friends. Both enjoyed fast cars, flashy clothes, and going to London pubs. As Haigh learned the business, he was promoted to manager. However, after a year, he left to go into business on his own. The McSwans were sorry to see him go, but he did not like to work for other people.

He set up a fake solicitor's office by using the name of a reputable firm. He then pretended to have an estate to liquidate and some public company shares to dispose of. Checks came in and Haigh cashed them without providing the goods. He would then move on to duplicate the scheme in another area.

However, the law caught up with him and once again he went to prison, this time for four years. Within a year of getting out, he was back in again for twenty-one months for theft of goods. He claimed the owner asked him to sell those things he had taken, but his lies failed to save him.

While in prison this time, Haigh vowed he would not be back. He formed a plan to go after rich older women. To his mind, that's where the big money was to be found. He also learned how to work with sulfuric acid in the prison's tin shop. He experimented on mice, supplied to him by other prisoners, and made an extended study of the effects of acid on animal tissue. He discovered how easy it was to dispose of a body if one had a sufficient amount of acid and a private place to do it. With a mouse, it required only half an hour.

When he got out, he found work as an accountant with a Mr. Stephens in an engineering firm. He lived for a short time with the Stephens family. They had two daughters and the older one, Barbara, shared Haigh's passion for music, so they developed a close friendship. Eventually, they talked about marriage, although Haigh was not divorced from his first wife and was in no position to make any such arrangements. He was also nearly twenty years Barbara's senior. Nevertheless, she proved to be his closest friend and genuinely believed she would become his wife.

In 1944 Haigh was involved in a car accident. He suffered a wound to the head, which bled into his mouth. He claims it revived in him dreams of blood from his childhood.

"I saw before me a forest of crucifixes," he wrote, "which gradually turned into trees. At first there appeared to be dew, or rain, dripping from the branches, but as I approached, I realized it was blood. Suddenly the whole forest began to writhe and the trees, stark and erect, to ooze blood... A man went to each tree, catching the blood." That man approached Haigh to "drink."

It was the same year he began to kill. He rented a basement space at 79 Gloucester Road, which apparently proved too convenient to resist. He kept carboys of acid there and it was not long before he transferred what he had learned in prison to the world at large.

At a public house in Kensington, he chanced upon "Mac" McSwan again, for whom he had worked before his second prison term. McSwan was happy to see him and took Haigh to see his parents. Having no idea what lay in the future, they were all pleased with this reunion. They told Haigh of their recent investments in property, which provided a tidy income. He listened intently, forming a plan.

McSwan and Haigh began to spend more time together. One day, McSwan wrote a postcard for Haigh to young Barbara Stephens in Crawley. It was the 6th of September 1944, and he was never seen again.

In Haigh's diary, found later by police, there is a cross etched in red crayon under the entry for September 9th. This may have been the day he either killed or disposed of McSwan. Haigh claimed that he had a sudden need for blood so he had hit McSwan over the head with a blunt instrument, possibly a table leg or a pipe. Then he slit his throat. "I got a mug and took some blood, from his neck, in the mug, and drank it." He left the corpse there overnight to die and had to decide what he was now to do with it. That was the night when Haigh dreamed of the forest of blood.

In his workroom, he had some acid—much more than he needed for the things he claimed to be doing. Searching old bombsites from the war, he found an old 40-gallon drum and put McSwan into it. Getting the body stuffed inside was an ordeal, as McSwan was larger than the five-foot-eight Haigh. First Haigh removed McSwan's valuables and clothing. Then he laid the drum on its side and dragged the body over to it. It took him half an hour to do this, because he had to fold the body in half to fit it inside the drum. He pushed the legs as close to the torso as possible before he was able to shove McSwan inside. Finally he had to set the drum upright. He packed McSwan's overcoat around him and prepared for the final step.

Haigh donned an apron and gloves to go fill a bucket with the acid. This method proved awkward, but he finally got the first bucketful into the drum. As he worked, the fumes that accumulated as the acid worked its way into the body overwhelmed him. He had not expected this. His office had poor ventilation and Haigh had to step outside to get air. It took hours before the corpse was fully submerged in a bubbling liquid. The once-cold acid had become intensely hot as it reacted with the body's moisture. Haigh covered the drum, locked his office, and went home to collapse. As he slept, his former drinking pal became a liquid sludge.

Haigh returned to the basement two days later to check on the progress of his "experiment." He looked into the drum to see a blackish porridge-like substance, smeared with red streaks. It smelled awful. Using a wooden rod, he stirred through the human/acid stew to see if McSwan was fully dissolved. It was more congealed than he had expected, but sufficiently liquid to pour down a large manhole drain—which is exactly what he did, using the bucket to scoop the cold liquid from inside the drum until it was nearly empty. To Haigh's chagrin, there were still lumps of something at the bottom of the drum. He had to dig them out with the stick and force them down the drain. Then he cleaned up the drum.

Once this task was completed, Haigh experienced a sense of euphoria. He had murdered someone and no one would ever be able to pin it on him. In fact, no one would ever find a body. No corpus delicti. It was time now to claim Mac's possessions.

First Haigh went to McSwan's parents and told them that their son had gone away to avoid the draft. Since McSwan had already voiced plans to go underground rather than serve in the military, it seemed credible to them that he had gone. Haigh even sent fake postcards to McSwans from Scotland. He then made plans to acquire the rest of the McSwan holdings.

Haigh had learned how the acid had made it difficult to breathe, so he fashioned a tin mask to protect his face for future work. He also bought a stirrup-pump to get the acid from the carboy container into the tub, since that, too, had proved a rather arduous task. He had an acid-bath tub specially made of steel and he painted it with several more layers to make it resistant to corrosion. (Briffett says that he had two oil drums for this purpose, rather than a tub.)

Two months later, according to a statement made to the police, he murdered a middle-aged woman from Hammersmith who was never identified. He then went on to murder both of the elder McSwans—those people who had welcomed him back without reservation into their company. He hit them with the same pipe, claimed to have drunk their blood, and dissolved them in acid baths. After July 2nd, 1945, they simply disappeared. Haigh told the landlady that they had gone away to America. He also rifled through the family files so that he was prepared to answer any questions, and he had all of their mailed forwarded to him—including McSwan's pension. Then he disposed of their properties.

Later, he claimed that he had killed them both because the father's corpse did not produce enough blood to satisfy him. However, the fact that he took over their property and investments indicates a different motive. Pretending to be William Donald McSwan, he forged the young man's signature on a Power of Attorney. Then he forged a deed on a property owned by McSwan's mother and proceeded to appropriate it into his own name—his false one. He sold the properties and netted 1720 pounds. He also obtained securities and from the sale of the possessions and homes gained more than 6,000 pounds. Their disappearance was never reported to the police and was not even discovered until Haigh made his confession in 1949.

At the time, Haigh had moved into Room 404 at the Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington, a resident hotel that housed mostly well-heeled older widows. He posed as a liaison officer between people with patents, inventors, and engineering firms. His firm, he told people, was the Union Engineering Group, with branches in four towns.

That autumn, Haigh later claimed in his tacked-on confession, he killed a young man named Max from Kensington, but there was no way to test the truth of his statement.

Dr. and Mrs. Henderson
Dr. and Mrs. Henderson

However, he was certainly ready to kill again. Within two years of the McSwan family deaths, Haigh had spent all of the money he had gotten from their estates, so he looked around for another way to enrich himself quickly. An ad for selling a house brought him in contact with Dr. Archibald Henderson, 52, and his wife, Rose Henderson, 41.

Haigh offered more for the house than they were asking but could not come up with the money, so the deal fell through. However, he had never intended to buy it. What he wanted was a way into their lives. He continued to see the Hendersons and to develop a friendship based on common interests in music, although they were not the type of people of which he would normally approve. They lived expensively, drank, and were fairly worldly. Rose had been married before and was divorced. Yet the fact that they obviously had money appealed to Haigh, so he cultivated an association and formed a plan. He encouraged them to talk about themselves and through those conversations learned all that he could about their properties and their habits. He claims that he often played the piano for them and performed many acts of kindness. Their association lasted five months, showing just how patient Haigh could be with his intended prey.

During this time, Haigh rented the storehouse on Leopold Road in Crawley from Hustlea Products for his experimental work, and moved his possessions there from Gloucester Street. On December 22nd, 1947, he ordered three carboys of sulfuric acid and two forty-gallon drums without tops.

In February of 1948, Haigh visited the Hendersons and spent several days with them. He claims that a "dream cycle" began, indicating the blood dreams that drove him to murder. At the same time, his debts were mounting.

On February 12th, he drove Dr. Henderson to Crawley and shot him in the head with his own revolver, which Haigh had stolen. He left Henderson in the storeroom while he went to get a gas mask, which he also had taken from Henderson's place. He then returned to Mrs. Henderson, told her that her husband was ill, and drove her to her doom. She was irritated with this interruption in her life and did not want to go into the storehouse, but Haigh asked her to help him carry some of her husband's things on their way to seeing him at the home of a friend. She begrudgingly went into the building. Haigh shot her as well. He trussed up both bodies and left them there overnight.

"From each of them," he said, "I took my draught of blood."

His diary for the February 12th entry indicates the Henderson's initials next to two red crosses. He dissolved them in the acid baths, as he had done with the McSwans. Henderson's foot was still intact, but Haigh dumped the sludge along with the foot in one corner of the trashy yard without bothering to take care of such obvious evidence. Apparently he felt immune to capture.

The following morning, the night porter at the hotel where the Henderson's were staying was asked to take their dog, an Irish setter, out for a walk. Haigh then went to the hotel, paid the bill, showed a letter of authority from Dr. Henderson, and took the Henderson's possessions and dog away with him. The items he sold, along with their car, but he kept the dog with him in his hotel. He also acquired and sold the Henderson's house. Rather shockingly, he sold Barbara Stephens some of Mrs. Henderson's clothing. To Mrs. Durand-Deacon, whom Haigh had met at the hotel, he sold a handbag. From these transactions, he gained almost 8,000 pounds. He wrote to people whom the Henderson's knew, copying Rose's handwriting and forging her signature—even writing out a full fifteen pages to satisfy her brother, Arnold Burlin, who wanted to go to the police. Haigh explained to this man that the Hendersons had decided to emigrate to South Africa. Burlin was worried, but did not know how to find them. When he pressed again about the police, Haigh told him that Archie would get into trouble because he had performed an illegal abortion. Burlin did not quite believe this, but he had no proof otherwise. Although Burlin was a shrewd businessman, Haigh managed finally to convince him. He accepted Rose's letter, mailed from Glasgow, as authentic.

Haigh later claimed that he had killed the Hendersons to get their blood, but his actions subsequent to the double murder, and the state of his finances, indicate otherwise.

Next, according to him, he killed a girl named Mary from Eastbourne. This, too, was never proven, and it is not certain that she ever existed.

In June of 1948 Haigh claimed that his car was stolen. The Lagonda was found smashed at the foot of a cliff. Less than a month later, an unidentified female body (Briffett says male) was found nearby, but the police decided that one incident was unrelated to the other. Haigh insisted that he had nothing to do with either incident, even after his arrest and lengthy confession of other murders. However, he did show the wreck to Barbara Stephens and aroused her suspicions when he told her not to mention it to anyone. People had heard him say that he was tired of the car and wished someone would steal it. Whether he simply rid himself of it or rid himself of a body is anyone's guess. He was well insured and used the money to purchase a new Avis saloon.

Going through the funds he had accumulated by the end of the year, Haigh was once again in debt. He squandered a lot of money by gambling. He noticed an obituary in the paper of the father of a schoolmate so he wrote a kind note to the widow, saying he would like to come and visit her. She thought it was sweet of him after all these years, but she died before he could get there. No doubt he had a deal in mind for her.

He went about inviting several other people out to his "factory" in Crawley, but got no takers. Now he really was getting desperate. He owed money to the hotel and had borrowed enough to pay it, but the loan had to be repaid within five days. When Mrs. Durand-Deacon approached him with the idea of inventing false fingernails, he invited her to his place of business. Even the murder of Mrs. Durand-Deacon, however, failed to cover his debts and had he not been caught, he would have had little choice but to murder again, and quickly.

Just as the pressure of this murder was about to come upon him, Rose Henderson's brother, who needed to find out more information about her whereabouts, contacted him again. Burlin was determined to go to Scotland Yard and wanted Haigh to go with him. Their mother was ill and Rose must be contacted. Haigh apparently contemplated doing away with this nosy man as well, because he offered to provide accommodations for him when he came into London. Things did not get quite that far because Haigh was arrested. His killing spree was over.

As a boy, Haigh had written a prophetic paper in which he described his own irredeemable nature: "We may well learn the lesson that one fall, even though it be met by perfect grace and full restoration, does not cure a natural disposition..." He seemed to know himself well, even at that young age.

Perhaps the person most strongly affected by all of this, besides Haigh's distraught parents, was young Barbara Stephens. She visited him in prison, expecting to find a broken man, falsely accused. Instead she saw a man who seemed to be reveling in the attention and who admitted to everything. As she read the accounts in the papers, she realized that he had killed all of these people while he and she were together and all of them had been his friends. She asked him why he had not killed her, and he was astonished by the question. He assured her that he'd never even entertained such an idea. It did not reassure her, however, to realize that he had admitted his love for her the same week he had killed Mac; they had spent a wonderful day together only two days after he had disposed of Mac's parents; they had talked about marriage while he killed the Hendersons—even selling her a dress from the deceased; and the day after Olive Durand-Deacon died, they had a very pleasant tea together. Barbara could not comprehend how she could have known so little about the person she had planned to marry. Even so, she wrote him letters throughout his prison term and visited him once a week. For his fortieth birthday, she sent him a good luck charm. Yet she grew increasingly aware that he would have killed her as well, had it been necessary.

Haigh claimed to have killed nine people, but nothing was ever discovered about three of them, except for the unidentified body near Haigh's crashed car. It may be that he told about the three extra victims because there was no evidence that he had profited from killing them and he could better support the story of killing for blood. However, his comment to the reception officer when he first arrived at Lewes Prison was, "This is the result of doing six people, but not for personal gain." There was no real evidence of insanity, let alone of vampirism.