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What is the tub method crime?

How Dennis Nilsen & other killers disposed of their victims

A photograph of a toilet

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.

Hear evil: Dennis Nilsen and the serial killers who confessed on tape

Let’s explore some of the more frank and, at times, shocking confessions of some of modern history’s most notorious serial killers

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.

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.

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Cattran discussed his findings with two of the tenants, Jim Allcock andDennis 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Scaphism (from Greek σκάφη , meaning «boat»), [1] also known as the boats, is an alleged ancient Persian method of execution mentioned by Plutarch in his Life of Artaxerxes. It ostensibly entailed trapping the victim between two boats, feeding and covering them with milk and honey, and allowing them to fester and be devoured by insects and other vermin over time.

Historical descriptions [ edit ]

The first mention of scaphism is Plutarch’s description of the execution of the soldier Mithridates, given as punishment by king Artaxerxes II for killing his brother Cyrus the Younger, who had rebelled in an attempt to claim the throne of the Achaemenid Empire:

[The king] decreed that Mithridates should be put to death in boats; which execution is after the following manner: Taking two boats framed exactly to fit and answer each other, they lie down in one of them the malefactor that suffers, upon his back; then, covering it with the other, and so setting them together that the head, hands, and feet of him are left outside, and the rest of his body lies shut up within, they offer him food, and if he refuse to eat it, they force him to do it by pricking his eyes; then, after he has eaten, they drench him with a mixture of milk and honey, pouring it not only into his mouth, but all over his face. They then keep his face continually turned towards the sun; and it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it. And as within the boats he does what those that eat and drink must needs do, creeping things and vermin spring out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, and these entering into the bowels of him, his body is consumed. When the man is manifestly dead, the uppermost boat being taken off, they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of such noisome creatures preying upon and, as it were, growing to his inwards. In this way Mithridates, after suffering for seventeen days, at last expired.

— Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes [2]

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The 12th-century Byzantine chronicler Joannes Zonaras later described the punishment, based on Plutarch:

The Persians outvie all other barbarians in the horrid cruelty of their punishments, employing tortures that are peculiarly terrible and long-drawn, namely the ‘boats’ and sewing men up in raw hides. But what is meant by the ‘boats,’ I must now explain for the benefit of less well informed readers. Two boats are joined together one on top of the other, with holes cut in them in such a way that the victim’s head, hands, and feet only are left outside. Within these boats the man to be punished is placed lying on his back, and the boats then nailed together with bolts. Next they pour a mixture of milk and honey into the wretched man’s mouth, till he is filled to the point of nausea, smearing his face, feet, and arms with the same mixture, and so leave him exposed to the sun. This is repeated every day, the effect being that flies, wasps, and bees, attracted by the sweetness, settle on his face and all such parts of him as project outside the boats, and miserably torment and sting the wretched man. Moreover his belly, distended as it is with milk and honey, throws off liquid excrements, and these putrefying breed swarms of worms, intestinal and of all sorts. Thus the victim lying in the boats, his flesh rotting away in his own filth and devoured by worms, dies a lingering and horrible death.

— Zonaras, Annals [3]

In fiction [ edit ]

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  • In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, the rogue Autolycus falsely tells the shepherd and his son that because Perdita has fallen in love with the prince, her adoptive father will be stoned, while her adoptive brother will be subjected to the following punishment: «He has a son,—who shall be flayed alive; then ‘nointed over with honey, set on the head of a wasp’s nest; then stand till he be three quarters and a dram dead; then recovered again with aqua-vitae or some other hot infusion; then, raw as he is, and in the hottest day prognostication proclaims, shall he be set against a brick wall, the sun looking with a southward eye upon him,—where he is to behold him with flies blown to death.»
  • In H. Rider Haggard’s The Ancient Allan the protagonist Allan Quatermain experiences a vision of one of his past lives, in which he was a great Egyptian hunter named Shabaka. At one time he is condemned to «death by the boat» by the «King of kings» because of a hunting bet they had made. When Shabaka asks what is to happen to him, he is told by a eunuch «This, O Egyptian slayer of lions. You will be laid upon a bed in a little boat upon the river and another boat will be placed over you, for these boats are called the Twins, Egyptian, in such a fashion that your head and your hands will project at one end and your feet at the other. There you will be left, comfortable as a baby in its cradle, and twice every day the best of food and drink will be brought to you. Should your appetite fail, moreover, it will be my duty to revive it by pricking your eyes with the point of a knife until it returns. Also after each meal I shall wash your face, your hands and your feet with milk and honey, lest the flies that buzz about them should suffer hunger, and to preserve your skin from burning by the sun. Thus slowly you will grow weaker and at length fall asleep. The last one who went into the boat—he, unlucky man, had by accident wandered into the court of the House of Women and seen some of the ladies there unveiled—only lived for twelve days, but you, being so strong, may hope to last for eighteen.» [4]
  • In The Venture Bros. episode «The Bellicose Proxy» a variation of this torture is described with tubs in place of boats.
  • In Instinct, Season 2 Episode 5 «Ancient History», a victim of this torture is shown.
  • In Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell’s Season 4 episode «Milk and Honey» this torture (and a demon in the business of selling the boats used for it) is prominent.
  • Blindboy Boatclub’s short story «Scaphism» describes a murder committed using this method. [5]
  • The Beef and Dairy Network Podcast references scaphism as a vengeance that Eli Roberts would visit upon his nemesis Jane Palm in episode 95, «Dafydd, Part 2». [6]
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References [ edit ]

  1. ^«scaphismus» . Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^
  3. Plutarch. «Life of Artaxerxes».
  4. ^
  5. Gallonio, Antonio (1903). Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs. London.
  6. ^
  7. Haggard, H. Rider (1920). «VI. The doom of the boat». The Ancient Allan. London and Melbourne: Cassell and Co.
  8. ^
  9. Boatclub, Blindboy (2017). The Gospel According to Blindboy. Gill Books. pp. 3–9. ISBN978-0717181001 .
  10. ^
  11. «Episode 95 — Dafydd, Part 2». . Retrieved 28 March 2023 .

External links [ edit ]

  • Traité des instruments de martyre et des divers modes de supplice employés par les paiens contre les chrétiens (in French)
  • BREWER: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Scaphism
  • Artaxerxes by Plutarch
  • Lexicon Universale, Historiam Sacram Et Profanam Omnis aevi, omniumque Gentium (Late Latin/some Greek)
  • Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs

The world’s most notorious acid bath murderers

What do you do with an inconvenient corpse? A corrosive fluid may seem like the perfect solution, and murderers have been using acid and lye to cover their tracks for more than a century. New Scientist guides you through the grisliest and most prolific of these crimes. Linda Geddes

1897: Adolph Luetgert, «The Sausage King of Chicago»

Despite these efforts, a forensic anthropologist identified fragments of metatarsal bones, a toe phalanx, rib and skull – as well as Louisa’s rings. Luetgert was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.


1944-49: John Haigh

John Haigh aka. «the acid bath murderer» dreamed up what he considered to be the perfect murder while in prison for fraud. His plan was to dissolve his victims in sulphuric acid – in his preliminary experiments with dead mice their bodies took 30 minutes to disintegrate.

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Haigh’s first human victim was his former employer, William McSwan, whom he lured into a basement, beat over the head and then dissolved in a 40 gallon drum of acid in 1944. The motivation was financial; he wanted McSwan’s house. When McSwan’s parents became suspicious, he dissolved them too, then another couple – each time, fraudulently living off their wealth. Haigh’s sixth and final victim was a widow called Olive Durand-Deacon, reported missing in 1949.

When police searched Haigh’s workshop, they found papers relating to several of his victims, while a forensic examination of his yard revealed 28 pounds of human body fat, three gallstones, part of a left foot, 18 further fragments of human bone, and Mrs Durand-Deacon’s upper and lower dentures. Haigh pleaded insanity, but was found guilty of murder, and hanged.

(Image: Ockinden/Getty)

2008: Breaking Bad series one

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman didn’t set out to murder Emilio Koyama, Pinkman’s former business partner. But when he tried to kill them, they were left with little choice – and a corpse to dispose of.

White, a chemistry teacher, came up with a solution: hydrofluoric acid. He told Pinkman to buy a large plastic bath to do the deed. Ignoring White’s instructions, Pinkman put Koyama’s body in his cast-iron bathtub. The corpse dissolved, but so too did the bathtub and the floor – causing a cascade of pink gelatinous sludge to burst through the ceiling into the room below.

Fortunately, this was just a TV series, but it alerted the wider public to the possibilities of using acid to dissolve a body. However, a Mythbusters Breaking Bad special demonstrated that hydrofluoric acid isn’t nearly as corrosive as White made out – it failed to dissolve pork, and had little effect on metal either.

(Image: Christophel/Photoshot)

2009: Santiago Meza Lopez, «The Pozole Maker»

A pozole is a traditional Mexican stew containing pork and chillies, which requires prolonged stirring as it sits on the stove. Santiago Meza Lopez earned his nickname, «The Pozole Maker» for a different kind of stew: humans and caustic soda (lye). As a «disposal expert» for a Tijuana drug cartel boss, Lopez claimed to have dissolved more than 300 bodies in this way. He was paid $600 per week for his efforts.

According to federal agents, the procedure involved filling a drum with 200 litres of water, adding two sacks of lye, heating it until it began to boil, and then adding the bodies and cooking them for 8 hours. Anything that remained was burned with gasoline.

(Image: Guillermo Arias/AP/Press Association Images)

2009-12: Acid «House of Horror», Germany

The first thing the neighbours noticed was a peculiar smell emanating from the large stone house in the village of Tüddern, Germany. When police finally went inside they discovered vast vats filled with green gloop and bone fragments – the remains of human bodies dissolved in hydrochloric acid.

The first victim, Alan Gergeri, had been killed in 2009 – his throat slashed with an ice pick. The second, Mohammed al Jader, was shot dead in 2011. The Dutch family responsible apparently acted out of revenge; they believed Gergeri had raped one of their sons and accused al Jader of trying to blackmail them. The killers – the mother and one son – were sentenced to 15 and 13 years, respectively. Another son and an accomplice were also jailed for helping to dispose of the bodies.

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