A Perfect Gentleman, and Singularly Juicy

The title is from Mark Twain’s “Cannibalism In the Cars,” the tale of a trainload of Congressmen stranded by a Midwestern blizzard, and forced to take desperate measures.  I won’t spoil the fun by revealing the gimmick that makes the situation even more howlingly hilarious (I mean, besides the fact that the guests of honor being served up for dinner are Congressmen).

I was reminded of the Twain story a few years ago while reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s follow-up to his “Mayflower,” “In the Heart of the Sea:  The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” an account of the ordeal of the crew of a Nantucket whaler after their vessel was rammed by a sperm whale and sank 2,000 miles west of South America in 1820.  Almost miraculously, several men from the Essex were eventually rescued, and as you may have guessed, those who did survive managed to cling to life only at the expense of their deceased shipmates.  When members of the crew stopped dying of natural causes, the remainder drew lots to see who would go next.  It’s one of those tales of survival so grueling that a reader should expect to manage only a few pages at a time, forced to put down the book periodically and ponder something pleasant.  Spending time with it leaves the reader with a ravenous appetite.  Make sure the fridge is well-stocked.  Ever since finishing it, I’ve wondered what sea turtles taste like.  Philbrick makes them sound absolutely delicious.

There are a few true tales from American history that feature desperate, hollow-eyed pilgrims, driven mad by hunger and forced to violate a very basic social taboo in order to survive.  We Americans do have a knack for getting ourselves into quite a pickle now and then.  The episode almost everyone knows by name, even if not in any detail, is the one involving the Donner Party.  Sometimes known as the Donner-Reed Party, a group of wagons set out from Springfield, Illinois, picking up more migrants along the way.  About half of them finally found their way to California, where they preferred not to discuss the horrors some members had endured while trapped in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846-47.

A third example is the one found in Kenneth Roberts’ “Northwest Passage,” during the hazardous escape of Rogers’ Rangers after they had torched the Abenaki stronghold at St. Francis, and began to make their way toward a store of provisions supposedly waiting for them on the Ammonoosuc.  Anyone who’s seen the MGM version of the story will undoubtedly remember the Ranger who, crazed with hunger and vengeance, carries away a grisly trophy from St. Francis, one which mysteriously seems to rejuvenate him whenever he unwraps it, alone in the forest.  After Langdon Towne (Robert Young) discovers his secret, the madman does the righteous thing, leaping to his death from a convenient promontory.  According to “White Devil,” Stephen Brumwell’s nonfiction version of the raid and its aftermath, there were actually three trophies in the bag, and they may have provided nourishment for more than just one Ranger.  Although not even the existence of the bag made Major Rogers’ official report, the memoirs of other participants suggest that it was not an isolated incident.

For all our smug certainty that this is culinary territory where we would never be tempted to tiptoe, those who’ve experienced or studied actual starvation assure us that gnawing, unceasing hunger can change your mind - literally:  It temporarily alters brain chemistry.  Some otherwise-doting parents have guiltily admitted that, at some point, they would have snatched the last crust of bread from the hands of their own children.  No, you’re not that kind of person, but starving nearly to death can turn you into one.

Reading Brumwell and Philbrick has convinced me that, while I may have been peckish now and then, I’ve never really been hungry - except once.  In the first semester of a freshman English class at KU, among the required reading material was George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” the author’s investigation into what it was like to be destitute in two great cities.  My strongest memories of the book are Orwell’s collapse from sheer exhaustion after his shifts as a plongeur in a hotel restaurant in Paris, and his rounds of begging with other tramps on the outskirts of London, barely staying alive on a charity diet of buttered bread and cups of tea.  Our instructor, Joan Sherwood, suggested that while she couldn’t recommend it, some of us might be curious enough to try going without food for three days.  A few of us did start the experiment, but none of us went the distance.  At the end of a day without food, your stomach politely reminds you of your oversight.  At the end of two days it complains loudly of neglect.  On day three it just screams, “Where the hell’s the food?”  I’m told that, if hunger proceeds any further, the screaming never stops until you eat.  You will eventually win back your stomach’s trust, but it takes some time.

As a nod to the old newspaper headline provided by an Iowa historian, “Our Ancestors Were Commies!” I was tempted to title this blog entry, “Our Ancestors Were Cannibals!” until I remembered the much more genteel quote from Twain.  Mark Twain may never have heard that a few of Robert Rogers’ Rangers were forced to sample that other, "other white meat," but the story of the Donner Party was one Samuel Clemens would have followed with piquant interest when he was a teenager.  The tragedy of the whaleship Essex played out fifteen years before he was born, but it remained a widely-known maritime disaster through much of the 19th century, as indelible an incident in its day as the sinking of the Titanic was a century later.  Plus, there were those whispered rumors of cannibalism.

If you’re afraid your constitution is no match for Nathaniel Philbrick’s harrowing and painstakingly-detailed book about the Essex, a film version directed by Ron Howard, now in post-production, sails into theaters next March.  Expect brisk sales at the concession stand.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com