5 Random People Who Stumbled Across Huge, Terrifying Secrets
Whose job is it to solve crimes? Probably not ours, right? As far as we can tell, our job is to argue about Marvel movies on Twitter every once in a while. Dealing with evil and corruption is for cops and people with cool hats. Or at least, it should be. But sometimes an Average Joe stumbles upon something horrifying and, ya know, pretty illegal. And then ...
A Plumber Found Bones In A Drain And Led Cops To A Serial Killer
Michael Cattran worked for Dyno-Rod, a plumbing company with a fantastic name. In February 1983, he was called to Muswell Hill outside London, where an older house was reporting severe lavatory issues. Cattran opened up a drain cover, and along with all the heavy duty, he found some bones and meat. He wondered if they could be human. "It looks more to me like someone has been flushing down their Kentucky Fried Chicken," said a tenant named Dennis Nilsen, a quiet man you have absolutely no reason to be suspicious of.
Cattran and his supervisor returned the next day, and when they looked in the drain again, they saw no bones or meat at all. Had he hallucinated all of that "KFC"? Had a rival company swept in and stolen the job? Desperate for answers, he plumbed further and found that though someone had furtively cleaned the drain that night, more bones lay in a side pipe. And these definitely looked like a human hand. At this point he called in the police, who identified the remains as human and concluded they'd been flushed from the top apartment's toilet. The tenant? That nice man, Dennis.
Police searched the apartment and immediately caught the smell of decomposing flesh. They played interrogation cat and mouse for a bit, but then the officer asked point-blank where the rest of the body was. Nilsen pointed to his wardrobe. They took him to the station and asked whether he'd killed one person or two. "15 or 16 since 1978," he said.
He was eventually convicted of six murders, but that estimate of his seems about right, based on all the bodies they ended up finding. He'd buried some in a garden near an older address of his, and others beneath that place's floorboards. In Muswell Hill, neither of these options were available, so he chopped them up and flushed them -- a slow process that left parts piling up, so he stuck them in the cupboard. He also did all kinds of weird sex stuff to the bodies, but I won't go into that, because that would just be putting a hat on a hat when it comes to this story.
An Engineer Noticed The Chernobyl Disaster From A Thousand Miles Away
Cliff Robinson arrived early for work on April 26, 1986, so he decided to go to the break room and grab some breakfast. He wanted to brush his teeth afterward, and that meant a trip to the building's changing room. To return to his office, protocol said he had to scan himself with a radiation detector, because the changing room was in the protected section of Sweden's Forsmark nuclear power plant. That's when the alarm went off. The detector had sniffed out some radioactive dust on his feet. Ooof.
It was a lot of dust -- enough that the plant couldn't just send Cliff over to the showers, but had to order a whole evacuation. Apparently, something had gone horribly wrong. But Cliff figured Forsmark couldn't be the source of the dust, because he hadn't gone to the "controlled area" of the plant, where all the fun stuff happens. He stayed behind as the plant was evacuated, brought a shoe to the lab for further analysis, and found that some of the elements responsible for the radiation didn't even exist in Forsmark. They were created through nuclear reactions of some kind. Had someone secretly set off a nuclear bomb?
The radiation had indeed come from a nuclear plant, just not Forsmark. Based on the wind direction, the dust had to have come from the southeast, all the way over the Baltic Sea. They considered Lithuania at first, but then eyes turned to a plant in Ukraine, almost 1,000 miles away. Once contacted, Moscow was like "Nah, we cool! Please stop asking immediately, or suffer consequences." Sweden said they were going to inform the International Atomic Energy Authority either way, and Moscow reluctantly admitted that, um, yeah, something had happened at Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl plant had just experienced history's worst nuclear disaster, as seen in the recent super-popular HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The show doesn't include anything about Cliff or Forsmark, but it does invent a new scientist in a distant nuclear plant who detects Chernobyl's radiation. HBO put her in Minsk, 250 miles from the plant, because setting the scene all the way in Sweden would have seemed unrealistic, right?
A Random Eavesdropper Uncovered The Tuskegee Experiment
In 1966, there was an anonymous doctor working out of San Francisco, specializing in diseases of the central nervous system. An elderly black patient was referred to him, suffering from some sort of unspecified insanity. Doc Anon diagnosed him with neurosyphilis. Though it would have been better if he'd received medical attention earlier, the treatment was straightforward; penicillin would kill the infection.
But after he did his job, Doc Anon received a call from an angry CDC. They hadn't wanted him to diagnose the patient, they said, and they definitely didn't want him treated. The man was a subject in an experiment of theirs, in which syphilitic black men were told they had a vague condition called "bad blood," and further told they were receiving treatment for it, but they actually received none. The experiment, originally supposed to last just six months, ran swimmingly for over 30 years, with patients needlessly passing their diseases on to their wives and children. Over a hundred people died as a result.
Doc Anon had stumbled upon the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which would go down as perhaps the most unethical study in American history, which is full of wildly unethical studies. The doctor's superiors made their position known, explaining that he could face further repercussions for speaking out. So Doc Anon gathered up the information he'd collected and ... stayed silent.
Seriously, that's the end of Doc Anon's story. He never spoke up, and we know nothing more about him. But when a senior public health officer was speaking to a few nurses about Doc Anon's misgivings over lunch one day, a co-worker overheard him. It was this guy, Peter Buxtun, who then revealed the experiment to the world. Yes, the whistleblower for the Tuskegee study hadn't been involved with it in any way, and only learned about it by listening in on this chance conversation. Thanks, random eavesdropper. Fuck you, anonymous doctor?
A Kodak Employee Discovered The Atom Bomb Tests
Back in 1945, Kodak customers were getting pretty angry. They'd bought a special sensitive film from the company, and it was covered in black spots, a process called fogging. Kodak knew this sort of thing was generally due to the packaging the film came in -- in the past, they'd used recycled cardboard containing materials from the radium industry, and this had wreaked havoc. But this shouldn't have been happening again, because they were working with a dedicated mill whose carefully selected raw material created no spots at all.
Julian Webb, a physicist at Kodak, decided to find out what was going on. He headed over to the mill and determined that the strawboard there was indeed contaminated with radioactivity, though only in the run that started on July 16, 1945. He also tracked down one other mill whose paper products reported the same issue. However, the source of their radioactivity wasn't radium, but Cerium-141 -- an isotope that does not exist in nature. In theory, it could be produced through nuclear fission. This left him with one important question you never think you'll have to ask when working for a camera company: Had someone secretly set off a nuclear bomb?
Yes, America had just conducted the first successful atomic bomb test. Fallout from the Trinity explosion had spread across the country, carried in particular by water (both the mills stood alongside rivers). The military had always been somewhat aware of the fallout risk, and would later consider moving tests to the East Coast so the wind would send any fallout out over the ocean instead of the populated continent. But in the end, they stuck with Nevada and the desert around Alamogordo because it was conveniently close to existing weapons labs.
It took a while for Webb to put the puzzle together, since the Manhattan Project was double super secret when he was first poking around those mills. But by 1951, Webb was head of the company's physics division, and Kodak threatened to sue the U.S. government for damaging their equipment. They finally convinced the Atomic Energy Commission to cut a deal: They would give Webb the dates and locations of future atomic tests so Kodak could alter their manufacturing accordingly, and in return, Kodak would keep what they knew about the fallout secret from the public. Kodak agreed, because massive corporations have always been pretty much evil.
A Shipping Clerk Deduced Atrocities In The Congo By Looking At Export Paperwork
In the early 20th century, the Congo was under the control of King Leopold II of Belgium. It wasn't a colony or anything -- this ridiculously large chunk of Africa (as big as Alaska and Texas combined) was administered by just Leopold personally. The official story was that he controlled and traded with the Congo as a philanthropic gesture. A story E.D. Morel, a mere clerk, started to question when the ships came in.
The ships left with nothing but ammunition and returned with vast amounts of rubber and ivory. To someone used to balancing books, this smelled fishy. He wondered: Could Leopold's men be enslaving the Congolese? For context, this was many decades after the Atlantic slave trade had ended. Slavery was illegal in both the Congo and Belgium, and one of the reasons Leopold gave for controlling the Congo was that he wanted to protect it from slavery. OK dude, sure.
Morel complained to his superiors at the Elder Dempster shipping company. They offered him a promotion in exchange for his silence, but he refused it, quit, and founded the Congo Reform Association to expose what was going on. And boy was there a lot to expose. Leopold really was enslaving the Congolese. Villages were assigned a rubber and ivory quota, and if they came up short, heads would roll. Quite literally. Officers cut off heads. And penises. And nailed women and children to crosses.
Individually, the penalty for missing a quota was losing a hand. In this way, severed hands also became a sort of currency. See, officers were only supposed to use their ammo for killing Congolese, not hunting, so at inspection, they needed to have a dead man's hand for each spent round. As a result, they always wanted more hands, and villages would provide additional hands -- severed from the living -- in exchange for being spared.
Morel's Congo Reform Association gained all kinds of support from folks like Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad. After a few years of lobbying, Belgium moved the Congo to governmental control, ending those particular atrocities. But it's not totally clear how much of Leopold's willingness to step back was due to said lobbying, and how much was due to the Congo no longer being profitable, since he had killed half the population. No no, it was probably just the goodness of his heart. That scans.
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