Built in 1867, the Mignonette was a 52 foot, 19 tonne yacht that was purchased in Southampton, England by an Australian lawyer called John Want in 1883 who intended to use it as a pleasure craft in Sydney, Australia. Mr Want struggled to find a crew to sail the small vessel the 15,000 miles from Southampton to Sydney but by 19th May 1884 a crew of four were ready to set sail in the Mignonette.
Captained Thomas Dudley, the vessel reached the Atlantic Ocean at a point between the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena where, on the 5th July 1884, the skipper ordered her hove to, so the crew could enjoy a night’s sleep after a day running before a storm. As the boat lay at anchor a large wave struck it destroying the lee bulwark. Captain Dudley quickly realised that the Mignonette was sinking and ordered the crew into a lifeboat. Five minutes after the wave struck, the Mignonette disappeared beneath the water.
So, it came to be that Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker found themselves adrift on the ocean in a small lifeboat around 700 miles from St Helena.
In their haste to flee, the crew had failed to take any significant provisions to last what looked like it would be a lengthy journey. They did at least have their navigation equipment, but they took no drinking water at all and just two cans of turnips into the lifeboat. The crew went hungry for the first couple of days and on the 7th July 1884 Captain Dudley opened the first can of turnips and shared the contents among his crew telling them that it had to last the next two days. Two days later they managed to capture a turtle, which the hungry men ate, bones and all. Their real problem though was the lack of drinking water and around the 13th July 1884 the crew began to drink their own urine to survive. At 17, the parched Richard Parker was the youngest member of the crew and he couldn’t resist the lure of the sea water all around him. He began gulping it down on the 20th July and soon after was delirious.
While Richard was desperate, parched and delirious other members of the crew grew more desperate still. The whole crew had discussed drawing lots to select a member of the crew to be killed and eaten but the idea fizzled out until the 21st July when the topic was reignited. By the 23rd or 24th July Richard Parker was likely in a coma but was still alive. Captain Dudley declared that they should draw lots to select a man to die and be eaten but Edmund Brooks refused to take part.
Dudley and Stephens had further private conversation on the topic, although how private a conversation in a small lifeboat could be is unclear to me. Nonetheless, they left the matter til the morning of the 24th or 25th July. That morning a silent signal was exchanged between Dudley and Stephens, although Dudley would claim that the signal was also exchanged with Brooks. Perhaps there’s no better person to tell what happened next that Captain Tom Dudley himself:
“No vessel appearing on the morning, I made signs to Stephens and Brooks that we had better do it, but they seemed to have no heart to do it, so I went to the boy, who was lying at the bottom of the boat with his arm over his face.
“I took out my knife-first offering a prayer to God to forgive us for what we were about to do and for the rash act, that our souls might be saved-and I said to the boy, ‘Richard, your time has come.’ The boy said, ‘What me, Sir?’ I said, ‘Yes, my boy.’
“I then put my knife [into the side of his neck.] The blood spurted out, and we caught it in the bailer and we drank the blood while it was warm; we then stripped the body, cut it open, and took out his liver and heart, and we ate the liver while it was still warm.”
Dudley had decided, quite deliberately, to kill young Richard Parker slowly by bleeding him because in so doing the exsiccated men could collect his blood and drink it to slate their thirst.
After drinking Parker’s blood, the crew feasted on their cabin boy’s body. Even Captain Dudley, the killer, found the scene sickening:
“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.”
On the 29th July, the three survivors spotted the sails of a German barque, Montezuma, and they were saved. The crew of the Montezuma noted that all three survivors had blood and human flesh under their fingernails and that the bottom of the lifeboat was strewn with human body parts.
The Montezuma took Dudley, Stephens and Brooks to Falmouth where they made no secret of their actions. Indeed, Dudley made an official report, as the law required him to do, that included the murder of Richard Parker and the consumption of his body by the surviving crew. The three men believed that no crime had been committed by a custom of the sea that permitted such actions. In fairness to them, they had every reason to so believe (although I think I would still have spoken to a lawyer before admitting murdering and eating somebody).
Many years before Mignonette was built the French ship Méduse ran aground 30 miles from the coast while attempting a dangerous crossing from Madeira to Saint-Louis. Attempts were made to lighten the ship by removing the cargo onto rafts; however, before this could happen the ship began to break up and the captain ordered the 400 crew and passengers on board to abandon ship onto the raft, which was to be towed to safety by the ship’s launches. The raft was completely unsuited to the task, especially since most of it was underwater and with 145 men and one woman onboard, it was unstable even in calm water. Unfortunately, a gale kicked up causing the captain to fear his launches would be overwhelmed by those on the raft trying to climb on board.
Captain de frégate Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys cut the tow ropes and sailed away to safety.
Fights broke out among those on the rafts with people fighting to gain the centre of the raft, which was the safest part of it. On the first night, 20 men were killed or committed suicide. Dozens more were washed overboard. By day four, the rations had run out and some of the 67 left alive were eating those who had died. By the eighth day, the strongest 15 men threw all the other survivors into the sea. Those 15 survived another four days until they were found by chance by the Argus.
None of the crew were convicted.
Then there was the Nantucket bases whaler, Essex, which in 1820 was attacked by a whale and sunk. The twenty-man crew were stranded at sea for 95 days during which time they ate the bodies of those who had died. When not enough men died naturally, they drew lots chose men to die for the greater good. Another 17-year-old, Owen Coffin, lost and was shot by his friend Charles Ramdsell who was also chosen by lot. Eight men of the original 20 survived. None were prosecuted and all eight were back at sea within months of being rescued. The story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.
The murder and cannibalism of the Mignonette, Méduse and Essex were by no means exceptional in the Age of Sail where similar incidents are not quite two a penny, but they are far more common that you’d like to imagine. Despite the frequency of these events, surprisingly few cases actually made their way to the courts. Two that did are the “Saint Christopher Case” and US v Holmes (1842), 26 F. Cas. 360 (C.C.E.D. Pa. 1842).
In the Saint Christopher Case, seven Englishmen were lost at sea. They decided to kill and eat one of their number, ironically the man who had proposed the scheme to draw lots. At trial the judge is said to have pardoned them saying their crime was washed away by the inevitable necessity of their situation. Unfortunately, this case does not appear to have been reported in any legal journal and is found only in medical works.
In US v Holmes, the William Brown struck an iceberg and sank. The crew escaped into lifeboats; however, fearing that his lifeboat was overloaded seaman Alexander Holmes forced up to 16 passengers out of the boat and to their deaths in the icy cold water. After being rescued, Holmes was tried for manslaughter after a grand jury rejected an indictment containing a count of murder. The trial judge informed the jury that necessity could be a defence if their felt that Holmes was faultless and owed no duty to the victim. The jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to six months imprisonment and a $20 fine. He did not appeal, so the defence of necessity was never tested by a higher court.
So it is that we return to our three anti-heroes of the sea and our story: Dudley, Stephens and Brooks.
Unsurprisingly to the modern mind, the three killer-cannibals were put on trial for murder. This in itself was controversial at the time, especially among seafarers. Even the family of Richard Parker publicly forgave his killers. Brooks, no doubt fearing he might be made to take a long walk to the short drop if he did not cooperate, quickly turned Queen’s Evidence and testified for the Crown. Dudley and Stephens argued that their situation was such that they had no choice but to kill and consume young Richard Parker.
The judge appointed to hear the case was Baron Sir John Huddleston, a distinguished advocate who built a practice first in Oxford practising poor law but then moved to criminal law in the Middlesex Quarter Sessions and Old Bailey. He was appointed Baron of the Exchequer of the Exchequer of pleas, hence the titled Baron Huddleston. As a judge his career is most noted for the mess he made of the trial of Dudley and Stephens as well as for his reputation for pomposity.
Baron Huddleston is said to have already decided on the law and verdict before the trial began. He pressured the jury to return a special verdict stating the facts of the case but not reaching a verdict, which would leave the final say up to Huddleston, B. The jury did as commanded, returning the first special verdict in an English court in 99 years. Although the judge appeared to have planned this out in advance, he nonetheless made a mistake in his findings by failing to find that the Mignonette was subject to the laws of England – this is important since the Crown Case Reserved Court had found in 1876 that English courts have no jurisdiction over foreign vessels sailing within British territorial waters, The Queen v Keyn (1876) 2 Q.B.D. 90 (better known as the Franconia Case). Huddleston, B. resolved to fix this problem by changing details of the verdict after it had been given! Nor did the trial judge remember to put his verdict to the jury before entering into the record that the jury found the verdict in accordance with the judgment of the court.
The case of The Queen v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 Q.B.D. 273 came to the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court on the 9th December 1884 where the court, led by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Coleridge, glossed over the failings of the trial judge before going on to give what would become the leading case on the defence of duress by necessity.
Lord Coleridge quoted, with approval, Lord Hale’s comments in Hale’s Pleas of the Crown which were that where a man faces death at the hands of an assailant unless he kills another innocent, “… he ought to die himself than kill an innocent; but if he cannot otherwise save his own life the law permits him in his own defence to kill the assailant.” From there Lord Coleridge goes through an extensive examination of leading textbooks of the day, most of which provide little help and none of which provide any legal authority for their assertions save for the word of their learned authors, a practice of which I am regularly critical.
In the end though, the court found little comfort in the texts to which it referred saying:
“It would have been satisfactory to us if these eminent persons could have told us whether the received definitions of legal necessity were in their judgment correct and exhaustive, and if not, in what way they should be amended”.
Thus, their Lordships are left to earn their money and make decisions for themselves, which they do very well in my humble opinion. Lord Coleridge takes a practical approach, expressing the purpose of the law as he sees it and discussing briefly the relationship of law and morality:
“Now it is admitted that the deliberate killing of this unoffending and unresisting boy was clearly murder, unless the killing can be justified by some well-recognised excuse admitted by the law. It is further admitted that there was in this case no such excuse, unless the killing was justified by what has been called “necessity.” But the temptation to the act which existed here was not what the law has ever called necessity. Nor is this to be regretted. Though law and morality are not the same, and many things may be immoral which are not necessarily illegal, yet the absolute divorce of law from morality would be of fatal consequence; and such divorce would follow if the temptation to murder in this case were to be held by law an absolute defence of it. It is not so….
By what measure is the comparative value of lives to be measured? Is it to be strength, or intellect, or what? It is plain that the principle leaves to him who is to profit by it to determine the necessity which will justify him in deliberately taking another’s life to save his own. In this case the weakest, the youngest, the most unresisting, was chosen. Was it more necessary to kill him than one of the grown men? The answer must be ‘No’—”
His Lordship went on, showing clear sympathy with the accused men, when he concluded thus:
“It must not be supposed that in refusing to admit temptation to be an excuse for crime it is forgotten how terrible the temptation was; how awful the suffering; how hard in such trials to keep the judgment straight and the conduct pure. We are often compelled to set up standards we cannot reach ourselves, and to lay down rules which we could not ourselves satisfy. But a man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, though he might himself have yielded to it, nor allow compassion for the criminal to change or weaken in any manner the legal definition of the crime. It is therefore our duty to declare that the prisoners’ act in this case was wilful murder, that the facts as stated in the verdict are no legal justification of the homicide; and to say that in our unanimous opinion the prisoners are upon this special verdict guilty of murder.”
R v Dudley and Stephens establishes the principle in English law that necessity may be a defence, but not a defence to murder because no human life is more important than another. That is a principle that remained untouched until Re A (conjoined twins)  2 WLR 480 when the Court of Appeal accepted that in some very limited situations it would be permissible to end one life to save another. Re A (conjoined twins) involved a set of conjoined twins who were born together and destined to die together unless they could be separated surgically. However, the surgery would certainly kill one of the babies. In those exceptional and almost unique circumstances it is permissible to rank one human life above another, not because it is more important but because the prospects of survival of one is greater than those of the other and because without that action both would certainly die.
Despite having been convicted Dudley and Stephens were not executed, at the insistence of Queen Victoria they spent six-months imprisonment as part of a conditional pardon she was persuaded, seemingly against her will, to offer them.
Despite surviving the Mignonette, all three men floundered for the rest of their lives. Brooks died in 1919. Stephens took to drink and died in 1914 while Dudley moved to Australia where he died of the plague just a few years later in 1900.