16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History

Steve - November 30, 2018

Cannibalism is widely regarded as one of the last great taboos of human behavior. Despite our willingness as a collective society to indulge in the meat of other species, the consumption of our own kind remains a condemned and barbaric act, for which those who partake are shunned and reviled feared. Not all instances of cannibalism stem from hate or evil, however, many instances throughout history are products of desperation and even love. Yet there are also an equal number of instances wherein the distasteful act served the purpose of cruel and selfish savagery.

Here are 16 instances of cannibalism through history that will make you consider vegetarianism:

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Armin Meiwes, The Rotenburg Cannibal. Daily Star.

16. Armin Meiwes, the Rotenburg Cannibal, murdered and ate a man he had met online and who had given willing permission for Meiwes’ gruesome actions

Armin Meiwes, also known as the Rotenburg Cannibal, is a German who garnered international attention for killing and cannibalizing a voluntary victim he had met online. Posting on The Cannibal Cafe online forum, stating that he was “looking for a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”, Meiwes connected with Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes, an engineer from Berlin, who accepted his proposal in March 2001. On March 9th, at Meiwes’ home in the town of Rotenburg, Meiwes and Brandes enacted their fantasy. The entire incident was filmed continuously across a four-hour period, with the video never released to the public. Brandes swallowed twenty sleeping pills and a bottle of cough syrup before Meiwes severed Brandes’ manhood with a knife. Finding the flesh too chewy to consume raw, Meiwes attempted to fry the appendage in a pan with salt, pepper, wine, and garlic, but accidentally burnt it. As a result, Meiwes chopped the remnants up and fed it to his dog.

Thereafter, Meiwes proceeded to read a Star Trek novella, whilst Brandes bled to death in his bath. After a prolonged period of agonizing death, Brandes was eventually stabbed by Meiwes in the throat before his corpse was hung on a meat hook. Freezing the body of his deceased collaborator, Meiwes consumed approximately 20 kilograms of Brandes’ flesh over the next ten months. In December 2002, after authorities were alerted to new advertisements posted online by Meiwes seeking fresh meat, a raid of his property discovered the remaining body parts and videotape. Initially convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison, Meiwes was retried on charges of murder in 2006 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He has subsequently expressed regret for his actions, committing to a vegetarian lifestyle, and encouraging others to “go for treatment, so it doesn’t escalate like it did with me”.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Le Radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of the Medusa), by Théodore Géricault (c. 1818-1819). Wikimedia Commons.

15. The survivors of the Méduse, abandoned floating on a raft off the coast of Africa in 1816, descended into violence, murder, and cannibalism to survive 13 days adrift at sea

The Méduse was a French frigate, launched in 1810 to fight in the Napoleonic Wars before being subsequently employed in 1816 as a transport for officials voyaging to Saint-Louis, Senegal, to re-establish formal French occupation under the First Peace of Paris. Captained by Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, a Royalist appointed for his political support despite having limited sailing proficiency or experience, in the course of the journey he incompetently navigated his charge into the Bank of Arguin, situated off the coast of modern-day Mauritania. This catastrophic failing resulted in the beaching of the frigate 50 kilometers from the mainland, demanding the abandonment of the ship. Evacuating the Méduse, the more than 400 passengers on board were unable to fit in the accompanying lifeboats and instead the panicked captain, fearing an impending storm, ordered approximately 150 people to travel on an improvised raft towed behind the frigate’s launches. After only a few miles the method was proving untenable, risking the lives of those aboard the lifeboats, and thus the launches cut the lines to abandon the raft in the open ocean.

With no means of steering or navigation, in addition to casks of wine instead of water for provisions, fights broke out almost immediately aboard the doomed inhabitants. Twenty men were killed or committed suicide on the first night, with dozens more killed from being washed overboard and from fighting in the days following; with only part of the raft not submerged, the survivors competed violently to gain position near the center. By the fourth day, just 67 people remained, whereupon they resorted to cannibalism for sustenance, whilst by the eighth the strongest threw the weak and wounded into the ocean to die. These fifteen survived another four days, before being rescued after 13 days at sea by the brig Argus, with a further 5 dying soon after. Captain Chaumareys was convicted by court-martial of incompetent and complacent navigation and of abandoning the Méduse before all her passengers had been taken off. Despite the conventional punishment of death, he was sentenced to only three years imprisonment for his actions.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Drawings of Alexander Pearce after his execution, by Thomas Bock (c. 1824). Wikimedia Commons.

14. Alexander Pearce murdered and ate multiple people whilst imprisoned on the island of Tasmania, claiming that the flesh of humans was better tasting than fish or pork

Alexander Pearce was an Irish convict sentenced in 1819 to penal transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, known today as Tasmania, for a period of seven years as punishment for “the theft of six pairs of shoes”. During his time in Tasmania, Pearce became a habitual criminal, eventually escaping his captivity on May 18, 1822, with a reward of £10 issued for his recapture; charged with absconding and forging an order, Pearce was sentenced to transportation to the penal colony at Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour. On September 20, 1822, Pearce, in collaboration with seven fellow convicts, escaped during day labor. After fifteen days on the run, the starving men drew lots to determine who was to be butchered for food whereupon Robert Greenhill, the self-appointed group leader, murdered the unlucky man with an ax. This act scared three of the companions, who fled back to the harbor. Allying himself with Greenhill to escape the ax himself, eventually it was just the pair left. Striking first, Pearce brutally murdered Greenhill and consumed his corpse. After 113 days, Pearce was eventually caught and imprisoned at Hobart before being sent back to Macquarie Harbour

Less than a year later, Pearce escaped for the second time. Accompanied by a young convict, Thomas Cox, Pearce was recaptured in less than ten days. Found with parts of Cox’s body in his pockets, despite still possessing edible rations, it became clear that Pearce had willfully murdered and ate his companion. Charged with murder, Pearce confessed he had killed and ate Cox because he was unable to swim across the King’s River. Duly convicted, Pearce was hung on July 19, 1824, at Hobart Town Gaol. Reportedly, his last words before his execution were: “Man’s flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork.”

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
An encampment of tents and covered wagons on the Humboldt River in Nevada (c. 1859). Wikimedia Commons.

13. The Donner Party, a group of pioneers stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the Winter of 1846-47, repeatedly resorted to cannibalism to survive

The Donner Party was a group of American pioneers who, in May 1846, formed a wagon train to journey from Independence, Missouri, to California. Unable to breach the pass due to earlier than expected snows, heavy snowfall at Truckee Lake, known today as Donner Lake, stranded the group in the mountains to face the winter. Struggling for food, with ox-hide bones boiled for soup and mice captured for meat, the party began to deteriorate rapidly. Eventually, the pioneers were forced to eat the very ox-hide roofs protecting them from the snows. In an act of desperation, a group of 17, known as the “Forlorn Hope” and including men, women, and children, attempted to cross the mountain pass, carrying six-days of rations each in the hope of reaching Bear Valley. Without food and lost, Patrick Dolan proposed one member of the group should volunteer themselves to feed the others. Ironically, Dolan himself died soon after whereupon he was butchered for meat.

Opposed to the cannibalism, although eventually relenting and eating Dolan’s flesh, Eddy Graves forewarned two Mexican members of the party that the others planned to murder them. Luis and Salvador tried to flee but were found days later near death, whereupon William Foster shot and butchered the unfortunate pair. Encountering a Miwok encampment, with their assistance the remaining six pioneers, after 33 brutal days, eventually reached a small farming community in Sacramento Valley. A rescue party was launched to rescue the rest of the group back at Truckee Lake, arriving in mid-February. Just 48 of the original 87 members of the Donner Party survived to reach California, none of which likely did so without resorting to the cannibalism of those who did not.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Mug shot of Dahmer taken by the Milwaukee Police Department (c. July 1991). Wikimedia Commons.

12. Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 people, consuming an unknown number of his victims, across a thirteen year period

Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, was an American serial killer responsible for the murder, rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism of at least 17 victims between 1978 and 1991. Committing his first murder at the age of 18 in the summer of 1978, Dahmer picked up 19-year-old hitchhiker Steven Hicks and lured him home with the promise of alcohol. After several hours of drinking, Hicks wished to leave; in response, Dahmer beat his guest with a dumbbell and strangled him to death, before masturbating over the corpse, dissecting it, and burying it the following day in his backyard. In 1987, Dahmer would resume his murderous activities. His victims were commonly lured under the pretext of homosexual relations to a secluded location where Dahmer would brutally kill and dismember their bodies.

Beginning with Steven Tuomi on November 20, 1987, Dahmer would murder two men, James Doxtator and Richard Guerrero, in 1988, Antony Sears in 1989 – the first victim from which Dahmer collected a trophy: his preserved skull – four in 1990: Raymond Smith, Edward Smith, Ernest Miller, and David Thomas, before murdering eight in the first seven months of 1991: Curtis Straughter, Errol Lindsey, Tony Hughes, Konerak Sinthasomphone, Matt Turner, Jeremiah Weinberger, Oliver Lacy, and Joseph Bradehoft. The youngest of his victims, Doxtator and Sinthasomphone, were just fourteen years old. Arrested following the failed murder and cannibalism of Tracy Edwards on July 22, 1991, Dahmer waived his right to counsel and confessed his crimes, stating that he had “created this horror and it only makes sense I do everything to put an end to it”. Determined to be legally sane, despite being diagnosed with mental health problems, Dahmer was convicted on 16 counts of murder and sentenced to consecutive life sentences On November 28, 1994, Dahmer was himself murdered at Columbia Correctional Institution by a fellow inmate Christopher Scarver.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
A posthumous portrait of György Dózsa (c. 1913). Wikimedia Commons.

11. György Dózsa, the leader of the Hungarian peasant revolt of 1514, was tortured and cannibalized by his captured followers at the command of Hungarian King Vladislaus II

György Dózsa was a man-at-arms from Transylvania, then part of the Kingdom of Hungary, who led a revolt against the Hungarian nobility. A renowned soldier during the wars against the Ottoman Empire, in 1514 he was charged with organizing a crusade against the Muslims. Within just a few weeks, Dózsa gathered a peasant army of 40,000. However, as harvest-time approached the local lords commanded their peasantry return and reap their fields. When the dutiful militias refused to comply, the nobles attacked their families, in particular their wives, in an attempt to coerce their obedience. Sensing the public mood was shifting, the Hungarian Chancellor, Bakócz, in a display of terrible judgment, canceled the crusade, resulting in an army of equipped and discontented peasants without purpose. Siding with the peasantry, Dózsa transformed his rudimentary force into a rebellion.

Despite the command of King Vladislaus II to return home or face death, the rebellion rapidly gained momentum. Upon the capture of the fortress of Csanád, Dózsa, in an act reminiscent of his countryman Vlad Dracul III, impaled the bishop and castellan. However, his early fortunes, including the taking of Aird, Lippa, and Világos, were soon reversed, and, after advancing to within 25 kilometers of the capital, Dózsa’s peasants were routed. That defeat was followed swiftly by another at Temesvár, where an army of 20,000 decimated the untrained rebels and resulted in the capture of Dózsa. Forced to sit on a scorching iron throne and wear a heated crown, in mockery of his ambition to become a king, a group of nine starving rebels, including Dózsa’s younger brother, were commanded to cannibalize their leader. Inserting pliers into Dózsa’s flesh, the rebels were ordered to bite and swallow their leader. Three or four refused to comply and were butchered, whilst the remainder who obeyed were subsequently freed.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Alferd Packer (c. 1874). Wikimedia Commons.

10. Alferd Packer ate five of his companions in the Colorado Mountains during the Winter of 1874

Alferd Packer was an American prospector who confessed to resorting to cannibalism during the winter of 1874 whilst trapped in the Colorado mountains. Born 1842, Packer twice enlisted to serve in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Both times, in late-1862 and April 1864, Packer was honorably discharged due to epilepsy, after which time he journeyed to the Rocky Mountains to seek mining work. In November 1873, Packer signed on with an expedition of 21 men traveling to gold-rich areas near Breckenridge, Colorado. Despite the recommendations and offer of shelter from the Ute people in January 1874, several members sought to gain a head-start and Packer, along with five others, left the Ute encampment on February 9. Arriving at the Los Pinos Indian Agency on April 16, 1874, Packer was alone; when questioned regarding the fate of his companions, Packer claimed they had abandoned him due to the weather. However, during his attempts to flee to Pennsylvania a member of the original group identified a knife in his possession as belonging to one of the lost companions: Frank “Reddy” Miller.

Packer was detained and questioned by General Adams, whereupon he signed his first confession claiming that as members of the party died due to the harsh conditions the declining remnants of the small group butchered them for meat in order to survive. When asked to take Adams to the campsite this transpired, Packer attempted to escape and was arrested. His detention did not last long, and after being given a makeshift key Packer escaped his jail. Packer would not be recaptured under March 11, 1883, when he was discovered living under the alias “John Schwartze” in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Signing his second confession, Packer this time claimed that Shannon Bell had killed the others whilst he was away scouting. Unconvinced, Packer was charged with and found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to hang. Following an appeal, Packer was retried and convicted on five counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment. It is believed that prior to his death in 1907, Packer became a committed vegetarian.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
John Smith’s map of Virginia, (c. 1609). Wikimedia Commons.

9. During the Starving Time at Jamestown, Virginia, the colonial settlers were forced to eat each other or die

Founded May 24, 1607, Jamestown, in the Colony of Virginia, was from the outset a troubled settlement. Chosen for defensive location, in spite of limited hunting opportunities and a shortage of available drinking water, the early settlers possessed limited experience in manual labor of farming. Surviving entirely dependent on trade with the Natives and supply ships from England, the colony miraculously grew to approximately 500 residents by late-1609, when, for a variety of factors, the “Starving Time” began.

Unable to leave the fort due to a Native campaign to drive the English from the continent, and learning of the delay of the supply ship Sea Venture by storms in Bermuda, Captain Samuel Argall sailed with haste to England to beg assistance for the beleaguered colony. Few records exist from the winter of 1609-1610, but it is known that the colony rapidly descended into a state of anarchy. In desperation, valuable tools were traded for scraps, houses were burned for firewood, and any living creature within the settlement became prospective food including cats, dogs, horses, rats, and even people. The remains of a teenage girl, believed to have been killed by arsenic, has revealed upon forensic examination signs consistent with the butchering of meat, whilst other accounts equally record the alleged cannibalism of the town’s inhabitants. On May 23, 1610, the remnants of the supply convoy arrived from Bermuda expecting to find a thriving New World colony of 500; instead, they found just 60 living colonists.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
An artistic depiction of the Kentucky mountain man; author and date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

8. Boone Helm murdered and ate countless people during his killing spree in the mid-19th century

Levi Boone Helm, also known as the Kentucky Cannibal, was a famed gunfighter and serial killer of the American West. In 1850, after a spate of adolescent troubles with the law, Helm migrated westwards to California in the pursuit of gold. However, when his cousin, Littlebury Shoot, reneged on plans to do so with him, Helm violently stabbed Littlebury to death. Captured by his relatives, Helm was institutionalized on grounds of mental illness. Nonetheless, Helm, taking advantage of lax security, successfully escape the asylum and begun his journey west. Along the way, Helm was responsible for the murders of several men, confiding to fellow fugitives that he had “been obliged to feed on some of ’em” out of necessity. Traveling through the harsh wilderness, Helm’s companions gradually died one by one. The last to die, Burton, was butchered and eaten by Helm, with one of his legs taken for future provisions.

Finally reaching California, Helm murdered a rancher who had kindly offered him shelter from the law, before traveling onward to Oregon whereupon he made a living robbing and murdering. In 1862, after killing an unarmed man in a saloon, Helm was forced to flee from the law once again. During this time, Helm once again cannibalized a fugitive companion. Arrested for his crimes, Helm persuaded his brother, at considerable cost, to bribe all potential witnesses to collapse the case against him. Although briefly accompanying his brother to Texas, Helm would return to the Pacific Northwest to resume his murderous activities before being finally captured in Montana. Charged with murder, despite seeking to blame other fugitives for his actions Helm was convicted and sentenced to death on January 14, 1864. In front of a crowd of six thousand, before the hangman could kick the bucket Helm proclaimed: “Every man for his principles! Hurrah for Jeff Davis! Let ‘er rip!” and jumped to his death from the gallows.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Mugshot of Albert Fish (c. 1903). Wikimedia Commons.

7. Albert Fish, responsible for potentially more than 100 murders, raped, tortured, killed, and ate young children throughout the 1920s

Hamilton Howard “Albert” Fish”, also known as the “Gray Man” and the “Brooklyn Vampire”, was an American serial killer active in the early 20th century. Developing an interest in sexual mutilation, in 1910 Fish began acting out these fantasies. Initiating a sadomasochistic relationship with 19-year-old mentally disabled Thomas Kedden, over the course of two weeks Fish tortured Kedden in an old farmhouse. This torture culminated in the severing of half of his victim’s genitalia, regarding which Fish later stated “I shall never forget his scream, or the look he gave me”. Abandoning his victim with $10, Fish later admitted that he “never heard what become of him, or tried to find out”. Descending further into madness and self-mutilation, including the insertion of at least 29 needles into his pelvic region and of flaming wool into his anus, Fish began subsisting on a diet of raw meat.

By the mid-1920s Fish fervently believed that the voice of God was commanding him to torture and mutilate children, beginning with the murder of an intellectually disabled boy in Washington D.C. in 1919. He started his killing spree. It is not precisely known just how many were killed, with only eight victims confirmed, but Fish later boasted to have “had children in every state”. Six years after the murder of ten-year-old Grace Budd in 1928, Fish sent an anonymous letter to her mother confessing both his historic cannibalism and the murder and consumption of her daughter. Among the gruesome details Fish provided the bereft mother, was “how sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven” and that it had taken him “9 days to eat her entire body”. Identified and arrested, Fish confessed with proud detail his brutal actions. His trial lasted only 10 days; Fish pleaded insanity. A claim supported by several psychiatrists noted that Fish was a “psychiatric phenomenon” who possessed a never-before-seen range of sexual abnormalities. The jury nonetheless found him guilty and sentenced him to death. One juror later explained that they were completely aware that Fish was, in fact, insane, but felt that he deserved to die anyway.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Australian and Dutch prisoners of war at Tarsau in Thailand (c. 1943). Wikimedia Commons.

6. During World War II, the Japanese Empire repeatedly cannibalized Allied prisoners of war

In the course of World War II, the Japanese Empire committed countless war crimes, among perhaps the most heinous being the cannibalization of Allied prisoners of war. Committed in response to Allied attacks on Japanese supply lines, resulting in the widespread starvation of Japanese soldiers in the Pacific theater, according to historian Yuki Tanaka “cannibalism was often a systematic activity conducted by whole squads and under the command of officers”. Many of these acts were the product of murder to acquire the meat, with Indian POW Changdi Ram testifying that on November 12, 1944, “the Kempeitai beheaded [an Allied] pilot. I saw this from behind a tree and watched some of the Japanese cut flesh from his arms, legs, hips, buttocks and carry it off to their quarters … They cut it [into] small pieces and fried it”.

Similar instances were systematically corroborated by other Allied prisoners, with Hatam Ali recounting that in New Guinea “the Japanese started selecting prisoners and every day one prisoner was taken out and killed and eaten by the soldiers. I personally saw this happen and about 100 prisoners were eaten at this place by the Japanese. The remainder of us were taken to another spot 50 miles [80 km] away where 10 prisoners died of sickness. At this place, the Japanese again started selecting prisoners to eat. Those selected were taken to a hut where their flesh was cut from their bodies while they were alive and they were thrown into a ditch where they later died.” Of special note, the Chichijima incident in late-1944 occurred following the shooting down of nine airmen over the island of Chichi Jima. Eight of these airmen were captured whilst the ninth, future U.S. President George H.W. Bush, evaded capture. These airmen were tortured and executed, with four of the deceased posthumously eaten by the Japanese. In 1947, commanding officer Lt. General Yoshio Tachibana, along with Major Matoba, Admiral Mori, Captain Yoshii, and Dr. Teraki, were found guilty by a tribunal for the crime of preventing an honorable burial. For his role in the cannibalism (no specific crime existed under military or international law at that time) General Tachibana was sentenced to death by hanging.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Sketch of the Mignonette by Tom Dudley (c. the 1880s). Wikimedia Commons.

5. The surviving crew of the Mignonette murdered an ill cabin boy to provide sustenance after being shipwrecked in a storm

In 1883, the Mignonette, purchased as a leisure vessel for an Australian lawyer, required transportation from Southampton to Sydney. Despite not being built for the 15,000-mile voyage, a crew of four, including 17-year-old Richard Parker, an inexperienced seaman, departed on May 19. On July 5, approximately 1,600 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope, the yacht was struck by a rogue wave destroying the lee bulwark. Ordering an evacuation, with the Mignonette sinking in less than five minutes, the crew, salvaging only minimal supplies and equipment, abandoned ship via a lifeboat. Forced to fight off sharks with oars throughout the first night, they determined they were at least 700 miles from the nearest inhabitant land – St. Helena. Surviving on a tin of turnips, a captured turtle, and recycled urine, on July 20 the crew was dying. In an adverse act of desperation, the young Parker drank seawater, falling critically ill and into a coma.

Having previously discussed drawing lots for a sacrificial victim, on July 25 Parker was murdered whilst still in a coma. His body and blood were consumed, with the man responsible for the fatal wound, Tom Dudley, later commenting: “I can assure you I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that ghastly meal we all had 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”. On July 29, the German sailing barque Montezuma discovered and rescued the remaining three men, returning them to Cornwall. Believing that they were protected by the Custom of the Sea on grounds of necessity, the men openly admitted to their actions and provided a full account of events. Instead, they were arrested, tried, and despite public support for the trio, convicted. Sentenced initially to death, public outcry compelled a commutation to merely a six-month prison sentence.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Fore child with advanced kuru (c. 2013). Wikimedia Commons.

4. The Fore people of Papua New Guinea engaged in ritual endocannibalism, the consumption of the dead, leading to the epidemic outbreak of the fatal neurological disease “kuru”

The Fore people are the indigenous inhabitants of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Among their noted cultural distinctions, the Fore engage in ritual cannibalism of the dead, a practice which has resulted in the widespread dissemination of the neurological disease “Kuru”: a rare, orally transmitted, incurable, and ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disorder caused by “prions” – misfolded proteins especially prevalent in the brain. Not only a cultural expression of love and grief for the departed, but the consumption of deceased family members was also believed by the Fore to recycle the power and knowledge of the individual into the living. Divided up by the women of the tribe, the flesh of the deceased was carefully apportioned and paired with vegetables. Women and children were most commonly afforded the brains of the dead, whilst men typically consumed muscle in the belief it would augment their own strength.

Consequently, the rates of contraction were significantly higher among women, who suffered from kuru at rates in excess of eight times that of men, precipitating a gender crisis within the tribe during the 1960s due to the high mortality rate of women. During the 1950s the mortality rate among the approximately 12,000 Fore people reached crisis level, 35 people per 1,000, and the male to female ratio reached 3:1. In response, the Australian government outlawed the practice and an international medical enterprise was activated to educate and assist the indigenous people. Today, kuru, although in decline, continues to afflict the native population of Papua New Guinea.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
Death astride a manticore whilst Famine points to her hungry mouth, a biblical representation of the Great Famine (c. early 14th century). Wikimedia Commons.

3. The Great Famine of 1315-1317 caused mass starvation, convincing much of Europe that cannibalism was better than dying

The Great Famine of 1315-1317 (also dated between 1315-1322) was the first of many prolonged and deadly incidents known collectively as the “Crisis of the Late Middle Ages”. Affecting the majority of Europe, the famine caused the deaths of millions over a period of several years and signified the end of a celebrated period of European prosperity between the 11th and 13th centuries. Localized famines were nothing new to Medieval Europe, with even England, the most sufficient and supplied kingdom, enduring four famines during the 14th century and France as many as ten. Nonetheless, in the decades preceding the Great Famine the population of Europe had rapidly expanded and life expectancy had risen to a historic high of the mid-30s. This life expectancy would crumble during the famine, declining between 1301-1332 to approximately 29. This population growth, in conjunction with the failing harvests, dramatically intensified the consequences, with some regions, notably in rural France, not regaining the population until the 19th century.

The spring of 1315 saw exceptionally heavy rains, resulting in the destruction and flooding of much of Europe’s impending harvest. Whilst nobles enjoyed the preserves of emergency stores, peasants, comprising 95% of the population, were unable to afford the exponential rise in the cost of wheat, with prices in Lorraine increasing by 320% in 1315 alone. Animals were slaughtered, seed grain eaten for sustenance, and children abandoned. Chroniclers of the time repeatedly recorded, in acts of severe desperation, recurrent incidents of cannibalism across Europe. It would not be until 1325 that food supplies returned to normality, by which time an estimated 10-25% of the population had died. Although considerable, this number would pale in comparison to the impending Black Death (1347-51).

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
The Blowing Up of the Boyd by Louis John Steele (c. 1889). Wikimedia Commons.

2. The passengers and crew of the Boyd were killed and eaten by the indigenous Māori in retribution for the flogging of the chief’s son

Allegedly the greatest single killing of Europeans by indigenous Māori, the Boyd massacre of 1809 saw the deaths and cannibalism of between 66 and 70 people at the hands of the indigenous population of New Zealand. The Boyd was a convict ship, sailing from Sydney Cove, Australia to Whangaroa Habor, New Zealand, in late 1809 for the purpose of harvesting wood for shipbuilding. Carrying approximately 70 people, and under the command of Captain John Thompson, among the passengers was Te Ara, the son of a Māori chieftain returning home. As was customary for passage aboard a ship, Te Ara was expected to work in return for his transport. For an unknown reason, believed to have been either illness or his status, he refused and consequently was deprived of full rations and flogged. Upon his delivery to Whangaroa Bay, Te Ara reported his treatment to his tribe. Outraged, with the harming of the son of a chief punishable by death, the Māori swore utu (vengeance) against those responsible.

Three days later, Captain Thompson was invited by the Māori to survey the area for suitable timber. Once out of sight of the Boyd, Thompson, along with his chief officer and three other companions, were killed. Stripped of their clothes, which were donned as disguises by the Māori, their bodies were taken to the village to be eaten. As dusk settled, the disguised Māoris led an attack against the Boyd. All aboard, except for five who hid atop the rigging and five who were spared, were butchered and consumed by the Māori. The following day, the hidden five, in their attempt to attract the attention of a passing ship, were noticed and, despite attempting to flee along the beach, were caught and killed after a short pursuit. The Boyd was accidentally destroyed when, in the course of ransacking the ship, a powder keg was unintentionally detonated, killing Chief Piopio and nine other Māori.

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History
A statue of Liver-Eating Johnson erected over his grave at Old Trail Town in Cody, Wyoming. Wikimedia Commons.

1. “Liver-Eating” Johnson was a mountain man of the American West, believed to have killed and cannibalized 300 Crow Indians over the course of 25 years

John “Liver-Eating” Johnson (born John Jeremiah Garrison Johnston) was a mountain man of the American West and the subject of several legends and stories in folk culture. Frequently described in historical accounts as a giant of a man, Johnson is believed to have been 1.9 meters tall and weighing roughly 120 kilograms. Fighting during the Mexican-American War (1846-48), Johnson deserted after being court-martialed for striking an officer and turned to gold mining in the Montana Territory. In or around 1847, it is commonly held that his wife, a member of the Flathead Indian tribe, was murdered by a Crow Indian, spurring Johnson to embark upon a crusade of vengeance against the indigenous tribe.

Throughout the course of this vendetta, historian Andrew Southerland estimated that Johnson “killed and scalped more than 300 Crow Indians and then devoured their livers”. The theft and consumption of a deceased brave’s liver was a particular insult to the Crow people, for whom the organ was regarded as necessary for life to continue in the afterlife. One particular legend reports an incident in which Johnson was captured by neighboring Blackfoot warriors, hoping to sell him to the Crows. Despite stripping and binding Johnson, he broke free, murdering his guard and cutting off his leg. Escaping into the woods, he survived by eating the leg of the unfortunate Blackfoot until he reached safety more than 200 miles away. Eventually, after 25 years of war, Johnson made peace with the Crow, serving in later life as a deputy sheriff in Coulson, Montana, and as Town Marshal in Red Lodge, Montana. He died in 1900, never having faced any charges for his actions.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“German Cannibal Tells of Fantasy”, BBC News (December 3, 2003)

“German ‘Cannibal’ Tells of Regret”, BBC News (November 23, 2003)

“Wreck of the Medusa: The Tragic Story of the Death Raft”, Jonathan Miles (2000)

“Hell’s Gates: The Terrible Journey of Alexander Pearce, Van Dieman’s Land Cannibal”, Paul Collins, Hardie Grant Books (2002)

“Alexander Pearce of Macquarie Harbour”, Dan Sprod, Cat & Fiddle Press (1977)

“The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate”, Eliza Donner Houghton, University of Nebraska Press (republished 1997)

“The Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train, 1846-1847”, Frank Mullen Jr., University of Nevada Press (31 Dec. 1997)

“Milwaukee Massacre: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Milwaukee Murders”, Robert Dvorchak, Lisa Holewa (1992)

“The Case of Alfred Packer: The Man-Eater”, Paul Gantt, University of Denver Press (1952)

“A Concise History of Hungary”, Miklos Molnar, Cambridge University Press (2001)

“The Kentucky Cannibal: The True Story of an Outlaw, Murderer and Man-Eater” Ryan Green (2020)

“Jamestown Adventure: The Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1605-1614”, Ed Southern, Blair Publishing (2004)

“Cannibal: The Case of Albert Fish”, Mel Heimer, Lyle Stuard Publishing (1971)

“Albert Fish: In His Own Words”, John Borowski, Waterfront Productions (September 5, 2014)

“The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of the Japanese War”, Edward Russell, Greenhill Books (2005)

“Mortuary Rites of the South Fore and Kuru”, Jerome Whitfield, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (2008)

“The Great European Famine of 1315, 1316, 1317”, Henry Lucas, Speculum (October 1930)

“From Tasman to Marsden: A History of Northern New Zealand from 1642 to 1818”, Robert McNab, J. Wilkie & Company (1914)

“Perceptions of a Mountain Man: John ‘Jeremiah Liver-Eating’ Johnston at Old Trail Town, Cody, Wyoming”, Nathan Bender, The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal (2007)