A Missing Person: London, England- It was the morning of February 19, 1949 at the Onslow Court Hotel when Olive Durand-Deacon did not show up for breakfast. It was unlike her not to do so, and her friend, Constance Lane, became very concerned. Her uneasiness grew after she spoke with the chambermaid who informed her that Olive’s bed had not been slept in the previous night. She was last seen in the company of a sophisticated gentleman named John George Haigh. The two spent many hours discussing a business proposition concerning the notion of manufacturing artificial fingernails. Mrs. Deacon had left the hotel to visit Haigh’s factory in Crawley, Sussex. Constance spoke with Haigh and was told that he waited over an hour, but Olive never showed. When Olive still had not turned up the next day, Constance asked Haigh to give her a ride to the police station.
One Officer’s Suspicion: On February 24, 1949, Olive was officially declared a missing person and a police officer was sent to investigate her disappearance. The officer interrogated many of the guests at the hotel and made note of Haigh’s dubious mannerisms. She did not buy his version of the story and persuaded her boss to look into the matter and find out if Haigh had a criminal record. Sure enough, he had been incarcerated three times, twice for fraud and once for theft.
Suspicion Escalates: On February 26, two constables were sent to the home of John Haigh. Haigh was not home and the keys were not in sight, so the officers unofficially broke into the home. (Such behavior would not be tolerated in America today. According to Amendment IV of the Constitution, unreasonable searches and seizures are prohibited. It is necessary to obtain a search warrant or have probable cause before searching the property of an individual. If incriminating evidence is obtained through illegal search, the evidence will be entirely useless). Once inside the home, the officers discovered a briefcase filled with suspicious documents and a hatbox containing several passports, driver’s licenses, a marriage license, a checkbook, a revolver and several bullets.
The Confession of Murder: The officers traced Olive’s missing jewelry to a dealer in Sussex. They also traced her missing fur coat to a dry cleaner. On February 27, Haigh was called upon to visit the police station where he confessed to the murder of Olive Durand-Deacon. With no show of emotion, he told police, “Mrs. Durand-Deacon no longer exists. She has disappeared completely and no trace can ever be found. I have destroyed her with acid. You will find the sludge that remains at Leopold Road. Every trace has gone … How can you prove a murder if there is no body?”
A Grave Misunderstanding: Haigh misunderstood the Latin term corpus delecti. It is a legal term that refers to the body of evidence that indicates the commission of a crime. Haigh mistakenly interpreted the phrase as the actual corpse of a homicide victim. Ergo, he believed firmly that he could not be indicted for or convicted of murder if a cadaver was not found.
The Early Years: John George Haigh was born in 1909. His parents were devout members of the Plymouth Brethren and imposed their fanatical religious views on their son. The Brethren considered all forms of amusement to be sinful. Young John Haigh was granted a choral scholarship to Wakefield Grammar School, and was therefore mandated to sing at Anglican services. The vast differences in the religions that he was exposed to created a profound sense of confusion and uncertainty. He often had disturbing visions of forests filled with trees dripping blood. From an early age, he displayed signs of hematomania, an obsession with blood. He left school in his teens and worked as an insurance salesman, a government clerk and an apprentice engineer. The combination of the skills that he acquired at his jobs and his talent for calligraphy proved to be useful in his life of crime.
The Beginning of a Life of Crime: In 1934, he married, but the marriage would last no more than five months. He was arrested and jailed for fraud and deserted his wife upon his release from prison. He returned home to live with his parents and briefly worked as a dry cleaner. He moved to London where he met a gentleman named William McSwan. McSwan owned and operated a pinball arcade business and offered Haigh employment as a secretary and chauffer. Haigh accepted and worked for McSwan for one year before setting out on his own. He created a phony office and a stock scam that would result in a second prison term. He served four years during which he made good use of his time. He studied law books from the prison library and it was there that he derived the erroneous notion that a person could not be indicted for murder if a body was not found. Less than a year after his release from prison, he was sent back, this time for theft. While in prison, he stole sulfuric acid and studied the rate at which a field mouse’s body disintegrated. He was released again in 1943 and became a bookkeeper. He saved his money and created a basement workshop in London, where he passed himself off as a company director. He also bragged of a non-existent engineering degree.
The First Murder: On September 9, 1944, Haigh ran into McSwan at a local pub. The two reminisced and Haigh invited his pal back to his workshop. There, he bludgeoned him and dumped his body in a 40-gallon vat filled with hydrochloric acid. The resulting sludge was poured down a manhole. Haigh was a talented forger and used his ability to obtain ownership of McSwan’s company. Haigh wrote several letters to McSwan’s concerned parents. In his letter, he explained that their son was hiding in Scotland for the purpose of evading military conscription. He made weekly trips to Scotland, where he mailed forged letters to McSwan’s parents to authenticate his fabricated story.
A Double Homicide: Despite Haigh’s attempts to convince McSwan’s parents of his phony story, they became increasingly concerned for their son’s welfare. When they began making too many inquiries, Haigh invited the concerned couple to his workshop on July 10, 1945.He killed them in the same manner that he did their son: bludgeoning them and dissolving their bodies in an acid vat. As with their son, Haigh forged documents and usurped their estate, which included five houses and a great deal of money. Due to his hedonistic nature, the money was soon lost to gambling, poor investments and extravagant spending.
On February 12, 1948, Archibald and Rosalie Anderson were invited to Haigh’s workshop. They were shot and dissolved in the acid vat. Through forgery, he seized $12,000 from the couple’s estate. He soon squandered the money at the racetrack.
Olive Deacon: The clientele of the Onslow Court Hotel is almost exclusively comprised of rich widows; Olive Deacon was no exception. She was 69-years old in February 1949 when she met John Haigh. He falsely advertised himself as an inventor and she approached him with her plan to manufacture and sell artificial fingernails. It was not long before she received the fatal invitation to his workshop that had done in five victims before her. Haigh shot her to death and consigned her to the acid vat and sold off her valuables to cover debts that he owed.
Incriminating Evidence: Search warrants were obtained for Haigh’s workshop. Dr. Keith Simpson was the forensic pathologist assigned to the case. He visited the Haigh workshop in search of evidence of Olive Deacon’s death. He searched the outside grounds and found a human gallstone. “I was looking for it. Women of Mrs. Durand-Deacon’s age and habits — 69 and fairly plump – are prone to gallstones, which are covered with a fatty substance that would resist the dissolving action of sulphuric acid,” said Dr. Simpson. He examined the sludge and was able to uncover the eroded bones of a left foot. Two more gallstones were discovered along with eighteen bone fragments, part of a pelvis and Olive Deacon’s dentures.
The Trial and Sentencing: The trial of John George Haigh opened on July 18, 1949. He made a failed attempt at an insanity plea by claiming that he had vampiric tendencies and killed for blood. He was declared sane and competent to stand trial. On the second day of the trial, after a mere 13 minutes, Haigh was found guilty and sentenced to death. His response to the verdict was, “It’s no use crying over spilt milk.” On August 6, 1949, he met his end at the gallows of Wandsworth Prison.