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The Death of Richard Parker And Cannibalism - Shipwreck Case (1884)


The English yacht Mignonette was a 19.43 net tonnage, a 52-foot cruiser built in 1867. It was an inshore boat, not made for long voyages. In 1883, she was purchased as a leisure vessel by Australian lawyer John Henry Want. The yacht could only reasonably be transported to Australia by sailing, but she was a small vessel and the prospect of a 24,000-km voyage hampered Want's initial attempts to find a suitable crew. She finally set sail for Sydney from Southampton on 19 May 1884 with a crew of four: Tom Dudley, the captain; Edwin Stephens; Edmund Brooks; and Richard Parker, the cabin boy. Parker was 17 years old and an inexperienced seaman.

On 5 July, the yacht was running before a gale, around 2,600 km northwest of the Cape of Good Hope. Though the weather was by no means extreme and the vessel was not in any difficulties, Dudley gave the order to heave to so that the crew could enjoy a good night's sleep. As the manoeuvre was completed, and Parker was sent below to prepare tea, a wave struck the yacht and washed away the lee bulwark.

Dudley instantly realized that the yacht was doomed and ordered the single 13-foot lifeboat to be lowered. The lifeboat was of flimsy construction, was holed in the haste to get it away. Mignonette sank within five minutes of being struck and the crew abandoned ship for the lifeboat, managing only to salvage vital navigational instruments along with two tins of turnips and no fresh water. There have been various theories about the structural inadequacies of the yacht that led to such a catastrophic failure in routine weather.

Dudley managed to improvise a sea anchor to keep the lifeboat headed into the waves and maintain her stability. Over the first night, the crew had to fight off a shark with their oars. They were around 1,100 km from the nearest land, being either St. Helena or Tristan da Cunha. Dudley kept the first tin of turnips until 7 July when its five pieces were shared among the men to last two days. On or around 9 July, Brooks spotted a turtle which Stephens dragged on board. The crews were resolutely avoiding drinking seawater as it was then universally held to be fatal and, though they devoured the turtle, they forewent drinking its blood when it became contaminated with seawater. The turtle yielded about three pounds (1.4 kg) of meat each, though the crew ate even the bones, and, along with the second tin of turnips lasted until 15 or 17 July. The crew consistently failed to catch any rainwater and by 13 July, with no other source of fluid, they began to drink their own urine. It was probably on 20 July that Parker became ill through drinking seawater. Stephens was also unwell, possibly having experimented with seawater.

Drawing lots in order to choose a sacrificial victim who would die to feed the others was possibly first discussed on 16 or 17 July, and debate seems to have intensified on 21 July but without resolution. On 23 or 24 July, with Parker probably in a coma, Dudley told the others that it was better that one of them die so that the others survive and that they should draw lots. Brooks refused. That night, Dudley again raised the matter with Stephens pointing out that Parker was probably dying and that he and Stephens had wives and families. They agreed to leave the matter until the morning.
Richard Parker's tombstone

The following day, with no prospect of rescue in sight, Dudley and Stephens silently signalled to each other that Parker would be killed. Killing Parker before his natural death would better preserve his blood to drink. Brooks, who had not been party to the earlier discussion, claimed to have signalled neither assent nor protest. Dudley always insisted that Brooks had assented. Dudley said a prayer and, with Stephens standing by to hold the youth's legs if he struggled, pushed his penknife into Parker's jugular vein, killing him.

In some of the varying and confused later accounts of the killing, Parker murmured, "What me?" as he was slain. The three fed on Parker's body, with Dudley and Brooks consuming the most and Stephens very little. The crew even finally managed to catch some rainwater. Dudley later described the scene, "I can assure you I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that ghastly meal 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." The crew sighted a sail on 29 July.

Rescue and arraignment

Dudley, Stephens, and Brooks were picked up by the German sailing barque Montezuma which returned the men to Falmouth, Cornwall on Saturday 6 September en route to its destination in Hamburg. On arrival in Falmouth, the survivors attended the customs house and Dudley and Stephens entered statutory statements under the Merchant Shipping Acts, required in the event of a shipping loss. All three were candid, Dudley and Stephens believing themselves to be protected by a Custom of the Sea.

Customs officer and Sergeant of the Harbour Police James Laverty was in the vicinity of the depositions and later questioned Dudley about the means by which he had killed Parker, taking custody of the knife and promising to return it. The depositions were telegraphed to the Board of Trade and the Registrar General of Shipping in Bassinghall Street in London. While the survivors were making arrangements to rejoin their families, Bassinghall Street advised that the men should be detained in Falmouth.

The Board of Trade gave conflicting advice to take no action but informed the Home Office. The Home Office was closed for the weekend. Meanwhile, Laverty was seeking warrants for the men's arrest for murder on the high seas, warrants he obtained later that day from Mayor of Falmouth, Henry Liddicoat.

Photograph of the lifeboat exhibited at Falmouth in 1884
The three men were held in the borough police station until they could appear before the magistrates on the morning of Monday, 8 September. Dudley appears to have been confident that the magistrates would dismiss the charges, and Liddicoat visited the men to apologise for their inconvenience, but all magistrates had recently been instructed to seek advice of the Treasury Solicitor in all murder cases, and the clerk probably prompted Laverty to ask for a remand in custody and adjournment while advice was sought. Local solicitor Harry Tilly appeared for the men and requested bail but after the magistrates, including Liddicoat, had consulted, they were returned to the police cells until 11 September.

The civil service had now returned from the weekend break and by Wednesday the file was passed to Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt. That day Harcourt consulted with Attorney General Sir Henry James and Solicitor General Sir Farrer Herschell. Harcourt took the decision to prosecute, the lost opportunity to clarify the law through James Archer no doubt alive in his mind.

By the time of their appearance in front of the magistrates on 11 September, public opinion in Falmouth had swung firmly behind the defendants, especially after Parker's brother Daniel, also a seaman appeared in court and shook hands with the three. The case was again adjourned until 18 September, though this time, Tilly succeeded in obtaining bail, the Home Office having hinted to the court that this would be appropriate. The three men returned to their homes while the case began to appear across the British and worldwide press. It soon became clear that public opinion was with the three survivors. Harcourt was revolted by the public's sentiment and became even more intent on a conviction.

William Otto Adolph Julius Danckwerts, a barrister of only six years' call but with considerable experience in wreck inquiries, was briefed for the prosecution but soon realised that public sentiment and the lack of evidence posed formidable difficulties. The only witnesses were the three defendants themselves and their right to silence would impede any formal proceedings. Furthermore, a confession was only admissible against the person making it, not his co-defendants, and the contents of the depositions were probably inadequate to convict.

When the case was heard by the magistrates on 18 September, Danckwerts told the court that he intended to offer no evidence against Brooks and requested that he be discharged so that he could be called as a witness for the prosecution. There is no evidence that Brooks had been canvassed about this and the magistrates agreed. Danckwerts opened the prosecution case and called as witnesses those who had heard the survivors' stories and Brooks. The magistrates committed Dudley and Stephens for trial at the winter Cornwall and Devon assizes in Exeter, but extended their bail.

The trial of Dudley and Stephens opened in Exeter on 3 November before Baron Huddleston. Arthur Charles QC led for the prosecution and Arthur J. H. Collins QC for the defence, paid for out of a defence fund that had been established by public subscription.

Dudley and Stephens pleaded not guilty. Charles opened for the prosecution, outlining the legal arguments and dismissing the defence of necessity. He also dismissed the insanity defence; it was clear from the depositions and Dudley's prayer that they were aware of the quality of their actions. On 9 December under Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to the statutory death penalty with a recommendation for mercy. Finally, it may be due to public demand; they were only sentenced to 6 months. The two men were released on 20 May 1885.

Extra Juice:
  • In Edgar Allan Poe's novel "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket", published in 1838, decades before the Mignonette sank, four men are cast adrift on their capsized ship and draw lots to decide which of them should be sacrificed as food for the other three. The loser was the sailor who had proposed the idea: the character's name was Richard Parker.

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