Brighton-based actor recreates chilling encounter with the Acid Bath Murderer

Nigel Fairs
Nigel Fairs

On February 12 1948, Archie and Rose Henderson met their charming potential business partner, John Haigh, at the Metropole Hotel on Brighton seafront.

They discussed horse-racing, Mozart and powder compacts.

Five hours later they were both dead, their bodies slowly dissolving in acid in Haigh’s Crawley workshop.

This May, the chilling encounter will be recreated in the Old Police Cells below Brighton Town Hall, in the award-winning play In Conversation with an Acid Bath Murderer.

When he went to the gallows on August 10 1949, John George Haigh went down in history as perhaps Sussex’s most notorious killer.

Dubbed the Acid Bath Murderer, he was also nicknamed ‘the vampire’ following his claim to have drunk his victims’ blood.

In his final days, Haigh had become a tabloid star, a ruthless charmer who killed at least six people in Sussex in the 1940s, dissolving their bodies in acid in Crawley – all because of a grisly misunderstanding.

During the police investigation, it emerged that Haigh was using acid to destroy his victims’ bodies in the mistaken belief that if their bodies could not be found, then a murder conviction would not be possible.

He was wrong.

Haigh pleaded insanity at his trial. Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross KC, (later Lord Shawcross) led for the prosecution at Lewes Assizes. He insisted that Haigh had acted with malice aforethought. It took just minutes for the jury to find Haigh guilty. Mr Justice Travers Humphreys sentenced him to death.

Brighton-based actor Nigel Fairs will be Haigh for the night: “I know it sounds like a pretty harrowing evening but it isn’t,” says Nigel, whose work has ranged from a year in the West End production of The Mousetrap to playing a Dalek.

“Haigh was an utter charmer, as most conmen are, so the piece has wit, even laughs; it’s almost a seduction! I love playing villains!”

Nigel was astonished to discover not only that Haigh had hired a car from his own grandfather but that his great grandfather put the shackles on him in Lewes Prison.

It was years earlier, while in prison for fraud, that Haigh had experimented with mice to discover that it took only 30 minutes for the body to disappear - a grisly discovery which led to his murderous reign.

By the summer of 1947 Haigh, a gambler, was running short of money. He found a couple to kill and rob - Dr Archibald Henderson and his wife Rose. Haigh rented a workshop at 2 Leopold Road, Crawley, lured the Hendersons there, murdered them and dissolved their bodies in acid.

His final victim was Olive Durand-Deacon. He invited her down to his Crawley workshop on February 18, 1949, shot her in the back of the head and put her into the acid bath. Two days later, her friend Constance Lane, reported her missing - all a tale about to be told in the most appropriate of settings.

“It’s been one spooky co-incidence after another,” Nigel laughs. “I discovered that one of my friend’s aunts was all lined up to be his next victim! Had he not been arrested, she would be dead.”

Louise Jameson, best known for her roles in Doctor Who, EastEnders, Tenko, Doc Martin and Bergerac, directs: “When I was asked to direct it, I have to confess I had a huge question mark over it, as it’s not a subject that would immediately grab my interest, but when I read it, I loved it.

“Haigh isn’t written as a mad person or a demon. He’s just someone with a different version of reality. There’s a logic to him. We even feel even empathy with him. It’s a real privilege to be working on it.”

In Conversation with an Acid Bath Murderer will be on May 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20 and 21 at 6.30pm and 7.30pm.

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