In A Nutshell
In 1838, Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, debuted to a fairly lukewarm reception. Poe’s episodic tale was bashed for being overly violent and sensationalized. In one telling episode, a young man named Richard Parker is murdered and eaten by his fellow sailors to stave off hunger. Uncannily, fact followed fiction down to the details just a few decades later.
The Whole Bushel
When Edgar Allan Poe completed his novel, he couldn’t have had any idea that his grim depiction of the “custom of sea,” would so closely foretell the future. Not quite 50 years after The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was published, a wealthy Australian lawyer arranged the fateful voyage which would forever tie his ship to one of history’s most infamous cases of maritime cannibalism.
Jack Want purchased the Mignonette in England in 1884 and hired a crew to sail the yacht for him to his home in Australia. Naturally, the crew was a quartet, mirroring the number of survivors Poe had written about. Among the crew’s number was a young man named Richard Parker.
The Mignonette ran into trouble not long after setting sail. In the southern Atlantic, she faced a vicious storm, which revealed the ship’s varied weaknesses, chief among them its lack of a watertight hull. Though the ship rapidly sank, the crew was able to board and launch a dinghy. Unfortunately, the severity of the storm and rapid sinking of the Mignonette gave the men no chance to take with them any provisions or navigational equipment.
Even though the African coast was only a few hundred miles away, the Mignonette‘s crew possessed no gear with which to get there. Their only hope would be to drift with the current the thousands of miles to South America. The catastrophic storm had struck in July; without a significant supply of water, the entire crew immediately suffered from dehydration, slaking their thirst only with urine and the blood of a captured sea turtle much as the crew did in Poe’s fiction.
For three weeks, the lifeboat drifted and the condition of all aboard worsened, especially that of Parker, who had given in to drinking seawater. The men were starving, Parker was seemingly dying, and the conversation turned to cannibalism. Unlike that of the forlorn survivors in Pym, the men formerly of the Mignonette, decided against the casting of lots to determine who would sacrifice. Parker was only semi-conscious and the other three aboard decided among themselves to murder Parker.
Less than a week after they murdered Parker and began to eat him, a passing ship rescued the three survivors, still over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi) from the South American coastline. The rescuers’ ship bore the name Moctezuma, for the king of the cannibalistic Aztec nation. The ordeal wasn’t over yet. Upon their return to England, the survivors found themselves embroiled in a murder trial of O.J.-esque proportions. The crucial question being, “does necessity constitute a valid defense for murder?”
The proceedings dominated the public consciousness and the survivors were the beneficiaries of a great deal of public sympathy. Legally, the answer was a resounding “no,” however, and two of the three survivors were found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. The Mignonette survivors’ trial remains the only one of its kind, as the failure to draw lots constituted conspiracy. Without the element of chance, the proceedings aboard the lifeboat of the Mignonette were little more than barbarity.