During Hannibal Lecter's first meeting with Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Lecter flashes back to a time when he ate a census taker's liver "with some fava beans and a nice Chianti".

His chilling admission about the murder does not come as a surprise but what does boggle my mind is how vague he was with respect to the murder.

Hannibal mentioned the census taker's attempt to "test" him as his pretext. What exactly does he mean by this?

We know from the novels and the films that Hannibal has a tendency to consume the rude. He saw the rude as cattle, even going so far as to call them "free range rude". By that alone, we are led to believe that the census taker must have done something to offend his sense of dignity.

But what exactly could the census taker have done?

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    Lecter does not strike me as someone with strong impulse control. He likely just decided on a whim.
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 18:03
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    Nothing of any use in the novel. -->“I'll have to think about it. Now please excuse me. Goodbye, Officer Starling.” “And the study?” “A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone. Go back to school, little Starling."
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 18:17

2 Answers 2


Lecter mentions the census taker in Hannibal. He makes special note of the fact that the census taker arrived at a particularly ungodly hour.

Hannibal: Last time someone rang my doorbell this early, it was a census taker.

HANNIBAL S02E06 - Futamono

  • Census-takers (in America) only visit between 9am and 9pm. That's not an "ungodly hour."
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 21:18
  • This is very hard to believe. Lecter may be a serial killer, but he has enough good sense to keep his killing secret long enough to build a reputation as an exceptional therapist. It's hard to believe he would kill somebody just because they rang his doorbell early, because doing so would greatly increase the risk of being discovered: there will be records of which houses the missing census-taker was visiting, and police would quickly be ringing his doorbell in their search. And the police, unlike a census-taker, would want to enter the residence and look around, or know the reason why.
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 22:17
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    @Tom - This assumes that Lecter killed him immediately instead of, for example, playing an extensive cat-and-mouse psychological game with him over several weeks.
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 22:26
  • Hmm. I do assume Lecter would have been actively avoiding the census-taker, and I'd believe those folks are expected to be determined, so maybe they did play that game. But in that case, his reasons for killing the census-taker would be twofold: to avoid the possibility of discovery (by creating a record of his lies), and to punish the census-taker for trying to get the better of him. And he tells this story in a context where Clarice has presented him with a list of questions, so it seems that the questions are his problem. He dislikes it when people look into him. Starling even says so.
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 22:33

Ask for basic biographical details, probably

Census-takers ask questions, and questioning somebody is a way of "testing" them.

What might a census-taker even ask a person? Here's what CensusCounts.org (an independent, pro-census group) says:

What will a census taker ask me?

The census taker will ONLY ask the questions that appear on the census form...: address, phone number, number of people living in your home, whether you rent or own your home, and basic information about each resident (name, age, birthdate, gender, relationship to you, race, ethnicity).


The census taker will NOT ask for your citizenship status; driver’s license; Social Security Number; credit card, bank, or other financial information; money or a donation; or PIN codes or passwords.

Lecter is a serial killer who sometimes lives under an alias, so it's easy to imagine how these basic questions might present a challenge for him. While he's very smart and educated, that won't be a defense against being caught in a factual lie by somebody who is armed with the real information. It could be something as simple as him not knowing the phone number of the house he murdered his way into, or not knowing whether it is rented or owned. Can you imagine asking somebody if they own the house they are standing in, and them not knowing the answer?

It's also worth noting that the Census Bureau only sends agents to residences that don't fill out the paper form. Presumably Lecter did not fill it out, because he wants to keep a low profile.

If the census-taker detects some kind of glaring inconsistency between Lecter's story and their own records, I assume they will attempt to probe the details in order to iron out the wrinkles in their data. Lecter would rightly see that as a danger to his cover identity, and their questions as attempts to trap him in a lie -- to "test" him.

A stupid bean-counter who threatens to unmask Lecter by their dogged pursuit of unimportant factoids about cattle that he already slaughtered. I bet the fava beans was a deliberate jibe on Lecter's part. "Count these beans, Mr. Main Course!"

  • I always understood this as: "he came to my house at the wrong time" but you seem to say that Lecter did it at someone else's place. Can you clarify please?
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 18:56
  • Once Lecter was exposed as a killer, no place was really "his house." So, wherever he was when the census-taker showed up, it was someone else's home, and the only way Lecter would be answering the door would be if he was posing as the resident, probably after killing them but perhaps while the real resident was just away for an extended time. In any case, it makes sense Lecter would refer to it as "his" house, since it's where he was staying at the time. We are told very little about the incident, but we can deduce much.
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 19:02
  • In red dragon, we learn that Will, before being wounded by Lecter, went to his house because he was following the killer's trail. Never before was Lecter suspected, and he was then identified/arrested. IIRC. But your POV might be good, I'm not saying :)
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 19:42
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    "caught in a factual lie by somebody who is armed with the real information." I was a census enumerator in 2010. Went door-to-door to perform "non-response follow-up". Census enumerators are not armed with anything other than an address, and an empty census form. The questions asked are very basic, and yet some people are unable or unwilling to answer them. In such a case, the enumerator will NOT look for inconsistencies, or press for a straight answer. Now, that's how things work in the real world, but there's no reason to expect the novelist, or filmmakers to know or care about this.
    – Juhasz
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 21:18

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