Real Life Hannibal Lector: Murderer, Necrophile, Prisoner for Life
Most of the time, when we think about necrophiliac mass-murderers, we tend to think of either completely crazy young crack-head men who wear hoodies and hang around workers’ neighborhoods, or sophisticated and charismatic masterminds like Jack the Ripper, Hannibal Lector, or Dexter. We usually don’t picture an unassuming, “average Joe”, a beanpole of a man who looks like he could be portrayed by David Tenant.
The Man in Question:
Dennis Andrew Nilsen was born in 1945 in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, to parents Elizabeth Whyte, and Olav Magnus Moksheim (who changed his name to Nilsen). Olav was a Norwegian soldier who traveled to Scotland in 1940 after the German occupation of Norway, as part of the Free Norwegian Forces. He courted, and soon after, married Elizabeth Whyte in 1942.
The couple’s marriage was rough and troublesome. Olav was not serious about his responsibilities as a husband and a father and was mainly preoccupied with his duties as a soldier, and only really paid Elizabeth any mind during his short visits to her parents’ house. During this time, the couple had three children, of whom Nilsen was the second. Deciding that enough was enough, Elizabeth divorced Olav in 1948. She was supported by her parents, who despite their disapproval of Olav, loved their grandkids very much.
Nilson was a quiet if adventurous youth. He had many fond memories of picnics and outings with his family in the countryside, and his grandparents’ pious lifestyle, which he later remarked was ‘cold and dour’. He was particularly fond of his grandfather – a fisherman by trade – who would often take him on long walks down the docks and along the shore. His absences, due to fishing journeys, affected Nilson deeply. On Oct. 31, 1951, 62 years old, he died of a heart attack while fishing in the North Sea. His body was brought back to the family home, where before burial, Nilson was taken by his mother to see his grandfather in his coffin. Nilson later claimed that the sight of his mother crying over the casket was his most vivid memory of those days.
In 1954, Nilson nearly drowned at the beach, until another youth came and rescued him. His mother then moved out of her parent's home and into an apartment with her three kids. There, she met a builder named Andrew Scott, whom she married and had four children with, over as many years. Nilson initially resented his stepfather who he thought was an unfair disciplinarian, but eventually came to grudgingly respect him.
At the onset of puberty, Nilson, much to his confusion and shame, discovered that he was gay. He concealed these feelings, and at one point fondled his sister Sylvia, as he felt that his attraction to other young men was a manifestation of his care for her. His feelings were further validated by a lack of displeasure at being fondled by another youth at one point. He at one point also fondled his Older brother Olav Jr., who began to suspect Dennis was gay. Finding his living environment in the family’s home in Strichen stifling and boring, he joined the Army Cadet Force at age 14 in order to escape his humble, rural upbringing.
The Onset of Madness:
His time in the service did not help him deal with his homosexuality and sparked his increasingly perverse sexual fantasies. One night in Osnabruck, West Germany, where he was deployed, after a night of profuse drinking with a German youth, Nilsen woke up to find the young man passed out on the floor. While the two had not had sexual contact, this fuelled Nilsen’s fantasy of slender young men in complete submission, which over time devolved into unconsciousness, and even death.
A number of years later, in 1967 he was redeployed to the state of Aden, where he served as a cook at the Al Mansoura prison. He recalled his regiment losing several men on this deployment, which was considerably more dangerous than his prior deployments in Germany and Norway. Here his fantasies would devolve further, and he would at times masturbate to the sight of himself prone in the mirror. Nilson during this time had a near-death experience with a cab driver who knocked him out and put him in the cab’s trunk, and to whom he’d returned the favor when the driver attempted to pull him out. This experience caused a severe escalation in Nilson’s fantasies. He would later recall his most vivid fantasy was of a dead blond-haired soldier, being dominated by a “dirty, gray-haired, older man” who washed the body before engaging in coitus with the body which was spread-eagled.
After his return to Strichen, his mother raised concerns over his lack of female companionship and her desire for him to marry and start a family. At one time, he joined his brother Olav Jr., his sister-in-law, and another couple to watch a documentary on gay men. Afterward, they all derided and condescended to the topic, except for Nilson who openly defended gay men and their rights. He then fell out with Olav, who told their mother Dennis was gay. Nilson never spoke to Olav again, but maintained a small amount of written contact with his mother, stepfather, and other siblings. He then left to join the Metropolitan Police in London.
While in London, Nilson had a number of homosexual relationships, none lasting more than a few months, and in 1978 ended up living a solitary life, believing himself to be unfit to live with, and devoting himself tirelessly to his work. After a failed relationship, and the death of his father, Nilson resigned his commission.
The London Murders:
Between 1978 and 1983, Nilson murdered at least 12 young men and boys and attempted to kill a number of others. The majority of the victims were homeless or gay, but some were heterosexual. All of the murders happened in the two residences he lived in while in London, and all happened after Nilson had offered the men shelter or alcohol.
Typically, the victims were given food and liquor and then strangled to unconsciousness or death. If they were unconscious, he drowned them in the bathtub, before engaging in a ritual of showering fully clothed, and holding onto the bodies for several weeks or months before he dismembered them. The 1978 to 1981 victims from his residence at Cricklewood were all disposed of by bonfire. Their organs had been removed and disposed of by a fence near his apartment, or by Gladstone park. The victims from between 1982 and 1983 were kept at his Muswell Hill residence, with their organs and small bones flushed down the toilet.
Nilsen admitted to masturbating to the dead bodies of a number of the victims, as well as engaging in sexual acts with others, but denied at any point penetrating any of them.
Nilsen’s murders were discovered by Michael Cattran, a Dyno-Rod employee who responded to multiple plumbing complaints from both Nilsen and other residents of the Cranely gardens flats. Upon opening a drain cover at the side of the house, Cattran found that the drain was packed with what looked like flesh and small bones of unknown origin. Cattran reported his suspicions to his supervisor Gary Wheeler. The next morning, Cattran and Wheeler found the drain mysteriously unblocked. Suspicious, the pair investigated, where Cattran found scraps of flesh and bits of bone in the drain leading from the topmost apartment. Both believed that the bones looked like they came from a human hand. They called the police, who corroborated the findings. The remains were taken to the mortuary at Hornsey, where the pathologist confirmed that the remains were human. That night, police went to investigate the apartment, which they noted smelled horribly of rotting flesh. They found pieces of dissected torsos and other parts hidden in various places and vessels around the house.
Nilson was detained, where he confessed to other body parts being hidden in places police hadn’t already searched, as well as to a number of failed murders. When asked for his motive, he said he didn’t know, and simply told the police “I’m hoping you can tell me that.” He was asked if he had any remorse but said that he couldn’t stop even if he wanted to. He had no other thrill or happiness, and while he didn’t enjoy the act of killing, he worshiped the art and act of death.
Nilson was put on trial in October of 1983, with six charges of murder, and two of attempted murder. He was initially given a life sentence, but this was later amended to become a whole-life tariff. Nilson died in prison on May 12, 2018. Upon detention, he told police that he was relieved to finally be stopped. It’s a crying shame that relief will never begin to make up for his crimes.