Dr. Hannibal Lecter is an iconic character in the annals of horror and suspense, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with figures like Dracula or Freddy Krueger. What most people didn’t know until recently, however, is that the cultured cannibal was inspired, at least in part, by a real person.
In 2013, author Thomas Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lecter, wrote a new introduction to his book to commemorate its 25th anniversary. (Silence of the Lambs was actually Harris’ second book to feature the genteel serial killer, but it was the one that brought Dr. Lecter to the public’s attention.) In it, Harris revealed, for the first time, the inspiration behind the creation of Hannibal Lecter.
In the early 1960s, nearly 20 years before he would create his most famous character, Thomas Harris visited Topo Chico Penitentiary in Mexico. He was there to interview Dykes Askew Simmons, an American who had been committed to the mental ward within the prison after being convicted of a triple homicide in Mexico. While he was there, however, Harris learned about another inmate.
In his introduction, Harris refers to this other inmate only as “Dr. Salazar,” but later research revealed that this convict was in fact Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño, a surgeon who had been convicted of murdering his friend (and possible lover) Jesús Castillo Rangel. While Harris interviewed Simmons, he learned of a situation in which Simmons had made an escape attempt, only to be double-crossed and shot by a guard he had bribed to aid him. Dr. Treviño performed surgery to save Simmons’ life, which is what first attracted Harris’ attention.
“There was certain intelligence and elegance about him,” Harris later wrote of Treviño. The author soon secured permission from the prison to interview Treviño as well as Simmons. Though Treviño’s crime was listed as a “crime of passion,” the performance of it was methodical enough to make the fictional Hannibal Lecter proud.
Treviño had first drugged Rangel, then slit his throat and drained his blood into a bathtub before dismembering the body and cutting it up into small pieces. He then placed the bloody pieces in a box and buried the remains on a relative’s farm, telling the farmhand that it contained medical waste. Unfortunately for him, someone else noticed the impromptu grave and tipped off authorities. Shortly thereafter, undercover police officers arrested Treviño in his office. Treviño had attempted to bribe them to let him go, according to the officers’ testimony, including offering each one of them a new car, as well as a pharmacy that was owned by Treviño’s father.
Treviño was also suspected of killing and dismembering several hitchhikers in the decade or so before his arrest, but he was never charged with those crimes. After Harris interviewed the murderous surgeon, a guard is said to have told him that, “He will never leave this place. He is insane.”
While the guard may or may not have been right about Treviño’s state of mind, he was wrong about his ultimate fate. Though Treviño was one of the last people to be sentenced to death in Mexico, his sentence was eventually commuted, and after serving only 20 years in prison, he was released in 1981.
Surprisingly, Treviño resumed his practice after he was released, and continued to perform surgery, often working pro bonoon poor or elderly patients, until his death from prostate cancer in 2009.
While most readers and film lovers likely had no idea about the truth behind one of the most famous figures in horror, Treviño is said to have been aware of it. According to some sources, when the of The Silence of the Lambscame out in 1991, Treviño’s family began jokingly calling him “Hannibal” or “Dr. Lecter.”
An anonymous friend of the family said that Treviño found it “funny.”