When a Message in a Bottle Contains Clues to a Crime

Message in a bottle.

Message in a bottle. From Pixabay.

I found a message in a bottle when I was a kid.

Or more precisely, my friend Linda spotted it first. It was floating in Barnegat Bay, a five-mile wide arm of the Atlantic between Long Beach Island, New Jersey and the mainland. On one of the island’s bay accesses, we had lowered our crab traps off the bulkhead in the hopes of catching some dinner. That’s when Linda spotted it bobbing in the water.

“Look, a message in a bottle!”

A flying leap for a bottle

As a child, I lept off this bulkhead on Long Beach Island to retrieve a message in a bottle.

As a child, I leapt off this bulkhead on Long Beach Island to retrieve a message in a bottle.

Fully clothed, I leapt off the bulkhead, ponytail flying and limbs splayed. It was a five-foot drop, and the water was about just as deep, but I could swim. I stroked over to the bottle, grabbed it, and then clambered back up the bulkhead with our treasure.

Linda and I examined it. The message was rolled and tied with a cord. A thick layer of olive-green wax around the cap rendered the bottle waterproof. It was so thick we couldn’t uncap the bottle.Linda and I dashed home, grabbed a pruning knife, and began slicing the wax off layer by layer over the kitchen garbage can. I trembled with excitement as I dripped water all over the kitchen floor. Was the bottle a cry for help? Did it contain a secret message from pirates?

I had to climb back up this bulkhead with the bottle in hand.

I had to climb back up this bulkhead with the bottle in hand.

A message in a bottle as scientific research?

What we read once we slipped the scroll out and untied it couldn’t have been more disappointing for two ten-year-old kids. It was from someone researching ocean currents. It would have been exciting if the bottle had come in from England or India, but according to the message, it had been dropped into the Little Egg Harbor Inlet only four hours before, on the same day. That was less than ten miles away. Whoever did it hadn’t even bothered to check the tide tables before tossing the bottle into the sea. The tide brought the bottle inland, into the bay, not out into the ocean.

Nevertheless, Linda and I dutifully filled out the accompanying questionnaire about when and where we found the bottle. It asked for our addresses, and we gave them. It was yet another childhood disappointment that the researcher never wrote back to thank us. (If you happen to be reading this blog, and you were the one doing ocean current research in the late sixties or early seventies on Barnegat Bay, it’s not too late. Please drop me a line via the contact form on my blog or leave a comment and I’ll make sure Linda gets it too.)

A message in a bottle as a lead in a criminal investigation?

Some messages in bottles are much more ominous than the one we found.

Paul Brown has been collecting historical messages in bottles around the world. The messages come from the newspaper archives. Found messages were regularly printed in newspapers, often in a column titled “Messages from the Sea”, which is where the name of the book comes from. Before the wireless telegraph, the message in a bottle was a useful and legitimate means of communication. It was often the intention of senders to have their message published in newspapers. They knew the messages would eventually be washed ashore, and that their message might reach loved ones and other recipients.

Brown recently wrote a book about his finds. Messages from the Sea is scheduled for publication in September 2016. A few of the messages in his book contained clues to crimes: murders, kidnappings, and body snatchings. Paul joins us today with a guest blog about what must be the most romantic kind of crime clue ever: the message in a bottle.

Here’s Paul Brown:


Messages from the Sea: A Guest Blog by Paul Brown

Message in a bottle.

Message in a bottle. From Pixabay.

A message in a bottle as a clue to a murder?

On September 17, 1889, a man named Samuel McAfee found a message in a bottle floating in Albert Quay, Belfast, Northern Ireland. McAfee passed the message, written on a slip of paper, to the harbor police. The message read as follows:

“Look out for the body of a man in the Blackstaff who committed murder and suicide, and also for the murdered man. 6 p.m. 10/8/89.”

The words “murder and suicide” were written in red ink, and the handwriting was said to be “stiff and cramped”. The Blackstaff is an underground river in Belfast that was culverted and built over in the 1880s. The message was initially assumed to be a hoax “intended by some mischievous person.” However, as a local newspaper noted: “When taken into account that a body was seen floating in the quay about a fortnight ago, the strange find may possibly bear some significance.”

The confluence of the Blackstaff and the River Lagan.

The confluence of the Blackstaff and the River Lagan. Ross (CC BY-SA 2.0 ), via Wikimedia Commons

All sorts of messages

This mysterious message is one of 100 collected in the Messages from the Sea book, based on the website of the same name. Dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these letters and notes were found on beaches and bobbing in rivers, in corked glass bottles and wax-sealed boxes, inside the mouths of codfish and in the bellies of sharks, carved on pieces of wrecked vessels and attached to the necks of seabirds. They tell tales of foundering ships, missing ocean liners, and shipwrecked sailors, and contain moving farewells, romantic declarations, and intriguing confessions.

Often written in the most desperate of circumstances, many of the messages are starkly moving. One such message, found on the northwest coast of England in 1907, reads: “Finder please give this to relatives of Bertha Magnussam, Wavertree, Liverpool, England. Love from Hubert, and good-bye.” Other messages provide clues regarding disappeared vessels. We know what happened to the Titanic – from which several messages in bottles were apparently cast adrift – but what happened to fellow White Star liner the Naronic, or the Collins liner Pacific?

Some of the messages concern murders, kidnappings, body snatchings, and mysterious family secrets. Who was Charles Pilcher, and did he really murder Margaret Hutchinson and put her body in a well? Did Elizabeth Granton find the “secret of her birth”, which a message in a bottle said was hidden behind a picture of the Earl of Warwick? And who was the sender of the message in a corked bottle, written in pencil on a neatly rolled-up piece of paper, which claimed responsibility for the unsolved murder of noted artist Archibald Wakley?

A floating message as the key to a miner’s demise?

And what of the message found floating in Snake River at Weiser, Idaho, in April 1897? It read: “I was shot last night by an unknown party. I am mining on Snake River at Big Bend. I am dying. Yours, W. C. Cook.” It was known that Snake River’s gold deposits attracted many placer miners, most of whom who lived and worked alone along the river. And, ten days previously, an attempt to murder one of these miners, and to steal his gold, had been made at another point in the river. That victim had been left for dead but survived. W. C. Cook was never traced, and local newspapers speculated that he might not have been so lucky.

Messages from the Sea book cover.

Messages from the Sea book cover. Courtesy of Paul Brown.

Messages from the Sea: Letters and Notes from a Lost Era Found in Bottles and on Beaches Around the World is available as a special limited edition hardback from www.messagesfromthesea.com.

Paul Brown is a writer who lives on the northeast coast of England. He can be found on Twitter @paulbrownUK and at www.stuffbypaulbrown.com.


Thank you, Paul Brown!







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Marooning in the Royal Navy: The Strange Case of Robert Jeffrey

Howard Pyle's painting shows a marooning.

Marooned by Howard Pyle, 1909. Public domain. Deleware Art Museum.

Marooning – the act of intentionally leaving a sailor behind on a deserted island or sandbar – is a punishment we traditionally associate with pirates. Even outside the world of piracy, captains occasionally marooned sailors as punishment for mutiny.

But what about as a punishment for stealing beer? On an island devoid of fresh water? That happened once in the British Royal Navy. This reblog from Antoine Vanner draws back the curtains on one of the most scandalous true crimes of maritime history. It also tells a miracle of survival. A big thank you to Mr. Vanner for letting me borrow from his blog, The Dawlish Chronicles.

A Marooning Scandal in the Royal Navy, 1807

One tends to think of “marooning” – abandoning a seaman alone on an uninhabited island – as being a punishment associated with buccaneers and pirates in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. It is therefore somewhat of a shock that what was probably the last instance of such retribution occurred in the Royal Navy as late as 1807. The story is a fascinating one and it underlines just how omnipotent and capricious a captain could be in the days before radio once his ship had disappeared over the horizon.

HMS Recruit

HMS Recruit (foreground), 1809. Public domain. G. W. Terry (artist) & George Greatbach (engraver) – National Maritime Museum

HMS Recruit was a 100-ft long brig-sloop of the Cruizer class, of which 110 examples were built for the Royal Navy between 1797 and 1815. Small as they were, they carried a very heavy armament – two 6-pounder bow chasers and no less than sixteen 32-pounder carronades. At short ranges the carronades gave the Cruizers a nominal broadside weight greater than that of a 36-gun 18-pounder frigate. The advantage of the design was that the two-masted rig and the use of carronades, with their small gun crews, allowed this to be achieved with a crew one third the size of a frigate’s. These vessels were to see very active service.

Commander Warwick Lake presses a blacksmith into service

The Cruizer design was already a proven one when the newly commissioned Recruit headed for the West Indies in July 1807. Her captain was the 24-year old Commander  Warwick Lake, later to be 3rd Viscount Lake (1783–1848). In view of what was to follow one wonders if he was not influenced by the example of his grandfather, General Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake (1744 – 1808) whose suppression of rebellion in Ireland in 1798 was to be marked by extreme brutality. This reached a climax in the defeat of the rebel army at Vinegar Hill, County Wexford, and brought him into conflict with the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Cornwallis (of Yorktown fame) who instituted an amnesty to encourage rebels to lay down their arms.

On taking the Recruit to sea Lake encountered a problem common to most captains of his time – shortage of men. He solved the problem by putting in at the Cornish harbour of Falmouth and boarding the privateer Lord Nelson, despite her being under protection of latters of marque.  Several men and boys of the privateer’s crew were pressed, among them a blacksmith called Robert Jeffrey, whose trade made him especially valuable at sea.

The blacksmith steals some beer

Lake, according to one account “profligate and reckless”, now headed for the West Indies and by November was cruising in the Caribbean. Water was in short supply, and according to Lake’s later account Jeffrey stole some rum in a bottle from the gunner’s cabin. It’s not obvious that this offence was followed up but Jeffrey was to admit that on December 10th he drew off two quarts of beer from a cask intended for the captain’s personal use. A shipmate informed on him and Jeffrey was placed on a “black list”.

Map of Sombrero Island

Map of Sombrero Island. Public domain. This map was made in about 1880 for the superintendant of Sombrero, Thomas Corfield.

Three days later the Recruit was passing the island of uninhabited island of Sombrero, the northernmost island of the Lesser Antilles. It is tiny – little over a mile long and a quarter wide and only 94 acres in area – and is devoid of water. Commander Lake came on deck after dinner – apparently under the influence of drink – and decided that he now had an opportunity to punish Jeffrey. He is reported to have said “Lieutenant Mould! Do you see that rock? Lower the boat instantly. I’ll have no thieves on board my ship! Man a boat and set the rascal on shore!”

Marooning of the blacksmith

Jeffrey was now taken to the island in the clothes he stood up in, but without shoes, food or water. Seeing that his feet were being cut by the rock Lieutenant Mould gave him a  pair of shoes ,together with a knife and a handkerchief donated by a midshipman. Mould seems to have delayed, in the hope that Lake would change his mind but in the end had to return to the ship, leaving Jeffrey stranded.

Robert Jeffrey's marooning on Sambrero Island.

Robert Jeffrey’s marooning on Sambrero Island. From “The Book of the Sea,” 1895. Public domain.

The Recruit now headed for Barbados to join the squadron there under Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane. The story of the marooning began to leak out, causing general outrage,  and Lake was ordered to explain himself. Cochrane, enraged, reprimanded Lake for brutality and ordered him back to Sombrero with the Recruit to find Jeffrey. On landing, no sign of him was found other than a pair of trousers – apparently not Jeffrey’s – and a tomahawk (a common boarding weapon). When the Recruit returned empty-handed the Admiral assumed that Jeffrey had been picked up by a passing ship.

Anger was widespread when the story reached Britain and Lake was court-martialled on board HMS Gladiator in Portsmouth in February 1810. Despite an attempt to pass some of the blame to his lieutenants the court found him guilty and dismissed him from the navy.

A miracle of survival

Jeffrey’s whereabouts were now the subject of impassioned interest, questions being asked in the House of Commons and the Government kept under pressure on the case. It finally emerged that he was in the Beverley and Marblehead area in Massachusetts and a ship was sent to bring him back, arriving in Portsmouth shortly after Lake’s court martial. Jeffrey had survived nine days on the rock, in extreme privation, before a passing ship, the American Adams, had spotted him. He had been unable to kill any of the abundant sea birds (the rock was later mined for guano) and he had been saved from death by thirst by a rain shower, having sucked up water from crevices through a quill.

Consequences of the marooning

Jeffrey – who had been unlawfully pressed in the first place, was discharged from the navy, was given his arrears of pay and was taken to his home at Polperro by a naval officer. The entire community turned out to welcome him and an eyewitness reported that “the meeting between the mother and her son was extremely affecting and impassioned.” He accepted a payment of from Lake of £600 – a fortune in those days, when a domestic servant might earn £10 per year – on condition that he would not press legal action against him.  He told his story in London theatres and thereafter bought a coasting schooner. He  did not however prosper and he died young of consumption, leaving a wife and daughter in poverty.

If you want to read more about the HMS Recruit’s history, please visit Vanner’s site.

Do you think Lake’s punishment and his settlement with Jeffrey were appropriate? How would you punish a captain for marooning a sailor?

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The Hankey, Yellow Fever, and Nautical Signal Flags

A ship carried yellow fever to America

A ship carried yellow fever to America in 1793. Morguefile photos.

How a Breach of Maritime Custom Changed United States Boundaries

Who would have thought that one ship could have altered American history and redrawn United States boundaries? Or that hoisting a simple yellow signal flag might changed all that?

Water barrels hosted mosquitoes carrying the yellow fever virus.

Wooden water barrels offered the perfect environment for transporting mosquitoes. Morguefile photos.

History professor Billy G. Smith’s new book, Ship of Death (2013), shows how the Hankey, a ship that crisscrossed the Atlantic in 1792-93, played a pivotal role in American history. Or rather, its tiny stowaways did: the ship’s wooden water barrels harbored mosquitoes carrying yellow fever.

As the Hankey visited port after port in the Caribbean and Philadelphia, it left a raging pandemic in its wake. Philadelphia’s epidemic forced George Washington to flee the nation’s first capital. And the decimation of French troops in the Caribbean probably induced Napoleon to give up a huge chunk of land on the American continent: The United States might have the Hankey, and its captain’s failure to hoist the “yellow jack” – the customary warning of disease on board – to thank for the Louisiana Purchase.

An Ill-Fated Voyage Sparks a Yellow Fever Pandemic

Mosquitoes carry yellow fever.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes can transmit yellow fever. Morguefile photos.

The story started with a group of idealistic British who decided to set up a colony free of slavery on the west coast of Africa. They settled the island of Bolama, cutting down trees for building material and to create farmland. They also brought down several of the trees’ inhabitants: monkeys, a mosquito living in tree canopies and specializing in those monkeys, and a virus inhabiting both. Having lost their habitat, mosquitoes then bit the ground-dwelling humans, infecting them with yellow fever. The virus passed to another species of mosquito, Aedes aegypti, that prefers human blood.

Yellow fever in Buenos Aires

Yellow fever strikes Buenos Aires. “Juan Manuel Blanes Episodio de la Fiebre Amarilla” by Obra de Juan Manuel Blanes (1830-1901) – Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales, Montevideo. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Yellow fever decimated the colonists. Some survivors sailed on the Hankey to America on a circuitous route back home, but many of the passengers and crew succumbed to yellow fever en route. Billy Smith found the long-lost log of the Hankey in the British National Archives in Kew, England, and compared the Hankey’s arrival dates at various New World ports with the epidemics that broke out only days afterwards: Barbados, Grenada, Saint Domingue (Haiti), and Philadelphia. The Hankey, writes Smith, “created the first major pandemic of yellow fever in the Western Hemisiphere.” It “killed hundreds of thousands of people around the Atlantic Ocean” and lasted two decades.

Matthew Somerville Morgan, "Yellow Jack Monster" (1873). Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Matthew Somerville Morgan, “Yellow Jack Monster” (1873). Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

In Philadelphia alone, the yellow plague killed 5,000 in 1793. One third of the city’s 50,000 inhabitants fled the city. George Washington took extended leave in Mount Vernon, and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson stopped going to work. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton remained, but so many other government officials fled that the nation’s nascent government ground to a screeching halt.

Word of the Hankey’s contagion had reached England before it arrived there in late 1793. After disembarking the passengers, the English burnt the Hankey to the waterline and sunk it in the Thames estuary, preventing a major outbreak on the British Isles. Of the original Bolama colonists, only a handful had survived.

Yellow Fever and the Louisiana Purchase

Beyond death and personal suffering, the Hankey’s wake turned political. By far the greatest impact of her voyage was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. After Napoleon Bonaparte lost thousands of troops in Saint-Domingue, not only to the Haitian Revolution but to yellow fever, he gave up on America and offered Thomas Jefferson the Louisiana Territory. “From Saint-Dominique to Philadelphia, the voyage of the Hankey did more than spread death; it redrew the map of the United States, reconfiguring the political and geographic landscape of the early American republic,” writes Smith.

Yellow fever induced Napoleon to sell the Louisiana Territory in 1803.

United States government, from the Atlas of the United States; public domain.

What if Captain Cox had Hoisted the Yellow Jack?

A captain should have flown the yellow jack if yellow fever was on board.

The “yellow jack” was a square yellow signnal flag indicating disease on board.

It’s fun to engage in some alternate history and ask if any of this would have happened if John Cox, the Hankey’s captain, had complied with maritime custom. He should have flown a yellow flag. The “yellow jack” was the international signal for disease on board. Had Cox hoisted it, the Hankey would have been quarantined and the pandemic possibly prevented.

Philadelphia's waterfront in the 1770s. Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt, "Vuë de Philadelphie," 1770s. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

Philadelphia’s waterfront in the 1770s. Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt, “Vuë de Philadelphie,” 1770s. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

Did Captain Cox commit a crime? I’ve taken a brief look at that question, but haven’t come up with anything conclusive. King George III did enact a statute in 1806 requiring all ships with infectious diseases on board to fly a signal if they were within four leagues of the British Isles. It’s unclear to what extent that British admiralty law incorporated maritime custom as customary law, and I haven’t found period regulations from the United States mandating a ship to fly the yellow jack.

Whether they were incorporated into statute or not, one this is clear: Nautical signal flags played a critical role in period commerce. One captain’s breach of maritime custom may have changed history beyond his imagination.

Literature on point:

Billy G. Smith, Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press 2013)

John Raithby, The Statutes Relating to the Admiralty, Shipping, and Navigation of the United Kingdom (London: Eyre & Strahan 1823)

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Drawing Straws in the Lifeboat: Noble Sacrifice or Murder?

Drawing straws in the lifeboat

Lifeboat by Olivier Le Queinec; shutterstock

A whale sinks the Essex

Directly towards the ship the sperm whale came, its tail churning the water and its body casting off a wake. As its massive head struck the port side of the Essex, the 87-foot-long whaleship shuddered, oak timbers splintered, and sailors were knocked off their feet.

whale and whaleboats

Perilous Situation of Whalemen, 1861, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

The sailors thought it might have been revenge. Did the 85-foot-long bull figure out that the source of all those annoying harpoons was not so much the whaleboats, but the mother ship? Scientists today have another explanation. Bull sperm whales make a call that sounds like a pinging hammer, and because the first mate was on board, repairing a whaleboat with a hammer, the whale would have heard those pings through the water. Perhaps it mistook the mother ship for a rival.

At any rate, one frontal attack wasn’t enough for the giant bull. It swam about 500 yards away, turned, and bore down on the Essex’s port bow at full speed. This time when it struck, it was the end of the mother boat. It began flooding.

Inspiration for Moby Dick and a new movie

A sperm whale attacks the Essex.

Drawing of the whale attack by Thomas NIckerson, one of the survivors of the Essex. Public domain.

The sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex on November 20, 1820 inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Melville’s story ends with Moby Dick sinking the Pequod, but for the Essex crew, their story began with the sinking. Far out in the Pacific Ocean, 2000 nautical miles west of South America, the sailors had just enough time to pack some provisions and load everyone into three whaleboats. They tried to sail east, but it took 95 days before they were rescued. Of the twenty crew members, only eight survived. And in order to survive, they had to resort to cannibalism. They also drew straws to decide which sailor would sacrifice his life to feed the others.

Drawing straws or casting lots in a lifeboat in this situation was already a long-standing custom of the sea. Even the most naïve deckhand knew what to do in a lifeboat when all the inhabitants were starving, because the sea shanties and ballads memorialized the tradition.

Nathaniel Philbrick wrote an award-winning book about the Essex tragedy called In the Heart of the Sea. It was published in 2000. Warner Brothers will release a movie based on the book in December, 2015. Once the film comes out, the questions will be on everybody’s lips: Is cannibalism legal? And is killing someone who drew the short straw on a lifeboat murder? Or giving one’s life to feed others a noble sacrifice?

One commentator has called the law on cannibalism on the high seas “a perfect storm.” I’ll try to sketch the law in broad brushstrokes, but you better hold tight to the gunwale because there are rough seas ahead.


The Law


Who the heck has jurisdiction?

Is a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific even subject to any laws? International Law of the Sea regulates navigational issues, giving a Portuguese whaler on starboard tack the right of way over a French passenger ship on port tack, for instance. But international law doesn’t apply to actions on board.


Who has jurisdiction over that lifeboat?

What law applies to a ship’s crew? Some commentators insist a lifeboat on the open sea is a nation unto itself; their isolation from civilization gives the castaways the right to govern themselves. But it isn’t so simple. The framers of the U.S. Constitution thought about that problem and granted federal courts jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime matters in Article III. That includes crimes against U.S. citizens on the high seas.

In short, if a federal court wanted to hear a lifeboat case, it could. But what law should the court apply? Were the sailors’ actions even a crime?

Drawing straws in the lifeboat: the question of consent

Consumption of a human body that has died naturally has never been criminalized, especially in a survival situation. The cases that raise legal issues are those involving deliberately killing another person for food. We can divide those cases into homicides with and without the victim’s consent. In cases involving drawing straws or casting lots, the castaway drawing the short straw agrees to sacrifice his life to save the others.

A whaler

Whaler Charles Morgan drying its sails. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

The history books are rife with accounts of drawing straws in the lifeboat, but I’ve only found one case that resulted in criminal charges. The survivors of the Essex never faced charges. But English sailors adrift in the Caribbean resorted to the practice in 1641 and did have to answer in court. A proctor on the island of St. Christopher pardoned them. He found that the legal doctrine of necessity “washed away” the crime.

Necessity is a legal defense. You can use it to justify or exonerate yourself if committing a crime prevents a greater harm. This doctrine will allow you to run a red light to attract police attention if someone in the backseat is holding a gun to your head; you can trespass on an island or break into a mountain cabin to save yourself in a storm. In this case, one sailor voluntarily sacrificed his life for the survival of the others and the court recognized the killing as an act for the greater good.

But now we need to baton down as we sail into a whirlwind caused by the distinctions between civil and common law.

Common law versus civil law

Roughly speaking, English and American courts use the common law, or case law, in which judicial decisions have legal precedent. Continental Europe uses civil law, based on Roman legal principles, in which statutes are the primary source of law. But there are exceptions. English admiralty law of the early 19th century was based on civil, not common, law.

Civil law, in the case of survival cannibalism, is more lenient than common law. It recognizes necessity as a defense and to an extent, also recognizes customary law. The decision in 1641 was probably based on civil law (the original decision is lost, so scholars cannot say for sure).

Titanic lifeboat

Titanic survivors in their lifeboat. 1912. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

But the question came up in the common law in the late 19th century. The English case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) is the leading case in common law, and in that case, the English judges ruled that necessity can never be a defense to murder. The judges convicted Dudley and Stephens for killing another castaway for consumption. They sentenced the men to death, but Queen Victoria pardoned them and reduced the sentence.

Regina v. Dudley and Stephens also cited an older American case, U.S. v. Holmes (1842), as precedent. But both Holmes and Dudley and Stephens can be distinguished on the grounds of consent. The castaways never drew straws. Instead, they killed the weakest member without his consent (in the first case) and threw several people overboard without their consent to lighten the load (in the second case).

It may be that the issue of survival cannibalism with the victim’s consent has never been tested in the common law. Today, two changes would tip the scales in favor of the defense. Starving people probably have trouble thinking straight, and courts today are more likely to recognize diminished capacity as a defense. Second, some scholars have theorized that the Dudley and Stephens decision was a judicial reaction again the new theory of Darwinism. They didn’t want to admit that man can be reduced to survival of the fittest. If so, such a backlash is less likely today.

Want to know more?

Michael O’Donnell, in a project for the National University of Ireland School of Law in Galway, produced a video about the Regina v. Dudley and Stephens case. It includes fascinating interviews with a couple of professors. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A03p_egwaSg

I don’t claim to be an expert in admiralty law and invite anyone who can add to the discussion to post a comment!

How would you rule if you were a judge and the Essex case came before your court?

Literature on point:

Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea (Viking Adult 2000)

A.W. Brian Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law (University of Chicago Press 1984)






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