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British serial killer Dennis Nilsen (Photo: Courtesy of Full Sutton Prison via Wikimedia Commons)

The man, increasingly depressed, isolated and drunk, found himself despairing at an inability to find love. The other men who came for one-night stands and casual sex would always leave. But one morning, he decided that his still-sleeping partner would never leave him. So he strangled him with a necktie and carefully preserved his body in his home. The corpse would become a companion for dinners, watching television and listening to music, conversations—even sex.

But Dennis Nilsen, notorious British serial killer from the 1970s and 1980s, had a change even amid his run of carnage that included at least 12 victims. Because while that first victim was carefully cremated in a backyard bonfire after months of decomposition, the remaining 11 victims would increasingly be desecrated. Their bodies would be totally dismembered, the flesh would be stripped from their heads, and the internal organs would be thrown out on the ground for wildlife to consume. Smaller pieces were flushed down the toilet (creating a clog which would later lead to his capture).

Nilsen thus exhibited a rage at his victims leaving him—through the very process of decomposition. Nilsen went from “defensive mutilation” of that first victim to “offensive mutilation” of the other 11 due to his frustration with his dead victims naturally disappearing before his very eyes, according to a new study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

“When the bodies of his victims showed outward signs of decay, the imagined relationship he had with the bodies of those whom he had killed could no longer be sustained,” writes Mark Pettigrew, the author, a criminologist at Leeds Beckett University. “He had been left alone once again.”

Knowledge of the crimes of Nilsen, who died in prison this past May, is often overshadowed by the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer, caught in 1994 after killing and dismembering his victims.

But Nilsen’s crimes shocked the United Kingdom upon his capture in 1983. (The JFS paper does not specifically name Nilsen, but the case circumstances and notorious pictures of the crime scene match Nilsen’s story.)

The paper shows that Nilsen panicked that first morning, before 14-year-old Stephen Holmes awoke after a night of heavy drinking on Dec. 30, 1978. Nilsen didn’t want to wake him, because then the teen may leave—and then he reached a resolution in his own mind.

The boy would “stay with me over the New Year whether he wanted to or not,” according to Nilsen’s later account.

The body of the teenager decomposed naturally—and eventually Nilsen was forced to bury him under the floorboards of 195 Melrose Avenue in Cricklewood. For months, the killer used a huge amount of salt and household air fresheners to stave off the smell. But then he was forced to act, wrapping the body in plastic sheeting but burning it whole, using the pungent immolation of rubber tires to cover some of the cremation smell in his backyard. The bones that remained intact were pulverized with a shovel and scattered.

Nilsen got away with that first murder, without any problem. And yet he began to more elaborately carve up the remains with each passing case, with unnecessary dissections and forays into the human anatomy. Laying plastic sheeting and using a kitchen knife, he would remove the head, hands and feet and place them in plastic bags; those bags would be stored within suitcases and under floorboards until they too were burned. The viscera was gathered into bags and then scattered outside for the animals.

The first case, Pettigrew argues, was a case of “defensive mutilation” to conceal the killing. But the subsequent rituals of the 11 following victims at two separate locations (later at 23 Cranley Gardens) were an instance of “offensive mutilations.”

“It is not refinement of defensive mutilations that is found here, but it is progression to offensive mutilation which includes objectively unnecessary actions, such as stripping the flesh from heads and eviscerating victims and leaving the internal organs to be eaten by wildlife,” writes Pettigrew. “Offensive mutilation of corpses is suggestive of hate, in this case hatred toward the body that could no longer fulfill its role in the necrophile’s fantasy.”

Nilsen was caught in February 1983 after the drains at Cranley Gardens became clogged with the dismembered tissue of several of his victims, which he had attempted to flush down the toilet.

Among the complaints to the landlord about the backup: one from Nilsen himself.

The killer told authorities that at one point he thought of giving a small piece of human tissue to his dog Bleep. But it was the extent of his disgust for his decaying victims who had once been the dead objects of his affection that prevented him from feeding his canine.

“Dogs like any cooked meat, I’m told, from whatever animals … perhaps insultingly to those I had killed, I wasn’t sure of the purity of their meat, having not been passed for human consumption by a meat inspector,” Nilsen later said, according to accounts.

“So,” Pettigrew adds, “after enjoying an intimate relationship with his victims, not limited to sexual activity, but sleeping, eating and bathing with the men he had killed, once they could no longer fulfill their role they became, in his eyes, of less worth than dog food.”

The strange predicament Nilsen placed himself in ensured failure, according to the paper. By seeking out a relationship with the dead, he was biologically assured of not having a lasting connection with a decomposing corpse, no matter how silent and compliant they may be, Pettigrew writes. 

“It is somewhat ironic then that in his quest for a partner who would not reject him and would not leave him, his pseudorelationships with the corpses of the men he killed were destined to end,” concludes the author.

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