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John Haigh: The Acid Bath Murderer
John George Haigh was born in England on July 24, 1907, to religious parents. But the only child embarked on a life of crime when he reached adulthood. Honest blue collar and white collar jobs bored him. Criminal financial fraud schemes struck his fancy.
In 1934 he served his first prison term, effectively ending his only marriage after four months to an unfortunate lady whose name is lost to history. He repeated prison time in 1937 and 1941. While incarcerated he experimented with dissolving field mice in sulfuric acid. He taught brother inmates his understanding of the law of corpus delicti: a murder conviction requires the victim’s body. His students laughed off this false law and dubbed John “Old Corpus Delicti.”
Beginning in 1944 Haigh began murdering humans, dissolving them, and spending their assets. His pal W. D. “Mac” McSwan was dispatched that year. In 1945 the parents, Mr. and Mrs. D. McSwan, were killed. 1948 was the death year for Dr. and Mrs. A. Henderson.
On Feb. 18, 1949, an elderly widow named Mrs. Durand-Deacon was last seen at the Onslow Court Hotel in South Kensington, London. Haigh also resided in that hotel, and he soon became a person of interest to police. After inconsistent statements, he finally said this:
I will tell you all about it. Mrs. Durand-Deacon no longer exists. She has disappeared completely and no trace of her can ever be found again. I have destroyed her with acid. You will find the sludge which remains at Leopold Road. Every trace has gone. How can you prove murder if there is no body?
“Corpus delicti,” of course, is Latin meaning the body of the crime — not the body of the murder victim. And the authorities found plenty of evidence once belonging to Mrs. Durand-Deacon. It included her coat, her jewelry, her handbag and her purse.
The trial covered only two days, July 18-19, 1949, and the transcript is preserved in a volume of the Notable British Trials Series, J. G. Haigh, edited by Lord Dunboyne (1949). John Haigh was executed on Aug. 6, 1949.
DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, and the Tennessee Judicial Conference.