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More diabolical than Sherlock Holmes's arch nemesis Dr. Moriarty and more lethal than Jaws, Hannibal Lecter, the serial murderer created by author Thomas Harris, has captured the public's fascination like no other fictional character in recent years. Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter first appeared as a minor but important character in Harris's novel Red Dragon. In the next book, The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter came into his own, and the movie version highlighted the killer's complex relationship with FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling. In these two novels, Lecter, in his indirect, Cheshire-Cat way, advises the FBI as they hunt for headline-making serial killers who are on the loose and very active. He himself is not the target of law enforcement's full-court press until Hannibal, the third book in this series. In Hannibal, Lecter is at large and up to his old tricks. His face altered by plastic surgery, he has taken a new identity and moved to Rome, an environment that better suits his cultivated tastes. Clarice Starling, now a full-fledged special agent, picks up his trail, hoping to recapture the wily psychoanalyst with a taste for human flesh.

But who is Hannibal Lecter? What real-life models did Harris use in creating him? How much of him is fiction and how much is based on fact? Is he purely a literary invention, or could someone like him actually be walking the streets right now?

The portrait Harris paints of Dr. Lecter is vivid and terrifying. His eyes are maroon in color, and his voice has a hint of a metallic rasp. His teeth are small and white. A mature man well into middle age, Lecter is small and compact, and moves with unusual grace and silence. He has six fingers on one hand, the middle finger "perfectly replicated... the rarest form of polydactyly". His sense of smell is highly developed as exhibited by his ability to detect Clarice Starling's brand of perfume –L'Air du Temps– on their first meeting in The Silence of the Lambs, even though she hadn't worn any that day.

Before he was caught, he was a respected psychiatrist and patron of the arts in Baltimore, Maryland. He was born in Eastern Europe to an aristocratic family but suffered unspeakable hardship as a boy during World War II. Fourteen homicides have been attributed to him, though authorities suspect that there were probably others.

These are the "facts" of Thomas Harris's master creation, but was there a real-life model that Harris used for Lecter? Harris rarely gives interviews and prefers to let his work speak for itself. It's known that he did research at the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit (now called the Investigative Support Unit) when writing these books and learned the specifics of serial murderers and their habits from real profilers. How much did he take from the case files he was allowed to review and how much came from his own imagination?

Since the author will not tell us (and frankly what author would?), perhaps we can sleuth this out the way a profiler would – start with what we know about Lecter and build a profile on him that we can compare to other real-life serial killers.

(For the purpose of this analysis, I will use only the literary Hannibal Lecter, the version of him that appears in the novels. As good as some of the cinematic portrayals have been –particularly Anthony Hopkins's bone-chilling interpretation– it will be more beneficial to work from the primary source material).

Buffalo Bill

Thomas Harris clearly used real-life models for the other serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs. Jame Gumb (a.k.a. "Buffalo Bill") resembles serial killer Ed Gein, who also served as the model for Norman Bates in the movie Psycho. Gein, who lived in the heartlands of Wisconsin in the 1950s, was a quiet and introverted man who bore the scars of an overbearing mother. He had considered undergoing a sex-change operation to relieve his misery, but given the strictures of his small-town existence, he ultimately decided against it. What he did instead was dress in women's skin. Gein, like Gumb, killed women, skinned them, tanned their hides, and wore the results. Gein also fashioned lampshades and bracelets out of loose ends, and even made a bowl out of a woman's skull.

Harris also used a bit of Ted Bundy in the creation of Jame Gumb. Part of Bundy's MO was to wear a phony cast on his arm and put it in a sling, then ask unsuspecting coeds to help him move something he couldn't possibly manage by himself. As soon as he lured his target to a secluded spot, Bundy pounced. Jame Gumb uses the same ploy to capture a young woman in Harris's book, putting a cast on his arm and asking the woman if she'll help him load an armchair into his van. She does, and once inside the van, she's trapped.

In creating Hannibal Lecter, Harris might have looked to real-life practitioners of anthropophagy (i.e. cannibalism). David Sexton, author of The Strange World of Thomas Harris: Inside the Mind of the Creator of Hannibal Lecter, writes that Harris once told a librarian in his home town, Cleveland, Mississippi, that Lecter was inspired by a murderer named William Coyne, who had escaped from prison in 1934 and gone on a rampage in Cleveland that included acts of murder and cannibalism. Coyne's exploits were the stuff of local legend when Harris was growing up and might have planted the seed for Lecter in the author's mind. Sexton also suggests Welsh killer Jason Ricketts "who murdered and eviscerated a cellmate in Cardiff prison, mistaking his spleen for his heart", as another possible model for Lecter.

Hannibal the Cannibal

In March 1990, the city of Tokyo breathed a sigh of relief when Tsutomu Miyazaki confessed to kidnapping, murdering, and dismembering four preschool-age girls in 1988 and 1989. Miyazaki, who was twenty-six at the time, came from a respectable middle-class Japanese family, which made his crimes all the more shocking to a country unused to serial violence. Generally unassuming in appearance, Miyazaki was a loner who worked in a print shop. He was born with deformed hands and couldn't turn his palms upward or grasp objects easily. He confessed to cooking the hands of one of his victims and eating them.

As described by Robert Ressler and Tom Shachtman in their book I Have Lived in the Monster, Miyazaki taunted the families of his victims during his active killing period by writing letters to them and signing them with a female name "Yuko Imada," which literally means "Now I have courage" but is also a pun on the Japanese words for "Now I will tell you".

Harris might have drawn some inspiration from this Japanese dabbler in cannibalism but probably not much. Of all the killings mentioned in the novels, none of Lecter's victims were children. Lecter's polydactyly (extra finger) could relate in some way to Miyazaki's deformity, but Lecter's condition is never described as a handicap while Miyazaki's hands sometimes made him the object of ridicule and could have hastened his descent into madness. The full extent of Miyazaki's crimes came to light in 1990; Lecter made his first appearance in Red Dragon two years earlier, so it's unlikely that Miyazaki was a direct source for the creation of Hannibal Lecter. If anything, Miyazaki is more typical of the type of victim Lecter targeted.

Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer has been suggested as another possible model for Lecter. Dahmer, who targeted young homosexual men, murdered, dismembered, and ate his victims, claiming at one point that consuming young flesh gave him an erection and kept him vital with their spirits. He kept strips of flesh in his refrigerator like beef jerky. Dahmer, like Ed Gein, was fascinated with the body parts of his victims and experimented with ways of preserving them. He kept their genitalia in formaldehyde and boiled the flesh off their skulls, then painted them gray to resemble the plastic skulls used by medical students in order to avoid detection.

But like Miyazaki, Dahmer entered the headlines after Hannibal Lecter's first public appearance, so it's very unlikely that Harris knew about him when he first created Lecter. Dahmer was a more dedicated cannibal than the Japanese killer, so he could have provided some inspiration for the Lecter who appears in the later books, but Dahmer's typical victim of choice does not exactly match Lecter's. Dahmer killed boys or men who looked like boys; Lecter prefers mature men. In all likelihood, Lecter would have preferred to have Dahmer on the menu than share notes with him.

Another possible source for Lecter is the Russian serial killer and cannibal Nikolai Dzhurmongaliev who made it his mission to rid the world of prostitutes and managed to eliminate 47 women before he was caught. Though the gender of his preferred victims does not match Lecter's, Dzhurmongaliev did share Lecter's appreciation for a well-prepared meal.  The Russian made a habit of preparing ethnic dishes out of his victims and serving them to his friends. Dzhurmongaliev shared other characteristics with Dr. Lecter. As Carrie Comeaux, Elizabeth Eads, Sheila Dickerson, and Van Tran write on their website "Real vs. Fiction: The Minds of Serial Killers," Dzhurmongaliev "was always seen as an unusually calm man with an air of stillness about him, but when provoked, would strike out with alarming force and injure those trying to restrain him". Thomas Harris, however, has never indicated that he knew of this Russian gourmand when he was writing his books.


Another Russian, Andrei Chikatilo, was dubbed the "Russian Hannibal Lecter" by virtue of the incredible number of murders he committed. Fifty-three young women and children of both sexes died at his hands, and cannibalism was part of his signature. Described as mild-mannered and effeminate, Chikatilo was active from the late seventies to the early nineties. He was convicted in 1992 and put to death with a single bullet to the back of the head. Killing was the only way Chikatilo could achieve sexual gratification. When he was active, he was known as the "Forest Strip" Killer because of his preferred location for committing his crimes. Harris might have been aware of this killer when he was writing Red Dragon, the first book in the series, but again the victimology does not match Lecter's.

The aristocratic Lecter would not stoop so low as to kill simply to achieve orgasm. Look at his attitude toward Miggs, his neighboring inmate at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, when Miggs has the audacity to flick semen at Clarice Starling. The next day Miggs is mysteriously found dead in his cell, having swallowed his own tongue. When Starling asks the doctor if he's responsible, Lecter pointedly ignores the question.

Harris could certainly have had Albert Fish (a.k.a. the Gray Man) in mind when he was putting together Lecter. Fish was an old man when he was caught in 1934, and his penchant for writing letters about his crimes gives a unique insight into his mania. Unlike the other serial killer/cannibals mentioned so far, Fish, who targeted children, did not kill for sexual gratification. He killed for the indescribably sweet taste of a rump roast butchered from a child. Lecter brings all the skills of a trained French chef to his cannibalism, and Fish also relished the preparation of freshly slaughtered young humans. He described in one of his letters the joys of eating one little boy's "pee wee" and the succulent stew he prepared from the ears, nose, face, and belly. The roasted gluteus maximus was the piece de resistance, of course. "I never ate any roast turkey," Fish wrote, "that tasted half as good as his sweet fat little behind did".

Fish, who frequently beat himself with a homemade cat-o'-nine-tails, was convicted of killing ten-year-old Gracie Budd in 1934 and sentenced to death by electrocution, a punishment that apparently appealed to him. A Daily News reporter who covered the trial wrote that Fish's "watery eyes gleamed at the thought of being burned by a heat more intense than the flames with which he often seared his flesh to gratify his lust".

But Fish was more pathetic than demonic, a broken-down old man who had spent a lifetime nurturing his unhealthy predilection in secrecy. None of the cannibals mentioned here comes close to the sweep and panache of Hannibal Lecter whose literary antecedents certainly include Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and Milton's Satan. The real-life cannibals do not share Lecter's victimology or his MO. Perhaps to get to the root of Dr. Lecter's origins, it would be helpful to profile him as the FBI's Investigative Support Unit would.

Lecter Profiled

To profile Hannibal Lecter, we must ignore the vivid character Thomas Harris has depicted in his books as well as Anthony Hopkins's chilling portrayal of Lecter in the films The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Instead we must treat Lecter as what the Bureau refers to as an UNSUB, an unknown subject. A useful profile is not based on what the profiler hopes to get (a sociopath, a paranoid schizophrenic, etc.), but on what he has (crime-scene evidence). We know from the books that Lecter has killed at least fourteen times, and Harris has described these killings variously – some in great detail, some only in passing. By examining the crime scenes Lecter left behind, we may be able to gain some clues as to his origins.

During Clarice Starling's first visit with Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter mocks the FBI's system of categorizing serial murderers as organized or disorganized: "...Most psychology is puerile, Officer Starling, and that practiced in Behavioral Science is on the level with phrenology. Psychology doesn't get very good material to start with. Go to any college psychology department and look at the students and faculty: ham radio enthusiasts and other personality-deficient buffs. Hardly the best brains on campus. Organized and disorganized – a real bottom-feeder thought of that".

Despite the doctor's low opinion of their method, the FBI would classify him as an organized killer because his crime scenes show that he had a plan and he carried it out. The murder of Italian Chief Investigator Rinaldo Pazzi in Hannibal, for example, took extraordinary planning in order to duplicate the gruesome defenestration and disemboweling that one of Pazzi's ancestors suffered. Lecter generally spends some time with his victims, which is another characteristic of an organized killer. He savors the experience as he plays out his fantasy, which is the motive for all serial murder.

Serial killers cherish a personal fantasy of one sort or another, and killing lets them live out that fantasy. Ed Gein, for example, killed women and wore their skin because he wanted to be a woman. Lecter picks his victims to fulfill his own unique fantasy. Interestingly, however, all of Lecter's victims are men. Despite his fascination with Clarice Starling, his fantasy apparently doesn't include women.

A murderer's modus operandi (MO) is the actions he must take to complete the kill. The murderer's signature is what he does beyond that, ritualistic behavior that satisfies some aspect of his fantasy. Cannibalism is Lecter's signature, but Lecter is not satisfied to simply eat his victims. He must feast on them. The elaborate preparation for a five-star meal of human flesh is as much a part of his fantasy as eating the flesh. The preparation of the still living brain of Paul Krendler, Starling's nemesis, is a recipe worthy of Gourmet magazine.

Personation, the positioning or systematic mutilation of the victim's body, is another trait commonly exhibited by organized serial murderers. The killer may leave some object on or near the body or he may take something from the body. Whatever the act of personation is, it's intimately linked to the killer's fantasy.


Rinaldo Pazzi's Grand Guignol exit in Hannibal can certainly be taken as an act of personation, but a more typical example is Klaus the Swedish sailor in The Silence of the Lambs whose partial remains Clarice Starling finds in the backseat of a 1938 Packard limousine locked in a warehouse. At first she discovers a mannequin in a tuxedo sitting in the backseat. On the seat next to the figure is an open album full of old-fashioned valentines. The head of the mannequin is covered with a "black hood... as though it covered a parrot's cage". When Starling removes the hood, she finds a human head partially submerged in liquid, "the eyes long burned milky by the alcohol that preserved it".

When Starling questions Lecter about this victim, he admits to putting Klaus's head in the car, but says he didn't kill the man. Klaus was killed by one of Dr. Lecter's patients, Benjamin Raspail, "first flutist for the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra," a whiny man whose inadequate musicianship offended Lecter. Lecter did kill Raspail, however, serving his pancreas and thymus at a dinner party for the president and conductor of the philharmonic. For some reason, Lecter took it upon himself to embellish Raspail's crime, creating a macabre setting for Klaus's disposal.  But why?

Professional profilers analyze the victimology of their UNSUB to find out what the victims have in common. Lecter's victims were all men. In most cases he spent time with them, completing his elaborate premeditated plan. (He did kill a police officer during his escape in The Silence of the Lambs, but it's safe to say that this killing was not planned to satisfy his fantasy. It was a brutal act of survival). Some victims he knew well, like Raspail and Pazzi; others, like the census taker whose liver he consumed with "some fava beans and a big Amarone," he killed impulsively, simply because what the man did for a living offended him. In fact, that seems to be a common element among all of Lecter's murders, the victim offended his sensibilities in some way. The census taker tried to "quantify" him as if he were just one of the masses. Pazzi was crooked and venial. Krendler and Dr. Chilton, who ran the hospital for the criminally insane where Lecter was incarcerated, were both vindictive petty bureaucrats. Raspail was a bad musician as well as an annoying personality. Miggs had no manners.

Unlike other serial killers, Lecter took no souvenirs or trophies to help him relive the act and obsess over his fantasy. He has only his memories. But what is this fantasy that he holds so dear and must feed like a beast locked within his soul? Why do petty, uncouth, common males drive him to kill? And why does he eat them – and not just eat them, dine on them, turning the objects of his distaste into gourmet meals? What exactly is Hannibal Lector's fantasy?

The answer, I believe, is in the story of Mischa.


Behavioral science has taught us that serial killers aren't born that way; they're formed by a combination of factors that begins in childhood. The blueprint for a serial killer's rampage is his inner fantasy life, which is a direct response to traumatic events that occurred when he was a child or young adult. Hannibal Lector's life-defining trauma happened at the age of six when he witnessed the death of his beloved sister Mischa.

In Hannibal, Thomas Harris presents us with a dream that Dr. Lecter has when he dozes off during an airplane flight. It's his memory of an event that happened during World War II. His parents have been killed, their estate taken over by "deserters". The children are locked in a barn.

The mixed bag of deserters who used the remote hunting lodge ate what they could find. Once they found a miserable little deer, scrawny, with an arrow in it, that had managed to forage beneath the snow and survive. They led it back into the camp to keep from carrying it...

They did not wish to fire a shot and managed to knock it off its spindly legs and hack at its throat with an axe, cursing one another in several languages to bring a bowl before the blood was wasted.

There was not much meat on the runty deer and in two days, perhaps three, in their long overcoats, their breaths stinking and steaming, and the deserters came through the snow from the hunting lodge to unlock the barn and choose again from among the children huddled in the straw. None had frozen, so they took a live one.

They felt Hannibal Lecter's thigh and his upper arm and chest, and instead of him, they chose his sister Mischa, and led her away. To play, they said. No one who was led away to play ever returned.

Hannibal held on to Mischa so hard, held to Mischa with his wiry grip until they slammed the heavy barn door on him, stunning him and cracking the bone in his upper arm.

They led her away through snow still stained bloody from the deer.

He prayed so hard that he would see Mischa again, the prayer consumed his six-year-old mind, but it did not drown out the sound of the axe. His prayer to see her again did not go entirely unanswered – he did see a few of Mischa's milk teeth in the reeking stool pit his captors used between the lodge where they slept and the barn where they kept the captive children who were their sustenance in 1944 after the Eastern Front collapsed...

Mischa's horrible slaughter and consumption by the deserters formed the fantasy that shaped Hannibal Lecter, a revenge fantasy. In his dream, the deserters are crude and uncouth. They're not soldiers but deserters, cowards, ignoble by definition. They take over Lecter's parents' property and relegate the young residents to the barn. Their breath stinks. They butcher a deer as Neanderthals would. They screech like greedy vultures when they see the spilled blood seeping into the snow.


When he grows up, Lecter targets men he considered petty and uncouth. Raspail the inferior flutist, Krendler the vindictive bureaucrat, Pazzi the corrupt cop, the census taker, even Mason Verger the former libertine who managed by a miracle of medical science to survive Lecter's wrath – all of them are nothing more than stand-ins for the deserters who ate his sister.

Obviously he eats his victims because they ate Mischa. An eye for an eye. But why the gourmet preparation? Why serve their organs sautéed in butter and shallots? Why spend exorbitant amounts of money on vintage wines to go with these human entrees? Because Lecter knows he's better than the troglodytes who killed his sister. He has refinement and a noble lineage. He would never eat meat roasted on a stick. He does it the most sophisticated way possible. His meticulous preparation of human flesh is his way of throwing it in the faces of the deserters who gnawed on Mischa's bones.

Though Harris taunts his readers with the expectation that Lecter will hurt Clarice Starling the moment he gets the chance, Clarice is the safest of anyone in the books because she becomes Lecter's surrogate Mischa. Lecter states it directly after he has her securely under his spell: "'And so I came to believe', Dr. Lecter was saying, 'that there had to be a place in the world for Mischa, a prime place vacated for her, and I came to think, Clarice, that the best place in the world was yours'".

This is Lecter's fantasy – to seek revenge on Mischa's slayers and restore her to the place of dignity and refinement as she has always deserved. By the end of Hannibal, the third and latest book in the series, Lecter has achieved his goal.

But does this mean that Lecter's reign of terror is over because he's finally satisfied his fantasy? He's righted the wrongs and brought back his dear sister in the person of Clarice. What more is there for him to do?

In real life a serial killer's fantasy is never fulfilled. It evolves, becomes more elaborate, and consumes more of the killer's being. He keeps killing because there is never any closure. Similarly, a fictional series character goes on and on as long as the public thirsts for more adventures featuring that character. The series detective returns time and again in book after book to solve more and more crimes. Dracula springs fresh from the grave in new movies and books season after season. The spirit of Lecter will go on as well, if not directly from the pen of Thomas Harris, then in the myriad serial-killer clones he has spawned on the page and on the screen.

But there's no adequate substitute for the real Hannibal Lecter, and hopefully there's no substitute for the real Mischa. Clarice may not satisfy that lust within Lecter forever. The doctor's many fans eagerly wait for him to feel a bit peckish again, hoping that his insatiable urge to dine on the "deserters" returns so that Mr. Harris will bestow upon us another installment in the deliciously horrifying exploits of Hannibal Lecter.

Anthony Bruno