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6 Horrifying Modern Cannibals

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Cannibalism, as repulsive as it is, can be understood in cases where consuming the deceased is an alternative to certain starvation. Those who eat human flesh by choice, however, tend to be the kind of people who will torture and murder to satisfy their curiosity. Be warned that some of the following links are disturbing.

1. Dorangel Vargas

Dorangel Vargas is known as "the Hannibal Lecter of the Andes". He was confined to a mental hospital in 1995 after the remains of a missing man were found in his home, but Vargas was released two years later. In 1999, police in San Cristobal, Venezuela again found human remains in Vargas' possession. This time, at least ten skulls and fresh entrails were found. Vargas admitted eating the bodies, but denied murder charges, saying the bodies were given to him. This statement led to conjecture that Vargas was being used to cover up an organ trafficking operation. Vargas was homeless and already known to be mentally unstable. During an interview, Vargas claimed that eating people was like eating pears. Vargas is confined to a mental institution.

2. Kevin Ray Underwood

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Kevin Ray Underwood was arrested in April 2006 for the murder of 10-year-old Jamie Bolin in Purcell, Oklahoma. Although there is no evidence that Underwood actually cannibalized the body, police found meat tenderizer and barbecue skewers among the tools used to commit the murder. Underwood confessed to the murder and his plans to eat Bolin's flesh. His videotaped confession is full of gruesome details.

3. Robert Maudsley

158maudsleyRobert Maudsley committed his first murder in 1974. He sold sexual services to support his drug addiction, and killed one of his clients. Maudsley was sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. In 1977, he and another inmate took a third inmate hostage for nine hours before authorities could break into the cell. The victim, a pedophile, had been tortured and killed. His skull was cracked open and a part of his brain was missing. A spoon in the skull led guards to believe Maudsley had eaten part of his victim. He was convicted of manslaughter and sent to Wakefield prison, where he soon killed two more men before being sent to solitary confinement. In 1983, a special cell was constructed for Maudsley at Wakefield prison, where he is held in solitary confinement behind glass with no human contact. Food is passed to him through a slot. This cell is believed to be the model for Hannibal Lecter's enclosure in The Silence of the Lambs.

4. Issei Sagawa

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Japanese student Issei Sagawa studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and became infatuated with Dutch student Renée Hartevelt in 1981. Instead of courting her, he shot her in the back of the neck. Then Sagawa lived out a fantasy he'd had since childhood as he cut her flesh and ate it raw. He then had sexual intercourse with Hartevelt's body, cut it into pieces, put some of the flesh in his refrigerator for later, and stuffed the rest into suitcases to dispose of at nearby Bois de Boulogne park, where he was noticed. Police retrieved Hartevelt's body parts and arrested Sagawa a few days later. Sagawa confessed to the murder. He was held for two years, then committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. While there, he wrote his autobiography In the Fog, which became a best seller in Japan. Sagawa was deported to Japan, where he underwent mental examinations and was found sane. Japanese officials could not prosecute him because France did not send the necessary paperwork. By 1986, he was a free man, and willing to talk about what he did to Renée Hartevelt. Sagawa is the "celebrity cannibal" of Japan. He has written more books, worked a short time as a restaurant critic, granted interviews, painted nudes, and even acted in porn films. In short, he is making a living off his crime.

5. Armin Meiwes

200_Armin_Meiwes14Armin Meiwes posted a personal ad online to solicit a victim for murder and cannibalism in 2001. Bernd Juergen Brandes, who did not know Meiwes, volunteered to be his victim through a German chatroom. The two met and carried out the plan, which is documented in gruesome detail. Meiwes consumed the remains of Brandes over several months. He was reported to police after posting another personal ad. Meiwes was convicted of manslaughter amid questions of whether a murder victim can give consent. He was retried in 2006 and convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

6. Jeffrey Dahmer

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In the summer of 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was on probation after serving time for fondling a young boy, but his overworked probation officer never visited his Milwaukee apartment. Police were called when a 14-year-old boy tried to escape Dahmer's clutches, but Dahmer convinced officers that the boy was an adult and the situation was a lover's quarrel. They left Konerak Sinthasomphone, who did not speak English, in Dahmer's hands. He was never seen alive again. When another victim, Tracey Edwards ran screaming from Dahmer's apartment, police investigated and found a house of horrors. In Dahmer's apartment were body parts belonging to 11 people. Some were found in the refrigerator and freezer, some packed into a barrel of acid, and some were dried and cleaned to be souvenirs. In his confession, Dahmer alluded to cannibalism and sexual acts with the deceased bodies, activities he expanded on in a 1994 interview. Dahmer pleaded insanity but was convicted and sentenced to life terms for each of 15 murders. He later pleaded guilty to another murder in Ohio. In 1994, another prison inmate bludgeoned Dahmer to death with an iron bar.

Researching my extensive list of modern cannibals is psychologically exhausting. This look at cannibalism will continue next week.

Update: see part two of this post, 6 More Cannibal Killers.

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Thinking of Disinfecting Your Sponge? It’ll Do More Harm Than Good
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Common house-cleaning wisdom advises you to clean your sponges periodically. Some experts advise running them through the dishwasher, while others suggest microwaving a wet sponge. But a new study says that both of those techniques will do more harm than good, as The New York Times reports.

A trio of microbiologists came to this conclusion after collecting used sponges from households in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, a city near Zurich. As the researchers write in Nature Scientific Reports, they asked the 14 houses that gave them sponges to describe how they were used—how many people in the house handled them, how often they used them, how often they replaced them, and if they ever tried to clean them.

Analyzing DNA and RNA found on those sponges, they found a total of 362 different bacterial species living on them. The sheer number of the bacterial colonies was staggering—some 82 billion total bacteria were living in a cubic inch of sponge. (As co-author Markus Egert told the Times, that’s similar to what you’d find in your poop.)

As the researchers discovered by analyzing the bacteria found on sponges whose users said they regularly cleaned them, disinfecting a sponge using a microwave, vinegar, or a dishwasher is worse than useless. It seems that when you attempt to clean a sponge, you kill off some bacteria, but in doing so, you provide an environment for the worst species of bacteria to thrive. Sponges that were regularly cleaned had higher concentrations of bacteria like Moraxella osloensis, which can cause infections in humans. (Though it’s unclear how likely you are to get infected by your sponge.) It’s also the reason dirty laundry smells. By microwaving your sponge, you’re probably just making it smellier.

Sadly, there’s not much you can do about your dirty sponge except throw it away. You can recycle it to use as part of your cleaning routine in the bathroom or somewhere else where it’s far away from your food, but the best way to get a clean sponge, it seems, is to just buy a new one. May we suggest the Scrub Daddy?

[h/t The New York Times]

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How the Global Bird-Poop Trade Created a Traveling Mummy Craze
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Mummy of Christopher Delano; image from the 1864 French translation of the 1854 A Descriptive Narrative of the Wonderful Petrifaction of a Man into Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Garrett Scott

 
Bird poop has been a favored fertilizer for centuries—and, it turns out, is an excellent preserver of human flesh. These two factors came together in the 19th century as the global trade in guano, the excrement of seabirds (or bats), took off, leading to some unexpected travelers coming along for the ride—and raking in the cash.

Guano contains essential nutrients for plant growth and naturally accumulates near nesting areas. Its Miracle-Gro properties were prized and regulated by the Incas (the word wanu is Quechua in origin), but it wasn’t until 1802 that the European world learned of this resource through the writings of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled extensively along the west coast of South America.

By the 1840s, Europe and the U.S. were importing guano for fertilizer. When it was discovered the poop could also make gunpowder, a veritable guano mania began. Guano was soon going for about $76 per ton, and the U.S. imported over 100,000 tons of it in 1861 [PDF]. That's about $250 million in today’s dollars.

In the race to control the world’s guano deposits and secure bird poo futures for its people, the U.S. created the Guano Islands Act in 1856, allowing any U.S. citizen to claim guano-covered islands. Control over guano resources became part of the justification for the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) between Spain and Peru and Chile, as well as for the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), in which Chile stole Peru’s guano.

In the midst of this fervor for feces, guano miners were hard at work chipping away at the hardened mounds of poo on islands in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Strangely, on some of these islands, among the guano they also found mummified humans.

The most well-known guano mummy is that of Christopher Delano. On the island of Ichaboe, a teeny speck of land off Namibia, a crew of guano miners found a canvas hammock containing a human body under about 6 feet of guano, with a wooden plaque saying “Christopher Delano, 1721.” A cheery pamphlet from 1854 describes his mummified corpse and its travels: “But for the hair and teeth, which were quite perfect, [it] appeared a mass resembling stone, all the natural and component parts, of the body being changed by the process of petrifaction … [and] composed chiefly of lime and ammonia.”

In spite of the quite scientific understanding at the time of both natural and artificial mummification (thanks to early interest in ancient Egypt), even with the knowledge of the formation of adipocere, or “grave wax,” on recently interred corpses, the perception of what guano could do appears to have been wrong. Delano was not “changed into a mass of lime and ammonia.” We know now that in the short term, guano can help seal dead bodies, creating an oxygen-poor and salt-rich environment that is good for preservation. In a warm, arid climate like Namibia, the guano helped dry Delano’s body and shield it from scavengers.

Captain Wethers, who commanded the crew, brought the mummy from Ichaboe to Liverpool, where it traveled to the British Museum. From there, poor Delano went on a tour of Great Britain and Ireland, where he brought in more than $150,000—the equivalent of about $4 million today.

Upon examination of Delano, British and French scientists determined that he was European and not African, and the amount of wear on his teeth suggested he was in his mid to late 30s when he died. His right shoulder is elevated and contracted, and his open mouth revealed “a death of agony” (though it's not unusual to see a gaping jaw on a mummy). His cause of death? Likely a spear wound to his right shoulder.

The writer of the 1854 pamphlet took liberties with the sparse facts available: “About 1721, the Island of Ichaboe had been the resort of nests of Pirates…. In all human probability, the most satisfactory conjecture that can be arrived at is that the unfortunate Christopher Delano was a Spaniard, joined in some piratical enterprises, and leagued with a gang of desperadoes, from one of whom, while visiting the Island of Ichaboe, he most probably received his death wound in some bacchanalism origies [sic] or sudden quarrel.”

With this amazing manufactured backstory, Delano’s body was brought to Philadelphia and exhibited before being shipped to France by the mid-1860s. Although billed as the “only one in the world” and “the solitary known example in the Universe of its kind,” it was only a matter of time—and feverish digging—before more mummies preserved by bird poop materialized. Just a few years after Delano was discovered, the British ship Octavia also docked in Liverpool with a load of guano—and the mummies of a man, woman, and child from Peru [PDF]. Like Delano, they were eventually exhibited at the British Museum in London.

In 1868, British natural historian Francis Buckland noted that he saw yet another guano mummy in a “penny show” in Edinburgh; according to the show's handbill, the body was brought from Possession Island off the west coast of Africa by Captain Dunlop’s ship Echo. The mummy was well preserved, with an oaken board that was carved “Peter Creed, 1790.” Buckland spoke with the owner, who reportedly announced that the mummy “is as good as a pension to me,” earning him today’s equivalent of $2000 in under two weeks. The owner was aware of the Delano corpse, which at that point he claimed had disintegrated due to its travels, but mused “he ain’t no use as a scientific mummy now; the more’s the luck for me as long as my Peter Creed holds together.” (Given England’s humidity, though, it is doubtful that his Mr. Creed survived for very long.)

By the early 20th century, the guano trade had tapered off. Industrialized countries found new sources of fertilizer, and it turns out that guano was not a very good source of saltpeter for gunpowder. Many islands and atolls had been completely stripped, but the legacy remains: Many remain in U.S. possession after being claimed for their guano 150 years ago. Seven of these make up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine reserve. As for the islands that produced Delano and Creed, these today support Cape gannets and endangered African penguins, and wildlife conservationists still often visit to monitor these populations.

While guano mummies are occasionally discovered in these areas, today new finds are largely made by archaeologists excavating prehistoric caves sites in arid locations like Nevada, New Mexico, and Durango, Mexico. Still, with the popularity of bat guano as an organic fertilizer on the rise today, it’s likely more poop-preserved mummies may yet turn up.

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