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5 Grizzly Tales of “Survival Cannibalism”

Survival cannibalism is when one human eats the flesh of another, not by choice as is often the case with deranged serial killers, but because they’ve been thrust into horrible situations brought about by shipwrecks, plane crashes, wars, harsh weather and natural disasters.

Most of us know about the Uruguayan soccer team that resorted to cannibalism after their airplane went down in the Andes Mountains in 1972, and of the ill-fated Donner Party in America’s Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter 1846-’47, but tales of survival cannibalism are relatively common throughout history. 

Now let’s take a look at a few cases you may not have heard about. 

1. Richard Parker

Richard parker Cannibalism story

In mid-May of 1884, four men set sail from Southampton, England to deliver the small yacht Mignonette to its new owner in Australia. 

Except for 17-year-old cabin boy Richard Parker, all were experienced seamen, though in their worst nightmares none could’ve imagined the horrors that awaited them in the open ocean. 

Just 31, Tom Dudley was a proven captain, and along with underlings Ned Brooks and Edwin Stephens things went well early on, until the boat was swamped by a massive wave somewhere between Madeira and Capetown. 

The crew escaped in a dingy into the South Atlantic, but they were hundreds of miles from land with no drinking water and just a few tins of turnips for sustenance, which they rationed strictly and supplemented with the meat of a passing sea turtle they managed to snare. 

For water they were limited to catching rain and drinking their own urine, but for young Parker the thirst became so unbearable that he gulped seawater until his stomach was full before collapsing into the bottom of the boat. 

As his condition deteriorated, the others broached the topic commonly referred to as the ‘custom of the sea’, which meant drawing lots to decide who’d be sacrificed so that the others could eat him and survive. 

Unlike his mates Parker didn’t have a wife and children, so instead of drawing lots, Stephens held him down while Dudley thrust a knife into his neck.  

The resulting gush of blood was apparently so copious that it was caught in a clock case and poured directly into the men’s parched mouths. 

Parker’s body was then stripped and butchered. 

His liver and heart were eaten immediately, meat was cut into strips for consumption later, and the bones and inedible organs were dumped overboard.

The three survived on this macabre diet for nearly a week until the meat became too putrid to consume. 

They then faced the dilemma of determining the next victim, but on July 29th nearly a month into their ordeal began they were rescued by a German ship en route to Hamburg, and soon after arrived back in England

The horror was over, but for Dudley and Stephens new troubles lay on the horizon.  

More so than the others, Dudley made no attempt to obscure Richard Parker’s sad fate nor his part in it, and he considered the event a lamentable necessity that was well documented in maritime tradition, but authorities weren’t convinced.  

Though public opinion was largely with the men, they were summoned before a local magistrate, and though Brooks was exonerated, Dudley and Stephens were arraigned for murder. 

As the judge addressed the packed courtroom in November of 1884, he made it clear that the men’s situation didn’t necessarily excuse their behavior. 

It appeared as though their fates with the gallows were certain, and a guilty verdict would mean certain execution. 

But the judge offered the jury a unique “out” by way of a special verdict by which five judges would pass sentence, then hopefully grant a quiet pardon.

Though the conviction came quickly the pardon was only granted after nearly a week of unbearable waiting, but in the end Dudley and Stephns were given prison terms of just six months.

2. Alferd Packer

Alferd packer Cannibalism story

Throughout the 1800s hordes of determined and often penniless prospectors traversed the Rocky Mountains seeking fortunes in gold. 

And of all of them, miner, wilderness guide and Jack-of-all trades Alfred Packer is one of the most famous, not because he struck it rich, but because he purportedly killed and ate a number of his companions. 

In early November 1873, Packer left Bingham Canyon, Utah, with 21 other men bound for the goldfields around Breckenridge, Colorado. 

Winters in Colorado are always harsh, but that one was especially so. 

After three months of painstaking travel the ragged, frostbitten and starving party stumbled into the Ute camp of Chief Ouray near what’s now Montrose, Colorado. 

The Utes graciously provided the bedraggled men with food and shelter, and Chief Ouray advised them to stay on until the weather broke, but with their strength growing Packer and five others continued on after just a short stay. 

Two months later Packer arrived at the Los Pinos Indian Agency looking relatively healthy and fit for a man who’d just trekked through some of the region’s most arduous terrain in winter.  

When asked about his companions, Packer said that they’d been separated in a blizzard, and that he’d survived the journey on a diet of rabbits and leaves. 

But suspicions grew when Packer was found to have in his possession money and personal items that had belonged to the missing men, after which he conveniently changed his story, stating that four had died from exposure and starvation and that he and the other survivor, Shannon Bell, had eaten them, after which Bell went insane.  

Packers said he killed Bell in self defense, then ate him too.  

Though shocking, Packer’s tale may have been accepted as little more than an unfortunate incident in which he’d done what he had to do, until the remains of the other men were eventually found strung out along the trail, not at the campsite where he said they were. 

Packer was arrested and charged with murder, but he escaped from jail and remained at large for nine years, only to be recaptured in 1883 in Wyoming, where he changed his story yet again.

This time claiming that after returning to camp one afternoon he’d found that Shannon Bell had killed the other men with a hatchet, butchered them, and was boiling their flesh and bones in a soup pot. 

The two then had a scuffle, Packer shot and killed Bell, then resorted to eating him and the other men who were already dead. 

Needless to say, Packer’s stories weren’t particularly credible, and he was quickly convicted of manslaughter. 

However Packer’s attorney filed a number of appeals, one of which was eventually successful, and after nearly two decades in prison Packer was paroled after serving about half of his 40-year sentence. 

After his release he went to work as a guard for a local newspaper, and according to neighbors was a quiet and introspective man and model citizen. 

Apparently Packer also became a vegetarian later in life, and he maintained his innocence until he died in Deer Creek, Colorado on April 23,1907 at the age of 65, reputedly from dementia brought about by his ghastly ordeal. 

3. The Franklin Expedition

New research suggests that an unlucky expedition that became trapped in ice in the winter of 1846 ended in gruesome incidences of survival cannibalism.

The Franklin Expedition got underway the year before on a mission to discover a sea route to the Orient via the Canadian Arctic. 

At least in theory it wasn’t a particularly risky endeavor even by mid-19th century standards. 

Other similar expeditions had gone off without major hitches, and even back then being an Arctic explorer in the Royal Navy wasn’t very dangerous. 

In fact the mortality rate was about 1%, or similar to what it was for traditional sailors.

The expedition was led by Sir John Franklin, a seasoned captain and adventurer who had under his command 129 stalwart men and two sturdy and well-provisioned ships – the HMS Erebus and Terror

That year the ice was low when they passed Baggin Bay near Greenland looking for the elusive Northwest Passage, but when the ocean froze fast off King William Island, both ships became hopelessly trapped. 

And even worse, over the following two years conditions failed to improve enough to allow the crews to free their vessels.

The last radio communication came in April of 1848 stating that although two dozen men had died, provisions were holding out. 

But instead of remaining in the relatively safe if uncomfortable confines of the ships, the crews set out on a 1,000-mile (1,600+ km) trek through one of the Canadian Arctic’s most expansive and inhospitable tracts – one that even the native Inuits avoided. 

They disappeared, and their fates were unknown for years until nearly a decade later when tales of cannibalism and gruesome discoveries began surfacing from local Inuit who described stumbling onto piles of human bones. 

The Franklin Expedition is still studied by historians and archaeologists today, and as more of the crew’s remains are discovered they often contain telltale evidence of cannibalism like marks on bones made by metal and stone tools, and even teeth. 

Recent studies by anthropologists have looked at nearly three dozen bones, nearly all of which showed signs of cutting, scraping and “pot polishing,” which happens when the ends of bones rub against the inside of pots causing them to become smooth and polished. 

This phenomena is thought to occur in the latter stages of cannibalism, when starving souls seek to extract every ounce of nourishment they can from sinew, cartilage and marrow. 

It’s likely that the crews would have eventually been rescued had they stayed put, but they may have suffered from scurvy or lead poisoning from the canned goods on board.

Seeing their shipmates dying from these ailments may have led the others to conclude that their best bet was taking to the icy wasteland, a decision which ultimately led to all of their deaths, which regardless of whether they were murdered or only eaten after dying naturally, must’ve been unthinkable.  

4. Jamestown Colony, Virginia

Jamestown Cannibalism story

In 1609 the Jamestown Colony in present day Virginia experienced one of the harshest winters on record, and recent excavations reveal that not only were horses, dogs, rats, and leather shoes eaten during the “Starving Time,” but that at least one human was as well – a 14-year-old girl known as Jane. 

Jamestown was founded in 1607 by more than 100 colonists who came aboard three ships, but within the first year nearly 50 died from starvation, disease, exposure, and drinking water that may have been contaminated with human waste and arsenic. 

The worst drought on record, less than friendly relations with local Native Americans and missing supply ships also added to the untenable situation.

Reports indicate that the muddy streets were littered with corpses, the stench was unbearable, and that survivors had transparent skin, emaciated frames, sunken eyes, and eerily distant countenances. 

More than four centuries later, forensic anthropologists studying the girl’s recently discovered bones found multiple strike marks in the back of her skull, the strongest of which cleaved it in half. 

A puncturing thrust was also made into the left temple, after which the skullcap was pried off to remove the brain.

Much is still unknown about the grisly event, but scientists are quick to point out that it doesn’t prove that murder was committed. 

However there’s little doubt that the intent was to remove tissue for consumption, and that the person or persons doing the butchering were inexperienced, as evidenced by signs of tentativeness and hesitancy in the cuts themselves. 

Since they decompose more rapidly than meat, it’s likely that the girl’s brain was eaten first, followed by her tongue, arms and legs which were removed over multiple days, probably by different people. 

Whatever the case, their findings are the first irrefutable proof of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the New World. 

Researchers also noted that instead of receiving a proper burial or reburial, the poor girl’s remains were casually discarded into a common trash pit with other refuse and animal bones. 

This is almost certainly due to the extreme conditions and near death states of those who were still alive, and that in such times things that we now consider common decency tend to fall by the wayside, and that even murdering a loved one for sustenance isn’t out of the question in the grips of terrible hunger.  

Historians and archaeologists speculate that the girl was probably one of the original colonists, and most likely a maidservant or the daughter of one of the more wealthy families, as bone analysis indicated that up to the time of her death she’d eaten a diet high in protein. 

The identities of those who butchered and consumed her are and probably always will be unknown, but many claim that there were certainly more victims of cannibalism, and that future excavations and analysis will prove it. 

5. Siege of Stalingrad

Siege of Stalingrad cannibalism history
Photo by German Federal Archive is licensed under CC-BY-SA

For nearly 900 days during World War II, the Nazi blockade of Stalingrad resulted in approximately 2 million deaths, making it the longest and deadliest siege in recent history.  

When dozens of German divisions encircled the city in early September of 1941, residents found themselves cutoff from the outside world as winter set in, food ran short, and temperatures plummeted to 40 below and beyond. 

During the first assaults and barrages the city’s food stores were destroyed, while supply truck convoys across frozen Lake Ladoga were bombed mercilessly. 

Nazy military brass weren’t sure how long the city could hold out, but evidence suggests that starving the Russians into submission had been a central part of the plan all along, largely because it was a relatively cheap alternative to door-to-door city fighting which eats men and machines in droves. 

At the time the city was woefully unprepared with a food supply that was estimated to be enough for just a few months. 

However just weeks later, rations were reduced to just 250 grams for soldiers and essential workers, while average civilians were expected to live on just 150. 

To stretch their meager bread, citizens added sawdust to fill their stomachs before turning on pets, leather shoes and belts, weeds and eventually the corpses of the newly deceased. 

Diaries discovered decades after the war describe how residents were reduced to little more than skin and bone, and how men and women became nearly indistinguishable from one another. 

One teenage girl wrote that she was becoming an animal and that there was no worse feeling than the constant gnaw of hunger, and it wasn’t long before frozen emaciated bodies became everyday sights on the city’s rubble and filth strewn streets. 

Though it’s believed that most instances of cannibalism were perpetrated against the already dead, there were reports of mothers killing their infants for food, and at least one plumber who murdered, butchered and cooked his wife to feed his children. 

In fact cannibalism became so prevalent that special police task forces were set up to combat it, and they purportedly arrested more than 1,000 people, some of whom were tried and executed after the siege.  

Even more common were murders committed in order to get the victim’s ration card, and pretending that deceased family members were still among the living to keep their rations coming. 

Those in charge of doling out food often hoarded what they could for themselves, and blackmailed the less fortunate for contraband items, valuables and sexual favors.

When it was all said and done, when Russians finally retook the city and the first food train arrived 872 days after the siege began, it’s estimated that only 700,000 residents were left alive, some of whom had resorted to survival cannibalism to see themselves and their families through the darkest of times.

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