Manage episode 259813501 series 2659594
Is survival cannibalism illegal? After the crew of the Mignonette turn to the custom of the sea, they find themselves embroiled in a landmark 19th Century court case. The status of maritime cannibalism in British law will never be the same again.
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.
- Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 – 1907). (1884). ‘The wreck of the Mignonette’, Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 – 1907), 15 November. Available at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/71020081/5045099#
- Hanson, N. (1999). ‘The custom of the sea’, Independent, 6 October. Available at: https://search.proquest.com/docview/311526455
- Hibbard, A. (2019). ‘Cannibalism and the late-Victorian adventure novel: The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens’, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 62(3), pp. 305-327. Available at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/721841/summary
- Kidd-Hewitt, D. (2017). ‘Homicide By Natural Necessity: The Mignonette Tragedy’, David Kidd-Hewitt, 6 November. Available at: https://davidkiddhewitt.wordpress.com/2017/11/06/homicide-by-natural-necessity-the-mignonette-tragedy/
- Moreton, C. (1996). ‘He wanted some adventure on the high seas. His shipmates ate him’, Independent, 28 July. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/he-wanted-some-adventure-on-the-high-seas-his-shipmates-ate-him-1330828.html.
- The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens. (1884). 14 QBD 273 DC. Available at: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/1884/2.html
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]
C: Welcome to Episode Eight, where we’re going to be talking about the Mignonette.
[Intro music continues]
C: Alix, would you like to hear the tale of the Mignonette?
A: I would! I hear it’s got a fascinating legal case.
C: It has! This is one of our latest- in fact, it is our latest cannibalism at sea. And the reason it’s interesting is because it is a landmark case in the history of survival cannibalism.
C: Exactly. So, I’ll tuck into it.
A: Take a bite.
C: On the 19th of May 1884, the 52-foot yacht Mignonette sails from Southampton, bound for Sydney. That’s a long voyage for a little yacht.
A: That is quite far.
C: Especially, it- It’s an in-shore boat. It’s not designed for sea voyages.
A: Well, that’s sensible.
C: It’s also not new. It’s recently been repaired and refitted.
A: I mean, that’s fine.
C: That’s fine. That happens with boats and ships.
A: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t think that’s a point against it.
C: And the crew have been hired to deliver the yacht to its new owner – an Australian lawyer. He’s called John Want. He won’t come up again, really, but-
A: He Wants his boat.
C: John Wants his boat! So it’s actually a very small crew. Four men. So we’ve got Captain Tom Dudley, mate Ed Stephens, seaman Ned Brooks, and a 17-year-old cabin boy, Richard Parker – who lied and said he was 18 at the time so he could come along.
A: Well, he wants to travel the world. Have some adventure. It’s not gonna go well.
C: No, I think you can guess what’s gonna happen from the fact that I’ve stated his age and given you that-
A: A little bit of personal background.
C: Yeah, the emotional tie.
A: We’re not emotionally manipulating our audience at all.
C: Because the Mignonette isn’t designed for sea voyages, Dudley quite sensibly decides to take the longer South Atlantic route, which keeps them out of choppier seas. They can avoid the Meditteranean winds. They stop at Madeira, then go down the west coast of Africa, then cut south-southwest across the South Atlantic, with aims of passing South America and sort of joining up with Australia on the Sydney side.
A: Because the world is a globe.
C: Yes. It is. We’ve just – for the listeners at home – spent about ten minutes looking at Google Maps, scratching our heads and going ‘I don’t understand’, but-
A: ‘But it’s not in that direction! That’s not the ocean!’ We’re professionals.
C: As it turns out, the world doesn’t end where the map does!
A: [Laughs.] But we got there. We know what we’re talking about. And hopefully they picked up some nice wine in Madeira. Like the crew of the Medusa.
C: It doesn’t come up. Anyway.
A: Bet they did.
C: Like I said, they’re heading for South America. Somewhere between the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena, they’re caught in an unexpected storm on the 5th of July. So it’s really unexpected – in fact, Parker (the cabin boy) is still below deck making a cup of tea, when a wave smashes a hole in the side of the yacht. That’s the phrasing used on the court case. I don’t know… Are waves powerful enou- I mean-
C: I guess a powerful wave.
A: It’s a big strong wave.
C: The big strong wave.
A: Just punches a hole in the boat. See, now, to be perfectly honest, what I’m picturing is- Did you see, in your youth, the film animation of The Mousehole Cat?
A: Just- Puff.
C: Yeah, big sea cat.
A: Big sea cat, having a little play around with the boat. Ah, Mousehole Cat’s good. Not thematically appropriate at all to this podcast, but if you’ve got children or you like pretty things, just watch The Mousehole Cat.
C: Or read the book. I had-
A: Or read the book.
C: I had two copies of the book ‘cause I loved it so much.
C: Yeah… They only have five minutes to escape in a thirteen-foot dinghy before the Mignonette sinks completely. So.
A: Oh damn. Okay.
C: Yeah, it’s a quick one. So they’re all unharmed, luckily, but they haven’t managed to bring aboard fresh water, and the only food that was already in the dinghy to begin with are two tins of turnips.
A: Does Parker have his cup of tea?
C: I think that he was still boiling the kettle…
A: That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard in recording this entire podcast.
C: The tragedy.
A: The kettle was still boiling! Just whistling as it goes down.
C: But luckily they did manage to bring some navigational equipment. They’ve got a chronometer, sextant, and a compass. Quick thinking there.
A: Do they have a map?
C: …It’s not mentioned.
A: Probably not.
C: Probably not. So they manage to scavenge some bits of the yacht and create a sea anchor to keep the boat stable in the high seas, and they improvise a sail out of three shirts, an oar, and a bit of plank. They’ve converted the dinghy into something maneuverable.
A: They’re prepared.
C: Yeah. They’re doing pretty well, actually. Even so, the boat is-
A: Well, compared to the Medusa.
C: Compared to the Medusa they’re doing really well. Even so, the boat is constantly full of sea water, and – worse – they’re surrounded by sharks. Which they have to fight away with oars.
A: I’d like to point out, sharks get a very bad reputation. Because, I’m just gonna point out, we’ve got some open bags of food for this recording – very inappropriate – if we were sharks and those were people? Perfectly natural that we’d eat them.
A: Actually not true, I’m really slandering sharks here. Leave sharks alone. More sharks are killed by people than people killed by sharks.
C: Still, I think it’s probably quite scary for the four dudes on the boat.
A: I mean yes, but I’ve gone shark-diving. I went shark-diving with a lovely tiger shark called Tinkerbell.
A: Who was lovely.
C: Parker also goes shark-diving, but not intentionally.
C: Um, he falls into the sea, but Dudley does save him from drowning. Dudley is in fact the only one who can swim, out of the four of them. That’s not unusual.
A: It’s not. But it’s still a good choice of crew.
C: Knowing the importance of rationing what they have, for three days they eat only one of the two turnip tins. So they’re being sensible about it, and pacing themselves. On day four they manage to catch a turtle.
A: Or is it a duck?
C: They catch an aquatic animal. By now, they’re severely dehydrated ‘cause they don’t have any water at all, so they drink its blood with gusto, and then consume the rest along with the turnips.
A: A nice turnip and turtle bloody stew.
C: Yummm. On day twelve, they’re out of all their food – turtles gone, turnips gone – they’re drinking their own urine. Occasionally they can catch a little rainwater in their oilskin capes, but nowhere near enough.
A: Yeah.. That’s the problem with relying on rainwater.
C: Maybe because he’s the youngest, Parker is the first to give into the temptation to drink seawater.
A: Don’t do it!
C: And by day sixteen, he is delirious from the dehydrating effects of the salt.
A: Mate, you can drink a tiny bit, but just no- Stop it.
C: Sounds like he’s-
A: Everyone knows this!
C: Not Parker, I guess.
A: Well he does now.
C: On the eighteenth day, the three men discuss the ‘custom of the sea’. They’re not actually discussing casting lots at this point.
A: Name drop.
C: They’re just discussing cannibalism in general.
A: They’re discussing, perhaps, the previous stories. Because they– Well, obviously didn’t listen to our podcast – but these are key stories in survival cannibalism history. Just as we’re talking about them for education and entertainment, these were well-known in the 19th Century. They’ll have known about the Essex, about the Luxborough; they will know what comes next.
C: Instead of casting lots, their suggestion – or rather, the suggestion of specifically Dudley and Stephens – is to eat the weakest of the number. Which is Parker, delirious with dehydration.
A: I’m assuming Parker isn’t taking an active role in this discussion.
C: Yep. Parker is very significantly not involved in the discussion, and although it sounds like the men are vaguely speaking about hypothetically eating whoever happens to be the weakest, it’s clear to all of them who that weakest person is. Brooks objects to this. Now, Brooks comes out of this looking quite good, and I’ll get into – later on – how the stories of the three surviving men– Oh, spoilers.
C: How the stories of the surviving men differ from each other and do contain some contradictions. So Brooks vetoes this, he says “not happening”. The next day, Captain Dudley suggests casting lots.
A: Name drop! Cheers, guys.
C: But again, Brooks refuses and says that’s wrong. And again, Parker isn’t consulted about this – his opinion on casting lots. Although it’s possible he’s in a coma by this point. Again, the sources are contradictory. I’ll get into that in a minute. Finally, the next day, the 25th of July, Dudley decides he can’t wait any longer. So, according to his own account, he offers the following justifications to Stephens, in his words: “What is to be done? I believe the boy is dying. You have a wife and five children, I have a wife and three children.” So-
A: Well, you’re not winning the Top Trumps of children there, are you mate?
C: So it’s clearly another of the Utilitarian situations where he’s justifying it because Parker doesn’t have dependents, and is therefore the least worthy of surviving?
A: Oh, it’s- It’s always just quite uncomfortable.
C: Of course, they could just wait until Parker dies naturally, because they think he’s pretty close to death anyway. There was a belief back in the day that drinking seawater was fatal.
A: I mean, it’s not done Parker any favours.
C: No. Obviously one can recover from it, but it was thought that one would not. But the real problem is that, if they do that – remember that they’re all severely dehydrated – if they wait for Parker to die naturally, then his blood might end up congealing, getting thicker, and they’re not gonna get as much hydration from his body.
A: They wanna drink the blood, and the best way to drink blood is if it’s fresh.
C: Exactly. Dudley tells Brooks to go to bed, and makes a signal to Stephens that Brooks interprets to mean “we’re gonna kill Parker”. So Brooks sees this, but still decides to, like, go to bed.
A: Well, plausible deniability, much, mate?
C: I guess. He hides beneath some oilskins and, by his own account, tries to go to sleep and doesn’t see the deed happening.
C: Yeah, he definitely in his account wants to remain very absolved of guilt in this, compared to the other two.
A: Why would he say he saw the signal, then?
C: Exactly! It’s a strange one, and there are some more contradictions coming up between the three men’s different accounts of Parker’s death.
A: That adds more guilt to him. Because if he just was told to go to bed, and was like “yeah okay I’m going to bed”, and then “oh my gosh, the murder’s happened!” I mean, we still wouldn’t believe it. But it does seem odd, especially – not to spoil anything – but it will come up in a court of law.
C: I think perhaps he’s trying to show that it’s Dudley who instigates it? He’s trying to make sure the blame is pointed at Dudley.
C: By saying he’s seen that. Maybe.
A: Yeah, it doesn’t cast him in a good light.
C: According to one newspaper report, Dudley asks Stephens to hold the boy’s feet whilst he does the deed. But if, as previously claimed, Parker is in a coma, why would you need to hold him still? I don’t understand that.
A: Did they know he was in a coma? Because if they just thought he was unconscious, if someone did try and kill you, that might… Kickstart some survival instincts?
C: They’ve claimed he was in a coma. Or, at least, the legal case against them says that Parker was in a coma at the time.
A: Yeah, okay.
C: So, yeah, it’s strange. And interestingly, in Dudley’s account, which he later gives to the newspapers and is published, he claims that Stephens is actually at the stern at the time of death – e.g. on the opposite side of the dinghy. So couldn’t be holding the boy’s feet.
C: Is it that Stephens helped and Dudley is trying to protect him, or that Stephens didn’t help but Brooks is trying to implicate him?
A: It’s, oh…
C: Yeah it’s confusing.
A: We need diagrams.
C: There are actually some published woodcuttings and such. After a quick prayer for forgiveness-
A: Oh, well I’m sure it’s fine then!
C: Dudley holds his penknife to Parker’s throat and says, “Richard, my boy, your time has come” – according to the account he gives to The Times.
A: I- You just-
C: Yep, interestingly, ten days later, The Times adds a little exchange, claiming that Parker responded with, “What, me, sir?”, to which Dudley answered, “Yes my son.” So is that just imaginative journalistic storytelling, or is that what Dudley’s told them? And at that point, is Parker actually fully conscious at the time of death? I have no idea.
A: No. I mean, it’s very sensationalist. Being able to have that exchange, and having a sort of very waiflike innocence.
C: Yeah. Weirdly, none of this comes up in the court case, this confusion about what actually happened.
A: Okay, that is strange.
C: Yeah. So then Dudley draws the penknife across Parker’s throat and, in his own words (sorry, it’s a bit gory): “The blood spurted out, and we caught it in a bailer, and we drank the blood while it was warm.” While he refused to take part in the killing, Brooks is happy enough to have a drink with the other two men.
A: Oh, so he was definitely ‘asleep’.
A: Because if you’re not seeing what is happening, and then, “oh yeah, but I’m around to drink the still-warm blood” – you have to, first of all, surely hear what’s happening. It’s not that large of a dinghy. And second of all, you have to understand what’s happened, allow yourself to have engaged with that enough in your head that you are in a place that you will partake, and then get over there and join in.
C: Exactly. Following this, they eat the liver and the heart, and then the rest of the body eventually. Dudley tells The Times, “We all was like mad wolfs who should get the most and for men fathers of children to commit such a deed we could not have our right reason.”
A: I’d like to point out here, we have covered many cases of survival cannibalism where people have acted rationally and have had their wits about them, and have acted with respect and propriety towards the dead.
C: Four days later, the boat is picked up by a German freighter, the Montezuma. The men are taken to Falmouth, and at the customs house, Dudley tells the entire tale, thinking that – as in previous maritime cases – they won’t be held legally accountable, because it’s the ‘custom of the sea’ and they had to do it to survive.
A: Of course, there have been cases where there have been people accused, but these have always – up until then – been dropped.
C: Yeah. Dudley is wrong. So, he spills all, and then is very surprised to find that he and Stephens are gonna be tried for homicide. We’re at a time where Victorians are more concerned than ever with things that are unseemly and ‘un-English’ specifically, and the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, seizes on the case to make a legal example of the custom of the sea. Harcourt is very keen to set a legal precedent here, so he works to make the case go his way – to declare the defendants guilty of murder – and make sure that in future the ‘necessity defence’, as it’s known, won’t be something that’s admissible in a court of law.
A: Which goes to show that it has been admissible in a court of law previously.
C: Yes, but with slight variances that are gonna be used as loopholes later in the case.
A: Oh yeah, like a nice legal loophole in terms of cannibalism.
C: The initial trial is in November, and Harcourt replaces the original judge with one of his choosing.
A: Okay, this is a little bit dodgy.
A Little bit dodge.
C: Then the judge pressures the jury to make a ‘special verdict’, where, instead of finding the men either guilty or innocent, they merely pronounce the facts and then pass the decision up to a higher court. So this is a very strange legal thing, the ‘special verdict’, which hasn’t been used for over a century, I think, so it’s a bit… Bullshit. [Laughs.] So it’s a bit sketchy.
A: Yeah, there’s not an awful lot of, um-
C: I think it is like that in law, that there’s a lot of archaic things that you can make use of, and that people do make use of, but they’re not generally expected to be made use of.
A: It’s all very convenient, that all of this is coming together, that we can do all of this ‘cause we definitely want this rigged jury and this outcome. Because it’s also- I just wanna say that a lot of the other custom of the sea cases that we’ve covered: there has normally been at least a token effort to actually casting lots, or that the various survivors have all maintained that lots were cast, shall we say? That is part of the custom of the sea. Their defence is slightly on shaky ground with out-and-out murder.
C: Yeah, but the ‘necessity defence’, as it stands, when it’s been previously used in court – it’s been used in a context of if two sailors go overboard and they’re sharing a plank and only one person can have the plank, if one sailor pushes the other off, that’s considered acceptable and not homicide. So that’s the necessity defence, and that’s what the defendant is trying to extrapolate from to create a defence for this case.
A: It’s not quite the same.
A: Very Titanic, though.
C: Yeah… That’s a whole different ending to the Titanic, the cannibalism one! The higher court hear the case on the 4th of December, and they unanimously find Dudley and Stephens guilty of murder. So I’ve got just some excerpts from the long court records. The court stenographer writes: “This is clear, that the prisoners put to death a weak and unoffending boy upon the chance of preserving their own lives by feeding upon his flesh and blood after he was killed, with the certainty of depriving him of any possible chance of survival.”
A: Well, I mean, he’s not wrong.
C: Lord Coleridge, the Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench, who is the leading judge in this decision, says: “Though law and morality are not the same […] yet the absolute divorce of law from morality would be of fatal consequence; and such divorce would follow if the temptation to murder in this case were to be held by law an absolute defence of it. To preserve one’s life is generally speaking, a duty, but it may be the plainest and highest duty to sacrifice it. [A duty] from which in no country, least of all, it is to be hoped, in England, will men ever shrink.”
A: “British men couldn’t do such a thing!”
C: Exactly, so the agenda of positioning cannibalism as un-English is very clear here, as well as the consciousness that it will be a landmark case, and that whichever way they rule will be used as a precedent in future cases with similar circumstances. I guess with that logic, you could point out that it was just as much Parker’s duty to sacrifice his life, if it’s the duty sometimes to sacrifice your life, but of course the question was never put to him, and he was possibly unconscious at the time. So I suppose we won’t ever know whether he would have agreed to casting lots if he’d been asked.
A: We know that people do – it comes up time and again that people are willing to offer themselves, they’re willing to offer their bodies after they’re dead, they’re willing to join in with the casting lots. It’s not an unheard of rationale for people to be willing to sacrifice themselves for others, but I do rather think they have to have the choice in that: either they need the choice when they’re alive, or they’re already dead.
C: It’s interesting that Dudley and Stephens never seem to think to claim that they cast lots, or that Parker perhaps said “eat me when I die”, or that Parker died of natural causes. And I know they’ve got Brooks telling the truth-
C: Possibly, to try and make himself look not guilty, but if all three of them come off as not guilty, surely that’s better to Brooks than if only he out of three comes off as not guilty?
A: It’s an odd shout that goes on there. Because, I think we’re quite safe to say, there have been circumstances where people haven’t quite told the truth about lots being cast – let me think of perhaps the Peggy from 1765 – so it’s not unheard of to lie. But I suppose now we’re looking at a court of law; this isn’t the same thing as just telling a newspaper your preferred version of events – there is a respect and an importance given to telling the truth before court.
C: Yeah. Dudley and Stephens are sentenced to death by hanging, but the lead judge recommends that an appeal should be made to Queen Victoria to intercede with mercy. So presumably what this means is that the judge thinks that they should be looked upon with leniency, but doesn’t want to legitimise that within the legal field – he wants that to be an act of mercy by the Queen.
A: That makes sense.
C: So you can’t use it then as a defence later. Victoria does commute the sentence to six months in prison.
A: Six months?!
C: Yeah! At Holloway Prison, actually, just up the road from where I live.
A: Sorry, I’m now- Okay. Six months.
C: It’s heavily commuted from death penalty, yeah.
C: And, in fact, even more significantly, Richard Parker’s older brother William makes a point of shaking both Dudley and Stephens by the hand in public, and he also has an extra line added to Parker’s memorial stone: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
C: So he clearly forgives them for what has happened.
A: I mean, I can understand from a sort of rational point of view, needing to come to that acceptance, and understanding that this does happen at sea – it does feel like a very big action. Not quite taking the higher ground, but being able to acknowledge and move on from that. It does leave a sort of strange resonance that that’s what’s been taken, but we can’t know William Parker. We can’t know – especially the brother of a cabin boy, in contrast to the captain, there’s a class element there going on as well. And I’m not sure there’s much more that William Parker could have done.
C: So that’s the story of the Mignonette, which is important, as I said, because it is that change in the legal atmosphere, and we don’t see so many examples of cannibalism at sea past that point. And, in fact, the scholar Andrea Hibbard suggests in her article, ‘Cannibalism and the late-Victorian adventure novel’-
C: Such a good article. Um, she suggests that in fact there’s lots of cannibalism at sea in the 20th Century, including definitely in the world wars, but it’s just not reported because now there’s a precedence of legal action against them. She doesn’t explain where she’s got that statistic from, of there definitely being cannibalism, but I guess it’s a fair assumption to make. Where I just want to leave it, is on this wonderful headline summary from the Independent in 1996 – so this is published for the centenary of Parker’s death – the title is: ‘He wanted some adventure on the high seas. His shipmates ate him.”
A: Well, it’s succinct, to say the least.
C: Why did we bother with this whole episode when that would have done?
[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Thank you for listening to our episode on the Mignonette. In summary: don’t do cannibalism, kids, you’ll get arrested.
C: Join us next time to learn about the fiery fate of the emigrant ship Cospatrick.
[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]