We’ve just released in kindle eBook form the Edward Spencer Shew true crime classic – and it is a classic, having won the 1963 Edgar Special Award – A Companion to Murder (US version here).
It’s a fascinating A to Z compendium of fifty years of English murder trials, from 1900 on; it’s also beautifully written, with the kind of spare but interesting and descriptive language you rarely see these days.
Theodore Dalrymple lists it as being among his favourite books, and was kind enough to write a foreword.
We’ve also tracked down a lot of images, and added in a lot of extra detail not available to Spencer Shew.
Some of it is tragic. For instance, John Dickman was hanged for killing a colliery clerk on a train; later on his conviction was called into question.
Some of the cases remain infamous, some were sensational in their day but have been washed away by the waves of time.
Here are two from either end of the notoriety scale.
The first is very amusing, in its way – it could easily have formed the basis for a black Ealing comedy.
Vaquier, Jean Pierre, looked and behaved like a character in an improbable French farce. Square, squat, endlessly gesticulating, his hair en brosse, his bristling black beard smelling of violets (he used a perfumed brilliantine), he displayed precisely those forms of Gallic extravagance which are most outrageous and distasteful to the Anglo-Saxon mind.
He was an outsize caricature of a Frenchman, of the sort often seen on the stage—and seldom anywhere else. But the engaging absurdities of ‘Monsieur Froggy’, the stage Frenchman, masked a tigerish cruelty and ferocity.
The famous Blue Anchor murder is a story of passion, jealousy, and hatred, no less appalling because the principal character in it was a vain, ridiculous, posturing exhibitionist.
In January 1924, Vaquier, a native of Niort in the Department of Aude, having been a telephonist in the French Army during the 1914-18 war, was engaged in demonstrating to the patrons of the Hotel Victoria at Biarritz the potentialities of the radio as a medium of popular entertainment. That is to say he had obtained the permission of the management to give a regular series of wireless concerts—using his own receiver— in the salon. It was thus that he became acquainted with a Mrs. Mabel Theresa Jones, who was recuperating at Biarritz after a nervous breakdown, brought on largely by her financial worries. She spoke no French; Vaquier had no English. This did not prevent the acquaintanceship ripening into friendship, and friendship into something much more intimate, all at top speed; with the aid of a dictionary—purchased by Mrs. Jones at Vaquier’s suggestion—they found that rudimentary conversation was not beyond them.
In little more than a week they were sharing a double room at the more modestly priced Hotel Bayonne, also at Biarritz. The idyll was rudely interrupted by a telegram from the lady’s husband, Mr. Alfred George Poynter Jones, licensee of the Blue Anchor, Byfleet, Surrey, inviting her to come home.
Vaquier, in tears, begged her not to go, but could not prevail upon her. To soften the shock of parting he accompanied Mrs. Jones as far as Paris; from there she went on alone.
Vaquier waited for twenty-four hours, then followed her to London, ostensibly to secure the patent rights of a sausage machine which he had invented.
From the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury he telegraphed to Mrs. Jones at the Blue Anchor: ‘Arrived from Paris on business. Shall be very pleased to see you and to meet Mr Jones. Perhaps you will inform me which evening.'(The English was supplied by a helpful receptionist at the hotel.)
Five days later—on 14th February—Vaquier arrived unexpectedly and without luggage at the Blue Anchor, borrowed £14 from Mrs. Jones to pay his bill at the Russell Hotel, and proceeded to make himself at home and, as he hoped, indispensable. Mr. Jones was very ill at this time with congestion of the lungs, which made it easier for Vaquier and ‘Mabs’ (as he called her) to resume their former relationship. For a while it continued with something resembling the ardour of those first romantic days at the Hotel Bayonne. But presently, so far as Mrs. Jones’s feelings were concerned, it began to wane.
Unhappily, what was a fading infatuation to Mabel Jones was to her lover a raging passion by which he was entirely absorbed. Time and again Vaquier besought her to come away with him. She always refused—no doubt his absurdities were becoming a bit of a bore—and Vaquier perceived that before he could hope to obtain the absolute possession of the wife he must first get rid of the husband. The idea was not displeasing to him, for he was passionately jealous of Mr, Jones and of the rights he enjoyed; the pitilessly cruel means he selected to destroy this inoffensive man shows the measure of his hatred of him.
On 1st March Vaquier went up to London. He called at a chemist’s shop in Southampton Row, where, during his stay at the Russell Hotel, he had made sundry purchases, and had made himself known to the manager, who spoke excellent French. He explained that for the purposes of ‘wireless experiments’ he required various chemicals, including .12 of a gramme (nearly two grains) of strychnine, a quantity sufficient to kill three or four people. After some hesitation the manager agreed to supply him. Vaquier signed the poison register—using the somewhat curious name of ‘J. Wanker’— and returned with his purchases to Byfleet.
He had observed that Mr Jones, a heavy drinker, was in the habit of taking bromo salts in the morning to palliate the effects of overnight excesses; he further perceived that this provided him, ready made, with the opportunity he was looking for.
There was a party at the Blue Anchor on the evening of 28th March. Mr. Jones retired to bed at one o’clock the next morning in a condition which suggested that he was likely to wake with a ‘hangover’. He slept late, which was not surprising, and it was not until after half-past ten that morning that he went into the bar parlour for his bromo salts, which he always kept on the mantelpiece. The blue bottle was in its accustomed place. Mr. Jones poured a teaspoonful of the salts into half a glass of water, stirred the mixture, and drank it in one gulp.
‘Oh, God! They’re bitter,’ he exclaimed.
An interested spectator of this proceeding had been Monsieur Vaquier, who had been sitting in the bar parlour ever since he had come down for his breakfast coffee at seven o’clock. From his armchair by the mantelpiece he watched gravely whilst Mrs. Jones picked up the blue bottle and poured out some of the contents into her hand. She was startled to see that mixed with the salts were some crystals. She tasted them, tentatively, and found them excessively bitter.
‘Daddy, they have been tampered with!’ she cried. ‘Quick—some salt and water!’
Mrs. Jones poured the crystals back into the bottle and hurried into the kitchen to prepare an emetic. She took the bottle with her, and put it into one of the drawers of the kitchen dresser. Mr. Jones followed his wife into the kitchen; she gave him an emetic, and he was violently sick. Afterwards he complained of being ‘numb and cold’.
Vaquier helped to carry him upstairs, and a doctor was called. A few minutes later Vaquier came hurrying into the kitchen and stammered out to the cook, Mrs. Fisher, a few of the English words he had culled from the dictionary. Mrs Fisher understood him to say: ‘Medicine—doctor—quick.’ At the same time he picked up from the dresser a bottle of Kruschen Salts and held it up for Mrs. Fisher to see. She gathered that he was asking for Mr. Jones’s ‘medicine’, his bromo salts, and she pointed to the drawer where Mrs. Jones had put the bottle. Vaquier went to the drawer, took out the bottle, and left the kitchen with it.
Dr. Frederick Carle arrived at 11.50 a.m. Mr. Jones, in an extremity of terror, was calling out for help, but he was already beyond medical aid. He died shortly afterwards in the extremely violent—and agonizing—convulsions which are typical of strychnine poisoning. Dr. Carle asked for the bromo salts bottle.
Mrs. Jones went to the kitchen dresser for it. The bottle was there, but in a different place—in the front, not at the back, where she had left it. There was nothing in it but a little water; it looked as if it had lately been washed. (It had. After washing the bottle out, Vaquier had been able to smuggle it back into the drawer whilst the cook was busy in the scullery.)
On the floor of the bar parlour Dr. Carle found some of the crystals which Mrs. Jones had spilt when pouring them back into the bottle; he scooped them into an envelope and sent them away for analysis. (They duly revealed traces of strychnine, as did the water which had been used to wash out the bottle.)
Rather over half a grain of strychnine was found in the organs of the body. That is a minimum fatal dose; allowing for the vomiting, it is probable that Mr. Jones had swallowed something not far short of two grains.
Vaquier stayed on at the Blue Anchor for a few days longer, maintaining the most affable relations with the crime reporters of Fleet Street who, as it may be imagined, descended upon Byfleet in force.
Mrs. Jones showed him very clearly that she suspected him of being her husband’s murderer, but it was not until he was about to leave the Blue Anchor for his new quarters at the Railway Hotel, Woking, that she taxed him with it to his face. She then said to him: ‘You have assassinated Mr. Jones.’
Vaquier had made sufficient progress with his English to understand her and to reply, ‘Yes, Mabs— for you,’ he said.
‘I would have killed you’, remarked Mrs. Jones, ‘if I knew you would have done a thing like that.’
After his move to Woking—on 4th April—Vaquier continued to hobnob with the newspaper reporters. His vanity was enormous. He liked to see his name in the Press and, better still, his photograph. This turned out to be his undoing.
On 16th April the manager of the chemist’s shop in Southampton Row happened to see a newspaper photograph of Vaquier; he recognized him as the garrulous Frenchman who had signed himself ‘J. Wanker’ in the poison register, and he at once got into touch with Scotland Yard. Thus were the police provided with the ‘missing link’. It was the proof they were waiting for that Vaquier had had strychnine in his possession. Now they pounced.
Vaquier was arrested at the Railway Hotel, Woking, on 19th April.
In reply to the charge of murder he said (through an interpreter): ‘I assure you on the tomb of my mother that I am innocent, and that I will make known tomorrow he who administered the poison. … I beg of you—do not put me in prison if you can help it. I prefer to die. You will see—I am not guilty.’
Vaquier’s trial before Mr. Justice AVORY took place at Guildford Assizes in July. As is usual at a poison trial, the prosecution was handled by a Law Officer of the Crown—in this case the Attorney-General, Sir Patrick HASTINGS K.C.; with him was Sir Edward Marshall HALL K.C.
The accused was defended by Sir Henry CURTIS BENNETT K.C. The four-day trial was a disappointment to Vaquier, or, rather, he was disappointed that his own part in it was not more spectacular. He was disgusted that he was not ‘confronted with his accusers’ according to the French system, for he had had agreeable visions of himself hurling defiance at false and perjured witnesses, demanding justice from a bullying judge—whom he would quell with his superior eloquence—and, in the end, emerging from his heroic ordeal triumphant and unscathed, to the astonishment and admiration of the Court, and indeed of the entire British nation. The reality was dismayingly drab.
The sphinx-like Mr. Justice Avory was not the ranting Monsieur le President of his imagination. There were no opportunities to defy or to quell. Everything was flat, colourless, and conversational. The outraged Vaquier found that he was required to sit still and allow other people to do the talking. He fell back upon various devices to divert the attention of the Court to himself. He kept the warders continuously busy sharpening pencils for him while he took copious notes of all the evidence, which was interpreted to him one sentence at a time. When a point appealed to him he was sure to offer some comment upon it—usually a frivolous one. For instance, when one of the Crown witnesses described himself as ‘a builder and undertaker’, Vaquier, highly delighted, remarked to the interpreter, ‘Ah, he houses them above and below ground.’
His own evidence was a tissue of absurdities. He insisted that he had bought the strychnine to oblige Mrs. Jones’s solicitor, a complete stranger to him, who had wanted it to destroy a dog. Under cross-examination by the Attorney-General he said that he had signed the poison register ‘J. Wanker’ because he had been told that ‘When you buy poison you never sign your own name’.
Q: Who told you that?
A: The solicitor.
Q: Did the gentleman who asked you to buy the poison tell you to sign a false name?
Q: Did it strike you as odd that a complete stranger, who wanted to poison a dog, was telling you to sign a false name?
Q: Do I understand you to say that you signed a false name merely because a complete stranger asked you to?
A: Yes; if he had told me to sign my name I should have signed it.
This passage sufficiently indicates the style and tone of Vaquier’s performance in the witness-box. It was not until the very end that the Court had a glimpse of the real man, as opposed to the mountebank.
It was not a pretty sight. Vaquier listened with obvious incredulity as the interpreter translated for him the jury’s inevitable verdict of ‘Guilty’. Then, while the death sentence was being pronounced, he screamed abuse at the judge and jury, pounding the dock with his fist.
‘I swear on my mother’s and my father’s graves, still fresh, that I am quite innocent of the crime of which I have been accused. . . . You have given an iniquitous verdict!’ (So much was translated by the interpreter; he did not make any further attempt to keep up with the torrent of words that continued to pour from Vaquier’s lips.)
‘I can listen to nothing more,’ said Mr Justice Avory, in his ice-cold voice. ‘Let him be removed.’
Vaquier, still shouting and struggling, was dragged from the dock. There was a similar violent scene at the end of his unsuccessful application to the Court of Criminal Appeal to have the verdict put aside.
‘Je demande la justice, Monsieur le President!’ he screamed, as harassed warders struggled to break his grip on the dock rail.
Fifteen days later—on 12th August—Vaquier was hanged at Wandsworth Prison.
They emphatically did not mess about in those days.
The next case is considerably better known.
Haigh, John George, was the well-spoken, dapper little man with the nice eyes and friendly smile who usually ate by himself in the hotel dining-room. One found it agreeable to exchange a few words with him after dinner. Being a killer who notched up corpses with terrifying facility, he was liable to melt one down in a bath of sulphuric acid, if one possessed any loose capital, or even a few nice pieces of jewellery. But, of course, one did not know that when, amidst the pleasing tinkle of the after-dinner coffee-cups, one bade him ‘Good evening’ and remarked how mild it was for the time of year. He seemed so very pleasant. That, needless to say, was a gigantic mistake, but it was one easily made, and Mrs. Durand-Deacon made it.
Olive Henrietta Helen Olivia Robarts Durand-Deacon, an active, intelligent woman, was the widow of a colonel, who had left her well provided for. In the early part of 1949, when, presuming upon a casual acquaintanceship, she mentioned a small matter of business to the obliging Mr. Haigh, and in so doing signed her death warrant, she was sixty-nine years of age, and had been living for the past six years at the Onslow Court Hotel, Queen’s Gate, South Kensington, London.
Five people had already shared the fate that was to befall her at the hands of that smiling little man. (Haigh, himself, claimed to have killed three other persons besides, but this was almost certainly untrue; at the time, he was seeking to support a plea of insanity and wished it to be supposed that he had committed more murders than in fact he had.)
What manner of man —or monster—was John George Haigh? He was born at Stamford of sturdy Yorkshire stock on 24th July 1909. Both his parents were Plymouth Brethren. Newspapers were not allowed in the house, nor was the wireless; all forms of sport and entertainment were forbidden. Haigh’s father, who worked in the Yorkshire coalfield, built a high wall around his garden to shut out the sinful world; it was the symbol of the ‘exclusive’ character of the religious beliefs of the ‘Peculiar People’.
The young Haigh lived a life entirely withdrawn, finding in music his only emotional outlet. When, as a pupil at Wakefield Grammar School, he won a choral scholarship which required him to attend the services at Wakefield Cathedral, he was brought into sudden contact with a ritualistic form of religion in violent contrast with the Puritanical austerities of his home. This dichotomy was bound to be disturbing; Haigh seems to have collapsed under it and other psychological pressures.
He left school a congenital liar and cheat and took to crime as a duck to water. In November 1934 he served his first prison sentence— for fraud. In November 1937 he pleaded guilty to an indictment charging him with attempts to obtain money by false pretences, and was sentenced to four years penal servitude. He was released on licence in August 1940, but in the following year he was sent back to prison for stealing.
Haigh completed his third sentence in September 1943. In the following year, he acquired a basement at 79 Gloucester Road, Kensington, for use as a workshop. At about the same time he had a chance meeting in a public house with a young man named William Donald McSwan, who confided to Haigh that he planned to ‘go underground’ to avoid the ‘call-up'; soon afterwards he disappeared.
Under the date 9th September 1944, Haigh marked his diary with a red cross in crayon. Years later, Haigh provided an explanation of this mysterious entry. He said that the young man had come to the Gloucester Road workshop with a pin-table that needed repair. Haigh had hit him over the head, and had lifted the dead body into a water-butt filled with sulphuric acid; after decomposition, he had poured the residual fluid down a manhole in the basement. To McSwan’s parents he had explained that their son had disappeared to avoid military service.
In the following year, some time in the early part of July, Haigh killed both the parents, Donald and Amy McSwan, disposing of the bodies by the same method, and then, having exterminated the entire family, proceeded, by means of a forged power of attorney and other devices, to appropriate to his own use everything of which they had died possessed. Altogether, he seems to have enriched himself to the tune of some four thousand pounds. No suspicions were aroused; the disappearance of the McSwan family was never reported to the police.
By August 1947 Haigh had run through all the money, having squandered most of it on a singularly unprofitable greyhound racing system. At this time, he had already been living at the Onslow Court Hotel for some two years; he now began negotiations for the purchase of a house, undeterred by the fact that he had no money. It was in this way that he met Dr. Archibald Henderson, a genial Scotsman of fifty, invalided out of the R.A.M.C., and his wife, Rosalie, who had advertised that their house in Ladbroke Grove was for sale. Although his plan to buy the house fell through, Haigh became extremely friendly with the Hendersons.
He was now acting as London representative for a firm called Hurstlea Products, with premises in West Street, Crawley, and a storehouse—of which he had the keys—on the outskirts of that agreeable town.
In December 1947 he ordered three carboys of sulphuric acid and two 40-gallon drums for delivery at the storehouse, a two-storey building standing on a vacant lot in Leopold Road. In the following February, on some pretext, Haigh persuaded Dr. Henderson to go with him to Crawley.
‘Archie was to be the next victim,’ Haigh wrote later. ‘I drove him to Crawley, and in the storeroom at Leopold Road I shot him in the head. … I then returned to Brighton and told Rose that Archie had been taken ill very suddenly and needed her. I said I would drive her to him. She accompanied me to the storeroom at Crawley, and there I shot her.’ Both bodies were melted down in sulphuric acid.
Haigh’s diary for 12th February 1948 contained the laconic entry: ‘A.H.’ ‘R.H.’, followed by a red cross. No time was lost in disposing of the Hendersons’ property. Haigh sold the doctor’s car, forged deeds by which he acquired his house—which he afterwards sold—and, by these and sundry other transactions, cleared something like seven thousand seven hundred pounds. Haigh went through this larger sum even more quickly than he had the smaller. As before, most of it went to bookmakers.
By the beginning of 1949 he was substantially in debt, his bank account was overdrawn, and the Onslow Court Hotel was pressing him to settle his long-overdue account. This was Haigh’s parlous situation when Mrs. Durand-Deacon, who occupied the adjoining table to his in the hotel dining-room, was foolish enough to mention to him a little idea she had for manufacturing plastic fingernails. Haigh was most interested, and offered to take Mrs. Durand-Deacon to his ‘workshop’ at Crawley.
On the afternoon of 18th February he drove her there in his car. At the Leopold Road storehouse he shot her in the back of the head, stripped her of her Persian lamb coat and her jewellery, and tipped her body into a 40-gallon metal drum.
Having briefly interrupted his horrid work to eat an egg on toast in Ye Olde Ancient Prior’s Restaurant in Crawley, he filled the drum with sulphuric acid and went off to dine at the George Hotel.
At breakfast at the Onslow Court Hotel the next morning, he approached a fellow-resident, an elderly lady named Mrs. Constance Lane, a close friend of Mrs. Durand-Deacon. He asked her: ‘Do you know anything about Mrs. Durand-Deacon? Is she ill? Do you know where she is?’ Mrs. Lane said she did not know, adding, rather disturbingly, ‘Do not you know where she is? I understood from her that you wanted to take her to your factory at Horsham?’ Smoothly, Haigh replied, ‘Yes, but I was not ready. I had not had lunch, and she said she wanted to go to the Army and Navy Stores, and would I pick her up there?’ He had, he said, waited for an hour at the Army and Navy Stores, but Mrs Durand-Deacon had not turned up. ‘Well,’ said the disquieting Mrs Lane, ‘I must do something about it.’
Later that day, Haigh sold Mrs Durand-Deacon’s watch for £10 to a firm of jewellers at Putney, and sent the Persian lamb coat to a cleaner at Reigate.
The next morning at breakfast he went to Mrs. Lane’s table again. Had she yet had any news of her friend? Mrs. Lane had not; she intended to report the matter to the police. Later in the morning, Haigh approached Mrs. Lane once more. ‘I think we had better go together to the Chelsea Police Station,’ he said, and in her gentle way the old lady replied, ‘I think so, too.’
That afternoon, Haigh drove Mrs. Lane to the police station, where they jointly reported the disappearance of Mrs. Durand-Deacon.
Haigh proceeded methodically with the task of collecting the proceeds of his latest killing. He took Mrs. Durand-Deacon’s jewellery to Horsham for an expert valuation. He then went on to Crawley, where he looked in at the storeroom, and, finding that the reaction was still not complete, tipped out some sludge from the drum, and replenished it with a fresh supply of acid. The next day he returned to the shop at Horsham, where he had obtained a valuation of the jewellery. There he sold the lot for £100. A further visit to Crawley satisfied Haigh that disintegration was now complete.
In the yard outside the storehouse he poured away the whole of the contents of the drum. Since the main facts were never in question at Haigh’s trial, it is unnecessary to trace the patient police work by which the whole story was exposed—the tracing of the watch, the jewellery, the fur coat, the finding of pieces of eroded bone, part of a left foot, false teeth, the handle of a red plastic bag, and other fragments in the sludge tipped out in the yard.
It is sufficient to say that on 2nd March Haigh was charged with the murder of Mrs. Durand-Deacon; he replied, ‘I have nothing to say.’ But in the forty-eight hours preceding the charge he had said a very great deal.
Of all the things he had said, perhaps the most significant was contained in an apparently casual question he had put to a police officer at Chelsea Police Station on the evening of 28th February. ‘Tell me frankly,’ he had said. ‘What are the chances of anyone being released from Broadmoor?’
Later, upon being cautioned, he had said: ‘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…. How can you prove murder if there is no body?’
He had then made an immensely long and detailed statement describing the murder and disintegration of Mrs. Durand-Deacon, and before her, the McSwans and the Hendersons, and three other persons besides—sketchily identified, and almost certainly imaginary.
Haigh insisted that in each case he had drunk a glass of his victim’s blood. This gruesome claim formed an important element in the defence of Haigh at his trial, which took place at Lewes Assizes before Mr. Justice HUMPHREYS in July 1949. Insanity was pleaded. Haigh was presented to the jury as a pure paranoic, so far advanced in mental disorder that he conceived himself to be under the control of a guiding spirit whose authority was infinitely superior to that imposed by the ordinary standards and restraints of human society. This defence—conducted by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe K.C. (afterwards Viscount KILMUIR)—was based upon the conclusions of a highly distinguished psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Yellowlees, who in the witness-box discussed the early formative influences in Haigh’s home life, which in his opinion encouraged the development of the paranoic condition.
Sir David Maxwell Fyfe: In the statement he made he has given a history, which we have heard, that in each case, as he put it, he ‘tapped’ the victim and drank some blood. What do you feel as to the truth or Otherwise of that statement?
Dr. Yellowlees: I think it pretty certain that he tasted it; I do not know whether he drank it or not. From a medical point of view I do not think it is important, for the reason that this question of blood runs through all his fantasies from childhood like a motif and is the core of the paranoic structure that I believe he has created, and it does not matter very much to a paranoic whether he does things in fancy or in fact.
The Attorney-General, Sir Hartley (afterwards Lord) SHAWCROSS K.C., who appeared for the Crown, put this to the doctor: ‘I am asking you to look at the facts and tell the jury whether there is any doubt that he must have known that, according to English law, he was preparing to do, and subsequently had done, something which was wrong?’
Dr. Yellowlees: I will say ‘Yes’ to that if you say ‘punishable by law’ instead of ‘wrong’.
Sir Hartley Shawcross: Punishable by law and, therefore, wrong by the law of this country?
Dr. Yellowlees: Yes, I think he knew that.
Bearing in mind what had to be proved to satisfy the criterion of the M’NAGHTEN RULES, that answer was fatal to a defence of insanity.
The jury took only a quarter of an hour to decide upon a verdict of ‘Guilty’. Haigh was executed at Wandsworth Prison on 6th August.
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