The Mafia Was Wrong: You Can't Quickly Dissolve a Body in Acid

By Patrick Morgan | February 25, 2011 11:56 am

It’s a sad day for aspiring kingpins and Mafia godfathers–it turns out that you can’t dissolve a corpse within minutes by dunking it in sulfuric acid. If that’s not bad enough, scientists have also shown that even if you wait days, acid alone cannot fully destroy “the evidence.”

This Mafia technique of disintegrating human flesh is known as a “white shotgun” (or “lupara bianca”) murder, a term that entered public parlance in the early 1980s when police in Palermo, Sicily, discovered vats of acid in a Mafia boss’s digs. The crime leader, Filippo Marchese, had his goons kill their victims and dissolve the bodies in a room known as “the chamber of death.” But violent people tend to meet violent deaths, and Marchese was himself dissolved in acid sometime in 1982.

At this week’s meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, researchers explained that they wanted to find out whether the Mafia’s claims about sulfuric acid’s extraordinary effectiveness were true. As the forensic researchers told Science News, Mafia informants make some big claims, such as: “We put the people in acid. In 15, 20 minutes they were no more — they became a liquid.”

So to test this idea, the scientists placed pieces of pig carcasses into vats of sulfuric acid, and discovered that it took several days to dissolve the flesh. However, they did notice a difference when they added water to the sulfuric acid: In this case, it took a mere 12 hours for the muscle and cartilage to disintegrate. And by day two, even the bones had turned into dust. But according to Science News, the researchers say their results still put the lie to Mafia accounts.

“[I]t is impossible that they completely destroyed a corpse with acid,” said study coauthor Massimo Grillo of the University of Palermo in Italy.

Naysayers may suggest that the research is flawed because the scientists used a pig corpse in place of a human body–but pigs are widely used as replacements for human flesh in scientific experiments. And even though the Mafia seems to have overstated its claims about acid’s abilities, the scientists do give them some credit. From Science News:

“[T]hey are smarter than some Georgia criminals,” said Michael Heninger, an associate medical examiner in Fulton County, where Atlanta is located. “People think they will destroy a body, but they’ll do things that preserve it. These guys are more experienced,” he said of the Palermo killings.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Clumsy Tokyo Subway Commuter Drops His Bottle of… Hydrochloric Acid?
Discoblog: Building a Better Dead Body Detector
Discoblog: Decapitated, Lion-Chewed Remains = Ancient Gladiator Graveyard
80beats: Butts of Steel? Recycled Cigarettes Protect Metal From Hydrochloric Acid

Image: flickr / M. Markus

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Crime & Punishment, Top Posts
  • brian113

    I’m having second thoughts about donating my body to science, just in case there’s a follow up study.

  • kris

    @brian113

    1,000 internet points to you, sir.

  • plutosdad

    Is he saying the pigs are smarter than some Georgia criminals? I believe it, pigs are pretty smart.

    I read about Afro Set doing this in Ohio with many of the people they murdered (especially this one woman who ran part of it), but it was barrels of lye. The FBI found bodies years later which were not completely dissolved but were the consistency of ballistics gel, making forensic analysis impossible.

  • Dutch follew

    Didn’t they chop the corpses to pieces? Bon apetit by the way.

  • Number6

    Add hydrogen peroxide and it’ll work brilliantly. This is widely used in the semiconductor industry. Apparently there are no chemists in the AAFS.

  • Brian Too

    Wasn’t there a case in Mexico recently? A guy who used to work for the drug cartels confessed. He had been disposing of bodies in barrels of some caustic compound. I think they said he’d been a part of more than 3 dozen murders.

    It was tragic. Families with missing family members were coming to the crime scene. No one could (or would) tell them anything.

  • john

    You soak something in acid and it turns to dust?

    some sort of dry acid?

  • Lou

    Seems like Coca-Cola might be even better – didn’t I read about it dissolving steak bones? (;

  • Jane

    H2O2 + H2SO4
    NaOH + H2O2
    Aqua regia
    Chromic acid

    Ways to clean labware, gets rid of organic materials.

    They should hire real chemists to do their studies.

  • shadegem

    Or a historian for that matter, since aqua regia alone has been known since midieval times to dissolve “royal” or rather most metals and tissues when it was made by alchemists.

  • Chemist-in-training

    Seriously, AAFS.. Like the smart people above noted, if the pig doesn’t dissolve in minutes, you’re not doing it right. Applied heat did you? Consentrations and volumes appropriate? Maybe sulfuric acid doesn’t work, but I’d like to know how much you tried to make it work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andreas-Krab-Fernström/100000696395634 Andreas Krab Fernström

    Damnit, I remember this acid from Breaking Bad, damnit damnit damnit i wished to be able to get rid of the stinking shit lying under my bed :/(

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