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How Hard Is it to Dissolve a Body?

During the Sicilian Mafia wars of the early 1980s, residents of Palermo feared the “white shotgun” or lupara bianca—a murder where the body disappears. If one offended the Corleonesi (a cartel from Corelone, a real place made famous by the fictional Godfather movies), hit man Filippo Marchese would lure the offender to the chamber of death (nothing good comes from an invite to the chamber of death), where he allegedly garroted the victim before dumping the body into a vat of sulfuric acid.

Mafia informants bragged to police officers and prosecutors that an acid bath caused a body to vanish in as little as 15 minutes. According to rumors, Marchese met the same end as his victims, with his final swim in a vat of acid (when police raided the chamber of death, they discovered silos of acid). Almost 30 years later, researchers in Palermo, tested the claim that sulfuric acid dissolves bodies and found that this method might not be as effective as some Mafiosos claimed.

Researchers, led by Massimo Grillo and Filippo Cascino of the University of Palermo, used pig carcasses as a stand in for human remains (pigs are the most popular replacement for human bodies in forensic tests). They immersed the carcasses in an acid bath and discovered it took days for bodies to dissolve in sulfuric acid. When the researchers added water, cartilage and muscles liquefied within 12 hours, but it still took two days for the bones to vanish. The researchers reported their findings in February during the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’ annual meeting.

“[I]t is impossible that they completely destroyed a corpse with acid,” Grillo told the Science News.

Some researchers claim this study’s results might be inaccurate because Grillo and Cascino used pig carcasses rather than human remains. But most forensic research involving human bodies is conducted on pigs and this is considered an acceptable scientific approach.

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