Manage episode 259813508 series 2659594
Why shouldn’t you take an untested shortcut on the California trail? In our first episode, we sink our teeth into the story of the Donner Party: the most infamous case of survival cannibalism in American history.
Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis.
Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.
Logo by Riley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.
Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.
- Di Stefano, D. (2006). ‘Alfred Packer’s world: risk, responsibility, and the place of experience in mountain culture, 1873-1907’, Journal of Social History, 40(1), pp. 181–204. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4491860
- Dixon, K. J., S. A. Novak, G. Robbins, J. M. Schablitsky, G. R. Scott, and G. L. Tasa. (2010). ”Men, women, and children starving’: archaeology of the Donner family camp’, American Antiquity, 75(3), pp. 627-656. Available at: https://doi.org/10.7183/0002-73184.108.40.2067
- Holden, C. (2006). ‘Donner Party postmortem’, Science, 311(5760), p. 447. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.311.5760.447c
- Patton, E. (2011). ‘When groups fall apart: the Donner Party disaster’, Journal of Management History, 17(4), pp. 435-450. Available at: https://dx.doi.org/10.1108/17511341111164436
- Rarick, E. (2008). Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Schablitsky, J. (2012). ‘Letter from California: A New Look at the Donner Party’, Archaeology, 65(3). Available at: https://archive.archaeology.org/1205/letter/donner_party_alder_creek_washoe.html
- Stuckey, M. E. (2011). ‘The Donner Party and the rhetoric of westward expansion’, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 14(2), pp. 229-260. Available at: https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/communication_facpub/24/
- Voeller, C. R. (2009). ”A man is a fool who prefers poor California beef to human flesh’: (re)definitions of masculinity in Nineteenth-Century US Donner Party literature’, Western American Literature, 44(3), pp. 200–223. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43022742
Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?
Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.
A: I’m Alix.
C: I’m Carmella.
A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…
[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Hopefully you are already aware that we are Casting Lots and we will be telling stories of survival cannibalism throughout history and across the world.
C: We will be doing so in thirteen episodes – unlucky for some but lucky for us – and these will be split into three themes. We’ll be starting on land, moving out to sea, and then coming back onto ice.
A: So, Carmella… Why are we doing this?
C: Good question. Well, I think it all started when we discovered that we had a mutual interest in the history of survival cannibalism.
A: I did get a very interesting message from you being like “I feel your tags on cannibalism so completely! I wasn’t aware we had this niche interest in common. Apparently it’s weird being picky about what cannibalism interests people.” But no, I think there’s something about the meaning of, like, life and how people react to tragic circumstances, and the lengths people will go to to survive. But… Also it’s quite gory and interesting at the same time.
C: Yeah I think it’s just quite gruesome, and that’s enjoyable.
A: Yes, we have had quite a few questions from various people about quite what this podcast is going to involve. Whether there will be hints and tips….?
C: I think it’s safe to say that unless something goes terribly wrong, we probably won’t be killing and eating anyone.
A: One of the books I was reading started by saying ‘well everyone knows that if you eat a human liver, that’s cannibalism, but what if you chew your nails?’ So, you know, maybe we’re all cannibals… Well, that’s a good way to alienate quite a lot of our audience.
C: Ok, so if you’re still tuned in now – thank you very much!
A: Before we get started on the stories and the storytelling, we do think it is important (serious moment I’m afraid) to point out that we do know that all of these events happened to real people, whether these were hundreds of years ago or forty years ago. So even though we do take a sort of fascinated delight in what happened and why, we’re not in any way trying to deride the circumstances that these people found themselves in, and we’re not in any way criticising the actions taken, the reason that these happened. It’s looking at what does drive people to do things that society deems–
A: Ok serious bit over. Who wants to hear about cannibalism?
C: Alix, would you like to hear about the Donner Party?
A: I would love to hear about the Donner Party! I’ve been very good and not researched it myself so – as much as possible – I don’t know what’s coming. Apart from the obvious.
C: Who knows what will happen at the end of this story?
A: I think it might be cannibalism.
C: Well, for some context: it’s the 1840s. We’re in America. I am trying to decide whether or not to do bad American accents.
A: I was about to say ‘Yeehaw’.
C: Yeehaw! I don’t know enough about American regional accents to know what their accents would be specifically. They are from Missouri and Illinois. Where is that?
C: Well I’m gonna guess it’s in the east. In the 1840s, pioneers are heading west to California and Oregon. They’re looking for new land, they wanna colonise.
A: Makes a surprise.
C: Mmhmm. Build a new life, maybe find some gold, plant up their crops.
A: There’s gold in them there hills.
C: So the normal route: most wagons that are heading to California follow the Oregon trail at first.
A: There’s a musical about that.
C: There is. So they start at Independence, Missouri; they cross the continental divide; and then turn south. So it’s not a short route – they do a sort of triangle. They go up and then down to head west, but that’s because it avoids a lot of mountain ranges and unknown territory, and follows a known direction. Most of the time, that’s what they do.
A: That’s the plan.
C: That’s the plan. So. Over we go to the 14th of April 1846. We’ve got two families: the Donners and the Reeds. They are departing from Springfield, Illinois, heading west, and they’re both hoping to go to California, not Oregon. Both quite rich families. So with the Donners you’ve got George and his wife Tamzene. They’ve got five children, ranging from the ages of three to thirteen. So it’s quite common for big families to travel. I mean, it’s a difficult journey but they’re on wagons, they’re in a big group of people. You’ve got your grandparents with you, your babies and yeah it’s fine.
A: A family holiday.
C: Yeah, it’s like a long road trip.
A: ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with M’.
C: Is it mountains?
A: It’s mountains, yeah.
C: They’ve also got George’s brother Jacob, his wife, their children. They’ve got six teamsters to help them along the way – those are the employees that help with the travel and stuff.
A: Technical term.
C: Technical term. They’ve got another employee, Jean Baptiste Trudeau, who I’m assuming is French. And they’ve just got this boy called Luke Halloran, who is not related to them. He’s got consumption, but I think they feel sorry for him so they let him on their wagon. The Reeds – we’ve got James. He’s Irish, and he wants to move to the south-west because there’s a big Catholic community there so he can practise his religion a bit more freely. He’s got his wife, all their children, Margaret’s 70-year-old grandmother who is also dying of consumption at the time.
A: It was very popular.
C: It was. Three teamsters and some employees, one of whom is an albino (fun fact) so that’s gonna make it difficult for him going across the sun-beaten prairies. I think that’s gonna be a lot of sunburn.
A: The worst of their problems.
C: So, setting out in April is actually quite late in the season already, so they’re at the back of the wagon train. Late in the season, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. They’ve got the wagons that they’re travelling on. The Reeds have a massive– it’s a two-storey, a double-decker wagon, because they’re–
A: I’m actually delighted by that.
C: Yeah, it’s built for comfort. It is not gonna be so good at getting over the mountains.
A: It’s like one of those double-decker trains. It’s so exciting going to Europe and seeing a double-decker train.
C: Yeah you can tell that they’re wealthy. And they’ve all got loads of oxen with them that are helping pull because they want to use them to build a ranch later I suppose, and eat them along the way. See? They’ve got food supplies, they’re not fools! By May they get to Independence, Missouri, which is the main jumping-off point for pioneer families and they join the long wagon train that they’re gonna be travelling with for a bit. So, so far so normal. All going well. The consumptive grandmother does die along the trail but that’s not weird, you know, that’s expected.
A: Ok, ok.
C: They build a nice grave for her, it’s all very lovely. So they cross the continental divide, which is the massive milestone obviously because now they are out of America, as it was at the time. They’re out of American law. So when they reach the contenintal divide, at this point the Reeds and Donners start thinking ‘maybe we could take a shortcut’. They may have already read about this shortcut in a book that was recently published: The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. And this is written by…
A: I think it was written by a liar.
C: Oh you don’t even know the half of it. Landsford. [In a bad American accent:] Landsford Hastings. Wrote this book.
A: I insist on accents. I can’t, because I’m doing a Russian story.
C: [Continuing bad accent:] So Landsford Hastings wrote The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. He’s also – just to make sure that if they haven’t read the book they get the message – he’s also been sending letters to emigrants along the trail to promote his new route. He’s found a cut-off called ‘The Hastings Cut-Off’. Hastings Cut-Off: it’s much shorter as the crow flies because it just goes in a straight line. He’s looked at a map and he’s just drawn a straight line. So it goes across the Great Salt Lake and through the Sierra Nevada mountains. So Hastings says it will definitely save a lot of time because it’s so short. And he claims that he has travelled it himself… But he has never actually set foot on any part of it up until this year – a couple of months ago he decided that he would just walk it backwards, just to make sure.
A: As in facing backwards the whole way, or…?
C: As in starting in California.
A: He’s a lying liar who lies.
C: He is. And he wants to make sure that people come to California and not Oregon because then they’re gonna get a big California boom and he can ride that and make a lot of money… He does the cut-off in reverse. He’s with a fellow called Clyman, and Clyman turns out to be an old friend of James Reed, who is one of our travelling parties. They were friends from the Black Hawk wars. Clyman meets up with his old friend and Reed says [in a bad accent:] “We’re thinking of taking the Hastings Cut-Off”, to which Clyman says [in a worse accent:] “Don’t do that – you’ll die!” That’s a paraphrase, that’s not a direct historical quote.
A: Good to cite your sources.
C: Uhuh. As real professionals, of course our sources will be available in the show notes in case you want to read anything more, or just double-check our references. So the Donners and the Reeds actually ignore Clyman and decide that they are gonna take the Hastings Cut-Off, so they split off from the main wagon ride.
A: I would say this was the first of their bad plans.
C: There are a lot more bad decisions to come, and also just farcical mistakes. And I will not blame them for what happened, but it’s true that there are times where you think ‘Ah, you did that, huh?’
A: Yeah maybe that wasn’t the best plan.
C: So now when they leave the original wagon train they’ve got a few more people. They’ve got a family called the Breens; they’ve got the Murphys – so that’s a family led by a Mormon widow called Levinah Murphy. There’s the Kesebergs who are a young German couple. The Eddys, the McCutchans. They’ve all got loads of children, some of them have babies – one of the Kesebergs gave birth two months ago on the trail.
A: So they picked up these families en route, so they were all doing the trail and they’re like ‘Hey, we’re going to go down this untested side road, who wants in?’
C: Yep they’re all in. Well, in their defence, they don’t know it’s untested because Hastings has promised he has done it [bad accent:] many a time, and he is gonna guide them the whole way.
A: Oh he’s there?
C: Yeah! He’s there. Well – he’s not there at the Parting of Ways, which is where they split off, but he’s gonna wait for them at Fort Bridger and he’s gonna lead them across the Great Salt Lake and the Sierra Nevada on his special route.
A: I. Don’t. Trust. Him.
C: When the Donner Party do get to Fort Bridger, they’ve got 74 people, 20 wagons, and Fort Bridger is the last place where they could turn towards Oregon if they wanted to – or they can continue down Hastings’ route. And as I said, Hastings promised to be there. He is not.
A: Oh what a surprise.
C: I know! He’s gone ahead with another wagon party, but he’s promised that he’s gonna leave notes along the way and he’s left some instructions for them. Another traveller, [in bad accent:] man by the name of Bryant, has actually left some letters with the fort management advising other emigrants not to take the Hastings Cut-Off. But the fort management realise that if people start taking the Hastings Cut-Off, they’re gonna get a lot of traffic and a lot of industry, huh, from all the travellers. They don’t give the Donner Party these letters; they keep them to themselves.
A: Oh people never change do they?
C: So the party continues. There are notes left along the trail by Hastings. Some of them have been ripped up a bit by wild animals but they roughly find them – which is impressive, finding just scraps of paper along a massive trail.
A: That Hastings just sort of threw in a tree, just like ‘go this way’.
C: Yeah I’m impressed. And at some point whilst they’re travelling this new route they’re joined by the Graveses – who are a family of Franklin and his wife, they’ve got their grown daughter and her husband and some other children and one employee. So the Graveses were the last people to leave – so they were even slower than the Donners and the Reeds. And they’ve now caught up. So this is the last addition to the party.
A: So does that go to show that the Hastings trail isn’t exactly… fast, or are the party travelling slow?
C: It goes to show that the Donners and the Reeds did have a little chill-out time while they were waiting at the Parting of Ways.
A: Oh ok.
C: Maybe the decisions weren’t made as quickly as they needed to be. Also maybe the Graveses just had a faster wagon, unlike the Reeds’ double-decker–
A: I’m sorry, I love this double-decker wagon so much!
C: So as they’re travelling down the trail they decide that they should send some people ahead to find Hastings and bring him back and get him to show them the directions.
A: Make him do his goddamn job.
C: Yep. So they do: James Reed and a couple of men ride ahead. They do find Hastings and Hastings says he’ll ride back with Reed. Halfway through riding back with Reed he goes [in a bad American accent:] “Actually I’m gonna continue on, but that’s the direction you wanna take.” I don’t know why we’re still trusting Hastings! So the next thing is the party have to cross the Wasatch Mountains with their wagons.
C: Their double-decker wagons. It does not go so well. Especially because the route that Hastings has suggested is not a route so much as a lot of forest that they have to hack down as they go.
A: Did he actually take a group through there first?
C: Yes, he’s taken a group a different route; decided that route’s not great for wagons; and so he’s suggested this other route through heavy forest.
C: As far as I know, the group that Hastings is with do make it to safety. Something is to be said there. So in all it takes two weeks for the Donner Party to cross this very short stretch, having to hoist up wagons. They finally reach the Great Salt Lake, which is of course a massive salty lake.
A: Salt desert.
C: They’ve still got six hundred miles to go. It is August. Now remember they’re going to be going through mountains at winter. Ideally they want to be through as quickly as possible. They have the tracks of Hastings and the advance party across the salt lake so they can follow. So that… you know.
A: That’s both positive but also I can mentally see it.
C: Sort of receding in the distance.
A: And it doesn’t look positive.
C: So they cross the desert. It is very hard territory, there are bogs that sink the carts and the oxen. They have to unyoke the oxen and loads of the oxen just run– run away. Just go. Gone forever! Never to be seen again. So that’s a lot of the food supply gone. They have to abandon lots of wagons. Reed has to abandon two of his three wagons.
A: I thought you were going to say two of his three children.
C: [Laughs] Not yet! So once they do finally cross this, which takes – I think – a week more than Hastings said it would, they decide that they are quite low on supplies, so a few men are sent ahead. Two men actually: William McCutchan and Charles Stanton. So William McCutchan is travelling with his family; Charles Stanton is just a solo traveller. And they’re sent ahead to Sutter’s Fort on the other side of the mountains to bring back supplies, and they can ride quickly on their mules. Then the party crosses the Ruby Mountains – which is the end of the Hastings Cut-Off! And they rejoin the main California Trail. So the Cut-Off has cost them a full month of travel.
A: That was effective!
C: Yep a full month extra than what it would have taken them. It is now the end of September. By around the start of October there is another case of poor management and farcical issues. James Reed and a man called Snyder – Snyder is one of the Graveses’ teamsters, so employees. Reed and Snyder have a bit of an argument about the best way to get some wagons up a steep incline. They end up fighting. Snyder hits Reed with the butt of his ox whip, so Reed stabs him in the chest with a hunting knife and kills him.
A: So tempers are riding quite high.
C: I think they’re all a bit stressed. So the question now is what to do, because they are no longer in American law, as I said. But Reed isn’t very popular because everyone else finds him a bit pompous and a bit rich… Presumably his family don’t find that! But all the other travellers report that that’s what they felt. The issue though is that Reed has been making actually some good decisions. I know there have been some foolish decisions, but in terms of trail-blazing and raising wagons, he’s doing quite well as a temporary leader there. Donner’s the official leader but Reed’s calling the shots.
C: So some of the party want to hang him for his crimes, but in the end they decide that they’re just gonna banish him. He can’t really take his wife and children with him so he decides he’s gonna ride ahead – he can get supplies, he can come back and meet them and then hopefully people will welcome his return rather than hanging him.
A: I mean that is a solid line of thinking. Probably shouldn’t have stabbed someone.
C: So he takes a single horse and his teamster Walter Herron. They have to take it in turns on the horse. Now we’re starting to see some disintegration in the social order of the party. So for example, there’s an elderly Belgian man called Hardcoop who’s on his travels with them. Hardcoop doesn’t actually want to settle in California; he’s just having a nice adventure. Because he’s quite old, he just wants a fun adventure then he’s gonna go back to Belgium to see his children.
A: Oh that’s such a terrible idea.
C: Yeah. So he’s been riding on and off on the Kesebergs’ wagon, but at this point the oxen are all a bit weak so Keseberg boots him off the wagon and says ‘walk’. According to Eddy, this is the case. And now Mr Eddy is one of the main chroniclers of the journey and Mr Eddy comes out looking quite good at the end compared to everyone else.
A: That never happens when someone’s the main chronicler of a controversial event in history.
C: No. So let’s take that with a pinch of salt. But in any case, Hardcoop can no longer ride with Keseberg. In fact he asks to ride with Eddy and is told ‘no’ as well, so…
A: And Eddy writes that himself?
C: No – say other people.
C: Mmhmm. When the party stop that night, they realise that Hardcoop isn’t with them anymore. They can’t waste any more time – and to be fair they can’t waste any more time – so… Goodbye Hardcoop. They never see him again.
A: Not that I want to jump ahead, but you might sometimes think that the people who ended their journeys sooner rather than later might have had the better outcome.
C: Perhaps, perhaps. Reed on his single horse with his mate Herron, crosses the Sierra Nevada. They didn’t bring enough supplies with them and almost have to eat their horse, but then happily they encounter Charles Stanton, who if you recall left the Donner Party six weeks ago with William McCutchan to fetch supplies. McCutchan fell ill at the fort but Stanton’s come back with supplies. The thing is that McCutchan has family in the wagon train and hasn’t come back; Stanton has no family, no particular friends, but he has come back. So kudos to Stanton. I think he’s coming through as an MVP here.
A: Yeah, fair.
C: He’s travelling with two Native American guides called Luis and Salvador, who I assume maybe are part of the Spanish occupied territories.
C: Just a note that obviously this route, pioneers are coming through a lot of Native American land. There’s actually not that many clashes. There’s some clashes; there’s some death; there’s some murder on both sides – more on the side of white people doing the murder – and lots of horror stories on both sides but actually it’s generally pretty alright. Back at Fort Laramie the Donner Party even shared some meals with the local Native Americans. So it’s all been pretty good, but at this point, they are facing – as they go along the Truckee River – they are having a lot of their cattle going missing, which is blamed on Native American locals. As may or may not be the case.
A: Well they’re outside of American law so…
C: Good point – finders keepers. They travel along the Truckee River. Again, they’re falling low on supplies so more men are sent ahead. Levinah Murphy sends the husbands of her two daughters, William Foster and William Pike. The Williams.
A: ‘You can marry my daughter as long as your name is William’.
C: In yet another absurd twist, as they’re packing up their horses they mess up really, really bad and as they’re putting a pistol into the horse, it goes off, shoots Pike in the back, and he dies. Maybe check that the gun is not on.
C: No that’s not–
A: ‘Not on’! Not loaded.
C: Not loaded.
A: So now I’m gonna assume that they’re just gonna blame the horse.
C: I don’t trust horses.
A: Their beady little eyes. But how would a horse use a gun?
C: [Laughs] They would figure it out! There’s yet another misfortune on the route. Keseberg is hunting geese. He stands on a willow stub – it punctures his shoe, pierces his foot, it gets badly infected. He can no longer walk. Luckily, there’s a horse or mule or… cow? I don’t know what he’s riding. He’s in the saddle. But he can’t walk, so just keep that in mind about Keseberg. And already the end of October; it’s beginning to snow.
A: Are they at the mountains yet?
C: They are climbing up the mountains, they are increasing in altitude.
A: This is going to end fine.
C: On the 31st of October – that’s today!
A: Oooh! It’s like it was meant to be.
C: They finally reach Truckee Lake. Now called Donner Lake – I wonder if you can guess why that is! They’ve covered over 2,000 miles; they only have 100 left to go. But it’s across a steep mountain pass on the other side of the Sierra Nevada.
A: See that’s almost worse.
C: They are so close. They attempt several times to cross but it just isn’t going well. There’s too much snow, they’re too weak – so they realise they’re gonna have to go back to the lake and over-winter there.
A: I don’t like the phrase over-winter. It never has a happy ending.
C: So there’s already a cabin by the lake and they build some other constructions. Apart from the Donners, who have had a broken axle and haven’t actually reached the lake yet.
A: Not the double-decker wagon?
C: No that’s the Reeds. The Donners are rich… But they don’t have a double-decker wagon.
A: Oh they’re not that rich. Well I hope the double-decker wagon survives.
C: They have a broken axle, they have to stop. Jacob (George’s brother) tries to fix it. While he’s doing that, he accidentally hits George’s right hand with an axe.
A: Oh for–
C: The wound becomes infected. George can’t use his dominant hand.
A: Oh God!
C: So when the snow comes they are seven miles or so from the rest of the company, near a small stream called Alder Creek. And they have to make camp there.
C: So overall we’ve got 81 people trapped at Truckee Lake and Alder Camp. More than half of them are under 18 years old.
A: And quite a few of them are injured or incapacitated.
A: And winter is coming. Now that is copyrighted.
C: In the meantime, Reed has reached the other side of the mountains and he finds McCutchan, who as you remember stayed behind ill.
A: Oh yeah!
C: Poorly McCutchan.
A: There’s so many people in this story.
C: There are. They decide they’re gonna come back across the mountains with supplies. They don’t manage that but they reasonably– they left before all of the problems with the Great Salt Lake and all the cattle going off, so they reasonably assume their families will be alright. So they’re like ‘ok well guess we’ll leave them over winter!’ However, that’s not the case. The Breens still have most of their cattle but the Eddys and the Reeds and the Donners aren’t doing so well. They have to start bartering for meat. They’re being charged large prices by the Breens.
C: And over the next few months they’re having to eat all sorts. So there’s archaeological evidence showing bones from horses, deer, cows, canines, small rodents. They’ve all been heavily processed for nutrients. Eddy even claims that he shot and killed a grizzly bear.
A: No he didn’t.
C: They did find bear bones at the camp – cooked bear bones. So…
A: Ok maybe he did…
C: Maybe he did, we don’t know.
A: Maybe someone did and Mr Chronicler said it was him.
A: Sorry I’m being so accusatory to all of these people now.
C: Franklin Graves knows how to make snowshoes, so he makes some snowshoes out of their ox harnesses and rawhide, and they’re gonna take a group of healthy adults from the Lake Party across the mountains to fetch help.
C: Sensible. So far. The teamsters Milt Elliot and Noah James are sent to Alder Creek to borrow Donner’s compass, but they get snowed in and they can’t borrow it, and the Lake Party decide ‘can’t waste any more time; we’ll leave without the compass. We’ll manage!’ So the Snowshoes Party set out, and they will later be known as ‘The Forlorn Hope’.
A: Oh yes no that does ring a bell.
C: Doesn’t sound good. They’ve got 17 people, so it’s ten men, five women, two of the Murphy boys (so a thirteen-year-old and a ten-year-old), and the two Native guides are going back with them.
A: I’m impressed that they’ve stayed for this long to be honest, they have absolutely no obligation to the Donner Party and the mess that they’ve happened upon.
C: I think they’re employees of Sutter’s Fort so they’ve probably been paid to go, but you’re right, I think they could very reasonably have just turned tail when they got to the mountains. They could have done a Hastings – they could have done the Hastings Cut-Off!
A: [Laughs] See we’ve wasted all that time being annoyed at Eddy. Come back, the true villain of the piece: Hastings. Or winter.
C: Winter will play a part. A little bit in, one of the teamsters does have to turn back with the boy William Murphy because he’s not old enough to be making this. And also the teamster (who is known as Dutch Charley) – there weren’t actually enough snowshoes so he was walking in his normal shoes.
A: ‘The Snowshoes Party’… ‘The Mostly Snowshoes Party’.
C: Back at the lake camp, Milt Elliot – who went to fetch the compass – comes back. He’s been to Alder Creek and he reports quite a few people are dead, including Jacob Donner. So they’re not doing well over at Alder Creek. Forlorn Hope? They have some issues. Stanton, he gets snow blindness. He doesn’t want to pull them back, so he says ‘leave me by the fire here, I’ll catch up later’. They all know he won’t but they leave him anyway… And he dies.
A: Well it’s the sort of honourable sacrifice that people do make in these exceptional survival circumstances.
C: It is. Stanton of course is the one who went ahead for supplies, and came back despite not having any friends or family. So he’s been a pretty good guy.
A: That sounds so harsh.
C: No friends! No family!
C: By Christmas Eve, the Forlorn Hope have had no food for three or four days and they have a little chat about what to do – as you do at Christmas. We’re gonna have a fun discussion. And of course the conversation does turn to cannibalism.
A: Happy Christmas!
C: Someone suggests casting lots.
C: Name drop! If you don’t know what casting lots is, or why it relates to cannibalism, this should explain it: it’s a tradition of casting lots or drawing straws to decide who gets to be eaten first. They actually reject that idea. Eddy proposes a shooting contest. Whoever loses gets eaten.
A: Oh my God. Ok now I’m back: the thing about casting lots is it is fair. The idea being that everyone who enters into casting lots knows what’s going to happen. That you have, well, let’s say ten straws; two of them are shorter than the others. The person who pulls the shortest straw is the one who gets eaten; the person who pulls the second shortest straw is the one who does the deed. Everyone who’s in on casting lots knows that that’s the arrangement.
C: Yeah it’s a probability game.
C: Shooting each other is – aside from being a bad idea if one of you just gets injured and doesn’t die–
A: So they don’t cast lots?
C: No. They also don’t have a shooting contest, because everyone tells Eddy that’s stupid.
C: That night there’s a blizzard. Eddy tries to light a fire with gunpowder, [trying not to laugh] but it just explodes and burns his face and hands. I feel bad for laughing because obviously this is a man who is going through a lot. It does seem like he makes some interesting decisions along the way. On Christmas Day, Antonio – who is a Mexican labourer – and Franklin Graves both pass away. Naturally. So no need to do any of the casting lots or shooting. There are dubious reports, but allegedly in his dying moments Franklin Graves urged his daughters to use his body for food.
A: That happens; that’s a thing. That’s not weird. Ok maybe it is a bit weird.
C: ‘Happy Christmas. Here’s your Christmas present’. They don’t eat him yet.
A: Oh for goodness’ sake!
C: They’re snow-stormed in at the moment; they’re huddled by a fire. Patrick Dolan, who is a friend of the Breens’ – he’s been travelling with them – he just can’t take it anymore so he takes off several layers and runs out into the snow. They manage to wrestle him back inside but he does die.
A: Is that that hypothermia thing where you get so cold you think you’re really hot?
C: Yeah, I think that’s what it sounds like. The thirteen-year-old Lemuel Murphy also passes away.
A: It’s not a happy Christmas for the Forlorn Hope.
C: No it’s not. When the storm breaks, Eddy is finally able to build a fire despite his burns. Unlike the last time that the issue of cannibalism is raised, this time there’s no need to kill anyone, so everyone is a bit more on-board with doing it.
A: Which is also reasonable.
C: Yep – there are corpses to hand. So the first person to be eaten is Patrick Dolan. There is no recorded explanation for who made the decision about who gets eaten first, but speculatively: he doesn’t have any relatives, unlike two of the corpses. And he’s fresher than Antonio. So that could explain it.
A: Is this an opportunity for me to talk about my favourite phrase when it comes to survival cannibalism? ‘Gastronomic incest’. I will bring this up a little later on, but I came across it in research and I just think it’s an amazing look into the human psyche that someone came up with that as a term for eating your own relaties. Freud would have a field day.
C: So they haven’t yet recoursed to that. So on the 30th of December, the Forlorn Hope finally depart their camp. They’ve either eaten or butchered and dried the meat from all of their dead companions by now.
A: Ok so it didn’t take that long.
C: No it didn’t. When the dried meat runs out, they begin eating the rawhide from their snowshoes… So they can’t wear their snowshoes.
A: That’s a slight problem. I mean organic nutrients, it makes sense. You would have thought that they’d have done that first.
C: Well the bodies were already dead… At this point, the Native American guides, Luis and Salvador, do flee – presumably because they think ‘Uh oh, we’re next’.
A: ‘We don’t have any ties to this party’. Yeah fair.
C: And I think that’s probably a fair thing for them to do. But because Stanton’s also dead, remember they abandoned him, this leaves them with no members who know the route, and they don’t have that compass. So now they’re lost.
C: Jay Fosdick, who is Franklin Graves’ son-in-law, is the next to die and is eaten by the other party members – including his wife Sarah.
A: Gastronomic incest! Well not quite, but we’re working towards it.
C: Eddy manages to shoot a deer – allegedly – which is also eaten. I’m sure Eddy shot a deer. I don’t mean to cast aspersions.
A: I mean I think I started it. Now shit is real enough that I’m like, unless they’re accidentally shooting each other, I’ll give them a bit of leeway.
C: Mmhmm. The Forlorn Hope have been gone from camp three weeks now. They have no food. They’re lost. Back at the camp, Margaret Reed led an attempt with her daughters to try and leave. They didn’t make it very far. Unfortunately, in leaving, they decided ‘as we’re going, we’ll eat the rest of our hides’. They were using the hides as a roof, so when they return they no longer have a place to live. They had to split themselves up among the remaining families.
A: And obviously that’s going to be a bit of an imposition.
C: A bit of an imposition, especially as they’re out of food. The Breens take in two of the girls. They’re doing relatively better, they’ve still got some food left. Patrick doesn’t want food to be shared with the Reed children. His wife Peggy does sneak them food, but they’re not gonna be doing so well in the Breens’ cabin. The Forlorn Hope are now beginning to contemplate murder. So – not according to Eddy – there are reports now that Eddy has decided he will try to lure Mary Graves away to kill her. But Eddy in his turn accuses William Foster (who is Levinah Murphy’s son-in-law) of trying to murder three of the women for food. Upon hearing Foster say this, Eddy threw a club to him and took out his own knife and suggested they fight to the death and eat the–
A: Oh for goodness’ sake.
C: He’s got a one track mind here.
A: He does.
C: But they’re separated before they can actually kill each other. The party then come across some tracks. The tracks of Luis and Salvadore. They find them almost frozen to death, and Foster decides to just finish the job and shoot them. So it’s the only reported intentional murder in the Donner Party story. And Foster, despite surviving – spoilers: Foster comes out ok – despite that, he doesn’t face any legal action or condemnation. Is it because it’s a survival situation, or is it because Luis and Salvadore aren’t white? Make up your own mind there.
A: That’s not an overly difficult one to put two and two together to make five.
C: So having consumed poor Luis and Salvadore, the Forlorn Hope then stumble upon a village of the Sierra Miwok – who are more Native Americans from the area – who kindly shelter them, give them food, and help them get back to Johnson’s Ranch. It’s some interesting race relations going on here really. So it’s a month and a day since they set out, and they finally get to Johnson’s Ranch, which is the nearest habitation on that side of the mountains. So of the 17 who set out, only seven have made it to the other side. So the survivors are: two men, Eddy and Foster; and all five of the women.
A: Oh ok.
C: I don’t know if now’s the time to bring up the talking point of gender in survival cannibalism situations.
A: I mean we’ve already touched on race, let’s do all of the big issues.
C: The big issues… Yeah, so at this point and later, the women of the Donner Party do survive a lot better than the men. Any suggestions for why that may be, Alix?
A: I say this like I didn’t read up on it like a swot. You have the fact that women store fat differently in their bodies – if we’re going along the ‘biological’ (inverted commas around that) line.
C: There’s also the idea that maybe the men were being manly men so–
A: Oh yes, they were cutting through the habitat and the women had to sit and wait and be looked after.
C: The women were riding in the carts whilst the men were stabbing each other and hitting each other with axes on accident. And that sort of thing.
A: Yeah, that’ll do it.
C: That’ll do it. There’s also age: so the men tend to marry younger wives, so the women are probably younger than their male counterparts. In an article I read by Eric Patton – it’s a 2011 article titled ‘When groups fall apart: the Donner Party disaster’ – Patton seems to imply that actually it may be that women are better at crisis management in a team-working situation! I don’t know whether I buy that one. So back at the lakes, more people are dying, including Philippine Keseberg’s son – so he’s the baby that was born just a few months back. That’s quite sad for her… obviously. One of the Murphy children dies. We’re at the end of January now, so it’s been a while – it’s understandable that people are petering off. After the Forlorn Hope have arrived back into the reachable world–
A: Into ‘civilisation’.
C: They’re sending relief parties. William Eddy, who was in the Forlorn Hope, is somehow recovered enough to walk back.
A: I mean I’ll give him that! That’s quite an undertaking.
C: He’s tenacious. So he’s going with a group of men captained by [bad American accent:] Reason Tucker. That’s a good name.
A: Reason Tucker…
C: Reason Tucker.
A: Reason Tucker.
C: Now, Reason actually has only just emigrated that summer, and he even travelled a little way with the Graveses before they split off to join the Donner Party. Just more evidence of the fact that it was a really slow cut-off. So again there’s more deaths going on back at camp. The survivors are so weak that they can’t even dispose of the bodies properly; they’re just dragging them out and putting a bit of snow on top of them. Which will come in handy later!
A: [Noise of disgust.]
C: But for now is just depressing that you’ve got all these corpses round camp. The Reeds’ lapdog (whose name is Cash) had survived until now, but now they do have to eat him.
A: He’s done very well.
C: He has!
A: He’s a good boy.
C: Such a good boy. Crickets is allegedly what he was eating.
A: That dog was not eating crickets. I’m sorry.
C: That’s the suggestion! The First Relief Party (with William Eddy) hit the snow and Eddy’s sent back to the ranch because–
A: Mind over matter only goes so far.
A: Are his face and hands still burnt from the fire?
C: Yeah. Seven of the relief party continue on, still with Reason Tucker. He motivated them by promising five dollars a day to each man out of his own purse. Reason Tucker, he’s another one who I’m counting as a hero of the story. So when the relief party do finally reach Truckee Lake – or Donner Lake, as it’s now called – they’re surprised that they actually see no signs of life. No one comes out to greet them at all. They have to go round shouting and calling people up, and finally the old widow Levinah Murphy pops her head out, and she asks [American accent:] “Are you men from California or do you come from Heaven?”
A: I feel I want to be like ‘oh they’re safe’ – I know they’re not safe.
C: Yeah, the problem is that everyone at camp is very weak, and they’ve gotta make it back across the mountains. Well, first of all, Tucker makes a very good decision (in my opinion) to not tell them what happened to the Forlorn Hope. He just says ‘the Forlorn Hope got back and sent us.’
A: Yeah I think that was probably wise.
C: He probably felt the death and the cannibalism might be a bit depressing to the survivors. So the First Relief Party are insisting that the survivors leave with them that day, because currently there’s no snow, they wanna just go.
But of course a lot of them aren’t able to travel – there are small children, and the mothers want to stay with them. Betsy Donner, for example, she sends her two older boys, but she keeps her eldest son to help her and she has lots of infants that she’s got to care for. George Donner is too ill to move after his arm issue – being hit with an axe by this brother – and his wife, despite being healthy enough to walk, insists on staying with him. Yeah. She sends her two step-daughters but has to keep her children. They do allegedly tell the relief party that if they don’t get any more food soon, then they will have to start on the corpses. They’ve already admitted it; it’s public knowledge at this point that it will happen.
23 emigrants total try to travel back with the First Relief Party. Most of them are children and teenagers. We’ve got Philippine Keseberg with her one remaining baby. She’s had to leave her husband behind – he’s the one with the injured foot who can’t walk. The one who kicked that guy off his wagon, now left behind himself.
People in the First Relief Party travelling back are now beginning to die off as they go through the snow. John Denton dies. Remember the grandma who died?
A: Oh yeah?
C: He made a headstone for her on the route. He’s quite popular. He knew he was dying, so – not wanting to hold the others back – he asked to be left behind. And Reason Tucker promised to come back for him, but of course they both knew that was a lie. Philippine’s remaining baby dies in the night and she wants to keep carrying it with her, and they have to have an argument with her to get her to put it down. It’s all very sad.
C: Back at the lake, it’s… Worse? Levinah Murphy allegedly confides in Patrick Breen that she intends to start eating the corpse of Milt Elliot, as long as the wolves haven’t already had him. And Breen writes in his diary [with an American accent:], “It is distressing”.
A: Well that’s an understatement! It’s all been, like, sunshine and roses up until now.
C: The Breens have to eat their dog, sadly. The dogs were doing quite well, they survived a long time.
A: Yeah I’m not quite sure how the dogs have survived this long.
C: The crickets, Alix! The crickets!
A: They were not eating crickets!
C: At some point over this period as well, the survivors at Alder Creek – so the Donners – they’ve reached a similar conclusion. Jacob Donner’s body is uncovered and, with his wife’s permission, eaten. In the future, the Donners are a bit elusive about this. So they will mostly insist that it was only the children that were ever fed human flesh.
A: Gastronomic incest.
C: Georgia Donner, who was five at the time, insists that yes she did eat human flesh, but she also adds that [in an American accent:] “I did not mean to include the larger children or the grown people, because I am not positive that they tasted of it”.
A: Well I mean she was only five. I can’t remember what I did when I was five. Like, I don’t think I ate people, but I don’t think I could testify that someone else did.
C: Either way, it’s difficult to say. She also recalls her aunt Betsy Donner asking her one day [American accent:], “What do you think I cooked this morning?” And the answer was ‘Mr. Shoemaker’s arm’.
A: Well I’m glad that they’ve still got a sense of humour.
C: Yeah. However, her little sister Eliza Donner, who was four at the time, insists that absolutely no one at Alder Creek did any kind of cannibalism at all.
A: She was four.
C: She was four. I think they probably had to eat bodies to get through that. Reason Tucker’s party, crossing the mountains – most of their food caches have been got into by animals, so they’re running low. So much so that Tucker begins to feed bits of his buckskin trousers to the children walking with him. He’s just a great guy, isn’t he? He’s like ‘eat these trousers that I am wearing right now’.
A: I mean there’s ‘give you the shirt off his back’ and then there’s literally ‘eat my trousers’.
C: He also gives up his shoelaces for a meal. I like this guy.
A: He’s a good man. You’re a good man, Reason Tucker.
C: The same afternoon after they’ve eaten the shoestrings from Reason’s own feet, they decide that they will send two people ahead to find supplies, and happily they run into a Second Relief Party coming to fetch them. Hooray! So great, they’ve got provisions, they’ve got back-up who are gonna go to the lake.
A: They’re crossing the ways, they exchange some food, they keep going. Things are on the up-and-up.
C: In the Second Relief Party, actually, it’s being led by James Reed.
C: So he sees his family for the first time since he was banished for doing that murder.
A: I mean he did do that murder.
C: He did, but he’s come back now, he’s got food. He’s very happy to see his family. And he learns that his other children are still back at camp, so he insists the Second Relief Party just push on – he’s got to go get the rest of his kids.
C: Fair. The First Relief Party get back safely to Johnson’s Ranch.
A: A majority success.
C: Majority success, especially considering a lot of them are children. There is one more life lost, though, you speak to soon.
A: Ah, I do.
C: When they get back to Johnson’s Ranch, there’s food there, and for the twelve-year-old boy William Hook, he just can’t control himself. He sneaks out at night; he just eats so much food, gets really ill, and does die the next morning. Because of course, if you’re on a starvation diet, your body can’t handle it anymore.
C: What are you gonna tell a twelve-year-old; they’re not gonna listen to you, are they?
A: He was always going to do that; he’d been on a starvation diet. He doesn’t understand the psychology of the human body.
C: Reed’s party now reach the lake camps. Or, just a bit off the lake camps, but they have to camp overnight to get there because of the snow. So he decides to send three of his guys ahead. These guys, two miles from the lake cabins they spot in the distance a party of ten Washoe Native Americans – a tribe local to the Great Basin area in the Sierra Nevada. And the Second Relief Party assume, completely without foundation, that these Washoe people have killed everyone at the lake camp. So these three just hide away for the night.
C: Of course, when they get there, they find that actually the Washoe haven’t irrationally murdered a bunch of starving children, because–
A: Why would they?
C: Yeah! Why would they? They’ve actually just been leaving some supplies at the lake camp; they just brought over some vegetables for them.
A: Bet they felt bad after that… Bet they didn’t.
C: No. Well it’s the only time since arriving at Truckee Lake that the Donner Party have reported contact with Native Americans, but if we then go to Native American oral history, the Washoe actually claim that they did try to help and kept encountering hostility. So, for example, on one occasion they left a deer carcass by the camp and then were shot at. It also possibly explains where this grizzly bear that Eddy claimed to have shot himself came from – Eddy in his weakened state and not a particularly good shot.
C: Convenient. That’s complete speculation! Of course, also after they’d been trying to bring food and being shot at, they would have also then seen the people eating human remains. So it’s kind of understandable if they then decided to keep their distance.
So the Second Relief reach camp and find nobody slaughtered. Apart from all the corpses that have been cannibalised, just lying around everywhere. Now there’s a very sensational report that Reed made later to the Illinois Journal, which I think… Selling your story for money maybe, there could be some exaggerations, but allegedly at Alder Creek they found the children of Jacob Donner eating his heart and liver raw with his blood all over their faces. There were human skulls found in the camp kettles – although archaeological teams have only ever found cooked animal bones. They haven’t found any cooked human bones, because probably the bodies were eaten raw because they were so desperate.
So, again, there’s a relief party at camp and the emigrants have to choose who will go back with the relief party and who can’t. George Donner’s infected arm still means he can’t go. Still, his wife insists she won’t leave without him. It’s noble. It’s also… She also decides to keep all five of her children with her.
A: Ok… That pushes it slightly over the line.
C: So 17 people go back with Reed in the end, including Elizabeth Graves and her children, and also the Breens and their children. But the Second Relief didn’t take enough rations with them – they left it all back at camp – and then also fall low. We’re in March now, by the way, this is the 5th of March.
A: So we’re– I’d say we’re nearly out of winter; we’re not nearly out of winter.
C: We’re in the mountains, unfortunately. In fact, as an advance party goes ahead to find a cache, there’s another blizzard overnight, and the Second Relief are forced to hunker down around a fire in a temporary camp that comes to be known as Starvation Camp.
A: Yep that’s good.
C: When the blizzard finally ends, most of them are too weak to go on, so only three survivors continue with Reed’s relief party. Thirteen people – mostly children – are left behind at Starved Camp to wait for help. Of course, they start to die off, and at last Mary Donner, who is seven years old at the time, suggests that they start eating the bodies – because, as she tells the Breens, they’ve already been doing it at Alder Creek. So why not continue now?
A: I mean… She’s got a sensible head on her shoulders. But also: seven.
C: Peggy Breen later insists that only Mary and the other children ate the bodies. Peggy Breen had nothing to do with it. A fully-grown woman is gonna be like ‘It was that child! Not me.’
A: ‘She started it!’
C: ‘She start-’ [Laughs] Well, back at camp, Reed left behind two rescuers to look after everyone: Charles Cady and Charles Stone. The Charlies. The Charlies decide that they will cut and run, so they tell Tamzene Donner, if she gives them $500, they’ll take her daughters back with them across the mountains. They then ditch the girls back at the lake cabins and go on with the money. They spot Starved Camp on the way and walk on past it!
C: They want to survive, but also… Ooh.
A: There’s ‘you want to survive’ and then there’s ‘let’s steal the money from these people and lie to them’. It’s not gonna have been that difficult to have just snuck off.
A: They didn’t need to do that.
C: So they catch up with Reed, who has… Reed was working with the Starved Camp Party and has now left them to go on for help. So the two Charlies meet up with Reed, and at the same time they all run into this guy called Woodworth, who is coming with another relief party. And then also, William Eddy and William Foster – who were part of the Forlorn Hope, and have been waiting back at the ranch – also happen to be coming through to the area to help.
A: Oh it’s like Piccadilly Circus!
C: Yeah it’s great, they all run into each other and they have a nice little parley.
A: I bet it’s not a nice little parley.
C: No… The two Williams (Eddy and Foster) both want to get back to find their children, who are still back at camp, and – as far as Reed knows – their children are still alive, so they are very eager to get through and save them. So seven men set out to go on a rescue mission, including Charles Stone – one of the Charlies who cut and run. So maybe he’s feeling a bit guilty now, I don’t know. Or maybe, with all these other people telling him to go back, he’s given into the pressure.
A: That does feel a bit, ‘Oh so you’re going to join, aren’t you Charlie?’ He’s like ‘Yeah, of course, I definitely want to rescue these people’.
C: Yeah. ‘Oh hi Tamzene. Ah, yeah, your daughters that are still here… Huh.’ So this Third Relief Party finally reach Starved Camp around the 11th of March. Amazingly, eleven out of thirteen people are still alive there. They’ve been eating the remaining bodies.
A: That’s still quite impressive, because most of them are children, aren’t they?
C: Yeah, most of them are children. The Williams don’t want to stay; they keep going. They’re going to go get their sons. They only leave three rescuers behind to carry back the Starved Camp survivors. One rescuer takes one kid, one rescuer takes another kid, and then another – a 220 pound man called John Stark – he uses a relay system to single-handedly transport nine people, including the two adult Breens, all the way back to safety.
A: Another stand-out player in this hot mess of an endeavour.
C: Yep, you’ve done well, John Stark. So when Eddy and Foster reach the lake camps, it’s to sad news: both their sons have died. And been eaten. According to one account – probably his own – Eddy is so upset that he threatens to kill Keseberg over the cannibalism. At the lake camps, they still find four children alive, there are also some of the adults and some of the original rescuers who stayed behind.
Keseberg refuses to leave; Levinah Murphy’s too weak; Tamzene Donner… She’s joined the girls at the lake camp – her daughters – leaving her sick husband at Alder Creek with a few other dying family members. So she’s now gonna say, ‘I won’t come back with you, rescuers, I have to go check whether my husband’s alive or not.’ But the rescuers won’t wait for her. They leave, so the last – spoilers – the last that Tamzene’s daughters see of her, is her walking back up to Alder Creek to try and find her husband. She is a very loyal wife. Too loyal, really. The rest of the survivors with the Third Relief manage to get back fine, it’s all good.
So we’ve just got these few people, stragglers, left at Alder Creek and the lake camps. So there’s one final relief party (we’re at the end now), the Fourth Relief Party; they don’t actually expect to find any survivors, because it’s late March, early April. They don’t reach camp until the 17th of April, so they are expecting to just retrieve valuables for the families.
And the only person they find left alive is Keseberg. They report in the California Star that they find mutilated bodies all about; they found George Donner’s head in a kettle with the skull cracked open to get at the brains; they found an uneaten frozen ox carcass. And when they ask Keseberg why, he says it’s because it was too dry, and humans make for better eating. Allegedly. When they search Keseberg, they find valuables on him and gold, and when they put a noose around his neck and threaten to hang him, he reveals that actually he’s been hoarding George Donner’s gold and has buried it away. This is all good journalism.
A: Yes, it’s a great story.
C: Interestingly, Keseberg’s version is a bit different.
C: Yes, he claims that he resisted cannibalism for as long as he could, until there was nothing else to do. In fact, he writes that he felt [in an American accent:] “an unutterable repugnance when I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse.” Which sounds more… Believable.
A: Yeah, that is a very common reaction. The amount of stories that we’ve read – that is more believable than the sort of “Mwahaha, I am going to eat all these people, take all their gold, and rule the world!”
C: “In my little camp all on my own.”
C: He also claims that when Tamzene came back to Alder Creek and found her husband dead, she entrusted Keseberg with her belongings and she asked that he look after her money and save it for her children. Which is why he buried it away to come back to later. So he makes it back safely, but his reputation is irreparably damaged. He does manage to sue his rescuers for defamation and wins the case. He’s paid a whole one dollar in damages.
C: And his name is just dragged through the dirt forevermore; he never really recovers from that. As for the rest of the survivors? As I said, some of them distance themselves, some of them continue insisting they did– So Eliza Donner wrote a memoir about it in her sixties, in which she is claiming that she definitely ate all these bodies.
A: All of them, all by herself!
C: All of them. And the other thing is that the newspapers, originally they were quite sympathetic to the Donner Party, but they later start blaming it on mis-management, calling them lazy, contentious. Is that fair?
A: It’s very easy, sitting behind a quill and by the light of a candle, with a pork pie, to be going, “Oh yes, these people certainly should have been doing X, Y, and Z.” Does Hastings ever get a little bit more of the blame?
C: Hastings doesn’t continue to promote his cut-off. He has some more business ventures; some are successful, some aren’t. Really, he gets out ok. He lives his life.
A: Well good for Hastings! Yeah, I don’t think it’s quite fair. The Donner Party has this really weird reputation when it comes to cannibalism. I’m talking about musicals again, but there are two musicals about the Donner Party. You have so many non-fiction books, but you also have fictitious retellings, and it’s one of the pivotal cases of survival cannibalism, definitely in American history. I know when we were talking about this podcast, Donner Party was something that people knew off the top of their heads would be covered, because it stopped being about what happened and turned into this sensationalised newspaper report about, “Oh, he buried their gold and they were cooking their skulls and they would rather eat human flesh than all of the caches of food that they had” – which they didn’t. So, I don’t know, I think it’s interesting to note why the Donner Party has this reputation.
C: Hmm. And I think, obviously there are cases of mis-management and stupid decisions, but it’s not their fault that Hastings lied to them and they believed him; it’s not their fault that winter came quite early that year. It’s accidents that will happen along the trail, and for other pioneers these kind of accidents didn’t slow them down because they were taking the main route.
A: Because, at its heart, it was– you can say the trail. If they hadn’t taken the trail, they wouldn’t have had that extra month on top of their journey, so they may very well have passed the points they needed to. They might not have had the added trauma of the loss of their oxen, they might not have had various accidents that befell because of that particular route. So, yeah it’s the question of how much is it their (quote/unquote) ‘fault’, and how much is it circumstance? The conversation that they had about survival cannibalism, even in their own sources, doesn’t come too much out of left field. It was sort of a case of, ‘tragedy has happened; we need to survive’.
A: So they have some context. Survival cannibalism happens. The Donner Party isn’t the first example.
C: No, they’ve probably read about it in newspapers, or heard about it in stories.
A: I just think the Donner Party’s really interesting when it comes to stories about cannibalism, because like I say, it’s the big one.
A: And I don’t know whether lots of people actually know what happened at Donner Lake… There is a picnic site.
C: It’s a resort. And it was a resort in the late 19th Century; people would go there on holiday even just recently following the tragedy.
A: So we’re part of a long history of engaging with these topics… So that was Episode One!
C: That’s the story of the Donner Party.
A: And, well, what I think we’ve learnt is that these are going to be longer episodes than we’d planned.
C: There’s definitely a lot to chew over there.
A: [Noise of disgust]. I heard that.
[Outro music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Thank you for listening to our first ever episode of Casting Lots, where we have been digging in deep into the Donner Party.
C: Next time, we’ll be looking at a tragedy in the Andes.
[Outro music continues]
A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.
C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.
A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Riley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.
[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]