Boiling a body

OK, this is really gross. My friend and I were talking about Silence of the Lambs and there was the part where Starling is wandering through Buffalo Bill’s house. She looks in the bathroom and sees a horribly decomposed body in the bathtub (obviously the previous tenant).

We’ve often talked about writing a novel and this got us to wondering what would happen if a killer boiled a body to confuse investigators. I know that eventually all of the tissues would eventually slough off the bones but how long would it take (I remember reading that museums and forensics people sometimes do this)? Would doing that interfere with determining cause of death? Could the remains (the bones and the “soup” of tissue) be tested for drugs? Could the time of death be determined?

Also, would a hot tub set to maximum temp do it? The scene would take place at a secluded cabin. We imagined a killer seduces the victim, gets them into the hot tub and drugs them. The killer climbs out and cranks up the heat, pushes the person underwater and then leaves.

Why would any manufacturer make a hot tub capable of heating water to 212 degrees (100 celsius)? :dubious:

There are submersible heaters that heat water to boiling. Most barns have a couple laying around. You might need a couple to get a bathtub boiling, but they only cost about $15 each and are an unremarkable item at any farm supply/feed store.

I realize that a standard hot tub couldn’t reach boiling (usually they max at 104 degrees) but would it be hot enough to do the job? Could the killer “tamper” with the heater in a not so obvious way? The idea would be that they leave the body in the tub so it looks like they died of natural causes (stroke, heart attack, etc), sank in the tub and just boiled away.

For an intact body close to a month, and that’s assuming some alkali is added to speed up the process. With just water probablly a couple of months to clean the bones. The problem is that so long as the skin holds the flesh can’t move much. Skin itself is very resistant to temperature effects, being essentially rawhide leather. Try boiling bacon rind some time to see how little effect boiling has on skin. By keeping the water at boiling you will be preventing most of the microbial growth that will normally cause the skin to break down and the swelling that will cause the skin to split.

Honestly you would do better setting the temperature to around 45oC to produce a nice microbial incubator and just let natural decay do its work. That should mostly strip the bones within a fortnight.

They largely deflesh the bones first, then boil them.

If the cause of death was due to soft tissue damge or physiologuical effect, yes. So it will prevent determination of a lot of poisons, heart attacks or strangulation. It won’t interfere much with determination of being shot through the head.

Some drugs perhaps, notably inorganics like arsenic. Less stable drugs, certainly not.

If we assume the conditions were constant then it would probably easier to determine time of death than it would be if the body were left lying in ditch. With no scavengers and a nice even temperature the rate of brekadown should be very uniform and predictable over time.

In addition to that time of death after more than few days is often determined by things like when the deceased stopped answering their cell phone and similar.

Since you wnat to make this look like an accident then you will need to find someone who didn’t make or recieve more than one cell call a day to make determing cause of death difficult.

Not a chance. Most hot tobs max out at around 50oC. You need to double that to boil water. What it would be is a good microbial incubator.

Not on any unit I’ve ever seen.

Why not just leave the rot in the tub?

TMI Warning


The story as stated by Snopes is accurate, but they did leave out some of the more gruesome details. If you want to hear the rest of the story, I can tell you. I was on duty that day when it occurred.

I just visited Yellowstone in June and I purchased the book “Death in Yellowstone” by Lee Whittlesey which is referenced by Snopes. Any more details you can share which are not disclosed in the book or in the Snopes article?

A sadder story was later in the same chapter which told of the young boy (9 yrs old?) who somehow ran / tripped / wandered (eyewitness accounts vary) into another hot springs in Yellowstone - his family witnessed his tragic death.

Warning: FOAF story.

Back in the '80s I worked with a girl who used to work in a mortuary. She had a friend who was a paramedic or else worked in an ER. The FOAF told her of the ‘Bucket Lady’. A woman was taking some sort of medication that made her drowsy, and she was drinking wine in her hot tub. She fell asleep in the tub and drowned, and was not found for two weeks. After bobbing about in jet-propelled 104ºF water, they had to use buckets to get her all out.

True? There’s no way to verify. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t. Maybe she was pretty much intact, but there were bits of her that were collected in a bucket. Just passing it along.

This is laughably incorrect. One of the more gruesome results of 3rd degree burns is the skin sloughing off. In addition simply staying in water for an extended period of time has the same effect. I recall an account of WWII sailors rescuing sailors that had been in the water for weeks. They said that when they grabbed their arm to pull them aboard the skin just sloughed off.
If I had to guess I’d say that all the meat would be off within a day or two. The combination of the heat and agitation from boiling would work very quickly.

The only thing laughable is that you don’t understand that skin grows in layers. When people speak of the skin sloughing off that doesn’t mean you can see the muscles underlying the skin, whcih is what you would see if the full thicknes of the skin actually sloughed off.

As for the idea that someone who had been completely degloved up to the armpits could survive in salt water, that’s laughable. The problems of water balance alone would be fatal within an hour.

Yeah I’m sure they mean that you just see the Raw Hide underneath all our skin.

You misunderstood. The degloving, as you put it, happened when they pulled the guy out of the water.

I cannot comment about the book because I haven’t read it. So I don’t know if what I post here is in it or not.

When the victim was brought to the Old Faithful Clinic he was already blind. That’s because his eyeballs had literally turned into hard-boiled eggs. (His head was wrapped to prevent his eyeballs from coming out of their sockets.) He was experiencing little to no pain. The only place the doctor could insert an IV was through the subclavian vein because the rest of his body was a mess.

He was only wearing pants, having removed his shirt before he dove into Celestine Pool (I don’t remember if he took his shirt off before diving into the pool, or already had it off.). The skin on his chest and back was literally sloughing off like newspaper pages caught in a breeze. He stayed in the Old Faithful Clinic just long enough for an air ambulance to be dispatched to West Yellowstone Airport to where it met the ambulance coming from Old Faithful. He died the next day in Salt Lake City.

Adding insult to injury, the new Old Faithful District Ranger had only been on the job about a week. He set the tone for his tenure there when he ordered a subordinate ranger to bring in the victim’s friend to the ranger station where he was cited for having a dog off leash. The fine at the time for that violation was five dollars.

The dog was never recovered from Celestine Pool, although body parts continued to surface for several days where they where skimmed off by park staff.

FYI - There are numerous hot springs throughout the park where people like to go “hot potting,” aka, illegally swimming in the thermal springs. Irrespective of the damage that this does to the thermal pools, the danger in doing this is what may have been quite comfortable swimming in one day could be a death trap the next day. I’ve been to several of these where we would find human bones in various states of recomposition as the hot water and chemicals in the water were changing the bones. (There are lots of pools with animal bones in them.) There are also quite a few pools where the pH levels are seriously acidic or alkali to the extreme. Dipping your toes or fingers into these pools for even a few seconds could very result in pulling out disintegrating bloody stumps.

Nobody has survived being in salt water for weeks. Even in tropical waters an uninsulated human would sufffer hypothermia would set in within a score of hours, and death within a couple of days.


You’re right. Upon further review I have determined that I was thinking of the USS Indianapolis:

They were in the water for four days.


There’s a fairly gruesome set of police photos that I’ve seen on some shock sites that show something similar to what the OP describes. An old man died in a bathtub equipped with a submersible heater and simmered for a week or so before he was found. The result looked like thick soup with some dark bones poking out of it. Sorry I can’t provide a link … my Google skills aren’t working tonight. Although given the horrific nature of the images that may be for the best … .

Found it.
Warning: Nasty Image (Safe for Work)


You are claiming that these people spent days in the water with their skin from the armpits down totally disconnetcted not just from the blood supply but from the connective tissue.

Prey tell how did they manage to thermoregulate, never mind water balance problems?

Once again you don’t seem to understand that the upper layers of skin sloughed off. Thatis normal even with partial thickness burns. You dont; seem to understand this is not the entire skin, exposing the underlying muscles. Had that happened to all the skin on the body below the armpits a human being simply could not survive.

<Capt. Kirk voice>
Straight ahead Mr. Sulu, creep factor 4
<Capt. Kirk voice>

One of my duties at work is to prepare the carcasses of marine mammals for skeletal display in a visitor center.

The last (or near last in most cases) step in the process is boiling. I always remove large amounts of the flesh by other means first (flensing and maceration.) The reason for this is that boiling is a damaging way of removing tissue. The flesh will fall off (even the muscles,) and faster than with the methods I use, but boiling will almost certainly damage the bones, cause them to crack, and shrink the bones in some cases.
Cooking times vary a great deal depending on size. For a 15 pound skull, about 15 hours of boiling will do it. For an entire carcass of 150 pounds, somewhere upwards of 400 hours would be required (you can see why I’d avoid 10 weeks of needing to monitor the boiling carcass - with maceration, you leave it and come back when the specimen is done.)

There are serious disadvantages to boiling:

  1. Smell - the smell of a boiling carcass is vastly worse than the smell of a rotting carcass. Plus, that smell will tend to spread farther, as the research associates at work let me know every time they can smell my specimens.

  2. Killing off bacteria and fungi who will help digest the flesh. They’re doing the work for you, and at less cost and fire risk than boiling.

  3. A very large container is needed, and you need to visit periodically to skim off the grease and fat that floats to the surface.
    The reason I use boiling at all is that once all the flesh has been removed, there remain pockets of tissue deep inside channels in the bones. I don’t want these pockets to become centers of decay and spreading bacterial and fungal colonies. These pockets of tissue are usually very small and boiling is effective in either allowing them to be broken up or at least be cleared of most microorganisms.
    Early in my specimen preparation career I actually tried boiling a skull early, when it still had some muscle tissue on it, but had the skin and fat removed. It proved to be a complete failure - the parts of flesh I wanted to remove didn’t come off at all with the boiling in any reasonable time. I had to remove them with a metal brush.

Some chemicals can be added to the water to help degrease the bones as they’re being boiled - laundry detergent, hydrogen peroxide, acetone, and ammonia are a few. But ammonia and acetone should never be used with boiling, only in warm water.

OK. I’m done with being gruesome. Hope everyone’s ready for their breakfast now. :smiley:

One thing nobody seems to have covered is that if you left - completely unattended - a corpse simmering in a big tub, it would boil dry in a fairly short time.
Isn’t it the case with the Man Broth story that the guy died in the bath along with the heater, and the tap running a bit?

ooh, I forgot to mention that I’ve seen that happen to. I had a student helping me with a skull and she left the boiling water on. All the water boiled away, and I was left with a foul-smelling gelatin-like substance of fat and grease that encased the skull and flowed v e r y s l o w l y off it. Ew.