How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party
When the last of four relief teams arrived at a lakeside camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 17, 1847 to recover what was left of the Donner Party, the log cabins built by the marooned pioneers were silent. Stranded there since the previous November—when the party realized the snow was too high and their cattle too weak for all 80 or so of them to travel safely over the summit blocking the last leg of their journey to California's Central Valley—they'd had little food on which to survive. First they slaughtered their cattle, then their dogs—and then, when rescue didn't come, they began to eat the dead. According to one account, the last relief team found human remains—battered skulls and bones stripped of flesh—scattered over the area, among other sights "too dreadful to put on record."
The scene was similar at George Donner’s tent, a few miles from the cabins at Truckee Lake. The doomed group’s namesake had been seen by an earlier rescue party on the cusp of death and in the care of his wife Tamzene. Now the tent was empty, and a pot filled with human meat stood at the front of it. George's split-open head, emptied of its brain, was found nearby. The only sign of life was a set of fresh footprints marking the snow.
After a physically and emotionally grueling day, the relief team was exhausted. They decided to make camp for the night, with plans to investigate the tracks further once they'd had a chance to rest. Setting out on the 19th, they followed the prints to Lewis Keseberg, a blue-eyed, 32-year-old German immigrant and the sole survivor at Truckee Lake.
The sight of men bearing provisions should have been a welcome one for Keseberg. But they had found him in a compromising position: Tamzene Donner, who had been in decent health when the last relief team saw her, had disappeared—and Keseberg was preparing himself a meal of fresh human lungs and liver. What’s more, he was carrying $225 worth of gold stolen from the Donners' coin hoard in his waistcoat. To the rescue party, it looked as though Keseberg had violated one of humanity's greatest taboos, one that went beyond mere cannibalism: Murdering a person—Tamzene—to feast on her body.
A SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER
When Keseberg had joined the Donner Party less than a year earlier, pioneers spurred on by the idea of Manifest Destiny were pouring into the West by the thousands. California promised mild weather year-round and fertile farmland—and the Donner and Reed families of Illinois wanted a piece of the bounty. Keseberg, his pregnant wife Elisabeth Philippine, and his 3-year-old daughter Ada were among the people who decided to join their covered wagon train in the spring of 1846 as it rolled through the heart of America toward the Golden Coast.
The stories that would later be told about Keseberg started with his behavior on the trail. He reportedly acted cruelly toward his own family—ignoring his daughter and abusing his wife—and often didn't treat other members of the party any better. On October 5, James Reed murdered a teamster during a quarrel involving oxen, and Keseberg vocally supported Reed's execution. The other men refused to hang Reed in front of his wife and children, and instead agreed to leave him in the desert without food or weapons.
That same week, Keseberg ejected an elderly Belgian man named Hardcoop from his wagon to relieve his tired cattle. The man’s legs had given out just days before, and he was unable to keep up with the party on foot. The last anyone saw him, Hardcoop was catching his breath in the brush, his feet black and bloodied.
Damning behavior aside, Keseberg’s personality wasn’t winning him any popularity contests. In his account of the ordeal [PDF], an emigrant named Jacob Wright Harlan characterized Keseberg as an eccentric, antisocial man who mostly kept to himself. He also struck Harlan as someone "predisposed to derangement of mind"—and this was before the tragedy.
“Keseberg was his own worst enemy,” Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, tells Mental Floss. “His overall demeanor set the stage for the eventual vilification of him.”
TRAGEDY AT TRUCKEE LAKE
The Sierra Nevada, a roughly 70-mile-wide mountain range snaking through California and parts of Nevada, presented one of the biggest obstacles of the Donner Party's trip. The mountains become impassable in the winter when the snow piles up; to get ahead of the weather, the group should have departed from Missouri in mid to late April. But the first members of the Donner expedition didn't leave Independence, Missouri, until May 12. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-1847 was especially brutal in the area: About 20 storms pummeled the mountains that season, adding up to 25 feet of snow.
By December, winter had crept up on the travelers and immobilized them under its weight. Unable to continue any further with their belongings, most of the emigrants, including the Kesebergs, made camp for the season at Truckee Lake, while the strongest among them formed what would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope Party, strapped on snowshoes, and set out in search of help. Though they were just 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort in California, a wrong turn set the Forlorn Hope fatally behind schedule.
Weeks passed, but the peak over which the Forlorn Hope Party had disappeared remained white and still, and the remaining members at the lake camp began succumbing to the cold and hunger. Those who died early on provided a shot at survival to the people around them: With starvation gnawing at their insides, a source of fresh meat—even if it belonged, as it did in many cases, to their closest kin—was often impossible to ignore. Roughly half the party, including most of the Forlorn Hope, engaged in cannibalism that winter. Those who did were haunted by their actions for the rest of their lives.
Lewis Keseberg never denied cannibalizing Tamzene Donner. When the final rescue party interrogated him on her whereabouts, he admitted to eating her flesh to survive, but he rebuffed any accusations that he had murdered Tamzene rather than waiting to butcher her only after she died of natural causes. As for the gold lining his trousers, and the bundle of stolen silks, jewels, and firearms found in his cabin, Keseberg eventually confessed to taking George Donner’s goods—but only upon request from Tamzene herself. As he told it, Tamzene left the tents after her husband died and slipped and fell into a creek on her way to his cabin. When she arrived she knew she didn’t have much time left, and asked Keseberg to gather up the money George Donner had hidden and return it to her children at Sutter’s Fort. She died later that night.
The rescue team didn’t fully buy his story, but they begrudgingly decided to lead him back to the central California valley where the rest of the party had ended up, so that a jury of his peers could decide his fate. After a slog across the Sierra Nevada, Keseberg reunited with his wife—who had been rescued by the first relief party (their daughter Ada and a child born on the trail both died of starvation)—and for the first time in months, sat down to enjoy a hearty meal that didn’t consist of dog, cattle, or human meat.
"BETTER THAN CALIFORNIA BEEF"
After Keseberg's return to civilization, news of the “Donner Party Tragedy” rippled across the nation by way of newspapers and word of mouth. The cannibalism aspect gripped the American consciousness, and Keseberg was cast as the savage who ate humans not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Journalists dubbed him the “human cannibal” and began reporting the murder of Tamzene Donner—which had never been verified—as fact. Gossipers added their own embellishments to the account. According to one telling, which allegedly came from the surviving Donner Party children, Keseberg had taken a young boy to bed with him one night and killed him by morning, later hanging his carcass on the wall like a slab of game.
The most persistent rumor may have come from Keseberg himself. The story goes that after settling in California, he would frequent the local bars and brag about his escapades in cannibalism to anyone who would listen. In this version, Keseberg claimed human meat was more delicious than California beef, and described Tamzene Donner’s liver as the sweetest bite he had ever tasted.
It's easy to see how rumors like these could snowball. But according to Wallis, even if Keseberg did say these things, they don’t necessarily prove his guilt. “To people who know about the human mind and know what starvation and hyperthermia can do to you, it’s not too much out of the ordinary for him to say something like that,” he explains. Post-traumatic stress disorder is known to provoke psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, although it's unclear whether this was the case with Keseberg.
Whatever the source of the grisly stories, they led to legal trouble. Keseberg was ultimately accused of murdering six of his fellow Donner Party members, including Tamzene, but was acquitted on each count due to lack of evidence. He later returned to court, this time as the prosecutor, to sue members of the relief party who had found him at Truckee Lake for fueling the vicious rumors attached to his name. Again the jury sided in his favor, but his reward was modest: just $1 for the damages, and he was still expected to cover the court fees.
LAST CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION
Life never got easier for Keseberg, but he was granted one last bit of closure around age 65. A journalist named C.F. McGlashan was writing a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra when he reached out to the surviving members to interview them. Finally, Keseberg had the platform to tell his version of the events that transpired that winter, and address the rumors that had dogged him for years. His first-hand account was a stark departure from the infamous stories of his barroom braggadocio:
“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”
Keseberg’s greatest chance for redemption came when McGlashan arranged for him to meet Eliza Donner Houghton, Tamzene Donner’s youngest surviving daughter. Eliza had been only 4 years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, and when Keseberg saw the grown woman standing before him, he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t deny eating Tamzene’s remains, but he swore to Eliza that he hadn’t murdered her. Hearing the sincerity in the voice of this man she barely remembered from childhood, Eliza decided to take him at his word.
Despite earning validation from the courts and a descendent of the Donners, Keseberg’s reputation continued to shadow him wherever he went, whether in the towns where he lived or aboard the supply ship where he eventually worked. Toward the end of his life, he gathered enough money to open his own inn in Sacramento, but even this endeavor failed. “People thought, ‘Well, why would we stay there where this cannibal lives?’” Wallis says. The inn burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was undetermined.
An internet search of Keseberg today still pulls up results related to his alleged crimes. The story’s stubborn presence through the decades becomes more notable in light of certain facts concerning the Forlorn Hope Party: During that trek, two Miwok men, named Salvadore and Luis, were murdered for their flesh by William Foster, but because they were Native Americans their story was ignored by newspapers. Tamzene Donner's death, and the gossip surrounding Keseberg's alleged involvement, however, received plenty of coverage.
Lewis Keseberg's wife Elisabeth Philippine died in 1877, and the widower lived out the remainder of his life poor and struggling to care for the couple’s children—both born after the Donner Party saga—who had intellectual disabilities. He died in 1895, nearly half a century after the events that defined him in the public eye. “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint,” Wallis says. “Keseberg is just one of the many great tragedies of this whole story.”
Additional Source: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party