April 24, 2022

John Haigh // 108 // The Acid Bath Murderer // Part 1

John Haigh // 108 // The Acid Bath Murderer // Part 1

John George Haigh was known as the acid bath murder.  He was a serial killer that murdered his victims and put their bodies in sulphuric acid afterwards.  He was a master at forging signatures, and this allowed him to gain access to his victim's possessions and money.


The Acid Alchemist: A True Story of Murder, Deceit, and Unspeakable Horror. , Brown, Robert - Amazon.com


John was born in 1909, was an only child and his parents were members of the Plymouth Brethren. This is a very strict religious group that believes the Bible is the supreme authority. John says you aren't allowed to read newspapers or other books. You can't listen to the radio, dancing is forbidden and you can't celebrate Christmas. He was deprived of many things and wasn't even allowed to have friends. John's mother always walked him to and from school everyday and they had to hold hands. Even if he found friends at school, it didn't take long for him to be an outcast. He always craved a better life. When John was six years old, he asked his father why he had a blueish mark on his forehead. His father explained to him that the blue mark is the sign of the devil and he got the mark when he sinned. So, he's telling his 6 year old that he was branded by Satan. He tells him that the Lord washed him of his sins and he will get the same mark if he doesn't stay out of trouble. John asked if his mother had a blue mark and was told no, she's an angel. This obviously confused John and he didn't know how he could be the son of an angel and the devil. It was this very night that John had a nightmare that he called the forest of blood and that same nightmare became a recurring incident that followed him into adulthood. John said this is when he started to challenge the system because he didn't believe his father's story. 

It started off with little white lies. John would lie, then he would check to see if any blemishes appeared on his skin. When he was 10, he won a musical scholarship with a Catholic church and his teachers said he was quite mischievous. He kept a lot of secrets, loved playing tricks on people and he learned that he had a talent for forging people's signatures at a young age. John would forge his mother's signature to get out of school and forged the teacher's signatures to get what he wanted. He actually crafted a letter from the school that said his parents needed to buy him a chemistry set. John was picked to sing in the church choir and one Saturday, he lied and told his parents he was going to choir practice. He ended up going to the park instead to catch insects and perform experiments on. His mother found out and she punished him by hitting his knuckles with the hard bristles of her hairbrush until he bled. Afterwards, he went to his room and licked the blood off of his hands and realized he liked the metallic taste. 

When John was 17, he left school and got a job for a little bit. He often gave the impression that he was trying to live above his means. He always wanted the fanciest cars, the nicest clothes, the rich lifestyle, but he didn't have the money for it. He says he read the Great Gatsby which is a novel about a rich man that lived in a world of yachts, extravagant pool parties, fancy cocktails and champagne, and he was served by butlers. John immediately knew that he wanted this life. He got a job at Wakefield Education Community, then he became an underwriter for insurance and advertising. He got enough money to buy his first car, but then he got caught stealing money from the cash box and was fired. The manager decided not to press charges since there wasn't any concrete evidence. He actually wrote letters documenting his life and he wrote, “I discovered there were easier ways to make a living than to work long hours in an office. I did not ask myself whether I was doing right or wrong. That seemed to be irrelevant. I merely said this is what I wish to do.” John began doing fraudulent car sales and he used the profits from the first one to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend, Betty. 

He would place an ad in the newspaper saying he was interested in buying a garage. He said he had the money available, but it would take a week or two to get the money from the bank. Garage owners with financial troubles would contact him and he would negotiate a deal. John would tell these people that any commissions on car sales would be divided between the owner and himself. Then, he would forge the signature of someone in the neighborhood on the hire-purchase form to create a fictitious purchase transaction for one of the vehicles. The owner would advance 50% of the profit to John, he would cash the check and disappear to look for a new garage. He used a different name with each person and was able to marry Betty. She moved into his parent's house with him and was pregnant two months later. Four months after the wedding day, John was busted for fraud and sent to prison for 15 months. 

Betty gave birth to a baby girl while John was locked up and he found out through a letter from his mom that said:


Your father and I were terribly disappointed to learn about the utterly sinful ways you have engaged in. Upon hearing the news, we tried to support Beatrice, except she rejected our help, just like the evil world always does. Your daughter was born yesterday, yet I cannot supply you with her name, since Beatrice gave the child up for adoption without christening her. She told us that she was going to file for a divorce. 

This letter is also to serve as a notice that you have been formally denounced by the Plymouth Brethren and by myself and your father.

Whilst it is very hard to write this to you, we all hope you rot in prison and finally find your way tot he eternal flames of hell.

Emily Haigh.

After John was released from prison, he tried to do things right. He and a partner, started a legitimate dry-cleaning business and things were going well, but the partner died in a motorcycle accident and the company was liquidated. John sold his belongings to purchase a train ticket and he decided to give London a try. When he got there, he found an ad for a chauffeur, and he got the job. He did this for a little over a year, but he eventually got an idea for a new scam. He went to his boss, Mac and told him he was quitting. Just keep Mac in the back of your mind for awhile because he comes back up in the story later. John's new scam was going to be selling non-existent stock shares to people. He opened fake solicitor's offices and called himself William Cato Adamson. He would advertise the shares well below market value. When people would ask him why the price was so low, he said that he obtained the shares from deceased clients with no family to claim it. Also, he was conveniently never present at any of the offices. He just rented them to collect his checks. He got away with this scam for almost 10 months before he got caught and it all came down to a spelling mistake. He misspelled (Gil-ford) Guildford which is the town one of his offices was in. He spelled it without the 'D' and a client happened to notice this and didn't believe a professional would be so careless, so he reported it to the police.

So, the police started asking around town and found a few people who had been conned lately. They all bought shares that they didn't receive. When John went to his Guildford office to collect his checks, police were waiting for him and he was sentenced to four years, but only served a little over three. When he got out, he lasted less than 12 weeks before he got caught stealing cash and cameras from the Harrods department store in London. While he was locked up, he started paying a man in cigarettes to catch mice for him so he could do experiments on them. The mice were dead and he would fill a cup with sulphuric acid and watch them disintegrate. Once they were in sludge form, he would pour the liquid down the drain. At the end of his sentence, he called up his old boss Mac, the one he chauffeured for. He was hoping to get a job, but he was told that Mac sold all of his arcades and moved. A man named Mr. Stephens remembered John and said he wanted him to get a second chance, so he offered him a full time job and a place to stay. Mr. Stephens told John that he could stay in his home for one year to save up money, but he wanted him to stay away from his daughter, Barbara because she was 15 years younger than John. 

When John received his first paycheck, he took Barbara out to dinner and they began dating. One day, the couple went out Christmas shopping and when John stopped at a bar for a drink, he randomly ran into his old boss, Mac. They chatted for awhile and Mac invited them over for a Christmas lunch. Over the next several months, John and Mac started hanging out a lot. When John was at his house, he found Mac's ledger that showed he was making more money in one week that John's monthly salary by collecting rent from tenants in his apartment building.

John did have enough money to live on his own at this point, so he told his girlfriend, Barb, that it would strengthen their relationship if he moved to London and she stayed at her parent's place. They could see each other on the weekends when they were both relaxed and things would be exciting again. John got himself a house right by Mac's place while he worked on his next scam and there would be 3 things he needed to do.

  1. He couldn't have anyone telling on him this time, so he was going to make Mac disappear so he could take his money.
  2. He read a law book in prison and believed that you couldn't be convicted for murder if there isn't a body
  3. He would make Mac disappear the same way he made the mice disappear. He was going to disintegrate his body in sulphuric acid.

In August of 1944, John began buying sulphuric acid from a licensed fertilizer factory by telling the manager he was working with large tin sheets and needed the acid for cleaning purposes. The glass containers each had 4 gallons of acid and by the end of the month he had 20 bottles stacked in his basement. On his last trip tot he fertilizer factory that month, he saw two empty forty-gallon oil drums in the junkyard and asked to buy them, but the manager said he could just have them. He didn't have a way to transport them, so he paid the manager to deliver them to his house. 

On September 8th, Mac called John in a full panic. He received his army call-up notice and he did not want to fight in the war. John says, well, calm down, I have an idea to make you disappear so you don't have to go. He said he had a cousin in Scotland and she lived in a cabin by herself. Her husband was killed in a car accident, so Mac could go stay with her. John told Mac that he shouldn't tell anyone about this plan, not even his parents. Just pack a suitcase and be ready. John drew a cross with a red crayon in his diary on the date of September 9th. He went to bed and had that reoccurring nightmare that started when he was a child. In the dream, he was staggering through a misty forest filled with crucifixes. The crucifixes slowly transform into giant trees that are oozing blood. Then he looks at his hands and sees blood dripping. A tall man appeared with a shiny copper cup and collects blood from the tree and says, “Drink, John Haigh. You need it in order to live.” 

The next morning, as promised, John drove over to get Mac. He told him that he forgot his checkbook, so he was going to swing by his place to grab it first. He also wanted him to come inside to see his new pinball machine design. Mac thanked John profusely and told him he was a very good friend. When they arrived at John's home, he lead Mac to the basement and pointed to some papers on the desk and told him to go check it out. Then, he picked up a lead pipe and bashed it into the back of Mac's head. He was still alive, so John hit him again. He slit Mac's throat with the knife that he stole from him after he watched Mac's mother carve the turkey on Christmas day. He held a mug against his neck to collect the blood and he drank it. Afterwards, John had a cup of tea, then got dressed in rubber boots, a chemical resistant apron, and rubber gloves. He laid the forty-gallon drum on it's side, folded Mac's body in half, tied a rope around him and put him inside. Then, he poured the sulphuric acid in the barrel. His basement didn't have windows or ventilation, so John kept having to run upstairs so he didn't suffocate from the fumes. He says the body fizzed and hissed.

After he cleaned up, he drove to Glasgow and sold Mac's suitcase full of items to a pawnshop and bought himself a gas mask just in case he needed to murder again. He went to a stationary store to get writing paper, stamps, and envelopes. Remember, he's great at forgery. John forged 3 letters in Mac's handwriting and he copied his handwriting perfectly form the diary he brought in his suitcase. One of the letters was to a solicitor in London granting power of attorney over Mac's properties to John. The letter stated that Mac wanted John to sell his properties since he would be staying in Scotland for an extended period of time. He wrote another letter from Mac to himself confirming the information in the first letter and also asked that he collect rent for the properties his parents owned as well. The last letter was addressed to Mac's parents and it said:

To my dearest Mother and Father,

I received my final call-up notice from the British Army, but I simply cannot see myself serving in the military. I don't know if I will be able to defend myself on a battlefield. I have fled to the countryside in Scotland, where I will remain until the war is over. In the meanwhile, I have asked John Haigh to take care of my properties in London. If he agrees to my request, he will also take over my rent collection duties. He will supply you with his banking details for the monthly allowance to be deposited. 

Father, will you please accompany John on the first rent collection round to show him where all the properties are located and to introduce him tot he tenants? Sorr for the inconvenience I am causing, and I hope you are not too disappointed in me. 


Your only son,

William McSwan

John mailed all 3 letters from the Glasgow post office and headed back to London. When he got home, he checked the barrel and found that Mac's corpse was now a thick sludge. He stirred the substance with a broom handle to make sure everything had dissolved. He put on his rubber outfit and gas mask and began scooping the sludge out of the drum and putting it in a steel bucket. There was a manhole drain in the corner of the basement floor and he poured the contents down the sewer. There were some lumpy pieces at the bottom of the barrel, so John used a five-pound hammer to break them down before shoving them down the drain. After he cleaned the barrel out, he wondered why he didn't feel any remorse for murdering his friend.

The next morning, he drove to Mr. Stephens' home and resigned from the factory. On September 13th, he received a call from Mac's father regarding the letter he received. Mac's father told John that he would take him to all of the tenants so he could gather their rent money and take over Mac's job. Now, John also had to meet with an attorney about one of the fake letters from Mac. The one where he had made himself the power of attorney. The attorney read the letter and said, how am I supposed to verify that Mac truly wrote this if he's not here? John said that he knew the deeds to Mac's properties were registered at his office. He could bring out the file and compare the handwriting. The attorney did just that and he said, John, you strike me as an honest man. So, he drew up the power of attorney papers for him. 

John was still dating Barbara at this time and he of course lied to her and said he would be coming into some money for selling his pinball machine design patent. He actually sold Mac's apartment building. Barbara and John moved into Mac's house and she started pressuring him pretty hard to get married, but he wasn't interested. Over the next ten months, the couple lived a very fancy life. They were able to afford to go to the movies, the opera, have cocktail parties, attend horse races....they were living it up. On the last Thursday of every month, John would tell Barbara that he had to meet up with people to discuss new design patents, but he was really driving to Glasgow to send letters to Mac's parents. The parents weren't able to reply to any of the letters because there wasn't a return address.

By June of 1945, Hitler was dead and the was coming to an end. Mac's parents started talking about how they expected their son to return since he couldn't be drafted in the war anymore. This was obviously a huge problem for John and he was starting to run low on cash. He decided he should make a plan to get rid of Mac's parents because they were just too nosy. Mac's parents owned very expensive properties. If he got rid of Donald and Amy, he would make a fortune. On July 2nd, John called Mac's dad, Donald and said he wanted to surprise Amy. He told Donald, your son is coming home today, meet me at my workshop. Then, we can call your wife and have her come here for the surprise. In the book, it says that Donald McSwan arrived at John's place at 3:55 PM, was in the basement by 3:59PM and was dead at 4:01 PM. He picked up the same lead pipe he killed Mac with and hit Donald in the head. He left his body in the basement to bleed out and drove to the McSwan residence.

John told Mac's mother, Amy, that he had a big surprise for her and her husband was already waiting at his place. Amy was really hesitant and said John was acting weird, so he said, fine, your son is home and we were trying to surprise you. When they arrived at his place, John let Amy walk down the stairs in front of him. She had to witness her husband's body lying in a pool of blood on the floor and John shoved her down the stairs where she broke her collarbone, two ribs, and her neck. He didn't need to use the lead pipe on Amy because she was already dead. 

John drank blood from both of his victims before pouring the acid on them in the barrels. He realized that he had another problem now. His girlfriend, Barbara, had grown really close to Mac's parents and would ask a lot of questions about their disappearance. He drove home and told Barbara that Mac's parents moved to the East Coast of America over the weekend and wanted him to sell their properties, including their son Mac's home that they had been living in. She got very upset that they were selling the house and he was like, well, I'm also breaking up with you. He said he wasn't being honest with her and he was actually gay. Two days later, John went to his workshop and poured Donald and Amy's remains down the drain. Then, he forged power of attorney letters from Donal McSwan that gave John all legal control of their possessions, pension checks, annuities, investment shares, and all seven properties. Since many people fled the country during the war, it wasn't that abnormal and the disappearances weren't reported. John sold all of the properties, then he booked a room an a super high end hotel and stayed there for the next 3 ½ years. 

In the fall of 1946, the rental contract was up for the place that John had been storing all of his murder barrels and tools. He eventually found a new workshop, but he was getting antsy again because his funds were running low. He did run out of money the following year and had to borrow money from an older woman that lived at the same hotel he stayed at. He told Olivia that he just needed to stay afloat for a few months until his patent checks arrived. While reading the paper one day, John came up with his next scam. He saw a home for sale and it was really extravagant. He was like, nobody owns that kind of property in England after a six year war. So, he figured this person must be swimming in cash.

John called up the owner of this home, Mr. Henderson to say he was interested and they set up a meeting. He was going to tell the Henderson's that he would pay more than their asking price for the house, but needed 6-7 weeks to sell some shares and get the cash. Then, he would have enough time to learn about their assets and make them disappear. He told the Henderson's that he planned to turn their giant palace sized home into 12 flats, 3 on each level, and he showed them how he could put in parking bays. The couple loved this idea and wanted John to be the buyer. Over the next two months, the three of them were hanging out constantly and John would fish for any information he could get about their financials. He discovered that they did own a block of apartments and a large toy shop. When they invited him to their house for a party, John slipped away and found their boxes of items that they had already packed up. One box was labeled PRIVATE, so he obviously looked inside. There was a revolver with six live rounds inside. John thought about how the lead pipe created such a mess for him, so he stole the gun. 

A couple weeks later, John received a call from Archie Henderson saying that he needed to discuss two urgent matters with him. The first was many questions about why it was taking so long for John to get the money to buy the house. The second issue was because John had been openly flirting with Archie's wife. John apologized for flirting and said listen, I can prove that I have the money to buy the house. Why don't you come to my workshop, I want to show you something secret. When they arrived at the workshop, John told Archie Henderson to close his eyes and turn around. John grabbed the gun that he stole from Archie and shot him in the head. The bullet actually tore into Archie's skull and through his left eye. John left Archie's body on the ground to bleed out and he rushed to Archie's wife, Rosalie Henderson to say her husband was ill. He's like oh I brought him to workshop to see my inventions and he fainted! Archie actually did have a condition where he would get lightheaded and he would take medication for this, so Rosalie had no problem believing this. Rosalie ran into the workshop, screamed when she saw Archie's body, then John shot her in the head. 


The Acid Alchemist: A True Story of Murder, Deceit, and Unspeakable Horror. , Brown, Robert - Amazon.com