Let’s paint a dark picture: You’ve finally snapped and committed the heinous act of murder. The problem is that you let it happen without properly planning things out. Now, you have this nasty little human corpse lying around. How do you get rid of it?
Movies and literature have offered clever ways to get rid of dead bodies for years. In Luc Besson’s Nikita, Victor “The Cleaner” (Jean Reno) uses acid to dissolve bodies in a tub. In Psycho, Norman Bates mummifies his mother and keeps her around for posterity’s sake.
And in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) feeds Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) to a woodchipper.
Since concentrated acid is hard to come by (right, Mr. White?), and none of us at FSR have very good taxidermy skills, we got to wondering: Is a woodchipper an effective way to dispose of a body?
The Answer: Oh, yah! You betcha!
Woodchippers are specifically designed to break apart large branches and pieces of wood, pulverizing them into wood chips. There are several types of mechanisms used, but the end result is the same: pretty much anything else that is fed through – including leaves, twigs, weeds, or human body parts – gets pulverized.
In fact, OSHA has a whole litany of safety precautions when using a woodchipper on a professional job. One of the precautions of woodchipper use is to not wear loose-fitting clothing as this can snag on branches or other debris and pull a person into the woodchipper. Of course, even only partial damage by a woodchipper can cause serious injury or death. The loss of a limb can result in a person bleeding out with the majority of his or her body intact.
Woodchippers are so dangerous that professional grade ones should be built with a feed control bar to stop objects from being fed to the chipper mechanism. This is not always the case with smaller, but no less dangerous, machines you can rent for the home.
But isn’t bone stronger than wood?
Well, that depends on how you define “strong.” Bone is made primarily from calcium phosphate and collagen fibers. They are spongy rather than rigid, which allows bones to withstand strong impacts. Bone is also fairly light weight, making it pound-for-pound stronger than steel.
However, bones do not fare so well against shearing and torsion forces. In other words, chop at or twist a bone, and you only need (on average) about 9 pounds of force to break it. The forces inside the jaws of a woodchipper happen perpendicular to the length of the bone, which would result in pulverizing the skeleton. And don’t worry – everything else in a body would shred away fairly easily.
But Fargo wasn’t really a true story, was it?
No, it wasn’t. Well, sort of.
In spite of the blatant statement at the beginning of the film declaring that the story is true, most of Fargo was created in the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. However, the much talked-about ending with the woodchipper was actually inspired by a real event. In November 1986, Richard Crafts murdered his wife Helle. He kept her body on ice – literally – by cutting it up with a chainsaw and storing the parts in newly-purchased deep freeze. Later, he purchased a woodchipper and fed the frozen body parts into it, effectively disposing of the body.
After authorities found various clues – including a discarded carpet containing Helle Crafts’ blood – they arrested Richard Crafts for murder. Because the body had been essentially scattered to the four winds, the prosecution faced a challenge in proving murder without an actual body. During the investigation, detectives uncovered an array of debris, which included blonde hair, fingernails, tooth fragments, bone chips, and a toe. It amounted to only three ounces of human remains, but it was identified as belonging to Helle Crafts.
During the trial, an expert testified that the bone fragments from the skull could not be removed from a person without killing her. Additionally, the state police even recreated the event using a pig, to prove a body could be disposed of in this way. (Don’t worry. The pig was already dead before they put it through the woodchipper.)
During the making of Fargo, the Coens shared this story with Stormare. In preparation for his role, he researched Helle Crafts’ murder, and on the DVD and Blu-ray’s making-of documentary Minnesota Nice, Stormare suggests that he found dozens of accounts of people being put through a woodchipper. Those crazy Scandinavians!
Ultimately, the answer to the question is yes, a woodchipper can get rid of a body to a degree. However, it spreads the evidence all over the place. It also doesn’t get rid of the body at the cellular level, often leaving hair and nails intact, as well as providing the authorities with a nice sampling of blood, tooth fragments, and bone shards to be easily packaged into little evidence bags.
The moral to this whole story isn’t just to not put people through woodchippers. In fact, don’t murder anyone. It makes quite a mess, and it’s way too hard to cover it up.