Dennis Nilsen: Who was the serial killer who boiled his victims' body parts?

Dennis Nilsen Muswell Hill murderer Des PA
Dennis Nilsen, portrayed in ITV's Des by David Tennant, was the country's most prolific serial killer at the time. Credit: PA
  • By ITV News Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian

Dennis Nilsen, the focus of ITV’s new three-part series Des starring David Tennant, is one of the UK’s most notorious serial killers.

The story of the horrors the so-called Muswell Hill Murderer unleashed in London 40 years ago is told through three men – Dennis Nilsen, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay and biographer Brian Masters.

But who was Dennis Nilsen, the man who killed 15 men, and how were his shocking crimes committed?

Here’s the true story behind the man also known as the ‘kindly killer’.

Who was he?

Nilsen was born in Fraserburgh, Scotland on November 23, 1945, to a Scottish mother and Norwegian father.

According to his mother, he was a quiet boy. Little, if anything, marked him out.

His early years saw him grow up in the context of a rocky marriage between his parents, which culminated in his father walking out when he was aged just four.

At the time of his arrest, Nilsen had not spoken to his mother for ten years - here's what she told ITN after his crimes were exposed

He went to school in the area never knowing his father. Instead, his grandfather, Andrew Whyte, became his male role model and the pair developed a strong relationship.

Around two years after his father walked out, his grandfather died and he was forced to attend his funeral and even watched his grandfather’s dead body without any prior warning or even notice of his death, it is claimed.

He would later say that this experience gave him a fascination with corpses.

As he began to go through puberty, he discovered he had homosexual tendencies – which, according to reports, he struggled to accept.

What was his job?

As a teenager, he served as a cook in the army and remained in the role for 11 years but would then work in a London job centre, which was his occupation during his killing spree.

At the age of 15, Nilsen decided to join the army. He signed up in Aberdeen, transferred to Aldershot and completed a three-year training period with the army catering corps, including a course in butchery.

Nilsen spent the best part of a decade travelling the world - he went to West Germany with the City of London regiment before serving in Yemen and Cyprus.

He returned to Scotland, in Ballater, to cook for the Queen’s Guard at the Victoria Barracks .

One of the job centres where Dennis Nilsen worked.

He was rated a good soldier and even won the general service medal, but after serving in Northern Ireland he decided to leave the army.

His next job was at the Metropolitan Police in London, but he stayed on for just 11 months.

Following a short spell as a security guard, he became a civil servant working for Manpower Services Commission in several job centres around London.

He lived at 195 Melrose Avenue in Cricklewood, in a ground floor flat with access to the land behind. He later moved to Cranley Gardens in Muswell Hill.

What did he do?

Dennis Nilsen's Muswell Hill home, where some of his victims were taken.

A lonely man who spent many solitary hours gazing at Karl Marx’s grave and who bored his workmates with interminable chatter, Nilsen craved company.

He found it in the pubs of north London. In the Black Cap by Camden Town tube station, the Golden Lion in the heart of Soho, and The Salisbury in the West End.

It was in these pubs where Nilsen met his victims.

His killing spree began in 1978 and went on until 1983.

He would befriend these men, who were often homeless, before offering them food or lodgings for the evening back at his North London flat.

Once home, many were strangled to death.

Carl Stottor, who survived despite Nilsen's attempts, told ITN about the ordeal

He didn’t just kill them. He chopped up their bodies and he then burned, boiled or buried the pieces.

A grim interview aired in 1993 saw the bespectacled Scottish murderer describe the macabre scenes that followed.

He told an interviewer how he enjoyed caring for the bodies, dressing them and undressing them and recounted in horrific detail how they were then cut up.

While some remains were inexpertly flushed away by Nilsen, others were stored under his floorboards and in cupboards for many months, meaning detectives were greeted with the foetid stench of decay when they first searched his flat.

He said: “The bodies are all gone. There is nothing left. But I still feel a spiritual communion with these people.”

Who were his victims?

The Black Cap, where Dennis Nilsen met some of his victims.

A search of his two addresses revealed more than 1,000 pieces of flesh and bone.

A special unit was set up at Hornsey Police Station to try and identify the dead people.

Scotland Yard’s missing persons bureau, B-14, was called in to help. In the end, it is believed fewer than half of his victims were identified.

Even Nilsen himself doesn’t know who the others were.

Nilsen's known victims:

  • Stephen Dean Holmes, 14

  • Kenneth Ockendon

  • William Sutherland

  • Martyn Duffey, 16

  • Malcolm Barlow

  • John Howlett

  • Stephen Sinclair

  • Graham Allen

What we do know is his victims were often homeless or living off grid, having slipped through the cracks of 1980s society. They were therefore welcoming of this stranger’s apparent generosity.

In total, Nilsen had murdered 15 men - although he would later claim 12 murders - over a period of five years, making him Britain’s most prolific serial killer of the time.

With no apparent motive, inconclusive forensic evidence and most of Nilsen’s victims living off-grid, the police started the biggest manhunt investigation in UK history.

This time it was the murdered they were looking for, not the murderer.

When was he caught?

Searches at his two addresses found grisly discoveries.

Nilsen’s crimes were discovered on February 9, 1983 by chance – when a drain outside his home became blocked by the human remains he had tried to flush away.

Plumber Michael Cattran found the remains in a manhole near Nilsen’s then-former home in Cricklewood.

After his arrest, Nilsen was astonishing in his honesty, admitting outright to all 15 murders in the police car outside his flat.

Dennis Nilsen was very open about his crimes when he was arrested.

A detective asked him: “Are we talking about one body or two?”

According to his biography, Nilsen replied: "15 or 16, since 1978. I'll tell you everything.”

He was jailed for life with a recommendation he serve a minimum of 25 years in 1983, on six counts of murder and two of attempted murder.

For how long was he in prison?

There was no doubt he had committed the murder but the question the jurors had to ask themselves was this: could he possibly have been responsible for his own actions?

He was jailed for life with a recommendation he serve a minimum of 25 years in 1983, on six counts of murder and two of attempted murder.

The sentence given to him in 1983 was later upgraded to a whole-life tariff.

Watch the ITN report of Nilsen's trial in 1983

When did he die?

Nilsen died behind bars at the age of 72.

The Prison Service confirmed the man who became known as the Muswell Hill Murderer had passed away at HMP Full Sutton on Saturday, May 12, 34 years into his life sentence.

It is believed he died from natural causes.

His house of horrors in Muswell Hill, one of the two addresses he took his victims, has been on the market several times since and is still occupied today, with flowers visible in the attic window.

  • Des airs on ITV on September 14 at 9pm