By Matthew Wendler
The crew felt the wave’s impact as it collided with the vessel. They were sailing nearly 1,500 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope in the South Atlantic Ocean Jul. 5, 1884. Strong winds became prevalent that night, but little concern was held as the vessel hadn’t shown any signs of struggle. The sea soon crashed upon them, taking out the sails and other portions of the craft. Water seeped below deck and the ship began to sink.
The small yacht was named the Mignonette. The four men aboard were hired to deliver it from Southampton, England to a new owner in Sydney Australia. The crew consisted of captain Thomas Dudley, first mate Edwin Stephens, seaman Edmund Brooks, and a 17-year-old cabin boy Richard Parker. They set sail May 19, 1884, but the vessel was never meant for such long trips.
With no other options, Dudley ordered his crew to abandon ship. The men put what supplies they could on a lifeboat, including a few navigation tools and two tins of turnips. Within five minutes, the Mignonette was underwater. All four men survived, but were now stranded at sea, thousands of miles from land, with little food.
For the first few days, the crew rationed out the turnips from the tins. At one point they were able to catch a turtle and survive off its meat for nearly a week, but it would prove not to be enough. With no fresh water, the crew resorted to drinking their own urine and went without eating for days.
In desperation, Parker resorted to drinking water from the sea. He succumbed to illness from salt poisoning as a result and fell into a coma. Dudley made a case to the other two crew members that they should draw lots to determine a sacrifice. He argued it was better for someone to die so the others could live; though Brooks was completely against the idea. Dudley then tried pleading to Stephens, pointing out that Parker appeared to be dying and that they both had families to care for.
Dudley and Stephens decided to take Parker’s life Jul. 24, 1884. Stephens went up to the young cabin boy and held him down to prevent struggle. Dudley then held up his pen knife, said a prayer, and stabbed Parker in the neck. Although Brooks refused to assist, he didn’t try to stop them. The three men proceeded to feed on the body of their companion.
Dudley, Stephens, and Brooks were rescued Jul. 29, after a German ship named the Montezuma came across their lifeboat. It took them to Falmouth, England, but they were arrested shortly after the story of Parker’s murder became known.
The trial of Regina v Dudley and Stephens began Nov. 3, 1884. The public held sympathy towards the three sailors as they knew their actions occurred as the result of extraordinary circumstances. Brooks wasn’t charged due to his refusal to take part in Parker’s murder. Dudley and Stephens were originally ordered to be hanged, but their sentences were commuted to six months of imprisonment.
Over the years, people began to notice an uncanny similarity between the case and a novel written 46 years earlier. In 1838, Edgar Allan Poe published his first and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Part of the story describes a whaling ship known as the Grampus being capsized at sea due to a storm. The four men on the vessel had all survived, but were left stranded with barely any food. It was soon decided they would draw lots to determine who would be sacrificed for food so the others could live. The cabin boy ended up drawing the short straw, resulting in him being killed and cannibalized by the other survivors. His name was Richard Parker.
Poe’s novel and the events that took place with the Mignonette’s crew each feature four men surviving a shipwreck and a cabin boy being murdered and eaten by the other survivors. There’s also the name of the victim, Richard Parker. It’s as though Poe had already known what would take place in the future. Is there meaning behind it? Maybe, but then again, it may be nothing more than coincidence. The universe works in ways that can’t be understood. This case is just one of many examples. Regardless, the story of the Mignonette stands as a grim tragedy and a terrible end brought on by hunger and desperation.