The tale of Albert Fish, the real-life Hannibal Lecter

In the history of cinema, few villains have captured the imagation of audiences’ as Hannibal Lecter did in “Silence of the Lambs.” Anthony Hopkins’ chilling portrayal of a cannibalistic serial killer earned him an Oscar, as well as a place in the nightmares of many. A king among cannibal killers, audiences could rest with the comfort that the character was only fiction. Unfortunately, this is not entirely true. When Thomas Harris wrote the Hannibal story, he borrowed elements from a real life cannibal killer, Albert Hamilton Fish. Much like Hannibal Lecter, Albert Fish appeared soft-spoken, fragile, and harmless – yet, behind the facade hid a monster who boasted of his molestation of hundreds of child, expressed disappointment at his inability to rape a girl before devouring her, and carried his instruments of hell with him in the form of a meat cleaver, a butcher knife, and a saw. Even with his elder exterior, Albert Fish’s perversions and sadism strengthened with age until his execution.

Albert Fish

Albert Fish

Psychiatrists accentuate that when investigating psychological disorders, the most important formative stage is childhood. From this perspective, the development of Albert Fish becomes unsurprising. Born in 1870, his father was a 75 year old riverboat captain who passed when Fish was five. His family suffered a long history of alcoholism, abuse, and disorders. Compound that with the sadism Albert Fish claimed to experience when he was placed in an orphanage, and the lack of childhood innocence Fish was afforded explains much about his later disturbing compulsions.

Many of the myths and truths of Albert Fish’s horrific tale as a cannibal killer merge in his adult life. Fish’s own testimony confessed that his molestation of children began when he moved to New York City in 1890, including raping and torturing children with his distinct paddle laced with sharp nails. Even though boasting of having “children of every state”, his claims never were verified. Only his later murders were proven to be connected to him. To the age of 50, Albert Fish worked primarily as a handyman and painter. Viewed as a turning point, his wife left him suddenly with John Straube, a fellow handyman. Personality of Albert Fish began deteriorating. His children later testified recalling him forcing them to participate in his masochist behavior by beating him and carrying folders of articles on cannibalism. But, his grandfatherly appearance allowed him to deceive more than his own children.

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The number of deaths he was responsible for remain a mystery. His original mutilations and torturing, he confessed, were to African-Americans and mentally-disabled children across the country, figuring they were less likely to be noticed than Caucasian children. However, his hazy memories of details created a source of uncertainty of his claim’s validity. In 1928, Albert Fish’s more infamous cannibal story took place involving 10-year old Grace Budd. Albert Fish, using a pseudonym ‘Frank Howard’, answered a classified ad of Edward Budd promising to hire Budd at his farm in the country. Albert Fish became friends with the family, even offering to take their daughter, Grace Budd, to a birthday party. Predictable with hindsight, Grace never did return. In 1934, Albert Fish wrote to the family detailing the horrific details of her death, including her struggle to break free, how he cut her up, and ate her body over nine days. His letter was ultimately traced back to him, and he was arrested and put to trial – ultimately given the electric chair.

Grace Budd was not the only rape, murder, and feast on human flesh he was responsible for. His testimonies recalling devouring other children, such as Billy Gaffney in 1927, continue to shock. His tenure as a house painter to rape children continue to horrify. Albert Fish was an American cannibal killer that has inspired the cannibal films that have shaken whole audiences. Those cannibal films, however, were fiction.


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