Dennis Nilsen would be most pleased that many people are talking about him today. This serial murderer, who was convicted of six murders but is believed to have killed at least 12 people between 1978 and 1983, was a textbook narcissist. In prison, he wrote an autobiography in which he described himself as follows,
As the unique amalgam, in a new genetic configuration of contributions from a man and a woman, one is born into the world, as different from other people, in much the same way as my fingerprints were different from other peoples[i].
What he meant by unique and different was better. He saw himself as a cut above everyone else, entitled to be treated more favourably, looked up to, respected, admired. He also presented himself as a victim. A victim of his fathers’ absence. A victim of his mother apparently favouring his other siblings over him. A victim of the Prison Service’s refusal to allow him to publish his autobiography. It’s the same ‘poor me’ narrative that we see with so many serial killers. He offered up a range of reasons why he killed, most of which involved pointing his finger at other institutions, individuals or forces. This served to distract his audience and minimise his responsibility for the heinous acts he carried out. It was everyone’s fault but his own.
Nilsen’s victims were all young men, many of whom were gay and many of whom were vulnerable and distanced from their support networks of friends and family. Nilsen capitalized on this vulnerability, knowing that many of his victims wouldn’t be immediately missed. Knowing he could do what he wanted with them. His first victim, a young Irish man he picked up in The Cricklewood Arms pub in late December 1978 remains unidentified to this day. He was someone’s son and someone’s friend before Nilsen decided to end his life. Nilsen’s final victim was 20-year-old Stephen Sinclair, originally from Perth in Scotland. Nilsen described his victims as “my tragic products”[ii]. “My” implied a sense of ownership and possession – these men were there for his pleasure rather than living, breathing and feeling individuals. “Tragic products” suggested that he saw these young people as worthless – as runaways, throwaways and misfits who were expendable and disposable.
The most appalling part of this story is that Dennis Nilsen could have been stopped. Lives could have been saved. Paul Nobbs walked away with his life after an encounter with Nilsen in November 1981. After meeting at a bookshop, the pair went back to Nilsen’s flat, where Paul called his mother using Nilsen’s phone. After several alcoholic drinks, they went to bed. Paul woke in the early hours of the morning with a headache and bloodshot eyes. Still feeling unwell the following day, he went for a check-up at a local hospital, where staff suggested that someone had tried to strangle him. Paul didn’t report the incident to police as he didn’t believe they would take his complaint seriously because of his homosexuality. This was a wholly accurate assessment, particularly given the experiences of another young man a year prior to this. The man Nilsen attacked that time, Douglas Stewart, did go to police and showed them red marks on his throat. Nilsen knew exactly what to say when challenged by officers, denying Douglas’s claims and giving the impression that the two had had a lover’s tiff. At the mention of homosexuality, the police lost interest. Nilsen would go on to murder ten other young men and assault three.
History would repeat itself over three decades later. Between June 2014 and September 2015, four young gay men fell prey to another serial killer, the so-called Grindr Killer – Stephen Port. They were Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Jack Taylor and Daniel Whitworth. Port sexually assaulted his victims and administered fatal doses of the drug GHB. He was convicted of the murders as well as a series of sexual offences in November 2016. The Metropolitan Police Service are currently under investigation in relation to the initial response to the deaths. The Independent Office for Police Conduct is due to report on their findings this month. However lawyers representing the victim’s families claim that the report will be “damning”, highlighting “multiple failures” and “missed opportunities”[iii]. Referring to Port’s first three victims upon sentencing Port, Mr Justice Openshaw stated,
It is not to me to say whether the seeming bizarre co‐incidence of these three gay young men being found dead so close together might have given rise to suspicions that these deaths were not the result of ordinary self‐administered drug overdoses but that is how their deaths, including Jack Taylor’s death, was treated at the time[iv].
Dennis Nilsen was a cold and calculating man who consciously decided to harm and kill other people. He knew what he was doing. He knew it was wrong. He chose to do these evil things anyway. However, the shameful legacy of his killings is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s. Homophobia created the conditions in which gay men became targets for Dennis Nilsen in the 1970s and 1980s. It also formed the backdrop to the murders committed by Colin Ireland and Peter Moore in the 1990s. I strongly suspect that this same homophobia loomed large in the scenery of the Port murders years later. Gay men are one of the groups most commonly targeted by serial killers in Britain. Why? I would argue that despite the fact homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967, society and its institutions continue to make discriminatory judgements and assumptions about gay men. Their lives continue to be seen as less valuable and their victimhood less legitimate than others. That isn’t good enough.
[i] Wilson, D. (2007). Hunting Britons: Serial killers and their victims 1960-2006. Winchester: Watergate Press, p. 13.
[ii] Masters, B. (1985). Killing for Company. London: Arrow Books, p. 149.
[iii] BBC News. (2018). Serial Killer Stephen Port: Report into Met’s handling of case ‘will be damning’, 19th March. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-43450163.
[iv] R. v. Stephen Port (2016). Sentencing Remarks of Mr Justice Openshaw, 25th November. Available at: https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/sentencing-remarks-r-v-stephen-port.pdf