What would you be willing to do to get rich?
France's last execution by guillotine took place in the spring of 1934 in the city of Aix-en-Provence. The accused? A man called Georges-Alexandre Serrat, sentenced to death for murdering at least two people and dissolving their bodies in sulfuric acid. Almost a decade later, in a cold prison cell in London, a man studied this man’s life to learn his methods, to see where he'd failed and how he could improve them to get away with murders of his own. That man was John George Haigh, who came to be known as the Acid Bath Murderer and one of the most famous serial killers in the history of England.
Haigh was born in 1909 to a wealthy family in Yorkshire. His family records state that they were extremely conservative and raised their children with strict religious precepts that Haigh never believed in. He was always taught that sinners would be punished by God’s wrath. Yet at a very young age, he realized that he could do anything he wanted, like stealing or lying, and as long as no one found out, there would be no punishment. This became his motto for the rest of his life. While he secretly rebelled against his family’s ideals, Haigh was an exemplary young boy, especially when it came to school. As a teenager, he won numerous scholarships and awards, so it looked like he was going to have a brilliant future, which obviously didn’t happen.
It all started going downhill when he was arrested at the age of 25, just a couple of months after his marriage. He was accused of fraud and sent to prison for two years. His wife, who'd given birth just months after the arrest, left him and gave the baby up for adoption. His family didn’t want anything to do with a criminal either. After serving his time in prison, he created an alter ego for himself, William Adamson, and became a con artist. This new business made him good money, but it didn't last long. One of his victims found out what was going on when Haigh misspelled his fake name, so he was arrested and sentenced to four more years in jail.
During his time in prison, he started analyzing what he'd done wrong, and the only answer he could find was that he'd left his victims alive and able to testify against him. If he wanted to succeed in his criminal career, he had to commit to it fully, even if it meant killing people. But how could he do it without getting caught? Enter Georges-Alexandre Serrat. He became notorious in Europe, not because of the number of murders he committed nor the way in which he did it, but because of how he got rid of the evidence. Haigh was fascinated by his Serrat, but he also believed there was a flaw in his process, and he was determined to perfect the method. He soon started studying and analyzing Serrat's method to have the exact data and conditions to use it without putting himself at risk.
The moment he was freed, he started plotting his next crime, but first, he needed a job. He started working at an engineering firm. One day, he ran into one old acquaintance, William McSwan, and they went for a drink together to catch up. That was the opportunity he’d been looking for since he'd left prison. McSwan was a wealthy young man whose only job in life was collecting the rent from the many properties his parents had. It doesn't get any simpler than that. Haigh was burning with rage and envy: why did some people have the life he’d always wanted by doing nothing? Haigh lured his old friend to an abandoned basement near the engineering firm and hit him so hard in the head that he died instantly. It was time to put into practice all he had studied and analyzed. He put the body inside a 40-gallon drum filled with pure sulfuric acid. Two days later, McSwan's body had turned into a strange liquid mass that Haigh threw in a sewer. It seemed like the perfect crime.
Haigh went to see the McSwans to tell them that their son had run away out of fear of being sent to fight in WWII and that he had left him in charge of the business. The McSwans bought his story, but when the war ended in 1945, and there was still no trace of their son, the family got suspicious. They went to confront Haigh, who felt he had no other option but to kill both of them in the same basement. Then, he disposed of their bodies in what he believed was an infallible method. Now, with all the family's money in his hands, he felt he could finally have the life he'd always wanted.
He moved to an exclusive and luxurious hotel in Kensington and starting having the lavish life the McSwans enjoyed. Yet soon he realized that money wasn’t eternal and would eventually run out. He had to find another rich victim. Unfortunately, it didn’t take that long to find one. He became friends with a doctor and his wife, who fell for his charismatic and lethal personality. Haigh killed both Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife in his favorite basement and followed his method step by step. He had gotten away with his crime once again, but the Henderson’s fortune wasn’t as vast as the McSwans’, and just one year after the murders, he found himself in debt.
He stayed at the same hotel, where he became friends with a 60-year-old woman named Olive Durand-Deacon. They say that practice makes perfect, but I’d also add that practice makes you feel more confident. So, he found his new victim, a woman who thought Haigh was an inventor because he worked at the engineering firm. She herself was an entrepreneur who had come up with the idea for fake nails. She wanted to have an expert to start her business, so she scheduled a meeting with Haigh at a new warehouse he had just rented. As you might have guessed, he killed her and dissolved her body in acid, but this time a simple error would cost him his life.
Days after her murder, Olive’s friends became worried about her and decided to report her missing. After some research, the police investigators determined that the last person who might have seen her was John George Haigh, so they decided to interrogate him. According to the newspapers of the time, he believed that he could not be accused of anything if there wasn’t a body or evidence. So, when he was asked about it, he said that Olive no longer existed and that they would never be able to find her body.
The authorities searched his hotel room and found he had a workshop, which they also went to. Basically, his cockiness sealed his fate. When they arrived at the warehouse, they found a steel drum, a pump, and a revolver. Also, outside in the yard, they found a strange sludgy pod that looked kind of suspicious. They took it back to the police station, where Dr. Keith Simpson, the pathologist at Scotland Yard, found that the mass contained remains of human bones, gallstones, and a complete set of dentures. They determined it all belonged to an elderly woman, Olive Durand-Deacon, of course.
After years of research, scientists have determined that human components tend to liquify and dissolve when they’re submerged in acid. However, some materials, like the ones used in dentistry to create prosthetics, don’t get destroyed that easily. Also, certain human elements like those present in gallstones are harder to dissolve. As for the bones, forensics found out that when the body starts dissolving, the fat is the last thing to disappear, making a kind of of capsule that protects fragments of certain bones.
Now, going back to Haigh, during the interrogation the police found out about his previous five victims, who had gone missing between 1944 and 1949. He confessed he had actually killed nine people, but the detectives could only confirm the six we talked about. Now, what went wrong this time? First, he had thrown the remains of his victims in the sewage, so there was literally no way to find that slimy substance. But when he moved his murder basement to the new warehouse, he didn’t make sure that there was a big enough sewer he could use, nor a proper ventilation system. So, when, after four days being drowned in acid, Olive’s body wasn’t completely dissolved, he thought it would be easier to just dump the sludge in the backyard, leaving it in plain sight for the authorities.
Now, his story doesn’t end here. During the trial, he made an insanity plea, which the jury wasn’t that sure about. They had a recess, and one of his customers told them that he had asked whether it was easier to get out of prison or a mental institute. They realized he was just trying to fool them and sentenced him to death. He was hanged in London in the summer of 1949, and although he’s gone, the memory of his crimes lives on. He’s still, next to Jack the Ripper, one of the most popular and well-known serial killers in England’s history.
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Cover image by @johnyuyi
Article images taken from the film Murder on the Home Front based on Molly Lefebure's memoirs. She worked with Dr. Keith Simpson during this and other cases.