Throughout history, and in the vast majority of cultures around the world, cannibalism represents one of the ultimate taboos. Tales of cannibals eating human flesh, real or fiction, have been told as horror stories to invoke revulsion, and sometimes fear, in the audience. Nevertheless, cannibalism is a real tragedy into which desperate human beings have been forced in a bid for survival.
Stories like these capture the imagination, and we are struck with feelings of what it must be like to be stranded at sea or high up in the snowy mountains with nothing to eat but our comrades.
Yet some have partaken in this grisly enterprise for enjoyment. Fictional characters like Hannibal Lecter are terrifying yet fascinating. Things that we find distasteful often generate curiosity.
Hannibal Lecter is fictional, but his character was based on real people like him.
Here are 5 examples of those real cannibals from recent history.
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1. Jeffrey Dahmer
One of the most famous cannibals, especially in modern times, is Jeffrey Dahmer. From 1978 to 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 young men and boys. He had a predilection for certain ethnicities, and his victims were mostly homosexual, who he enticed back to his home.
Most of his victims were murdered by strangulation after being sedated. On a few occasions, Dahmer drilled holes into the victims’ skulls while they were sedated and attempted to render them into a permanent submissive state by injecting hydrochloric acid or boiling water into the brain.
His later murders involved necrophilia, cannibalism, and the preservation of body parts, especially the skeletons or at least the victims’ skulls. He had planned to build an altar to display the remains of his victims, but he was arrested before he could realize his grisly plan.
At the time of his arrest, Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment contained two hearts, a torso, and a bag full of human organs, which Dahmer claimed he intended to eat.
In 1994, while serving life in prison, Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten to death by a fellow inmate.
2. Armin Meiwes, The “Master Butcher”
In 2001, Armin Meiwes posted an advertisement on “The Cannibal Café,” a now-defunct website for those with a cannibalism fetish. In the advertisement, Meiwes said he was looking for a volunteer to be slaughtered and eaten. Several people answered the ad but backed out. Forty-three-year-old Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes, however, went through with it and met up with Meiwes in Rotenburg, Germany.
With Brandes’ permission, Meiwes drugged him and severed his penis, which Meiwes attempted to feed to his victim. Brandes said it was too “chewy” to be eaten, and Meiwes fried the penis up with salt, pepper, wine, and garlic, but it was too burnt to be eaten, so he chopped it up and fed it to his dog.
Meiwes then ran a bath for Brandes. He left him there for a while before stabbing Brandes to death and hanging his corpse on a meathook. Meiwes then butchered the body and stored it in a freezer for consumption. Over the next ten months, Meiwes ate bits of the body for sexual pleasure, consuming about 20 kilograms (44 pounds).
With his supply of meat running out, Armin Meiwes put up another advertisement. After a college student alerted the police, Meiwes was arrested and put on trial. Originally sentenced to eight years imprisonment for manslaughter, Meiwes was retried and sentenced to life.
Meiwes has since regretted his crimes and is repentant over his cannibalism, although, at his retrial in 2006, it was established that he still had fantasies about cannibalism. Meiwes is now a vegetarian and said that others like him should seek psychological help before their fantasies drive them to actual cannibalism and murder.
3. Rudy Eugene, “The Miami Zombie”
The bizarre behavior of Rudy Eugene had everyone baffled at the time. A public display of cannibalism led him to be dubbed “The Miami Zombie” and the “Causeway Cannibal.”
On May 26, 2012, Eugene drove to Miami Beach to take part in a hip-hop festival. After spending no more than an hour at the site, he left and began a walk down the 3-mile-long (4.8 km) MacArthur Causeway. He walked westwards along the bridge and stripped all his clothes off as he did so. When he came to a transit overpass, he encountered a 65-year-old homeless man named Ronald Poppo.
What followed was all caught on camera. Eugene accused Poppo of stealing his Bible and attacked Poppo, beating him, stripping him of his pants, and savagely biting his face. A passing cyclist called 911, and police arrived shortly thereafter. Officer Jose Ramirez, momentarily dumbstruck by what he was witnessing, ordered Eugene to desist, But Eugene growled at the officer and continued chewing on Poppo’s face. Ramirez opened fire, hitting Eugene, but the crazed man did not stop. It took another four bullets to bring Eugene down, fatally wounding him. By then, 80% of Poppo’s face above the beard had been bitten off.
What led to this cannibalistic attack remains a mystery. Toxicology reports showed Rudy Eugene had only marijuana in his system, but the perpetrator did have a history of domestic violence and had been arrested eight times since he was 16.
Ronald Poppo survived but lost his left eye and was blinded in the right. He underwent numerous surgeries and a major rehabilitation program.
4. Zhang Yongming
In May 2012, a team of investigators was sent to China’s mountainous southwestern Yunnan Province to investigate reports of missing teenagers. What they found was a grisly case of cannibalism.
While investigating the death of 19-year-old Han Zao, the evidence led to serial killer Zhang Yongming who had reportedly attacked several people walking past his home. When police responded to these reports, they found the gory remains of human beings in Zhang’s home. Bottles containing preserved eyeballs were discovered, along with cured human flesh hanging and drying.
Witnesses recount having seen bags hanging from Zhang’s property through which human bones were protruding. Zhang used various methods to dispose of the bodies, including dismembering, burning, and burying his victims.
It is reported that Zhang cannibalized his victims and, in addition, made other people unwitting cannibals. He labeled human flesh as ostrich meat and sold it at the local market. He also fed his victims to his dogs.
Zhang went on trial and refused to apologize for the killings. An unrepentant Zhang was sentenced to death and executed on January 10, 2013.
Zhang killed 11 people throughout the course of his career as a serial killer and cannibal.
5. Albert Fish, “The Brooklyn Vampire”
Perhaps one of the most depraved individuals to ever live, Albert Fish was the result of an abusive, bizarre upbringing, as well as psychological disorders which ran in his family. When he was born in 1870 in Washington DC, his father was 75, and his mother 32. Both his siblings, as well as his uncle, were diagnosed with mental illness, and his mother suffered hallucinations.
Albert Fish spent most of his childhood growing up in an orphanage where he was abused. When he was not in the orphanage, he spent much time with his mother’s boyfriend, who taught him to drink urine and eat feces.
At the age of 20, he moved to New York, worked as a prostitute, and began raping underage boys. Despite his obvious problems, he got married and fathered six children. Around the turn of the century, he went to a museum, saw a bisected penis, and became obsessed with it. 19-year-old Thomas Kedden was his first notable victim. After torturing the man, Albert Fish bisected his penis but did not kill him.
In 1917, his wife left him and the children. Although Fish never physically harmed his children, he did involve them in his sadomasochistic games, feeding them raw meat and getting them to spank him with a paddle studded with nails. As time wore on, he descended further into madness, practicing self-harm by sticking needles into his groin and abdomen.
He soon turned his attention to children. He sexually assaulted a nine-year-old and left him hanging in a tree. His next victim was a four-year-old who he tied to a tree, torturing him for hours before killing, butchering, and eating him. He wrote a letter detailing how he did it and how he savored the buttocks and the sexual organs.
His next victim was 10-year-old Grace Budd, whom he abducted, tortured, and cannibalized. Six years later, he sent a letter to her parents describing in detail how he had committed his act. He was arrested, put on trial, and executed in 1936. In his last moments, he seemed genuinely excited to be executed. On his way to the electric chair, he talked about how it must be the finest thrill and eagerly adjusted his own ankle straps while in the chair. The policemen just shook their heads and crossed themselves before pulling the switch.
Before he died, he boasted that he had as many as 100 victims, most young children.
Cannibals have existed on the outskirts of accepted societal norms since humanity took its first steps. It is not a new or particularly surprising thing. We know that depraved, sociopathic human beings exist, and we know some have fetishes for consuming human flesh. What bears studying is not just these individuals but the fact that we find these stories, in all their gory details, utterly fascinating and sickening at the same time.