The Real-Life Inspirations Behind Hannibal Lecter
Thomas Harris's inspiration for entertainment's most notoriously terrifying fictional serial killer is wrapped up in the stories of several, real-life psychopaths. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is decidedly more terrifying than Dexter Morgan, Norman Bates, and Patrick Bateman, who are a few of the best fictional serial killers ever created. The cannibalistic doctor may be make believe, but Hannibal Lecter's inspirations really did live... and kill.
The writers, filmmakers, and actors who have encountered the character look to people like Alfredo Ballí Treviño and Ted Bundy to make Lecter as horrifyingly real as possible. Many of the killers who inspired Lecter share his smooth personality, his witty intellect, and occasionally his taste for human flesh.
Lecter made his first appearance in Harris's 1981 novel, Red Dragon. A movie adaptation soon followed as 1986's Manhunter, as well as Harris's next novel, the 1988 sequel, The Silence of the Lambs. Harris's books were quite popular, but Manhunter failed at the box office and it wasn't until the 1991 film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs that movie audiences really got a taste of Lecter's charm. Since then the character has appeared in several other films, as well as Hannibal the TV series and is considered the number one movie villain by the American Film Institute.
Harris's evil yet compelling creation has become legendary, but many are still wondering: What or who inspired the birth of Hannibal Lecter?
Alfredo Balli Trevino Was Lecter's Original Inspiration
Thomas Harris revealed information about the man who originally inspired Lecter's character in the opening of the 25th anniversary edition of The Silence of the Lambs.
Harris wrote about his time as a young journalist in the 1960s when his employer sent him to Nuevo Leon State Prison in Monterrey, Mexico. He was to interview inmate Dykes Askew Simmons, who had killed three people and been given a death sentence. About a year before Harris's interview, Simmons bribed a guard and attempted to escape the prison, only to be betrayed by the guard and shot. A man Harris called by the pseudonym Dr. Salazar was treating Simmons when Harris met him. Later identified as Alfredo Balli Trevino, Harris noted this so-called Salazar was "a small, lithe man with dark red hair. He stood very still and there was a certain elegance about him" and began to imagine Lecter based on this encounter.
Trevino was also a prisoner convicted of the brutal murder of his alleged partner. Harris claimed he didn't realize the man was an inmate, and the doctor's poise intrigued him.
Some similarities between Trevino and Lecter include their complex psyches, their tendency to ask offhanded questions in conversation, their calm demeanor, brutal criminal activity, and their mutual experiences as highly skilled surgeons. While incarcerated, Trevino provided medical care for people in the surrounding towns and continued to treat the community's poorest members after his release from prison and up until his death in 2009.
Robert Maudsley had to have a prison cell built especially for him. He is known as Britain's most dangerous prisoner, having been convicted of four murders, three of which occurred after he was locked up. He was given a special cell in solitary confinement, which is strikingly similar to Lecter's cell in The Silence of the Lambs.
He strangled his first victim because the man allegedly showed Maudsley images of children he'd hurt. Maudsley was arrested and sent to a psychiatric facility where he and another patient tortured a fellow patient for nine hours straight. Maudsley was sent from that facility to prison, where he met his next two victims. Maudsley earned the nickname "Hannibal the Cannibal" because of a rumor that he ate part of his victims' brain with a spoon.
Although the specifics of Maudsley's second killing are heinous and disturbing, the public suggested his victims deserved death because their crimes were against children. Some speculate that Maudsley's vigilante-like reputation is what inspired Hannibal to "eat the rude."
Having proven himself a consistent danger, Maudsley ended up in perpetual solitary confinement in his Lecter-like cell unable to get a haircut since even barbers were afraid of him. Maudsley's cell is a plexiglass-sided basement unit with nothing but a table, a chair, a cement bed, and a toilet, as well as a small slot in the plexiglass that allows guards to give Maudsley his meals.
Maudsley set the UK record for time locked up in solitary confinement on his 64th birthday in 2017. He has spent over 39 years in his concrete cage, and unlike Lecter, who escaped, Maudsley has pled for the ability to play board games with prison guards just to overcome his boredom. After 25 years, he spoke out about the ramifications of his treatment, saying:
The prison authorities see me as a problem, and their solution has been to put me into solitary confinement and throw away the key, to bury me alive in a concrete coffin. It does not matter to them whether I am mad or bad. They do not know the answer and they do not care just so long as I am kept out of sight and out of mind. I am left to stagnate, vegetate, and to regress; left to confront my solitary head-on with people who have eyes but don't see and who have ears but don't hear, who have mouths but don't speak. My life in solitary is one long period of unbroken depression.
James Coyner Made Jerky From His Victims' Flesh
A Cleveland, MS, librarian claims Harris cited a little known serial killer named Alonzo Robinson as one of Hannibal Lecter's inspirations. Also known by his aliases, James Coyner and William Coyner, Robinson is essentially a local bogeyman in Harris's hometown.
Robinson escaped police custody in 1918 after being arrested for writing indecent letters and sending them to local women. Police found several women and their severed heads in Robinson's old home around the same time more bodies began to show up around town. Police could not connect him to any murders because he had already been re-arrested and convicted for grave robbing.
A few months after he earned parole, Robinson, as Coyner, shot a couple in their home and cut several pieces of flesh off the woman, pieces he took with him. He also sent more obscene letters to women that police were able to trace back to Coyner before they arrested him. Upon his arrest, they discovered human hair and strips of flesh, which was cured and salted much like jerky. Coyner confirmed the obvious conclusion of cannibalism, and 200 police guarded him in the days leading up to his hanging on the gallows.
Retired FBI agent Bob Ressler mentions a time when he and Harris discussed killers like Robinson, stating that Harris "just let [him] drone on and [he'd] think [Harris] wasn't paying attention. Then [he'd] see practically everything [he had] said in print."
Born in 1936 in Soviet Ukraine, Andrei Chikatilo grew up in poverty believing his family's starving neighbors cannibalized his brother, who went missing at the age of four. It's possible Thomas Harris borrowed this story since Hannibal Lecter's sister was consumed by cannibals when Hannibal was very young, traumatizing him and possibly inspiring the killer within, just like Chikatilo. Lecter also recalls Chikatilo's intelligence, and they both suffered at the hands of bullies in adolescence. Not to mention both Lecter and Chikatilo grew up in poverty while their respective countries fought against Germany.
Although he grew up to become a father, husband, and teacher, Chikatilo later assaulted two students. Authorities didn't punish him for these assaults since Chikatilo was such a respectable man. When more girls' bodies were discovered around town in 1978, police blamed other men.
Realizing he might be able to get away with it, Chikatilo befriended runaways and transients at train stations and along bus routes before stabbing them. He sometimes slashed or gouged out his victims' eyes as a precaution against them descriptively recalling his image.
Chikatilo was eventually captured and confessed to the murders of 56 boys, girls, and women. The infamous killer was declared sane.
Lecter's restraints are almost a visual reminder of the iron courtroom cage in which Chikatilo spent his trial.
- Photo: Florida Department of Corrections / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Ted Bundy confessed to the deaths of at least 30 women from 1974 to 1978. Like Dr. Lecter, Bundy was very intelligent and used his charm to gain his victims' trust. He would fake disability or injury to get women to help him move boxes or books in and out of his car, a tactic also used by Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb in Silence of the Lambs. Bundy took out the passenger seat of his car in order to better fit the unconscious women he'd trick into helping him. He even disguised himself as a police officer once to inspire trust in his victims, a practice loosely invoked by Lecter's macabre impersonation of a guard during his Silence Of The Lambs escape.
Bundy managed to evade suspicion after several reports that he matched the suspect description because he was such an upstanding citizen. His coworker and acclaimed true crime author Ann Rule noted that Bundy was the same height and weight as the man terrorizing the Washington town, but explained it away, not wanting to believe her friend could be responsible. Authorities arrested Bundy twice, but he managed to escape custody before fleeing to Florida and killing several more women. He was finally captured after being stopped for a traffic violation.
Lecter's ability to gain the trust of desperate FBI agents while behind bars subtly conjures the persuasiveness of Bundy, who won over and married Carole Anne Boone during his trial in 1980. She described Bundy as "dignified and restrained," both of which could apply to Dr. Lecter as well.
Before Bundy's electrocution in 1989, he detailed his methods and motives for author Stephen G. Michaud, blaming his actions on an early exposure to pornography and an inner demon who took control when Bundy faced his violent self. Although Hannibal's motivations are left to speculation, he too incurs the ramifications of his inner demons, as evidenced by his composure in conversations with Clarice as compared to the one and only time audiences see him kill in The Silence of the Lambs.
The Monster Of Florence And One Suspect's Trial Inspired Harris
From 1968 to 1985, a killer stalked lovers in Florence, Italy. The murderer struck at least 16 times, shooting unsuspecting couples in vehicles and tents. After killing the couple, the murderer used what police believed to be a specialized knife to cut out female victims' sexual organs.
The "Monster of Florence" case caught Thomas Harris's attention while he was traveling in Florence and writing the third novel in the series, Hannibal. Harris specifically references elements of the story in the novel, including the book's Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, who was inspired by the commissioner in charge of hunting the real version of the Monster of Florence. Although the commissioner is eventually captured, hanged, and eviscerated by Lecter, his desire to take on the monster emulates the real Pazzi.
In the Hannibal TV series, the commissioner appears again, hunting a killer he refers to as the "Monster of Florence." TV's version of the commissioner is unable to prove Hannibal's guilt and another man goes away for his crimes, paralleling the case of suspect Pietro Pacciani, whom Harris was intrigued by.
Pietro Pacciani was one of the most publicized suspects the Monster of Florence case. He was a farmer who was convicted of murder and sexual assault in the past. Harris attended his trial in 1994 and witnesses claimed he took notes on yellow legal pads. A jury convicted Pacciani despite a lack of hard evidence, but he was later acquitted.