The Real Mason Verger:

The Man Who Fed His Face to the Dogs



Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M. P.S., Lt. Cmdr. (Ret.) N.Y.P.D. Former Commander of Bronx Homicide for the New York City Police Department.


This case was presented at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) in February, 2009 in Denver, Colorado.  This adaptation has been expanded from the Proceedings of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Annual Scientific Meeting conducted February 16-21, 2009 to include information from the author’s Case File.


Mason Verger was a fictional character in the novel “Hannibal” written by Thomas Harris about a despicable character and avowed pedophile who was hideously disfigured by the serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lector.  In the novel, while Verger is demonstrating his autoerotic asphyxiation, Dr. Lector offered him amyl nitrate and several other mind-altering drugs and convinced Verger to tear his face off with a shard of mirror and feed it to his pet dogs. Verger does so, and also gouges out one of his eyes and eats his own nose.  So, Does Art Imitate Life?  Or, Does Life Imitate Art.” The Mason Verger character was based on an investigation I conducted as a Detective Commander in the New York City Police Department.


This scenario was literarily taken right out of my textbook entitled,  Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures and Forensic Techniques 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions, by Mr. Harris without acknowledgement or citation of source and is actually based on a case that the author investigated as a commander in the NYPD. 


It was one of the most Bizarre Self-Mutilations that the author has ever seen. It concerned a young man named Michael who was high on PCP “Angel Dust”, which is phencyclidine.   PCP is a powerful psychedelic and anesthetic drug known for its dissociative effects at higher doses. It is also associated with the strange and sometimes violent behaviors of people under its influence.


Self-Mutilation, Self-Injury, Self-Harm


The deliberate injury inflicted by a person upon their own body without suicidal intent.

The illness is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) as a symptom of borderline personality disorder and depressive disorders.


Cutting one's skin with razors or knives is the most common pattern of self-mutilation.

Deviant pathological self-mutilation is the deliberate alteration or destruction of body tissue without conscious suicidal intent. Major self-mutilation can be found in persons who are extremely intoxicated or psychotic.



The Subject Michael


While under the influence of the PCP, Michael had taken his clothes off at a woman’s apartment.  He began to act strange and was quote unquote “talking nonsense.”  PCP gives a feeling of being disconnected from one's body and environment.  


PCP has potent effects on the nervous system, altering perceptual functions (hallucinations, delusional ideas, delirium and/or confused thinking. The drug has been known to alter mood states in an unpredictable fashion, causing some individuals to become detached, and others to become animated. Intoxicated individuals may act in an unpredictable fashion, driven by their delusions or hallucinations. Included in the portfolio of behavioral disturbances are acts of self-injury including suicide, and attacks on others or destruction of property. 


After his actions with the woman in the apartment, another male neighbor asked him to leave and help direct him back to his basement apartment.


Michael apparently continued to use the PCP, which obviously induced a psychotic state.  There was evidence that he had smashed a mirror, which he then used to mutilate himself.  The analgesic properties of the drug can cause users to feel less pain and persist in violent or injurious acts.  Our investigation revealed that Michael had literally peeled off his face and fed it to the dogs that were in the basement. He gouged out one of his eyes with a piece of glass from the mirror that he had smashed.




The investigation began with simultaneous calls from North Central Bronx Hospital and the Patrol Sergeant at the crime scene both requesting detectives.  EMS had transported the seriously injured and mutilated man under the influence of drugs to the Hospital.   Michael told EMS “The dogs did it,” then passed out.  At the hospital as he was being stabilized he mumbled something about movies and that, “Someone was trying to peel off his face.” He then uttered, “I did it myself.” It’s an offering to Big Bird.”


The Crime Scene had been secured by the Patrol Sergeant, who reported that they had also locked some dogs in a back room of the basement. EMS had removed the victim from the bathroom after uniform officers had corralled the dogs.  Detectives noted that there was little blood in the bathroom considering the extensive injuries of the victim.  At this point investigators were still considering this case a possible assault due to these extensive injuries.


Detectives were able to determine that the actual cutting took place in the living room area, specifically on a reclining leather chair.  There was blood soaked into the chair and pieces of a smashed mirror on the floor with blood drops as well as bloody fingerprints. 

One shard of mirror glass had been used by the victim to peel his face and had a partial print on it.  These fingerprints were matched to the victim’s prints, which were on file from previous drug arrests.


Examination of the crime scene revealed that after the victim had peeled his face, he had apparently laid down on the basement floor with the three dogs.  Detectives located the dog’s owner who gave them permission to remove the dogs to A.S.P.C.A. for forensic examination. 


The author contacted The ASPCA and requested to have a doctor available to examine the adult female German shepherd and the two puppies.  The veterinarian induced vomiting, which resulted in the recovery of human tissue consisting of pieces of the victim’s lips, skin, and nose.


Investigation at the Hospital


The investigation continued at the hospital. The Emergency Room was filled with doctors and nurses attending to the mutilated victim.   The man’s face had been wrapped with moistened gauze strips and the medical personnel were administering an IV as he was being monitored.


Detectives photographed the victim and his injuries and informed the Emergency Room doctors of what had transpired at the scene as well as the medical operations at A.S.P.C.A.  Detectives noticed that the victim had gouged out one eye and the other eyeball was sitting on his face like a Cyclops.  The detectives had brought the pieces of flesh that the A.S.P.C.A doctor had removed from the dog’s stomachs to the Emergency Room.  However, these materials were in no condition for grafting.


Detectives advised the doctors that they would try to get a statement from the subject in their presence. The doctors were requested to remove the gauze from the victim’s mouth so that the subject could attempt to talk. As one of the detectives got real close to him, he spoke into the subject’s ear.  “What happened to you”?  Suddenly, he began to mumble and then shout “AYAH, AYAH, AYAH, AYAH, AYAH over and over again with his mouth and teeth opening and closing like a mechanical box.


The Medical Aspects


The man had actually survived even though he had peeled his face from his skull.  Apparently, the PCP had provided the victim with an anesthetizing effect during his self-mutilation.  However, the amount of drugs he had ingested had also damaged his brain function.  He became a “Ward of the State.”  He also became the plastic surgeon’s nightmare and major project as doctors began to implement reconstructive surgery using a pectoral flap procedure.


The pectoral (chest) muscle is removed and implanted at another site on the victim’s body.  The surgeons leave the artery and veins intact. The muscle is then “flapped” to the site and sewn into place where it eventually grows a new blood supply.  Michael had two pectoral flaps done one from each side of his chest to each side of his face. Once the muscles were established in their new location the surgeons would cut and revise the grafts to create a new face for the subject.


Apparently Art Does Imitate Life.


When Thomas Harris’ book “Hannibal” and the subsequent movie came out a number of news outlets made inquiries about the development of this character. Mason Verger was obviously based on “Michael.” 


The character and story had obviously been taken from Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures and Forensic Techniques. CRC Press, LLC. 


The author contacted Mr. Harris and requested an explanation for this obvious plagiarism. “Your character Mason Verger, who fed his face to the dogs is from an actual case from my textbook, which falls under U.S. Copyright Laws.  Please be assured that this letter is not a prelude to some sort of legal action, But a request that you properly acknowledge a published work.  The caveat that…”Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locals is entirely coincidental,” is a bit disingenuous to say the least in relation to your character Mason Verger.


His response was


Dear Mr. Geberth,


“Thank you for your letter, which I received yesterday.  I have asked my publisher to cite your excellent book in the acknowledgements of Hannibal starting with the next printing.



Thomas Harris.”


The Saga Continues


The Issue is still not resolved according to some self-appointed experts. web posting.


“We’re not going to claim that the photograph ands its explanation is all phony, but some of the details sound a bit odd to us.” The web site then goes on to describe an account of this incident from a 1989 book written by a Dr. Joseph Sacco, who described his own version of events.


“A man smoked dust one day and then surprised his friends by politely excusing himself to the bathroom brining along his two Doberman pinschers.” “In the bathroom he removed a straightedge razor, cut off his own facial features one by one and fed them to his dogs.” He emerged from his bathroom with no ears, nose, eyelids, lips or cheeks and two happy looking dogs.” “The man lost face, the surgeons tried to save face.”


Dr. Joseph Sacco wrote a novel entitled, “Morphine, Ice Cream and Tears: Tales of a City Hospital True Emergency Room Stories.”


In the author’s opinion, it is quite apparent that Dr. Sacco was aware of this bizarre case. After all it was the talk of the Hospital.  However, it is even more apparent that Dr. Sacco, who was probably one of the many attending interns, was not even remotely aware of the Facts of the Case or the police investigation.


His account of the event is completely erroneous and without Basis in Fact.  Sacco’s book was biographical in nature and his inclusion of this event was an obvious attempt at humor to illustrate the trials and tribulations of Big City ER work. Web Site Posting


“Some of the details differ between the two versions For Example “The victim using broken pieces of mirror vs. a straightedge razor.” And it sounds as if BOTH of the people quoted may not have been directly involved in the case but were instead reporting second-hand information. 

Given this and some other incongruities of the story, were not quite ready to put it in the “True” column yet.”


More Misinformation


A reader sent me this picture (warning: it is very gruesome!) and proposed that it was the inspiration for Mason Verger. I cannot verify that claim because I don't know where the picture came from.  It's just as likely that "Hannibal" was the inspiration for the caption to this picture.

I forwarded the picture to my brother who is a doctor, and he said that the caption was not written by medical people.


My brother the doctor said that the story is extremely unlikely… and that he believed the man's face was most likely blown off by a shotgun or some other kind of blast.


Yahoo Web Site Posting


“I have found the source of this picture.  It's in Practical Homicide Investigation by Vernon J. Geberth, a retired Lieutenant Commander of the NYPD. The captions are essentially the same but in his book, Geberth says that he was the one who directed the veterinarians to pump the dog’s stomachs.  Harris mentions Geberth's book in the acknowledgements to the paperback version of Hannibal and says it was indeed the inspiration for Mason Verger.”




In any event, the presentation I conducted at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) and participant discussion cleared up any misconceptions or errors that some outside self-appointed experts have rendered.  After all, this investigation was completely documented and each point was taken to its logical conclusion. This is a matter of official record.




After attending this presentation the attendees will appreciate the impact of an overdose of hallucinatory drugs.  This overdose resulted in a bizarre and unique case of self-mutilation involving a man under the influence of PCP. The goal of this presentation is to present to the members of the forensic community a bizarre and unique case of self-mutilation involving a man under the influence of PCP.  The man literally sliced off his entire face with pieces of broken mirror and fed the flesh to the dogs.  The man survived due to the analgesic properties of the drug phencyclidine, which can cause users to feel less pain, as well as the excellent medical care he received which included facial reconstruction using a pectoral flap procedure.




This presentation will impact the forensic community by examining this highly unusual case and demonstrate the need to conduct a complete and thorough investigation to ascertain the entirety of the circumstances surrounding such a bizarre event.  The principle of taking each point to its logical conclusion proved invaluable when unexpectedly this self-mutilation became a theme in an award winning Hollywood movie entitled, “Hannibal” as well as a topic of discussion on the Internet.


KEYWORDS:  Drug induced Self-Mutilation, PCP, Crime Scene Investigation and

   Pectoral Flap Procedure




AAFS Proceedings Annual Scientific Meeting Denver, Colorado February 16-21, 2009 pages 22-23. This material is U.S. Copyright 2009 by AAFS.


Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques 4th Edition, 2006 Boca Raton, FL CRC Press, LLC, Taylor & Francis.


Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques 3rd Edition, 1996 Boca Raton, FL CRC Press, LLC


Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques 2nd Edition, 1990 Boca Raton, FL CRC Press, LLC


Harris, Thomas. Hannibal. New York: Delacorte, 1999.           


Sacco, Joseph M.D. Morphine, Ice Cream and Tears: Tales of a City Hospital True Emergency Room Stories. New York: William Morrow, 1989, pp. 95-96