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A Is for Acid
GenreTrue crime
Written byGlenn Chandler
Directed byHarry Bradbeer
StarringMartin Clunes
Keeley Hawes
Richard Hope
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English
Running time120 minutes
Original networkITV1
Original release9 September 2002

A Is for Acid is a 2002 British television film based on the life of the serial killer John George Haigh, known as the Acid Bath Murderer, because he dissolved the bodies of six people in sulphuric acid. Haigh, hanged in 1949 for his crimes, had wrongly believed that murder could not be proven without the presence of a body. Starring Martin Clunes in the lead role, the film was shot in Scarborough, chosen because its appearance was believed similar to that of London when Haigh lived there during the 1940s. The film was produced by Yorkshire Television for the ITV network and aired on ITV1 on 9 September 2002. Directed by Harry Bradbeer and written by Glenn Chandler, A Is for Acid also featured among its cast Keeley Hawes and Richard Hope.

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Just about all serial killers seem to have experienced some amount of trauma in childhood, but one thing that splits them apart is their intellect. Some of these killers seem like wild savages, barely self-aware. Others are extremely gifted, yet often display signs of psychopathy. Some are eloquent, attractive, and extremely cultured, such as the backpacker killer and lifelong scammer-turned celebrity, George Sobhraj, who read Nietzsche and Jung, classics and law, probably to be a better conniver. Then you’ve got the incredibly talented Ted Kaczynski, aka, the unabomber, who is said to have an IQ of 167. That’s slightly higher than violin prodigy Charlene Gallego, who with her husband brutally raped and killed mostly young girls in the late 70s. Today we’ll look at another talented killer, in this episode of the Infographics show, John George Haigh: Acid Bath Murderer. Just looking at pictures on the web, Haigh wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood movie of days gone by. It’s said he was incredibly charming, as well as suave and not too distressing to the female eye. But, like many killers that come across this way, he suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In short, that means someone who has feelings of grandiosity, is always seeking admiration, yet seems to have no empathy whatsoever. Do you know anyone who fits that description? If so, they can tick a box for possible future serial killer. So, our charmer Mr. Haigh was born July 24, 1909. He grew up near a place called Wakefield, which is located in West Yorkshire, northern England. They say it’s grim up north in that part of the UK. Back in Haigh’s day, it really was a grim place, being the backbone of industrial England. But it seems John wasn’t sent to work down the coal mine or in one of the textile mills; no, this lucky lad had it easier than some. But, he had some setbacks. Haigh is yet another serial killer that came from a very religious family – we sure are seeing a pattern in this series. In fact, Haigh’s dad, it’s said, had a mark on his head that he told his son had been put there by God as a brand to show that he had sinned in the past. The dad apparently told young John that if he sinned, he’d get a mark, too, but the mother could not fall victim to God’s branding iron as she was an angel. Not surprisingly, with this being told to John, he had a fuzzy sense of reality. He even committed a few sins as a child, and as he wasn’t marked, it’s said he sinned some more. He thought he’d escaped the wrath of God. Meanwhile, it’s said he went through his childhood suffering from terrible religious-themed nightmares. He didn’t even get to talk to other kids, as his dad built a huge fence around the house to keep other, not-so-pious people, out. But young John had some skills. He was brilliant at playing piano and from a young age showed an interest in classical music. He won scholarships to good schools and later a scholarship to Wakefield Cathedral. There he became a choirboy, which is perhaps a vocation you don’t expect of a future serial killer. After that he worked in a garage as he was very fond of automobiles, but he had to leave ‘cos he couldn’t stand the dirt. It’s even said he would only work on cars wearing rubber gloves and a mask. Haigh found a job to his liking, one that could be said to be in line with acts of cunning. That was working in advertising. But this is where his life of criminality started. He was fired for stealing. That didn’t stop him from getting a wife though, and he was married in 1934 to a woman he hardly knew. She filed for divorce within a few months after our man was charged with fraud. The child inside her would later be adopted. So, now we have a single man serving some time in jail. He gets out and becomes a recidivist, meaning he didn’t stop committing fraud. In fact, he was jailed many more times for doing things such as forging signatures on checks when buying cars, or selling fraudulent stock shares that were too good to be true. He was good at his job as he was articulate, smart and handsome, which goes a long way if you want to become a good fraudster. The problem was, he kept getting caught. And so, while sitting in his jail cell he came up with a cunning plan. If it’s the victims that keep getting me in trouble by blowing the whistle, just make sure there are no victims. Meaning, nothing left of them at all. Vanish them. His inspiration for this was a French serial killer named Georges-Alexandre Sarret, who had dissolved his victims in acid. Perhaps John should have read further, in that his inspiration ended-up losing his head to the guillotine… Out of prison, Haigh got his hands on some sulphuric acid and dropped some mice in pots of it. Yep, they dissolved. Now, does that work on humans? Yes, is the answer, and it’s very effective. According to one story about certain ways of dissolving bodies, acid is a great way, although the fumes are terrible, and it is dangerous, as it can burn you. According to that same article, Haigh did this: “He processed the bodies in a 45-gallon oil drum and reported that the victims dissolved completely in about two days.” It’s said he did this to six people, but there could have been three more. Who were they and how did he kill them? More importantly, why the hell did he kill them? Maybe this quote from him can partly answer that: “When I first 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 me to be irrelevant. I merely said, ‘This is what I wish to do’.” He added, “Go after women – rich, old women who like a bit of flattery. That’s your market, if you are after big money.” But he didn’t just kill older women. His first victim was a friend and former employer called William McSwan. He hit him over the head and threw his body in acid. A few days later and McSwan was nothing but sludge. Haigh told McSwan’s parents that their son had run away to avoid being called up for war. At the same time, Haigh was collecting his pension cheques, living in, and later selling his properties. He was flush with money at this point, but often gambled large amounts away. The parents became very suspicious, so Haigh invited them to his house after telling them their son was back and was dying to see them. Only they died after being hit over the head. Then they took a bath John had prepared for them. This conniver would be invited to the houses of the wealthy to play piano, only while hitting every note, he was noting what he could steal. He shot a wealthy couple he had played for and then stole all their belongings as well as forging their signature to buy more things. They took a bath, and John emptied out the sludge later. His final victim was a wealthy old woman, one whose husband had passed already. She met Haigh, who had said he was an engineer. She then told him she had this great idea to make artificial fingernails. Haigh said wonderful, come to my place and we’ll get to work. Only he shot her, and she became another person to take his special bath. He took her valuables, but it seems that was all. The cops had a lead as someone had seen Haigh with the missing rich woman. They visited his workshop, whereupon they found evidence that linked Haigh to all of the murders above. He was arrested, but he actually thought he would get away with it. You see, Haigh thought that if there were no bodies, then you couldn’t be convicted. He had read law and the term “corpus delicti”, which basically means there must be evidence before you can be convicted. Corpus meaning body and delicti meaning crime, so body of the crime. But the cops had evidence, they even found parts of bodies where Haigh had dumped the sludge, including bits of dentures, gallstones, a bit of a foot, and some human fat. Even though this sounds repulsive to us, some reports tell us that Haigh was also repulsed and found the whole matter of killing and dissolving rather unpleasant. For him it was just the best way to steal and get away with it. Haigh tried to plead insane given the gravity of his crimes and the fact he was versed in law, but the judge didn’t believe him. He talked of nightmares he had from a being a young child, trying to sound crazy. It didn’t work. He was hanged at the hands of prolific hangman Albert Pierrepoint on August 10, 1949. As the story goes, just before he was hanged, he was asked by one of the guards if he wanted a drink, perhaps a brandy. Haigh replied, “Make it a large one, Old Boy.” So, do scammers ever get away with it? Does crime pay? It seems not, but why not tell us in the comments what you think about this and the man we talked about today. Also, be sure to check out our other video called Leonarda Cianciulli AKA The Human Flesh Soap Maker! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!



John George Haigh is raised in a Yorkshire village by sheltering parents who fellowship with the strict Plymouth Brethren. His father teaches him that their family is different from others, being among "God's elect"; but as an adult John turns to petty crime. He marries Beatrice 'Betty' Hamer, who becomes pregnant with his child. While serving a prison sentence for fraud, Haigh reads about the term corpus delicti, wrongly assuming it means murder cannot be proven without the presence of a body. He subsequently dreams up what he believes to be the perfect murder and experiments by dissolving mice in sulphuric acid. After learning that Betty gave birth to a daughter and moved away, Haigh travels to London upon his release, where he finds employment as an engineer.

After being sacked from his job because of a relationship with his boss's daughter, Gillian Rogers, Haigh sets himself up as an inventor. He bumps into a former employer, Donald McSwan, who has a successful property business. Befriending McSwan and his elderly parents, William and Amy, Haigh offers to help them when Donald is conscripted to fight in the Second World War. Donald agrees to Haigh's suggestion that he run the business and take care of his parents while Donald hides out in Scotland for the duration of the war. Haigh then invites Donald to his workshop where he bludgeons his friend to death and places his body in a vat of acid to dissolve, then forges Donald's signature to take control of his affairs. He keeps up the pretense that Donald is on the run through the rest of the war, but as Britain celebrates V.E. Day, Haigh tells William and Amy that Donald has returned to London and is waiting for them at his workshop. He then kills them both after individually driving them there. With the McSwans' money, Haigh sets himself up at the Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington.

Haigh's next victims are Archie and Rose Henderson, a doctor and his wife, whom he befriends after visiting a shop they have recently purchased. Dr. Henderson discloses to Haigh that he and Rose are quite wealthy, but their marriage is in difficulty. The couple embark on a make-or-break holiday which is interrupted by Haigh, who invites Archie to his workshop and kills him there. He later lures Rose to the same premises under the pretense that her husband is ill. Rose's brother Arnold Burton is suspicious when Haigh tells them the Hendersons had to leave the country because Archie performed an illegal abortion, and signed over their affairs to Haigh, someone they have only known for a few months. Finally, Haigh kills Olive Durand-Deacon, a fellow Onslow Court resident, when his funds begin to run low. Her friend, Constance Lane, becomes concerned about Olive's disappearance and persuades Haigh to accompany her to the police to report Olive missing.

Burton also goes to the police after seeing Haigh's picture in a newspaper article about the missing woman, prompting detectives to launch an investigation. Haigh confesses to killing Olive, saying he dissolved her in acid and therefore cannot be prosecuted for her murder, there being no body. He goes on to confess to the other five murders, and claims another three killings. A Home Office pathologist is called in to examine Haigh's workshop where gallstones and a pelvic bone are recovered. After being convicted of murder, Haigh awaits a death sentence. He is visited by Gillian Rogers, and asks her to visit his parents after he has been hanged. The film ends with Gillian honouring that promise.



The Scarborough News reported in November 2001 Yorkshire Television was working on a production titled A Is for Acid that would portray the life of the serial killer John George Haigh, and that Martin Clunes had been cast in the starring role. Scenes for the forthcoming production would be filmed in locations around Scarborough, particularly the town's South Cliff area, which was believed to resemble Kensington as it had looked during the time Haigh lived there in the 1940s.[1] The article also reported that Yorkshire Television had asked the Scarborough Council for permission to close some roads and the town's Esplanade for filming purposes, but that permission had been refused, so residents were being asked to avoid the area on a voluntary basis.[1] Additional scenes were filmed in Wetherby, Saltaire and outside Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds.

The Manchester Evening News carried an interview with Clunes on 9 September 2002, the day the film was aired, in which the actor spoke about the role: "I've never been asked to play someone who actually existed before. Haigh was a real challenge. Although he was real he's almost forgotten and my generation didn't really know about him. My mum, on the other hand, can remember the case as a truly horrific event of the last century. When I told an older friend of mine who I was playing, he said he was often told as a child: `You eat that up or John Haigh will get you.' He was the stock bogeyman of the day."[2]


The film was heavily promoted by ITV before its first broadcast at 9:00pm on 9 September 2002, but attracted a relatively small audience for a peak time programme. Overnight figures suggested 6 million viewers had tuned in to watch A Is for Acid, a figure beaten by an episode of Waking the Dead which appeared in the same time slot on BBC One.[3] A review in the Manchester Evening News the day after the film was shown was generally favourable: "Clunes might seem an unlikely choice for this sinister and demanding role...but he acquitted tremendously in his portrayal of the beaming, oily trickster with a murderous heart...Clunes made the killer plausible, disarming and businesslike as he went about murdering for profit." However, the reviewer was critical of the film's lack of tension and its failure to analyse Haigh's psyche.[4]


The opening scene depicting Haigh's childhood was filmed in Saltaire, West Yorkshire. Later where John is shown courting Betty, the Hyde Park Picture House in Hyde Park, Leeds. The police station to which John takes Constance Lane to report her friend missing, was filmed at Wetherby Council Offices.


  1. ^ a b "Clunes to portray acid-bath killer". The Scarborough News. 6 November 2001. Retrieved 17 December 2012.
  2. ^ "Telly talk: Clunes behaving murderously". Manchester Evening News. 9 September 2002. Retrieved 17 December 2012.
  3. ^ Cozens, Claire (10 September 2012). "TV ratings: September 9". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 17 December 2012.
  4. ^ "In my view: A Is for Acid". Manchester Evening News. 10 September 2002. Retrieved 17 December 2012.

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This page was last edited on 29 September 2019, at 19:08
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