On this date in 1949, Britain’s “Acid Bath Murderer”* was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint at Wandsworth Prison.
The name really tells you all you need to know about this enduringly infamous serial killer.
He wasn’t a criminal mastermind, but he had that one good idea, and the doggedness to keep going with what worked through the latter half of the 1940s. Serving a previous sentence for fraud, Haigh impressed himself with a jailhouse experiment revealing the efficacy of sulfuric acid for completely dissolving the body of an unfortunate mouse. Perhaps he had been motivated to the test by the memory of a notorious trial in France featuring the same disposal-of-remains expedient. Perhaps he thought it up all by himself.
Shortly after obtaining his parole, Haigh put the insight to foul use by whacking his wealthy former employer over the head and stuffing him into a 40-gallon drum in his Gloucester Road basement. William McSwan’s body dissolved over two days in a sulfuric acid bath. Haigh poured the remnant ooze down a manhole and moved into McSwan’s house, telling the victim’s parents that their son had ducked out to avoid World War II conscription. Once the war ended and the questions came, Haigh made slurry of mom and dad, too.
Undoubtedly a sociopath, Haigh didn’t murder out of compulsive love of taking life. He had a cold, pecuniary motive. “I discovered there were easier ways of making a living than to work long hours in an office,” he wrote of the earlier, non-homicidal frauds and thefts that had started his criminal career. “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.”
Now the means lay within his power to appropriate a fellow’s pension and estate by disappearing him into a vat of chemicals. Why should he ask himself whether that was right or wrong?
Haigh had blown through the McSwan’s fortune by 1948, and started dissolving hand to mouth. In February of that year, the killer lured a doctor and his wife to his new acid bath station in Crawley. These he shot dead, and rendered as per usual into vitriol compote. But he got sloppy the following year by targeting a wealthy widow who actually shared his same apartment block; when she was reported missing, the neighbor with the criminal record went right into the suspect filter. A search of Haigh’s workshops turned up papers tying him to all three sets of murders … as well as a nearby dump whose “yellowish white greyish matter” yielded “28 lb. of melted body fat, part of the left foot eroded by acid, three gallstones, and 18 fragments of human bone eroded by acid.” (London Times, April 2, 1949) Preserved dentures proved a match for the late Olive Durand-Deacon.
Haigh was a pragmatist, as always.
“Tell me, frankly, what are the chances of anybody being released from Broadmoor?” he chattily asked one guard, referring to the high-security psychiatric facility he intended to inhabit. But his problem would be getting into it. Haigh’s jury needed only minutes to dismiss his longshot insanity defense, and condemn the Acid Bath murderer to die.**
Haigh hanged a mere three weeks after sentence, not even six full months from his last murder.
* Not to be confused with the “Brides in the Bath” murderer. Best just to stick to showers.
** Legal oddity: the Daily Mirror described Haigh as a “murderer” during his trial — that is, before his lawful conviction. Haigh was able to land the editor of this paper in the clink himself for this accurate, prejudicial epithet.