The Quick 10: 10 Instances of Cannibalism

Today marks the anniversary of the rescue of the cannibalistic Donner Party (in case you're not familiar, they're #1 on the list below). But the Donner Party is definitely not the first - or last - to turn to dining on human flesh when in dire straits. Or, you know, for entertainment. I've tried to steer clear of modern serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, though no tale of cannibalism is particularly pleasant.

1. The Donner Party. In 1846, the Donner Family plus some friends and hired hands headed west from Illinois to California. They had almost completed the journey when they ran into some severe weather around Truckee, California, and decided to set up camp for the rest of the winter until they could make it the rest of the way. It was a cruel winter, though "“ provisions ran out and people were dying left and right. Help finally arrived on this day in 1847, but they couldn't take everyone at once. By the time the Second Relief came in a week later, the remaining survivors had started to eat some of the dead bodies.

cook2. James Cook. Perhaps it's his name that fuels this urban legend, but there's probably no truth to the fact that Captain James Cook met his maker by way of a stewpot. It's true that he was killed in a skirmish with some native Hawaiians, and it's likely that his body was boiled to remove the flesh (it used to be common practice when a corpse had to travel to its final resting place). But the idea that the Hawaiians ate the flesh is very much in question "“ research has shown that the Hawaiian group he and his men fought with didn't practice cannibalism.
3. Boyd Massacre. In 1809, the son of a Maori chief joined the Boyd, a convict ship sailing from Australia to the Northland Peninsula of New Zealand. He specifically asked for passage on the ship and said that he would work to earn his way, but once he got there, he refused to hold up his end of the bargain, saying that the son of a chief should never be subjected to such menial tasks. He was beaten for his disobedience, and when he finally disembarked at his destination of Whangaroa, he ran to his tribe and told them what happened. The tribe exacted revenge three days later: they killed nearly all of Boyd's crew and ate them. The only survivors were a two-year-old girl, a woman and her baby, and the ship's cabin boy.

4. Lon Nil. In 1970, the brother of the Cambodian Prime Minister was killed in a riot. Nil was a politician as well, and was visiting the town of Kampong Cham when his brother announced a plan to depose King Sihanouk. Sihanouk encouraged people to riot and revolt and join the Khmer Rouge, and the people of Kampong Cham took him at his word and killed Lon Nil, then ripped out his liver and had a restaurant cook it up so they could eat it.

grill5. Alferd Packer. In 1873, Alferd Packer and 20 other men left Utah and were headed to Colorado to try their hand at gold mining. But, as expected, the Colorado weather soon turned nasty, and by February 9, only six of the men were still attempting to make the trip. And by April, Packer was the only one left. Packer said he was out hunting and scouting one day and came back to find that Shannon Bell, one of the other members of the party, had gone mad and killed the others; when Packer returned to the campsite Bell was busy roasting up a lovely dinner made up of the other four party members. He tried to attack Packer, and Packer shot him. The judge didn't believe this story, though, and sentenced Alferd to prison. Packer's downfall probably came when he admitted that, on the brink of death, he did nibble on his already-dead companions a little bit. After 16 years in jail, he was paroled mostly thanks to public outcry that he was imprisoned on circumstantial evidence. He died in 1907, still swearing that he only killed Bell and only in self-defense. Recent evidence may prove that Packer was telling the truth "“ the position of various bullet holes and the discovery of Packer's gun so far seem to corroborate his story.

lifeboat6. Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens. In May 1884, the Mignonette set sail from England, headed to Australia. She carried just four passengers "“ Captain Tom Dudley, cabin boy Richard Parker, Edwin Stephens and Edmund Brooks. It was smooth sailing until July 5, when the yacht was devastated by a huge wave. The lifeboat was launched, but it was a really crappy lifeboat, and the only things the crew managed to grab were the navigational instructions and two tins of turnips. Even so, things were OK until July 17 "“ they killed a large turtle and ate it, which gave them about three pounds of meat apiece. But once that was gone, the men started talking about one of them sacrificing himself to provide meat for the other three. Parker was practically comatose by this point, so he was the natural candidate. They killed him sometime around July 25th or 26th and were rescued on July 29. When they returned home, Stephens and Dudley were found guilty of murder and were given the statutory death penalty with a recommendation for mercy, and ended up serving just six months in jail. They are said to have been disappointed at such a long sentence.

fish7. Albert Fish. This dude is the stuff horror movies are made of. A few of his nicknames included the Brooklyn Vampire, the Boogeyman and the Werewolf of Wysteria. Fish confessed to murdering and eating at least three children and may have killed up to six. He sent a pretty detailed letter to the mother of Grace Budd, a 10-year-old victim, and wrote another TMI confession for a different victim with such detail that it could have well been a recipe book. He was finally put to death via the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1936, he reportedly told his executioners that being electrocuted would be the "supreme thrill of my life." It took two jolts to kill him, which led to rumors that all the needles he had inserted into his pelvis (one of his sexual fetishes) had short-circuited the chair.

dewitt8. Johan de Witt. De Witt was a successful politician who negotiated peace between the Dutch and England during after the First Anglo-Dutch War. But, political tastes changed, as they tend to. In 1672, during the Franco-Dutch War, the French invaded and people turned to William III of Orange for protection. The problem? De Witt and the House of Orange were bitter enemies. His brother, Cornelius, was imprisoned, and Johan was sent a forged letter from Cornelius that begged him to visit. When he complied, he was assassinated (as was his brother). The brothers' bodies were hung upside down from a scaffold and the bodies were mutilated; fingers, toes and organs were sliced off and carried away for dinner. Their hearts were proudly displayed as trophies for a number of years.
9. The Essex whaleship. The Essex is another tale of people on a ship being stranded and eating one another for survival, sadly. In 1819, a sperm whale, perhaps intuitively understanding the ship's mission, rammed The Essex two times. This was enough to sink the old girl, leaving 21 sailors stranded on tiny Henderson Island (it only has an area of 14.4 square miles). They quickly depleted the island of its natural food resources such as birds and vegetation and they got back in their lifeboats to seek help or food elsewhere. Nothing was to be found, though, and the crew started to turn their hungry eyes on each other. For a while they were able to sustain themselves on people who had died, but eventually, the decision was made that one of them must die in order to feed the others. The decision was made randomly, as was the decision as to who would do the killing. And that's how Charles Ramsdell ended up killing and eating his good friend, the appropriately-named Owen Coffin. Eventually, another whaling ship happened upon the devastated crew and rescued them, but by this time, a total of seven sailors had been devoured. And if the story of the whale ramming the ship sounds familiar, it's because a young Herman Melville heard of this tale and was inspired to write Moby Dick.

10. The Uruguayan Rugby team that the movie Alive was based on. No doubt you're familiar with this one, but I had to include it. On Friday, October 13 1972 (where was this last week when I was compiling my list of Friday the 13th events?), the plane carrying Stella Maris College's rugby team crashed in the Andes. Seventeen of the 45 people on the plane either died upon impact or died of injuries sustained in the crash the following day. Eight more died in an avalanche on October 29. After quickly depleting the small amounts of food that had been on the plane, everyone collectively decided that they would need to eat the dead bodies of their friends in order to survive. And it was a good thing they did: the nourishment gave some of the men the energy needed to hike for days to try to find some help. Finally, in mid-December, they spotted cows roaming and then a few men on horses. The remaining 16 survivors back at the camp were finally rescued on December 22.

New Plant-Based Coating Can Keep Your Avocados Fresh for Twice as Long

Thanks to a food technology startup called Apeel Sciences, eating fresh avocados will soon be a lot easier. The Bill Gates–backed company has developed a coating designed to keep avocados fresh for up to twice as long as traditional fruit, Bloomberg reports, and these long-lasting avocados will soon be available at 100 grocery stores across the Midwestern U.S. Thirty or so of the grocery stores involved in the limited rollout of the Apeel avocado will be Costcos, so feel free to buy in bulk.

Getting an avocado to a U.S. grocery store is more complicated than it sounds; the majority of avocados sold in the U.S. come from California or Mexico, making it tricky to get fruit to the Midwest or New England at just the right moment in an avocado’s life cycle.

Apeel’s coating is made of plant material—lipids and glycerolipids derived from peels, seeds, and pulp—that acts as an extra layer of protective peel on the fruit, keeping water in and oxygen out, and thus reducing spoilage. (Oxidation is the reason that your sliced avocados and apples brown after they’ve been exposed to the air for a while.) The tasteless coating comes in a powder that fruit producers mix with water and then dip their fruit into.

A side-by-side comparison of a coated and uncoated avocado after 30 days, with the uncoated avocado looking spoiled and the coated one looking fresh

According to Apeel, coating a piece of produce in this way can keep it fresh for two to three times longer than normal without any sort of refrigeration of preservatives. This not only allows consumers a few more days to make use of their produce before it goes bad, reducing food waste, but can allow producers to ship their goods to farther-away markets without refrigeration.

Avocados are the first of Apeel's fruits to make it to market, but there are plans to debut other Apeel-coated produce varieties in the future. The company has tested its technology on apples, artichokes, mangos, and several other fruits and vegetables.

[h/t Bloomberg]

The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases

Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?


Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”


1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
Express/Express/Getty Images

The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.


The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.


chimp eating banana

The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”


If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.


The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.


Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.


The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.


The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!


A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.


The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.


Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.


We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.


Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.


What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.


Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”


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