Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cannibalism and the Strange Case of Nathaniel Bar-Jonah

Starvation Cannibalism

"Remember when we took 'em out and cut 'em up? Remember when I said I wanted me some ribs? Did that make me a cannibal?" — Ottis Toole

"You wasn't a cannibal. It's the force of the devil, something forced on us that we can't change. There's no reason denying what we become. We know what we are." — Henry Lucas.

Jodie Foster with Anthony Hopkins from The Silence of the Lambs
Jodie Foster with Anthony Hopkins from
The Silence of the Lambs

Cannibalism — simply put, eating other people for reasons that range from starvation to a simple perverted pleasure in tasting another's flesh — is one of mankind's greatest taboos, ranking with pedophilia and incest. Despite Western society's aversion toward its practice, cannibalism does make headlines whenever it occurs. It is also the stuff of compelling fiction, both books and movies. Despite its horrendous nature and mankind's professed revulsion against the practice, the public cannot seem to get enough, as evidenced by the popularity of author Thomas Harris' character Hannibal Lecter, of The Silence of the Lambs fame. Evidence shows that cannibalism was practiced long before the Egyptian pyramids were built. There are probably few places on the face of the earth that have not been touched by some form of cannibalism at one time or another.

Professor Tim D. White, Co-director Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of California, Berkeley
Professor Tim D. White, Co-director
Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies,
University of California, Berkeley

According to Professor Tim D. White, co-director of the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, in an article that appeared in Scientific American, anthropologists have, through decades of intensive study, come to classify particular cannibalistic behaviors according to the relationship of the person(s) being eaten to the person(s) doing the eating. Those classifications, according to White, include endocannibalism, the eating of people within a particular group; exocannibalism, the eating of people outside a particular group; and autocannibalism, or the eating of oneself.

Within these classifications, cannibalism can be broken down into further divisions by motivations. For example, survival cannibalism is motivated by starvation: one eats another to survive when normal sources of food are in short supply. There are many instances of starvation cannibalism throughout history; perhaps the most famous example is that of the Donner Party. A group of travelers crossing the Sierra Nevada range late in 1846 to settle in California, the Donner Party became snowbound for months near Lake Tahoe. The fierce weather forced them to first slaughter their animals for food, and eventually those who died from the bitter cold and starvation were eaten by the others. Finally, according to survivor accounts, murders began allegedly initiated by a man named Lewis Keseberg.

Donner Party Monument
Donner Party Monument

Keseberg reportedly took a young boy with him to bed one evening only to tell the others the following morning that the boy had died. He apparently didn't explain how the boy had died, and Keseberg butchered the boy, who was eaten. The surviving members of the Donner Party were rescued in a number of separate efforts and Keseberg was the last survivor brought down from the mountains to safety. When the rescuers found him, he appeared healthy and certainly did not look undernourished. He was lying beside a pot, inside of which simmered the lungs and liver that, presumably, had belonged to yet another member of the party. As the horrified rescuers looked on, Keseberg told them that the liver was that of Mrs. Donner. "She was the best I have ever tasted," he told them with a crazed look on his face.

More recently, according to an ABC News report from October 1997, cannibalism was alleged among starving North Koreans. According to a North Korean military officer who fled the country with his family, starvation was so severe that people were killing and eating their own children, an atrocity so horrible that it was difficult for most people in the Western world to believe. Yet another North Korean who fled his homeland said that a man and his wife from Wonson were executed in May 1997 for murdering at least 50 children and preserving their salted flesh for later consumption.

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