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What was the shortest ever prison sentence in British legal history… for a convicted murderer?
This is the infamous case of Rex vrs Dudley & Stephens, which changed British common law forever, by (effectively) stating that cannibalism could not be used as a valid legal defence to commit murder.
On 19th May 1884, a 52 foot yacht called the Mignonette set sail from Southampton (on the south coast of England) for Sydney (in Australia) hoping to make the rather foolhardy 15000-mile voyage in an undersized leisure boat with an vastly inexperienced crew consisting of Tom Dudley the captain; Edwin Stephens; Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker, the cabin boy; who was a 17 year old orphan with no sea-going experience.
Seven weeks into their voyages, on 5th July, 1,600 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope, as they neared the windswept the peninsula of South Africa, whilst the crew slept, the gale-force winds battered and disabled the vessel and as the Mignonette sank, the four-man crew sailed away to safety in a flimsy 13 foot lifeboat, with only two small tins of turnips to feed them and no fresh water.
Twelve days later, having eaten both tins of turnips and devoured a passing 3lb sea-turtle, which had barely enough meat on it to feed the ravenous crew and with them all feeling weak and unwell from the lack of fresh water, 17 year old cabin boy Richard Parker started to drift in an out of consciousness.
Having previously drawn straws to see who would bravely sacrifice themselves as a meal to save the others from a certain death, in a moral argument which raged on for many days (and certainly many sleepless nights), by 24th July, with Parker believed to be in a coma and being the only crew member without a family, Captain Dudley and Stephens made the decision to sacrifice the unconscious orphan boy. The idea being that, as they had ran out of urine and had no other safe liquids left to drink (as drinking sea-water can be fatal), as he wasn’t dead yet, his flowing blood would still be fresh and nutritional enough to drink, and his meat would be plentiful enough to feed them for weeks to come.
So, with Brooks supposedly taking no part in this deathly decision, having said a prayer, as Stephens held the boy's legs, Captain Dudley pushed his penknife into Parker's jugular vein, killing him quickly, and syphoning off his steadily seeping flow of blood into an empty turnip tin. Oddly, as much as he was disgusted at boy’s death, Brooks allegedly devoured more meat than Stephens.
On 29th July, five days after Parker’s death, the three crew-members were picked up by the German vessel - Montezuma – and by 6th September, they had arrived back in England. As was regulations, Captain Dudley made a full statement admitting they had eaten Parker to save their lives, they listed the death as a “shipping loss”, which he was legally required to do under the terms of the Merchant Shipping Act, and both the Board of Trade and the Home Office had no plans to arrest them.
But having heard the details of the case, that the orphan boy was not dead but dying, and that his death was hastened by the starving crew to feed themselves, this stepped over the line from being an “acceptable loss to shipping” to being “a murder” and the customs officer of the Falmouth Harbour Police Sergeant James Laverty obtained a warrant for their arrest.
Legally, had Richard Parker died of natural causes (which was highly likely) and the crew had eaten his corpse to stay alive, that would have been perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the law, but as the unconscious boy was still alive, even though he was unlikely to recover, Dudley and Stephens had committed murder. And even though, without his blood or meat, they may all have died, they were tried as murderers.
The case became a public sensation and everyone was on the side of the three survivors, even Richard Parker’s own brother, who was a seaman himself, shook their hands in court and forgave them. As Brooks had not agreed or taken part in the boy’s death, he was found not guilty, but – with necessity not being allowed as a legal defence - Captain Dudley and Edwin Stephens were found guilty, charged with the boy’s murder and were sentenced to death…but following a public uproar, the Crown granted them both a full pardon and they served just six months in prison for the murder of Richard Parker.
So, here’s my top tip; if you’re stuck on a lifeboat, you’re hungry and you need someone to die so you can full your belly, you’re going to have to wait. Sorry. Or (as with necrophilia), why not get them to sign a consent form before they die, then stick their meat on a spit, roast it and serve it with lettuce, chilli sauce and peppers in a pitta bread? Therefore that consent form will be less of a donor card, and more of a doner card. Whey-hey, thank you, I’m also available for children’s parties, weddings and bar-mitzvah’s.
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Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards 2018", and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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