Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John George Haigh

Missing Person

Mr. Justice Humphries was to preside at the trial, which opened on July 18th, 1949. An estimated four thousand people crowded into the small town of Lewes in the hope of getting a seat. The lines were long and most were disappointed. A few attempted to sell their seats, but the police officers guarding the courtroom put a stop to that practice.

For the prosecution were Eric Neve, Gerald Howard, and the Attorney General, Sir Hartley Shawcross. In Haigh's defense were Maxwell Fyfe, G. R. F. Morris, and David Neve (Eric Neve's son). Although Haigh had no money to pay for his defense, journalist Stafford Somerfield had made a deal with him: The News of the World would pay for his counsel if he would provide to them exclusively his life story. It could come out only after the trial, but they had made a huge journalistic coup. For his part, Haigh avoided the ignominy of legal aid and had a task to do that he relished—writing about himself. It was a controversial manoeuvre, but legal.

One other paper, however, went over the line. Newspapers were always pushing the limits, but it was illegal to publish sensitive material about a crime prior to the trial. The police commissioner had warned the press about their spate of sensational stories, which all but named the killer before he had been proven guilty of anything. Haigh's legal advisors issued a complaint against the Daily Mirror, one of the papers that emphasized the vampire aspect of the crimes. The editor, Silvester Bolam, was brought in on charges of contempt of court, but the judge decided to punish the publishers of the newspaper as well. He also warned the directors of the newspaper that they, too, could be held liable. The editor was sentenced to three months in prison (in the same place where Haigh was incarcerated) and the company was fined 10,000 pounds, plus court costs. It was an unprecedented move, but served its purpose.

Haigh smiling at his trial
Haigh smiling at his trial

On the day of the trial, Haigh pleaded Not Guilty, and no question was raised regarding his mental competency to plead or to understand the proceedings.

The prosecutor presented the case and supported it with thirty-three witnesses, none of whom were challenged by the defense. Only four were even cross-examined. By the afternoon of the first day, the prosecution rested its case of deliberate premeditated murder for gain.

It became clear that Fyfe was going to rely on a defense of insanity. He wanted to show Haigh's aberrant behavior. He tried to show that Haigh was in a good mood at a restaurant following the murder; he entered Haigh's confessions into evidence; and he questioned Inspector Mahon about the penknife in Haigh's car (with the implication that it had been used to take blood from Mrs. Durand-Deacon).

Then Fyfe described for the court the type of mental illness from which Haigh suffered and how it would affect his ability to appreciate the morality of his acts: He could not know that what he was doing was wrong. For this, he called Dr. Yellowlees. The psychiatrist talked about his interviews with Haigh and described how Haigh's mental condition was consistent with the description of paranoia in the Text Book of Mental Diseases. Since he could not satisfy himself that Haigh's condition prevented him from appreciating right from wrong, his testimony was limited to describing the illness. He did not commit himself on the position of the prisoner's actual thinking processes at the time of the murder. Because of this, on cross-examination he offered as much to the prosecution as to the defense.

Under pressure, Yellowlees admitted that he had not seen Haigh each time he visited the prison. All in all, he had spent a total of about two hours with the man, forming his conclusions. He admitted that he had no objective evidence to corroborate anything that Haigh had told him. The prosecutor also pointed out that Haigh had been seen to drink his urine on only one occasion and a motive of wanting to produce an effect could not be ruled out. Yellowlees acknowledged this. He also said that he was not prepared to express an opinion on whether Haigh knew that what he was doing was morally wrong. He was forced to admit that Haigh seemed to know that what he was doing was wrong by law, as evident from his attempt to cover his crimes.

With that admission, the defense collapsed. Fyfe called no further witnesses and the prosecution decided that no rebuttal witnesses to this medical testimony were necessary. Yellowlees had not proven Haigh to be insane.

Throughout the trial, Haigh toyed with a crossword puzzle, making no move to speak on his own behalf. He paid little attention to the proceedings until the two sides made their closing speeches.

Fyfe spoke mostly of Haigh's mental illness, which Yellowlees had insisted was the most difficult of all illnesses to feign, and the fact that Haigh's world was filled with fantasy. He mentioned the drinking of urine, which Haigh had claimed to do as a habit since he was a teenager, which indicated the possibility of a primitive throwback. He also pointed out that the dreams, combined with the blood drinking, were an important example of Haigh's disturbed fantasy life. When his delusions pressured him, his rational side slipped away, Fyfe insisted, and ceased to have any importance. Delusion, he said, is the true character of insanity. In that case, Haigh could not appreciate the nature of what he was doing or that it was wrong.

The Attorney General rose and pointed out that there was only one issue to be decided: the question of the prisoner's sanity. The defense's psychiatrist failed to prove his speculations in fact or with evidence. His entire case was dependent on the prisoner's statements, which were suspect. In fact, Haigh had asked about getting released from Broadmoor, as if he already had an insanity plan up his sleeve. To Shawcross, it seemed a simple case: a man thought he had discovered the perfect method of concealing a crime, committed murder for gain, and then raised sanity as an issue when he got caught.

Then for another hour, the judge summed it up. He instructed the jury to disregard the accused's admission that he had killed Mrs. Durand-Deacon, due to the fact that he was unreliable. The jury was to look at the case that the prosecution presented and see if it was conclusive. If there was any doubt, they must acquit. He then reminded them that for an act to be punished in England, it had to be done consciously. Despite the fact that there was some dispute whether paranoia could be considered a mental disease or defect, the judge told the jury to go ahead and make the assumption that it was. The defense had used only one witness, although they presented statements that could have been substantiated by witnesses such as Haigh's father or Haigh himself. No one was called but Dr. Yellowlees, who himself could not say that Haigh failed to realize that what he was doing was wrong. There was also no evidence that Haigh had drunk his own urine, aside from the one instance in which he was proving to a doctor that he could. Hence, the insanity defense could not fully satisfy the McNaghten Rules on this matter. The judge also reminded the jury that previous serial murderers, such as the man who had murdered his various wives by drowning them in a bathtub, had not been judged insane, so the jury was not to count prior murders as evidence of a mental defect that interfered with reasoning.

Haigh listened to the entire speech and said afterward that it was a masterpiece.

It took only fifteen minutes for the jury to come to a consensus: Haigh was guilty.

The judge asked if he had anything to say for himself. He cocked his head and said, "Nothing at all."

The judge donned a black cap and sentenced Haigh to die. The sheriff's chaplain said, "Amen."

After Haigh's trial, two more medical officials observed him in Wandsworth prison and they found no sign of insanity. To their mind, he was shamming.

The Home Secretary, under the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1884, ordered a special medical inquiry, just to be sure. Three eminent psychiatrists examined Haigh's case thoroughly. All believed that Haigh was malingering. He was not insane and did not suffer from a mental disease or defect that would free him of moral responsibility for his actions. There was no reason to interfere with the course of the law.

Haigh finished his life story for the newspaper that had paid for his trial. He also wrote letters to Barbara Stephens and to his parents. He hoped to be reunited with them in heaven. His elderly parents did not make the journey to see him before he died, but his mother sent greetings through a reporter. Haigh mentioned that he believed in reincarnation and told Barbara that since his mission was not yet finished, he would be back. He insisted that he was not afraid to be hanged. Madame Tussaud requested a fitting for a death mask, which Haigh was more than happy to provide.

Haigh as a Madame Tussaud wax figure
Haigh as a Madame
Tussaud wax figure

On August 6th, 1949, at Wandsworth Prison, John George Haigh, the murderer who dissolved his victims in acid, was executed. He bequeathed his clothing to Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors, where a wax figure of him was erected. He sent instructions that it must always be kept in perfect condition, the trousers creased, the hair parted, his shirt cuffs showing. Among other murderers cast in wax, Haigh received his place in history.

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