1949: John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer

6 comments August 10th, 2013 Headsman

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.

John George Haigh drained puddles of deathly sludge into the pipes at 79 Gloucester Road in London and 2 Leopold Road, Crawley, West Sussex.

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Serial Killers

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1950: James Corbitt, the hangman’s mate

16 comments November 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1950, famed British executioner Albert Pierrepoint carried out his most difficult assignment: hanging his friend.

Though not literally the Isles’ last hangman, Pierrepoint is the last one everyone thinks of, the man who defined the hangman’s job for the 20th century.

Discreet, orderly, and as quiet as he was efficient,* he was the brand-name executioner for stiff-upper-lip England of the waning empire, with over 400** hangings to his name from 1932 until he resigned over a fee dispute in 1956.

Despite his proper avoidance of the spotlight, Pierrepoint’s excellence at his craft would make him a celebrity — especially after the press fixated on his role hanging Nazi war criminals after World War II. The ready-made morality play upon the scaffold boards could hardly be resisted: the English grocer, meting out a dignified and precise measure of justice to the likes of the Beast of Belsen.

Hanging Around

Pierrepoint’s characteristic client wasn’t a war criminal, but a humdrum British murderer, only a handful of which attract especial remembrance today.

Still, in the immediate postwar years, the growing reach of the mass media and burgeoning public controversy over the death penalty would frequently put Pierrepoint in the middle of the era’s highest-profile hangings, including:

Tish and Tosh

Like as not, this day’s affair hit the sturdy hangman harder than any of those.

James Henry Corbitt was a regular at “Help the Poor Struggler”, the piquantly named Oldham pub Pierrepoint bought and managed after World War II. Known as “Tish” to Pierrepont’s “Tosh,” the two had sung a duet of “Danny Boy” on the night that Corbitt went out and murdered his girlfriend in a jealous rage.

Corbitt was not exceptional as a criminal, and he was indisputably guilty; we wouldn’t notice him if not for his acquaintance with the man who put him to death.

But Pierrepoint would remember this one well, as he later wrote in his his autobiography:

I thought if any man had a deterrent to murder poised before him, it was this troubadour whom I called Tish. He was not only aware of the rope, he had the man who handled it beside him singing a duet. The deterrent did not work.

Remarkably, the most prolific executioner in British history had come out against the death penalty, or so it seemed. (He later backed away from a strong anti-death penalty position, though without retracting his original reservations. The death penalty had been a decade off the books by this point, in any case.)

It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men and grandmothers.

I have been amazed to see the courage with which they walk into the unknown.

It did not deter them then and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any … capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.

It’s an open question how much Tish’s hanging this day really contributed to Pierrepoint’s retirement six years later or his apparent change of stance on his trade. But it provides the gut-wrenching dramatic pivot for the film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.

Interestingly, while the hangman saw in Corbitt’s fate a troubling indictment of the death penalty, the hanged man’s son to this day still says dad deserved to die.

More on Albert Pierrepoint

For a man so ubiquitously present in the mid-century experience of Great Britain, and who undertook such a dramatic volte-face, it’s no surprise that Pierrepoint has attracted plenty of attention — including this website, and a number of books.

Also of possible interest: Hangmen of England: History of Execution from Jack Ketch to Albert Pierrepoint (we’ve met Jack Ketch here before). More dry factual data about Pierrepoint, the father and uncle who preceded him in the post, and other recent practitioners in Britain’s colorful line of executioners is here.

* The English practice was for Pierrepoint to pinion the prisoner’s arms in the condemned cell, escort him a few steps into a hanging chamber, hood him, and execute the sentence without further ceremony. The whole process took mere seconds — a record fast seven seconds from cell door to trap door in the case of James Inglis — which Pierrepoint seems to have had a gift for dignifying in his (usual) silence with a sort of calming paternal assurance.

Pierrepoint hanged six American soldiers under the auspices of U.S. military forces deployed to England during the Second World War, and confessed to considerable discomfort with that entity’s protracted pre-hanging procedures that had him standing on the scaffold with the condemned man for several minutes.

* And perhaps well over 600 hangings; the figures are disputed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Notable Participants

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