John George Haigh was charming, handsome, immaculately dressed, cultured and intelligent. A well-mannered and thoroughly ‘nice’ man. He was also one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers of the twentieth century.
This was partly because he was the most prolific British serial killer in the first half of that century, but also because of the alleged motive that he claimed had driven him to murder. Haigh said that the desire to drink his victims’ blood had been his reason for such slaughter – he claimed that he was a vampire. Then there was the novel method of disposal of his victims’ corpses in acid that meant he was dubbed ‘the Acid Bath Murderer’.
Finally, Haigh exhibited a glamour in his looks and lifestyle, like another of that decade’s murderers, Neville Heath (1917-46), which seemed to put him in a different sphere from the run-of-the-mill murderer. He was described as ‘one of the most baffling criminal of this or any other age’, and ‘one of the most notorious murderers of this century’.
Such a figure would have been in the limelight in any era, but in the austerity years of post-World War Two Britain – even more economically straitened than during the war – Haigh appeared in even more dramatic hues.
This aura of disreputable glamour, but glamour nonetheless, still attaches itself to Haigh to an extent. The only celluloid interpretation of his murders, A is for Acid, broadcast in 2002, cast a popular actor as the killer and presented his life and crimes in as sympathetic a manner as possible. Unlike John Christie (1899-1953) in 10 Rillington Place, Haigh was seen as a human being, with attractive traits as well as moments of murderous violence.
There have also been those who have attempted to portray him as a man suffering from mental illness and thus not accountable for his actions. It is true that he was not a sadist like Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Peter Sutcliffe and Fred and Rosemary West; nor did he kill on the industrial scale of doctors such as John Bodkin Adams or Harold Shipman. There was no sexual dimension to his crimes, as with Christie, and no children were involved as in the Moors Murders.
Yet Haigh did kill six people, the same number or more than some of the century’s other serial killers. Each of these people should also be remembered. Usually, the narratives of Haigh’s case have downplayed the six and so put their humanity at a discount. Yet Donald and Amy McSwan and their son, William Donald McSwan, Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife, Rosalie, and Henrietta Helen Olivia Roberts Durand-Deacon were all personalities in their own right, as was Haigh himself.
There have been five full-length studies of Haigh, published between 1950 and 1988, of varying value, and several part studies. He has been portrayed variously as an enigmatic man of contrasts, a man scarred by his parents’ religion, or simply a calculating murderer. Haigh’s crimes regularly appear in books about famous criminals, London crime and serial killers; these synopses are usually rehashes of existing published work, rather than being based on original research. These have, like so many other accounts of well-known criminals, resulted in numerous myths being created and disseminated by successive works.
It is worth noting that until 1949 Haigh was known to few others. He had appeared in local newspapers as a criminal on two occasions, but otherwise had generally left little imprint on local or national life. But for a few months in 1949, from the time of his arrest until his execution, he was a national and an international figure. Much the same can be said of those he killed. Most of what we know about Haigh, and his victims, originates from this year or thereafter, because it was only then that they became of interest to those outside their immediate circles. Most, though not all, of the information about these people, therefore, is thus coloured by their involvement in this case as murderer or as murder victims. How far this distorts the value of this evidence is a moot point. Likewise, the accuracy of memory can also be queried and this is of particular note when Haigh’s childhood and youth are recounted.
Pseudonyms, often invented by the press, are frequently used to label notorious criminals and it is often these that miscreants are known by rather than their actual names. Although The Daily Mirror dubbed Haigh ‘The Vampire’ in March 1949, this appellation did not stick. In 1934 George Sarret, a French criminal, had been given the nom de plume ‘The Acid Bath Murderer’ by the British press. Haigh was known in the press by the same appellation by the summer of 1949, despite the fact he did not use baths to dissolve his victims, and this has stuck.