Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Hannibal Lecter: Origin, Facts and Fiction

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."

Book cover: Red Dragon
Book cover: Red Dragon

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.

Jeffrey Dahmer
Jeffrey Dahmer

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.


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