Origins: One of the creepier scenes in Thomas Harris' 1999 novel Hannibal involves a character named Mason Verger. After the sinister Hannibal Lecter slips Verger some amyl nitrate (or "poppers"), he convinces Verger to scrape off pieces of his own face and feed them to his pet dog.
Is this scene not only creepy, but based on a real-life incident as well?
A photograph found in Practical Homicide Investigation, a book by former New York homicide detective Vernon J. Geberth, purportedly depicts a man who, while high on PCP, sliced off pieces of his face with a broken mirror and fed them to his dogs. (We don't reproduce this picture on this page because it might be a bit too much for the squeamish, but if you have the stomach for it, you can view it here.) The caption reads:
We're not going to claim that the photograph and its explanation are all phony, but some of the details sound a bit odd to us. How did police know the man "decided to feed the strips of flesh to his pet dogs"?
A 1989 book by Joseph Sacco, M.D., apparently picks up this story at the hospital:
This man smoked dust one day and surprised his friends by politely excusing himself to the bathroom, bringing along his two Doberman pinschers. In the bathroom he opened the medicine cabinet, removed a straightedge razor, cut off his own facial features one by one, and fed them to his dogs. He emerged from the bathroom with no ears, nose, eyelids, lips, or cheeks, and two happy-looking dogs.
His friends, now fairly distraught, brought him to the NYG emergency room, where the plastic and head and neck surgeons pissed in their pants with excitement. They took him straight to the operating room. Jokes emerged immediately. The man lost face, the surgeons tried to save face, etc., etc.
In order to create a new face for this unfortunate patient, the surgeons did a "pectoral flap," a fascinating procedure in which the pectoral (chest) muscle is removed and reimplanted at another site on a patient's body. The surgeon's don't remove the muscle completely, but leave intact is main artery and vein. The muscle is then "flapped" to the spot where it's needed, presumably a hole that is too deep to be filled by mere skin grafting, and sewn in place. Eventually, it grows a new blood supply at the transplant site and the surgeons remove the original artery and vein. The man with no face had two pectoral flaps done, one from each side of his chest to each side of his face. Once the muscles were well established in their new locations the surgeons took him back to the OR about two hundred times to cut and shape and revise the graft to create a new face for him.
I know the story of the man with no face is true because I saw him walking down the hall a few weeks after he was admitted. He was wearing a surgical hood turned back in front, with two holes cut out for his eyes, like the "elephant man."
I whispered to a co-resident, "Who's that?"
He looked at me with wide eyes. "That's the man with no face!"
It was the most bizarre story I'd ever heard.
Last updated: 28 January 2007
Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation. New York: CRC Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8493-8156-8. Harris, Thomas. Hannibal. New York: Delacorte, 1999. ISBN 0-385-29929-X. Laughlin, Meg. "The Hunt for Thomas Harris." Houston Chronicle. 15 August 1999. Sacco, Joseph M.D. Morphine, Ice Cream, Tears: Tales of a City Hospital.. New York: William Morrow, 1989 (pp. 95-96).