Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast #11 & #12 - Dennis Nilsen and the Sleeping Bag of Death Parts One & Two
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Welcome to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of 300+ untold, unsolved and often long-forgotten murders, all set within one square mile of the West End.
Episode Eleven: On 23rd November 1981, 19 year old student Paul Nobbs met a man in The Golden Lion public house on Dean Street; here they drank, laughed and headed back to his place for more drink, a bite to eat, some sex and a sleep… but whether he’d ever wake-up again was not his decision, as he had just spent the night with one of Britain’s most infamous serial killers – Dennis Nilsen.
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Ep11 - Dennis Nilsen & The Sleeping Bag of Death (part one)
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within one square mile of the West End. Today’s episode is a little bit different. As it not about a murder. Today we delve into the deeply depraved and yet strangely sad life of one of Britain’s most infamous serial-killers, and two of his would-be victims who came within inches of death, and yet survived the clutches of Dennis Nilsen. Murder Mile contains graphic depictions of death which won’t be suitable for delicate poppets, as well as realistic sounds, so no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there. My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile. Episode 11: Dennis Nilsen and the sleeping bag of death.
Today, I’m in my natural setting, a pub, hooray. The Golden Lion at 51 Dean Street to be precise, barely thirty feet from Shaftsbury Avenue and fifty feet from Old Compton Street, as it’s here that I always end my weekly guided walk of Soho’s most infamous murder cases, and celebrate by supping a nice cold creamy pint of Green King IPA. Ah!
The Golden Lion is a quaint, cosy and often cramped little pub, dating back to 1769, which is perched on the corner of Dean Street and Romilly Street. And although the top four floors of this five-storey building are covered in startling white plaster with wood panelled and lead lined windows (a design feature which harks back to its 18th century roots – even though it was actually rebuilt in the 1920’s, but ssshhh, don’t tell anyone), the pub on the ground-floor is less easy to spot, as it’s drenched in black; with black walls, black window frames, black doors and all under a dark black awning, with its moody broody exterior only illuminated by a small former gas-light and ornate gold lettering above which openly proclaims that this is The Golden Lion.
But walk in through this dark wooden door, and you’ll find a sweet, petite and surprisingly friendly Soho pub, which seats fifty and stands about the same; serves traditional home-cooked British staples (like pie & chips, fish & chips, steak & chips, and if you ask nicely, just chips), and has a fully stocked bar serving a fabulous selection of beers, ales, wines, spirits and (to those who’ve been on my walk) yes they also serve “mulled wine”. And with it being Christmas, the decorations are up, the lights are twinkling, the carols are playing, and all the staff are in a jolly festival mood. It’s a warm, welcome and friendly place to be. And yet, back in the late 1970’s, one regular frequenter of the Golden Lion public house was so friendly to any waif and stray who happened to be passing, that years later, the press would nickname him “The Kindly Killer”. (INTERSTITIAL).
Often dubbed the “dirty square mile”, Soho of the 1970’s wasn’t the gay safe-haven that it is today, where proud members of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community can happily walk hand-in-hand during the daylight hours. As back then, the dark-lit streets of the West End were awash with porn parlours, jizz-joints, mucky book-shops and sweaty backstreet brothels, stained with the eye-watering stench of sick, piss and semen. And yet sadly, after the liberated sexual openness of the 1930’s, by the 1970’s, homosexuality (which was still illegal) had once again been forced underground. Meaning that (for those in the know), there were only a handful of gay bars in the West End, including The Salisbury, The Marquis of Granby, Madame JoJo’s, The Admiral Duncan and – of course – The Golden Lion, where our story begins.
The morning of Monday 23rd November 1981 was cold, fresh and crisp as the typical British winter set in, with the last of autumnal leaves being illuminated by a low glaring sun as they blew across the lightly frosted streets of Soho. It was lunchtime, and although Paul Nobbs, a 19 year old student from the nearby University of London had already skipped a morning lecture in his three year degree course in Slavonic & East European Studies; being cold, fed-up and nursing a slowly-all-consuming headache, he decided to delay his shopping trip at Foyle book shop on Charing Cross Road, and instead needed a quick pint to pacify his horrible hangover which lurked within.
As a gay man who’d happily drink in any bar but preferred the safety, warmth and camp camaraderie of a gay-friendly pub, he tottered round the corner to the nearest boozer, which was the Golden Lion.
But then again, you wouldn’t really know it was gay-pub, as the clientele’s secret sexuality obviously wasn’t plastered across the walls, instead it was gay with a nod and a wink; the kind of place where a heterosexual brickie could pop in for a pint, banter about sport with some burly blokes, ogle a topless model on page three of trashy tabloid The Sun, and all without knowing they were gay. And although the bar was grimy, dingy and a bit rough, it was fun, local and – best of all – the beer was cheap.
So, as he entered the bar, being a slim teen with a slight frame, dark black hair and a broody yet handsome look, it wasn’t long before 19 year old Paul Nobbs was being chatted-up and brought a drink by a man, whose name was Dennis Nilsen. (INTERSTITITAL)
Known locally as “Des”, although Dennis Nilsen was a regular at the Golden Lion, who could often be found perched at a table, with a pint of beer, a rum and coke chaser, and casually smoking a Marlboro, Dennis was unlike the usual unemployed rabble who knocked back the booze and drank themselves into early grave on a Monday lunchtime. Dennis was different; being a little over six feet tall he should have cut quite an imposing figure, but being slim yet strong, respectable and bespectacled, with short black hair, soft blue eyes, clean shaven with a sweet smile and a lovely warm Aberdeen brogue to his voice, Dennis was friendly, eloquent, polite, educated, approachable and totally unthreatening.
As a single gay man, neatly dressed in ironed trousers and a well-pressed shirt, Dennis worked as a widely respected unionist and civil servant in the local Denmark Street job centre. And although he was almost double Paul’s age, they instantly hit it off, as they sat, drank, laughed and enjoyed each other’s company, as Dennis regaled Paul with a wealth of fascinating anecdotes about his Army service, his brief stint as a policeman, his love of poetry, his fondness for animals, and his penchant for playing the piano, as well as being an excellent cook having trained as an Army chef.
Yes, it’s fair to say that anyone who met Dennis Nilsen liked him. In fact, the only reason that Dennis was drinking in the Golden Lion on a Monday lunchtime was that he taken a day off work to celebrate his 36th birthday. And so, having found a new friend, with a fondness for literature, an intellectual bent and a love of self-betterment, they headed off to Foyles to shop for books. And with the cold winter night having drawn in, both men feeling a little peckish and needing something to soak up the booze, Dennis invited Paul back to his flat for a drink, some dinner, some sex, and a maybe (Dennis hoped) a new boyfriend?
Born in the remote coastal town of Fraserburgh in the north east of Scotland on the 23rd November 1945, Dennis Andrew Nilsen was the second of three children spawned by Elizabeth Whyte (a native of Fraserburgh) and Olav Magnus Moksheim (a soldier in the Norwegian Free Army, who served in Scotland during World War Two and adopted the surname Nilsen to blend in). But the early life of young Dennis was littered with loneliness, as with his father abandoning the family when Dennis was just three, his over-wrought and over-worked mother quickly remarried, burdening her shy and quiet son with four half-siblings and a very strict step-father, in what was already an unaffectionate family.
Feeling isolated on the barren shores of Scotland, having very few friends except the wildlife, and drenched with a sense that he was different; young Dennis spent much of his time pining for his beloved grandfather, a sea-fisherman, who would often be gone for days at a time. Later referring to him as “a great hero” and “the only man I ever loved”, little Dennis always felt a great emptiness in his life and would wait on the shore for his grandfather to return. And then one day, when Dennis was just five, his hero didn’t return. His grandfather’s heart had failed, and as the life drained from the old man’s body, the love drained from Dennis’ life, and once again he was abandoned.
As a slightly tipsy Paul Nobbs and the boozy birthday-boy Dennis Nilsen exited Highgate tube station, they staggered the 15 minute walk up Muswell Hill Road – stopping off at Sainsbury’s to pick up some pork chops, Bacardi rum and a large bottle of Coca-Cola – and at 5:45pm, they entered the leafy North London street of Cranley Gardens. A rather respectable residential neighbourhood in a middle class part of town, full of three-storey semi-detached houses, and all with tidy little front gardens.
23 Cranley Gardens was no different; it was neat, sweet and homely, and being built in an Old English style with white plastered walls and old oak beams, it had recently been converted into three small flats for working professionals. And as they stumbled up three flights of stairs to the top floor, drunkenly trying to be quiet, and failing miserably, Dennis popped his key in the front door of flat 23C.
In contrast to the street, the house and even Dennis himself, this converted attic flat was dirty, dingy and squalid. With a small hallway serving as a makeshift kitchen complete with a grease covered oven; ahead was a small dirty bathroom with a tidemark-lined bath, a scum covered sink and a poo-speckled loo; with an unused lounge to the right, and beyond was his bedroom. And although it was almost winter, one window had been left wide open, giving the flat a distinctly chilly feel, and yet a strange smell still lurked. In fact, the only warmth in Dennis’ bedroom was from a two bar electric fire and the over-excited wagging and panting from Nilsen’s six year old mongrel collie-cross named ‘Bleep’.
Not that Paul Nobbs knew, but this was the flat of one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers. And although it was messy and unkempt, there were no bodies buried under the floorboards, no limbs wrapped in bin-bags, no flesh flushed down the toilet and no decapitated heads slowly boiling in an oversized cooking pot. But then again, Dennis Nilsen had only moved in barely a seven weeks before… and he hoped, that this time, starting again in a new flat, that it would kerb his impulse to kill.
But that night, to be honest, was pretty uneventful. Paul & Dennis sat in two armchairs, eating pork chops, watching the news and getting sloshed on rum, until they both stumbled into Dennis’ floral pattern bed and drunkenly fumbled with each other’s boy-bits, but realising that neither man could muster a much-needed boner, they gave up and fell into a soporific slumber, with Bleep the dog asleep at their feet; Dennis wrapped in a thin duvet and Paul snuggled-up in a bright blue sleeping bag.
Since the death of his beloved grandfather, all Dennis ever wanted was to be loved, but for as long as he had known, he had always been rejected; by his father, his mother, his siblings and his friends. Struggling with his burgeoning teenage sexuality in the rural isolation of the Scottish lowlands in the 1950’s, hiding his homosexual lusts as he served in the armed forces in the 1960’s, masking his illegal sexual status whilst training as a policeman in the 1970’s, until finally, Dennis Nilsen retrained as a civil servant and moved to the Denmark Street job centre, where finally he could be himself, barely one street away from the blossoming gay-scene of Soho.
Unlike many serial-killers, Dennis Nilsen was different; he wasn’t an arsonist, a bed-wetter, a drug-abuser, a defecator, a mummy’s boy or a peeping-tom, and neither was he cruel to any animals. And as much as some trashy tabloids may print this twaddle, it’s simply not true.
One morning, as Dennis walked up Denmark Street (passing the burnt-out remnants of the Denmark Place fire, the charred aftermath he’d witnessed just fifty feet from his office), he spotted an injured sparrow on the pavement, which most pedestrians would have passed thinking “that’s not my problem”. But Dennis didn’t. Dennis couldn’t. Loving animals and (ironically) being a big believer in the right to life, he scooped up the injured bird, took it into his office, make a makeshift nest for it in his drawer using shredded paper and cotton wool, and then over the next few days, to build-up its strength, he hand-fed it, using morsels of mashed-up fish, having first masticated it in his own mouth.
By 1981, Dennis had worked at the Denmark Street job centre for seven years, having been promoted to the senior position of acting Executive Officer and the branch’s union rep’; and although he was often serious, slightly short-tempered and a little lacking in humour especially when it came to worker’s rights, it was always said, that if you ever had a problem, you’d want Dennis Nilsen on your side. And even though he wasn’t a natural people-pleaser, he’d often spoil his co-workers by bringing in a big pot of homemade Jamaican curry and (at Christmas) a very heady batch of mulled wine.
But being plagued with loneliness and an all-encompassing fear of rejection as he entered his mid-thirties as a singleton, the sexual predilections of Dennis Nilsen had shifted from being a mildly curious gay man, to being obsessed with sex, death and sometimes both.
Dennis knew he was definitely a gay man in his late-teens, as whilst stationed in Berlin he had sex with a female prostitute, but would later proclaim that sexual intercourse with a woman was "over-rated" and "depressing". But being a private in the British Army, with a lust for slim, passive and vulnerable young men, he had to keep his sexuality hidden, so often spent many nights alone, masturbating…
…but not in a normal way.
Two other childhood incidents (after the tragic death of his beloved grandfather) had shaped his life; the first, as young Dennis was rescued from a near-fatal drowning by a boy who’s warm lips and gentle caress had brought him back to from the brink of death. And the second, whilst sharing a bed with his older brother Olav Junior; a curious Dennis started fondling the sleeping boy’s genitals, as he lay there, as silent, passive and still as a freshly murdered corpse. So, whilst in the Army, as Nilsen pretended to be a bit of a bloke, obsessed with beer and boobs amongst his hardcore gaggle of squaddies, secretly Dennis would lie alone, in his quarters, naked on the bed, his skin slathered in an ominously putrid green make-up, his eyes hollowed by dark eye-liner, his lips blue with a disturbing shade of lipstick, and slowly, looking as dead as he could possibly be, he would masturbate, in front of the mirror.
And although, you could say, he was sexually depraved, deeply disturbed and a man with some serious issues, Dennis Nilsen (the promising civil servant) went about his everyday life; meeting gay men in local pubs, chatting, drinking and ushering them back to his flat for dinner, a drink, some sex and a sleep… many of whom would never wake-up. And yet, by the mid 70’s, when he’d moved to London, Dennis Nilsen hadn’t killed anyone… ever… but all that would change the day that he met “Twinkle”.
In November 1975, just a few days shy of his thirtieth birthday, Nilsen stopped off at The Champion public house in Bayswater for a much-needed rum and coke. Outside, he saw two drunkards roughing-up a slim twenty-year old man, with blonde hair, stud earrings, rouged cheeks, a hint of lipstick, and intervened using his sternest look, his gruffest voice and his full six foot one inches of height. A few moments later, Nilsen was getting cosy in a corner snug at The Champion with the man he had saved. His name was David Gallichan and he was just Nilsen’s type, he was slim, slight, gay, fey, young, fragile, pretty and vulnerable. Nilsen would later nickname him “Twinkle”.
Within two days they’d moved in together to a rented ground-floor flat at 195 Melrose Avenue in Cricklewood (North London), and although it was a crummy, scummy and an depressingly unfurnished flat, in a cunning piece of foresight, Nilsen negotiated exclusive use of the large back garden, and whether he knew it or not, later on, that garden would come in very handy indeed.
Having stripped, decorated and even adopted a stray cat called ‘Dee-Dee’ and a mongrel puppy called ‘Bleep’, the two men settled down like an old married couple, living in domestic bliss; with Nilsen heading off to work to bring home the bacon and “Twinkle” staying at home to do the cooking and cleaning… but sadly, it was not to be. As Nilsen slipped into the easy comfort of “coupling” by staying in, snuggling down and generally being a bit of a homebody, Twinkle’s wayward ways – of drinking, flirting and sleeping around - were only exacerbated by Nilsen’s middle-aged traits, as well as his jealousy, possessiveness and outbursts of anger.
In May 1977, “Twinkle” walked out on Nilsen forever. Feeling bitter, angry and rejected, having been abandoned once again by someone he truly thought had loved him, Nilsen began to drink to the point where he’d black-out, hoping to erase his sadness with booze, his anger with sex and his loneliness by prowling the gay-bars of London to find a slim pretty boy to take Twinkle’s place. But after a further 18 months of failed relationships and affectionless rejection, Nilsen had reached rock bottom.
By December 1978, Nilsen was alone, angry, drunk and celebrating New Year’s Eve by himself in The Cricklewood Arms. But as he sunk back another pint, still seething over how Twinkle had dumped him, Dennis saw a vision of beauty; a slim, slight, gay, fey, sixteen year old boy, with smooth flawless skin, curly brown hair and soft brown eyes, and being both homeless and penniless, the boy was fragile, pretty and vulnerable, and – just like Twinkle - he was Nilsen’s type. His name was Stephen Holmes.
And although Dennis was more than double Stephen’s age, they sat, drank and laughed as Dennis drunkenly regaled Stephen with another anecdote about his Army service, Police stint, love of poetry, piano playing and his fondness for animals, as well as being an excellent chef. And so, being young, drunk, cold and hungry, on this bitter winter evening, 16 year old Stephen Holmes headed back to Nilsen’s flat at 195 Melrose Avenue, for more drink, a hot meal, a failed attempt at sex, and his first sleep in a long-while in a nice warm bed… wrapped-up in a bright blue sleeping bag.
During the night, Nilsen awoke, but for once he wasn’t alone. As beside him, fast asleep, Stephen was sleeping; his pretty face reflected in the moonlight, his brown hair forming tight baby-curls over his eyes, and as he lay there, as silent, passive and still as a freshly murdered corpse, Nilsen couldn’t resist it, and began to caress the soft skin of the boy’s arms, legs and genitals.
But with alcohol still coursing through his veins, his judgement clouded by paranoia, and his bitterness towards his father, his mother, his siblings, his friends, and everyone who had ever abandoned him or rejected him raging, after a slew of pretty young things had used and abused him, Nilsen knew that this new boy would do the same. Later Nilsen would state: “I just wanted him to stay with me for New Year’s Day, and maybe even longer”… but deep down he knew that he wouldn’t.
On the floor, on top of his crumpled heap of clothes, Nilsen spotted his necktie; a garishly coloured length of tightly woven cotton. Stealthfully he reached down, trying not to wake the snoring youth, slowly slid his tie under the sleeping boy’s soft thin neck and tying it in a knot at the back, he pulled. Survival instincts kicked in as Stephen awoke with a start to see Nilsen on top of him, all sixteen stone of the man bearing down, his wild eyes glaring at him, the rage of rejection in his face, and in each clenched fist he held the taut end of the necktie, as Stephen’s throat was throttled; his air stopped, his tongue swelled and his panic raddled face was all purple, as the blood vessels in his bulging eyes ruptured, until slowly, with legs and fists flailing, the desperate boy’s struggling ceased…
…as Bleep watched from the hall, her ears down, her head bowed and her tail tucked. But as she creeped forwards, and started to sniff the corpse’s legs, Dennis angrily ushered her away, banishing her to the other room, having not sensed the certain something strange that only she could…
…Stephen Holmes wasn’t dead.
His breathing was slight, his legs were still twitching, and as a soft moan uttered from his blue lips, it was clear he was still alive, and barely clinging onto a slim thread of life. Bending the limp body of the seemingly lifeless boy over an armchair, Nilsen hastily filled a plastic bucket full of cold water, held back the boy’s frail little arms and sunk his still breathing head deep into the bucket, the excess water splashing over the sides, as the struggling youth panicked, his last gasps of breath being liquid, his last sight being the base of a bucket, and his last words being muffled, until a few minutes later, the bubbles from his mouth had stopped.
Shaking and trembling, Dennis sat on the sofa, the wet corpse of the sixteen year old boy propped upright beside him, as he drank a hot cup of coffee and smoked a cigarette to calm his nerves as his mind raced, knowing indeed that “it was the beginning of the end of my life as I had known it. I had started down the avenue of death and the possession of a new kind of flat mate”.
Three years later, Dennis Nilsen had brutally murdered twelve young men and had attempted to kill numerous others. On 23rd November 1981, the evening of his thirty-sixth birthday, Dennis had picked-up the latest in a long-line of young, slim and pretty boys in the Golden Lion pub. He had taken this young man home; brought him a drink, cooked him a meal, and now, as they lay in bed together, the boy’s slender sleeping frame next to Dennis’, wrapped in a bright blue sleeping bag, he hoped the boy would love him, he hoped the boy wouldn’t reject him, and he hoped the boy would stay forever. His name was Paul Nobbs.
To be continued.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening to Murder Mile. The second part of Dennis Nilsen and the sleeping bag of death continues next Thursday, and I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and researching it. Don’t forget to check out the fabulous podcasts mentioned at the start of this episode, who were They Walk Amongst Us, True-Crime Enthusiast, Nothing Rhymes With Murder, UK True Crime Podcast and Redhanded. They’re all excellent. And join us for Murder Mile live on Saturday 23rd December @ 9pm GMT, by using the hashtag #MMPodLive, and as it’s Christmas, I’ll probably be drunk, but what the hell.
Murder Mile was researched, written & performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Next week’s episode is… part two of Dennis Nilsen and the sleeping bag of death. Thank you and sleep well.
Ep12 – Dennis Nilsen and the sleeping bag of death (part two)
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within one square mile of the West End. Today’s episode is the concluding part of the true-story of Paul Nobbs, a 19 year old student who was befriended and seduced by one of Britain’s most infamous serial-killers - Dennis Nilsen. Murder Mile contains deathly depictions which won’t be suitable for tender ears, as well as realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there. My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile. Episode 12: Dennis Nilsen and the sleeping bag of death – part two.
At 6am, on the morning of the 24th November 1981, Paul Nobbs… woke with a start, (deep gasp) his throat was raw, his eyes were bleary and his head was pounding - a nonstop thumping as fresh blood coursed through his veins and up to his brain – as around him was the detritus of last night’s drunken merriment; discarded beer cans, an empty Bacardi bottle and a pile of cast-off clothes topped off with a garishly coloured tie.
As the small flat was chilly, with the skylight window wide open on this bitter winter morning, Paul Nobbs lay there for a little while longer, suffering possibly the worst hangover ever, and feeling sick, dizzy and sore. Needing a glass of water to quench the raging pain in his throat, he slowly undid the zip of the bright blue sleeping bag, trying not to wake Dennis who slept beside him, and crept out of bed. Dodging even more dispensed booze bottles at his feet, the bedroom seemed even messier than he had remembered, as Paul quietly slipped into the kitchen. At the foot of the bed, ‘Bleep’, Nilsen’s forever faithful but eternally timid dog, watched with curious eyes as Paul unsteadily tottered.
Filling a glass full of water, Paul raised it to his lips, it should have been cold and refreshing, but instead every mouthful was sore and every gulp was painful, as if he had swallowed razors. Struggling to hold himself upright against the sink; his balance off, his feet unsteady and his legs weak, Paul had been drunk before, but never this drunk, never this dizzy and never this ill.
Everything hurt; his brain was throbbing, his heart was pumping, his ears were muffled and every time he rubbed his eyes they stung. Oddly, even his tongue felt thicker. This was like no hangover that Paul had ever had before. A filament bulb flickered into life as he switched on a small light above the kitchen sink, its sickly yellow glow, although dull was instantly blinding, as it bathed his face with light.
“God, you look awful” Dennis uttered from behind him; the soft lilting brogue of his voice as calm as always, and although his concern was honest, it was etched with the jokey playfulness of two men who’d boozed heavily the night before. Looking in the mirror, Nilsen was right, Paul truly looked awful as if he’d aged twenty years in one night. His youthful face was all puffy and bruised as if he’d gone ten rounds with a boxer. His once twinkly eyes were dark, sunken and sallow, their brilliant whites all bloodshot and cracked. And across his throat, was an odd red mark, the skin around it was stretched, raw and sore.
“Yes, you don’t look well at all. You should definitely see a doctor” Dennis added, as he popped a kettle on the hob to make them both a cup of coffee. But Paul wouldn’t drink it, he couldn’t drink it, instead he unsteadily stumbled back to the bed, his foot accidentally kicking a plastic bucket, and scooping up his jeans, t-shirt and jacket, he dressed quickly yet calmly, as Bleep gently nuzzled his leg, her ears down, her tail between her legs, and her eyes etched with sadness.
And there, the brief relationship of the two men ended, as amicably as it had begun; Nilsen guided Paul to the door, pecked him on the cheek, thanked him for a lovely night and gave him his name and number in the hope that – when Paul felt better – they would see each other again. And just like that, Nilsen waved him goodbye, shut the door, and he was gone.
Somehow, Paul Nobbs survived a night with one of Britain’s most infamous serial killers - who had already murdered twelve men and would still go on to kill three others - but how, and why?
Having hopped on the tube at Highgate and caught the Northern Line train to Goodge Street, as the deafening rumble and screech of the underground train rang in his ears, Paul awkwardly tottered up Tottenham Court Road, his feet tripping over each other, as he headed to University for his first lecture of the day. But sitting there, bruised, disorientated and drifting in and out of consciousness, he clearly wasn’t well, and thinking that he must have been mugged, his tutor insisted he go to the clinic at the University College Hospital on Gower Street, aided by a friend.
Sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, Paul shook so badly that he spilled his coffee, and was hardly able to light (let alone hold) his cigarette. And as he was given ointment for his bloodied eyes and tranquilisers to settle his shattered nerves, it was then that he was given the news that he’d been dreading, as based on his injuries, the doctor concluded that Paul had been strangled. (INTERSTITIAL)
Paul knew that the only man who could have done this was Dennis. But it didn’t make any sense. Not only did Paul have no memory of being strangled, but Dennis seemed like such a nice man; he was polite, neat, sweet, kind, loving and generous, he wasn’t violent, he wasn’t strange and he wasn’t threatening in any way, he just seemed like a lovely bloke. Maybe he had been mugged he thought? As being strangled by Dennis Nilsen was simply too unbelievable.
But as we know, there were two sides to Dennis Nilsen; the intelligent, erudite and softly spoken, grandfather-loving civil servant who adopted stray cats, fed the homeless and nursed injured sparrows back to health, who loved poetry, playing the piano and cooking…
…and then there was the drunken, jealous, bitter, hate-filled monster, with a penchant for young, slim and often vulnerable boys, who – having been abandoned and rejected for the very last time - just three years earlier, on New Year’s Eve 1978 – he had murdered his first victim whose name was Stephen Holmes.
Nilsen sat on the sofa, staring at the dead youth beside him, Nilsen’s hands shook as he sparked up a ciggie, knowing what he’d done but not really believing it. So many mixed emotions were coursing through his brain; as back when he was five and he’d seen the lifeless body of his beloved grandfather, once again he was gripped with a deep sense of loss but also a strange sense of love for a corpse. And yet, unlike everyone else who had abandoned him, now he had, what he’d later describe as “a new kind of flat-mate”; someone who would never leave him, would never rejected him and would stay forever; a young, slim and attractive boy, who was silent, still and – best of all – passive.
Nilsen quickly tidied up the dishevelled bedroom; binning the beer and Bacardi bottles, packing away the bright blue sleeping bag, emptying the water from the plastic bucket and returning his garishly coloured tie back on its hanger, ready to wear to work. Having ran a bath, Nilsen hoisted the slowly-cooling youth over his shoulder, carried it into the bathroom and laid the limp, floppy and lifeless boy into the tub, and slowly began to wash corpse’s hair, face and body, with a dab of washing-up liquid and his bare hands.
Oddly, even though he was a murder virgin, many of Dennis Nilsen’s post-mortem rituals stemmed from this night, with the bathing of the corpse becoming a vital ritual, whether to wash away his sin, or to erase its old self and make way for the new, as the corpse and the killer became a couple.
Having slid the slippery skinned cadaver out of the tub, Nilsen propped him on the toilet seat to towel the body dry and then laid him flat on the bed. As dead as Stephen Holmes was – with a pinkish face, blueish lips and a deep red ligature mark across his neck - Nilsen couldn’t help but marvel at how beautiful he was, which left him with a quandary; not having a car, Nilsen couldn’t dispose of the body elsewhere, but being so beautiful, he couldn’t cut it up either... even though in a brief moment of clarity, Nilsen had popped into an iron mongers to buy a large cooking pot and a carving knife.
So, dressing it in a fresh pair of his own underwear (some socks, a pair of white y-fronts and a vest, purchased from Woolies), Nilsen climbed into bed and snuggled up next to the still slightly warm corpse, who was silent, still and passive, just the way he liked it. But this time, being slightly more sober and spooning a beautiful (but slowly decomposing) boy who wouldn’t say no, and (even better) couldn’t say no, Nilsen now had no problem getting an erection, and slowly he began to explore the dead youth’s body with his hands.
For Nilsen, this didn’t feel strange, it was exciting, and the only reason his hands were now shaking was the thrill of having so much control over another person. Stephen Holmes was his new boyfriend; someone to come home to, to have meals with, to watch telly with, to snuggle up on the sofa with, and even have sex with, this corpse would be subservient to him, and however he wanted it dressed, shaved or bathed, that’s how it would be. And although he’d later claim he was over the relationship, when dressed, Stephen Holmes and most of Nilsen’s corpse-brides all resembled ‘Twinkle’.
But this romance – like so many in Nilsen’s love life - was short-lived, as although a corpse could be the perfect partner (being both loyal and passive, but – best of all – quiet), sadly Nilsen knew that soon enough his lifeless lover would start to rot and begin to stink. So having pulled up a few floorboards in his ground-floor flat, he propped the strangely stiff youth against the wall as he waited a day till the rigour mortis had ceased and the once rigid muscles had begun to liquefy, so he could finally bend the limbs and the rest of the body into the twelve-inch crawlspace below. And then, he went to work.
Occasionally, Nilsen would disinter the corpse from its chilly grave, to bathe it, chat to it, cuddle it, kiss it, or have sex with it (his erection always seeming to subside before he could enter it anally, so instead, he would fold over the thighs and would have sex with those), and seeing how beautiful the boy still looked, he couldn’t help but masturbate over the body. In total, the corpse of Stephen Holmes stayed underneath the floorboards for over seven months, but by 11th August 1979, after a long hot summer, during which time it had begun to liquefy, bubble and attract flies, Nilsen finally decided that air-fresheners, joss-sticks and an open window, simply wasn’t enough to get rid of the stench and so – wrapped in bin-bags – he burned the body of Stephen Holmes on a bonfire in his back garden; a large rubber tyre placed on top to disguise the smell of scorching flesh. And being a homeless boy from an uncaring family, Stephen Holmes was never reported missing.
Over the next three years, in a series of drunken jealous rages, Nilsen would strangle twelve men; he’d bathe them, abuse them and dispose of them; sometimes killing one a year, sometimes one a month. But why, after so many murders, did he let Paul Nobbs survive?
In April 1982, five months after the attempted murder of Paul Nobbs, 21 year old Carl Stotter; a drag-artist of slim build, with light brown hair, soft pale skin and a pretty face, entered the Black Cap, a gay-friendly pub on Camden High Road. Being a pretty young thing, it wasn’t long before he was being chatted-up, but being in a vulnerable state (having broken up with his boyfriend), Carl got talking to a tall bespectacled man known locally as “Des”, who was unlike the other regulars, and regaled him with tales of his army career, Police stint, his love of poetry, animals and cooking, in his soft Aberdeen brogue. And being friendly, eloquent and totally unthreatening, he invited Carl back to his flat for a drink, some dinner, some sex, and a maybe (Dennis hoped) a new boyfriend?
As they entered the top floor flat of 23 Cranley Gardens, the first thing that greeted Carl Stotter (before the enthusiastic wagging of Bleep the dog, and the intense icy chill of the flat) was the over-powering odour of joss-sticks, air-freshener and bleach, which disguised the meaty smell which he thought was emanating from the big pot on the hob, as if for the last few weeks, Nilsen had been cooking stews.
Nilsen had lived in the Cranley Gardens flat for six months, and still it was squalid, as although he’d hoped that this new flat would curb his impulse to kill, it hadn’t, and now it posed a bigger problem.
At Melrose Avenue, where Stephen Holmes met his death was a ground-floor flat with sole access to a private garden surrounded by an eight foot fence; the perfect pad for a serial killer with twelve bodies to dispose of. But here at Cranley Gardens; it had no garden, no storage space, and being an attic flat, was not suitable for burying bodies underneath the floorboards.
So, when his landlord decided to renovate the Melrose Avenue flat in the late summer of 1982, Nilsen needed to dispose of every piece of evidence of his heinous crimes, and on a big back-garden bonfire with a large rubber tyre on top, he burned every bone, limb, face and torso, racking the hot coals and stamping on the cooling ash, until his victims were just dust. For Nilsen, moving into Cranley Gardens was a fresh start, he knew he was lucky, and if he controlled his urge to kill, he may get away with it.
So as Paul Nobbs, enter Nilsen’s new flat, just a few short weeks after Nilsen had moved in, he was lucky as Nilsen’s priorities had changed. In fact, in the weeks prior to Paul’s near death experience, many men had come to 23 Cranley Gardens; had drank, dined and “did the dirty” with Dennis, and so far, all had survived… but that changed in March 1982, one month before his date with Carl Stotter, as Nilsen drank and dined in his flat with John Howlett, a man who Nilsen neither liked, loved nor loathed, and in a fit of drunken anger, his overwhelming impulse to kill got the better of him.
Finding the man not particularly pleasant, polite or even pleasing on the eye, Nilsen drank and dined with John Howlett, but never had sex with him, regardless of whether he was alive or dead. The disposal of Howlett’s body was entirely out of necessity; a soon-to-be rotting corpse who’s putrid stench would alert the neighbours, so having strangled him and drowned him, Nilsen set about dismembering his corpse on the kitchen floor, popping his limbs in black bin-bags, flushing his flesh down the toilet, cutting his torso up into chunks to be chucked out with the rubbish, and the soft skin, eyes and any identifiable features of his head boiled off in a large cooking pot. And although the body was mostly thrown, dumped or flushed away, weeks later, the stench in the flat still remained.
For Carl and Dennis, the night was uneventful; they drank, they ate, they watched the telly, and then stumbled into bed in a drunken stupor, Dennis in a light duvet, Carl in a bright blue sleeping-bag, with neither man making any attempt at sex, as Carl had said “no” and Dennis couldn’t muster a boner, so they both went to sleep.
But during the night, Carl Stotter… woke with a start (deep gasp); his throat was raw, his eyes were bleary and his head was pounding, but with his limbs tightly bound by the bright blue sleeping bag, his face firmly pressed down into the suffocating pillow, Carl felt an over-powering tightness across his throat as the sleeping bag’s zip dug deep into his bleeding neck, a heavy pressure baring down on his back, crushing his lungs and stopping his air. Moments before he lost consciousness he could clearly hear behind him, Nilsen loudly whispering “stay still, stay still”.
As the limp, silent and seemingly lifeless youth lay on his bed, Nilsen knew that strangulation wasn’t enough to kill Carl (as it hadn’t with so many victims before), so needing to finish the job properly, Nilsen ran a bath. Unzipping the sleeping-bag, Dennis dragged the semi-comatose Carl to the bathroom, propped the slim naked man on the lip of the tub, and slowly lowered him in, submerging his head under the water.
Shocked awake by the water’s icy coldness, Carl started to panic, his weakening arms flailing as Nilsen dunked his head again and again and again, Carl pleading “Please! No more! Please stop!” as he swallowed great gulps of water, his lungs choking, his lips turning blue, and having held his head under the water until the bubbles from his nose and mouth had ceased, Nilsen knew that Carl was dead.
Having towelled his wet limp torso off, Nilsen propped Carl up in an armchair, made himself a cup of coffee and sparked up a cigarette, as he sat there looking at this beautiful fresh corpse and wondering what he wanted to do with it, whether to stow it, slice it or shag it.
But it was during this odd little moment of calm, when the life and death struggle was over, and Nilsen was now contemplating another sordid descent into necrophilia, that both of their lives changed forever. Sensing that all was not as it seemed, Nilsen’s six year old dog, known as Bleep, who was as timid as she was she was scruffy, started nuzzling the corpse’s leg, and realising that it still clung to the tiniest morsel of life, she started to lick Carl’s face, causing his eyes to flutter.
Carl wasn’t dead...
Having already killed Carl twice before, Nilsen knew that he needed to finish the job, but with the bath still full and the garish necktie within his reach, Nilsen didn’t kill Carl. And nobody knows why; even Nilsen has no idea what stopped him. Whether he was wracked with a deep sense of guilt, was slowly sobering-up or was so overcome by the compassion at seeing this wounded animal before him? And although Carl wasn’t a stray cat, a starving sparrow, or his beloved grandfather, Nilsen saw what Bleep was sensing and acted on it.
Although she’d been bought as a puppy for a fifty pence in a Kilburn Park pet-store, Bleep was with Nilsen throughout his break-up with Twinkle, all fifteen murders, and yet never rejecting him, she was (as Nilsen would later state) “my most loyal companion, the one person I loved without question” who on many occasions, such as now, would save her master’s life, barking whenever he fell asleep with a lit cigarette, and bringing him back to reality.
Over the next day, Nilsen strived to return Carl Stotter back the land of the living, by covering him with warm blankets, putting both bars of the electric fire on, rubbing his frozen limbs and spoon feeding him hot soup, until slowly his colour returned.
Although groggy, weak and barely able to stand, Carl Stotter stood in the kitchen, staring into the small mirror over the sink, the sickly yellow tungsten light illuminating his puffy bruised face, his sunken bloodshot eyes and his fat swollen tongue, as across his neck he saw a deep red mark, the imprint of a zip clearly visible, to which Nilsen muttered “God, you look awful”.
Although struggling to talk as the pain of swallowing even saliva was simply too intense, lapsing in an out of consciousness, and suffering from a series of horrifying flashbacks, Carl asked Nilsen what had happened, as very little was making sense.
In an almost matter-of-fact way, with a smug hint of the heroics, Nilsen implied that in the midst of a fitful sleep with Carl tossing, turning and babbling incoherently, that he’d had a nightmare, and had contorted his body so badly, that he’d suffocated himself on the zip of the bright blue sleeping bag. Seeing his new pal suffocating, a sleepy Nilsen had dived on top of Carl’s back to wrestle the zip open, but with his lips turning blue, his face pale and his body shaking, the deadly zip had done its worst, so going into acute shock, Nilsen placed Carl in a bath of cold water - the shock of the cool bath water reviving Carl from the horror of being strangled by the sleeping bag of death.
As soon as Carl Stotter was well enough, Nilsen walked him to Highgate tube station, he hoped they’d meet again, he wished him “farewell”, waved him goodbye and Nilsen was gone.
Carl Stotter never truly believed the sleeping bag story, as it seemed too unbelievable, but having spent the night in a sleepy, drunk and barely conscious state, neither could he tell which of the vivid images which haunted his dreams were real, or a nightmare. And as fantastic as the story was, the alternative was simply too implausible, that Dennis Nilsen; a sweet, kind, polite, loving, caring and generous man, who wasn’t strange or threatening in any way, with a soft lilting brogue, a love of animals, and a passion for poetry, had suddenly, for no reason at all, tried to strangle him.
Both Carl Stotter and Paul Nobbs testified at Nilsen’s trial at the Old Bailey in November 1983. It was as they sat there, giving evidence, that the full horror of their near-death experiences and miraculous survival became fully apparent. And although Carl and Paul are alive and well today, they rarely discuss what happened, and both suffer from nightmares, flashbacks and PTSD. Dennis Nilsen was found guilty of six counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and was later sentenced to a whole life tariff, meaning he will never be released. Now aged 72 years old, he resides at HMP Full Sutton.
Carl Stotter once wrote to Dennis Nilsen to ask him why he’d attacked him; in his reply Nilsen cryptically wrote, 'What passed between us was a thin strand of love and humanity'. Still to this day, Carl Stotter states "I've turned over what he meant until I'm blue in the face, but I can't find an answer."
Between 1978 and 1983, Dennis Andrew Nilsen murdered fifteen men and had attempted to kill at least three others, and although an unknown number of men escaped the clutches of one of Britain’s most infamous serial killers, none of them were the last victim. Three days after his arrest, fearing that no-one would want her, ‘Bleep’, Dennis Nilsen’s six year old sweet-natured dog, who’d been brought for fifty pence in a Kilburn pet-shop and had saved the life of Carl Stotter, was put to sleep by the Police vet. Her only crime? Being the loyal, loving and faithful pet of serial killer Dennis Nilsen.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening to Murder Mile. Although this was the concluding part of Dennis Nilsen and the sleeping bag of death, I shall return with an even more stories about the life, loves and deaths of Dennis Nilsen soon. Don’t forget to check out the fabulous podcasts mentioned at the start of this episode, who were True-Crime Story-Time and I Got The Hell Out. And join us for Murder Mile live on Saturday 30th December @ 9pm GMT, by using the hashtag #MMPodLive. Murder Mile was researched, written & performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Next week’s episode is… Margaret Cooke and the Long Confession. Thank you and sleep well.
If you love true-crime? Don't forget to check out the UK true-crime podcasts mentioned at the start of this episode, which were They Walk Among Us, Nothing Rhymes with Murder, True Crime Enthusiast, UK True-Crime Podcast and Redhanded.
Credits: The Murder Mile true-crime podcast was researched, written and recorded by Michael J Buchanan-Dunne, with the sounds recorded on location (where possible), and the music written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Additional music was written and performed by Kai Engel, Sergey Cherimisinov, Chris Zabriskie and E's Jammy Jams, as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0. A list of tracks used and the links are listed on the relevant transcript blog here.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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