Introducing Dennis Nilsen — The “British Jeffrey Dahmer”

Published April 3, 2018

Dennis Nilsen was driven by his fears of loneliness and hoped that keeping bodies as mementos in his home would make him feel less alone.

Dennis Nilsen

Wikimedia CommonsThe prison mugshot of Dennis Nilsen.

On Feb 8, 1983, a plumber named Michael Cattran was called to 23 Cranley Gardens. The residents of the apartment building had been complaining of blocked drains for some time, and the superintendent had finally decided to do something about it. Cattran had been a plumber for some time, but in all his years on the job, he had never seen anything like what he would uncover that day.

When he opened a drain cover at the side of the building, Cattran found that it was indeed clogged. As he pulled out the blockage, he realized that it wasn’t the usual mess of hair and napkins. Instead, it was packed with a flesh-like substance and small broken bones.

“It looks to me like someone has been flushing down their Kentucky Fried Chicken,” said one of the building’s residents, Dennis Nilsen. Cattran had his doubts. The substance didn’t look like chicken meat, he said. In fact, it looked disturbingly human.

It would turn out, over the course of the ensuing investigation, that Mr. Cattran had been horribly correct. The substance clogging the drains of the building was a congealed mass of human remains; and the culprit behind it? None other than the man who had tried to throw the plumber off the scent — resident Dennis Nilsen.

In the four years preceding the plumber’s unnerving find, Nilsen had been using the apartment building to hide the evidence of his crimes. Crimes that included murder, dismemberment, sexual assault, and even potential cannibalism.

Beginning in 1978, Nilsen murdered between 12 and 15 men and boys and attempted to murder seven others. Most of his victims were homeless, others he picked up in (mostly gay) bars around his home in the Gladstone Park area of London. Nilsen claimed that his need for the men’s attention came from his loneliness, a crippling feeling he’d suffered from for years.

His first victim was a 14-year-old boy he had met at a pub where he had been searching for company on the day before New Year’s Eve. The boy accompanied him back to his flat after Nilsen promised to supply him with alcohol, later passing out after drinking too much.

Fearing that the young boy would leave him if he awoke, Nilsen strangled him with a necktie and drowned him in a bucket filled with water. The boy’s body would stay under the floorboards of Nilsen’s flat for eight months until he finally burned it in his backyard.

Before moving to 23 Cranley Gardens, Nilsen lived in a flat with a garden. Initially, he had been hiding them under his floorboards. However, the smell had become too much to bear. So, he buried, burned, or disposed of his 12-15 victims in the garden.

Believing it was just the internal organs that were causing the smell, Nilsen removed them, taking the bodies out of their hiding places, dissecting them on the floor, and saving their skin and bones.

He kept the remains and often bathed and dressed them in clothing, as he felt they brought him company in his lonely existence. He would also take them to bed, watch TV with them, and perform depraved acts of necrophilia with them.

To dispose of the dissected innards, Nilsen would routinely have small bonfires in his backyard, secretly adding human body parts to the flames along with tire parts to hide the smell. The body parts that weren’t burned were buried near the fire pit.

Unfortunately for Nilsen, in 1981, his landlord decided to renovate his garden flat, and he was forced to move. As 23 Cranley Gardens didn’t have a garden, he was forced to get a little more creative with his disposal methods.

Dennis Nilsen Cranley Gardens

Wikimedia Commons23 Cranley Gardens, where Dennis Nilsen flushed his victims down the toilet.

Assuming that the flesh would either deteriorate or be flushed far enough into the sewers that it wouldn’t be found, Nilsen began flushing human remains down his toilet. Unfortunately, the building’s plumbing was old and not quite up to the challenge of disposing of human beings. Eventually, it became so backed up that the other residents noticed it as well and called in the plumber.

Upon a thorough investigation of the apartment building’s pipes, the flesh was traced back to the attic flat which was Nilsen’s apartment. Upon setting foot in the flat, the police immediately noted the aroma of rotting flesh and decay. When they asked him where the rest of the body was, Nilsen calmly showed them to the garbage bag of body parts he kept in his wardrobe.

A search concluded that there were body parts stashed all around Nilsen’s apartment, implicating him beyond a shadow of a doubt in several open murders. Though he admitted to between 12 and 15 murders (he claimed he couldn’t remember the exact number), he was formally charged with six counts of murder and two attempted.

He was found guilty on all counts and currently serves his whole life tariff in the HMP Full Sutton Prison. He spends his free time translating books into Braille and has expressed no remorse, or desire to be free. He claims he deserves the punishment he’s been given.

Now that you’ve read about Dennis Nilsen, check out the story of Jeffery Dahmer, the most infamous cannibal killer, who Nilsen’s modus operandi was compared to. Then, check out Dolly Oesterreich the woman who kept her secret lover hidden in her attic for years.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.