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How Dennis Nilsen & other killers disposed of their victims

A photograph of a toilet
Image: Shutterstock

‘How would you get rid of a dead body…?’

As grim a subject as it is, it’s one that crops up surprisingly frequently in conversation, isn’t it? Especially when you’re a true crime buff with a particularly morbid curiosity about all things murder...

Which is pretty much all of us.

We all have our theories and suggestions on the topic which we casually fling into the mix, safe in the knowledge that the dilemma is entirely hypothetical. But for serial killers, getting shot of dead bodies is a very real concern. One that, down the years, has forced the more pathologically insane ones to get really rather creative indeed.

Many famous repeat murderers have been happy enough to merely dump their poor victims by the roadside or bury them in shallow graves. Others, though - as we’re about to discover - opted for far more imaginative methods of corpse disposal.

Brace yourselves.

Dennis Nilsen flushed remains down the toilet

On the morning of the 8th February 1983, Londoner Michael Cattran arrived at work and took a look at his schedule for the day. He worked for the emergency drainage and plumbing company Dyno-Rod and most of his jobs had him unblocking pipes and drains around the capital. His first job of the morning was a call-out to a place in Muswell Hill, North London.

The tenants of 23 Cranley Gardens had reported a strange smell coming from the drains and problems flushing the toilet. It was, Cattran quickly discovered, a blockage. A routine assignment. What was the blocking the drain? Well, there was nothing routine about that. It wasn’t food, cooking fat, mud or stones. It was bones. And rotting flesh.

Cattran discussed his findings with two of the tenants, Jim Allcock and Dennis Nilsen. Allcock was bamboozled but Nilsen very quickly offered up the explanation that it was 'probably someone flushing down their Kentucky Fried Chicken.'

Cattran was, by this point, highly suspicious. Not only by Nilsen’s insistence that the flesh was poultry but by the bones themselves. To his eye, they appeared to be from a human hand. His suspicions - on both fronts - proved to be correct.

Dennis Nilsen had been luring, strangling, drowning, shaving, having sex with, dissecting and burning/flushing local men down his toilet for years.

Robert Pickton fed his victims to pigs… and people

From 1983 to 2002, Robert ‘Willy’ Pickton killed 49 women in Vancouver, Canada. He would often drive out to the city’s red light district and pick up sex workers he knew to have substance abuse issues. He would then drive them the 17 miles east to his pig farm in Port Coquitlam where he would rape, torture and kill them.

Many of his victims would merely be buried or left to rot out in the corner of a field. But some he would feed to his pigs. It’s said that Pickton would particularly enjoy feeding his ‘600lb guard boar’ chunks of the women.

After a thorough investigation, one believed to have cost Canadian authorities in excess of $70m, something even more shocking was discovered. Not only were pigs being fed the women that Pickton had been murdering. People had too. Health authorities in Western Canada were forced to issue alerts warning that the pork produced on the farm had perhaps been contaminated with human flesh.

The official line hinted that this was merely a precaution and any ‘cross-contamination’ was merely that. But local rumours of Pickton mixing human flesh in with the sausage meat have never died down.

John Haigh dissolved corpses in acid

Playing his sick trade in the late 1940s, John George Haigh beat, bludgeoned and shot six people to death in London until his arrest and execution by hanging in 1949. Haigh would go on to become one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers, but not for the manner in which he murdered his victims. It was the way he disposed of the half dozen bodies that caught the public’s imagination. After details of his crimes were exposed, the man would go on to be known - quite simply - as ‘The Acid Bath Murderer’.

Haigh would stuff the bodies of those people he killed into a 45-gallon drum and fill it with concentrated sulphuric acid until the body had effectively dissolved. The process would usually take less than thirty minutes.

On arrest, Haigh admitted that it was his (as it turned out mistaken) belief that without a body, there was no proof of any crime. Yet while the acid was capable of turning even human bone into a soup-y sludge that could be poured into the sewer, Haigh hadn’t taken into account items such as jewellery, dentures and gallstones. All of which were used as evidence to convict him.

HH Holmes sold bodies to medical schools

Herman Webster Mudgett, Dr Henry Howard Holmes or just plain ol'H. H. Holmes. Call him what you will. To many, he's The Original American Serial Killer. Active mostly in Chicago in the late 19th century, Holmes is now renowned for his infamous 'Murder Castle', a bizarre purpose-built three-floor construction packed full of sealed and locked-off rooms, chutes for throwing bodies down and all sorts of built-in torture devices and equipment.

Holmes is officially confirmed as having killed 9 people, though he admitted to 27. Police and crime experts have since put that estimate significantly higher, with some people connecting the New Hampshire-born con artist, bigamist and killer as having taken the lives of more than 200 people.

Happy to throw bodies into a chute and allow them to rot in the basement, after time, Holmes would visit the room and attend to the bodies. He would strip and clean them until they were mere skeletons. He would then sell these full skeletons to local medical schools and laboratories through his network of connections. He was even known to do the same with organs and even full cadavers, such was the demand for anatomical specimens (and lack of agreed-upon medical ethics) at the time.

Richard Chase DRANK the people he killed

As you can tell from that subheading, we’ve saved the craziest method of remains disposal until last… Richard Chase was not a well man. Plagued by a history of severe mental health issues, he suffered from acute paranoid schizophrenia for his entire adult life. He had hit the ‘MacDonald triad’ (bed wetting, animal torture and fire-setting) by the time he was ten and would go on to kill at least six people in the late 1970s.

Fixated on blood and drawn to both necrophilia and cannibalism, during the heights of Chase’s killing spree he became known as ‘The Vampire of Sacramento’, such was his fondness for drinking blood. Since a child he would whizz up small animals in a blender and drink them with Coca-Cola. Eventually, he began to do this with his human victims. Nice, eh?

Not only did these vile and deranged people take their unsuspecting and innocent victims’ lives and devastate their friends and families, they went one worse… They took away any last scrap of dignity the had left, robbing them of their right to a peaceful burial. These bizarre and disgusting stories may shock and entertain us in some ghoulish and macabre way, but let’s never forget that these victims were real, living people. Regardless of what happened to their vessels, here’s hoping their souls are now - and always will be - at peace.