May 19, 1884 in Southampton, England…
The Mignonette set sail for Sydney, Australia. The boat was docked in England, but had been purchased by an Australian. The only way to get it to its new home was to sail it there.
The Mignonette was not meant for long voyages and the new owner, John Henry Want, had a hard time finding a crew. He was finally able to hire 4 men to crew the boat.
John went ahead to Sydney by ship and the Mignonette set off with Tom Dudley as captain. His crew consisted of Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker.
On July 5, the yacht was damaged by a heavy wave. Tom knew the ship was going to sink and he order the crew to load the lifeboat.
It took just 5 minutes for the Mignonette to sink. In their haste to save themselves, they loaded the lifeboat with no fresh water and 2 tins of turnips.
They were now on a flimsy lifeboat in shark infested waters somewhere between the island of Tristan da Cunha and St. Helena.
After 4 days, the men caught a sea turtle and ate it. Without fresh water, the men resorted to drinking their own urine.
Eventually, Richard, the youngest and least experienced seaman, made the mistake of trying to drink sea water. He became extremely ill.
The men were starving to death. Eventually, Tom and Edwin decided that one of the men needed to be killed to save the other three.
The idea of cannibalism was not completely foreign to sailors. There was even a protocol for it. “The custom of the sea” said that the men should draw lots to decide who would be sacrificed.
Tom and Edwin, however, decided that since Richard was probably going to die anyway, he was the one who should be eaten. They also decided that he should be killed so that the men could drink his blood.
On July 29, the men caught sight of the Montezuma, a German ship, who picked them up and took them back to England. They arrived in early September.
The men freely told their story to the police, believing that the murder, done out of necessity, was not punishable. The police disagreed.
Tom and Edwin were brought to trial with Edmund agreeing to testify for the prosecution.
The trial began on November 3. Tom and Edwin both pled not guilty and they had public sentiment on their side.
The prosecution intended to set the precedent that killing out of necessity was still murder.
Tom and Edwin were found guilty and sentenced to death.
A review of the case found that manslaughter had not been offered to the jury as an option and, under scrutiny from the public, the men were sentenced to 6 months in prison.
The men were released on May 20, 1885. Edmund was never charged with any crime.
Now for the really strange part of this story…
More than 40 years earlier, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allen Poe was published.
The book was about a ship on which only four men have survived both mutiny and a storm that caused heavy damage. The men are starving and they draw straws to decide which of them should be sacrificed to save the others.
The young cabin boy draws the short straw and is killed for food.
His name is Richard Parker.
A video summary of this week’s post can be found at