Necessity is not a Defense to Murder and Cannibalism

November 16, 2012

Tom Dudley, Captain of the Mignonette, a 52-foot sailing vessel with a crew of four that capsized five minutes after being struck by a wave in the south Atlantic 1600 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope on July 5, 1884, described the scene in the lifeboat three weeks later after Dudley killed Richard Parker, the 17-year-old cabin boy so that he, Edwin Stephens and Edmund Brooks could feed off his uncooked flesh and drink his blood to survive.

“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.”

The three survivors were rescued four or five days later by a passing sailing ship that was en route to Hamburg. After they were dropped off in Cornwall, the three men provided statements describing the decision-making process. The men had only two tins of turnips and no fresh water in the lifeboat.

Wikipedia provides the grisly details.

Dudley managed to improvise a sea anchor to keep the lifeboat headed into the waves and maintain her stability. Over the first night, the crew had to fight off a shark with their oars. They were around 700 miles (1,100 km) from the nearest land, being either St. Helena or Tristan de Cunha. Dudley kept the first tin of turnips until 7 July when its five pieces were shared among the men to last two days. On or around 9 July, Brooks spotted a turtle which Stephens dragged on board. The crew were resolutely avoiding drinking seawater as it was then universally held to be fatal and, though they devoured the turtle, they forewent drinking its blood when it became contaminated with seawater. The turtle yielded about three pounds (1.4 kg) of meat each, though the crew ate even the bones, and, along with the second tin of turnips lasted until 15 or 17 July. The crew consistently failed to catch any rainwater and by 13 July, with no other source of fluid, they began to drink their own urine. It was probably on 20 July that Parker became ill through drinking seawater. Stephens was also unwell, possibly having experimented with seawater.

Drawing lots in order to choose a sacrificial victim who would die to feed the others was possibly first discussed on 16 or 17 July, and debate seems to have intensified on 21 July but without resolution. On 23 or 24 July, with Parker probably in a coma, Dudley told the others that it was better that one of them die so that the others survive and that they should draw lots. Brooks refused. That night, Dudley again raised the matter with Stephens pointing out that Parker was probably dying and that he and Stephens had wives and families. They agreed to leave the matter until the morning. The following day, with no prospect of rescue in sight, Dudley and Stephens silently signalled to each other that Parker would be killed. Killing Parker before his natural death would better preserve his blood to drink. Brooks, who had not been party to the earlier discussion, claimed to have signalled neither assent nor protest. Dudley always insisted that Brooks had assented. Dudley said a prayer and, with Stephens standing by to hold the youth’s legs if he struggled, pushed his penknife into Parker’s jugular vein, killing him.

In some of the varying and confused later accounts of the killing, Parker murmured, “What me?” as he was slain. The three fed on Parker’s body, with Dudley and Brooks consuming the most and Stephens very little. The crew even finally managed to catch some rainwater.

Dudley and Stephens were charged with murder. Brooks was not charged because he claimed not to have participated in the decision to kill Parker.

Dudley and Stephens asserted that they were not guilty by reason of the common law defense of necessity, which was and continues to be a defense to property crimes.

The legal issue in the case was whether necessity should be recognized as a defense to murder.

The panel of judges ruled that common law defense of necessity does not apply to a murder charge, either on the basis of legal precedent or the basis of ethics and morality. Wiki quotes the following language from the opinion. I include it because it is so 19th century and beautiful in its own right.

To preserve one’s life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it. War is full of instances in which it is a man’s duty not to live, but to die. The duty, in case of shipwreck, of a captain to his crew, of the crew to the passengers, of soldiers to women and children, as in the noble case of the Birkenhead; these duties impose on men the moral necessity, not of the preservation, but of the sacrifice of their lives for others, from which in no country, least of all, it is to be hoped, in England, will men ever shrink, as indeed, they have not shrunk.

* * *

It would be a very easy and cheap display of commonplace learning to quote from Greek and Latin authors, from Horace, from Juvenal, from Cicero, from Euripides, passage after passage, in which the duty of dying for others has been laid down in glowing and emphatic language as resulting from the principles of heathen ethics; it is enough in a Christian country to remind ourselves of the Great Example [Jesus Christ] whom we profess to follow.

* * *

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.

Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to the statutory death penalty with a recommendation for mercy. Their death sentences were commuted to six months in jail.

The name of the case is The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens, Queen’s Bench Division, 1884. 14 Q.B.D. 273.

Wiki notes a circumstance possibly more creepy than the case itself, if such is possible.

It [the case] became better known in 1974 when Arthur Koestler ran a competition in The Sunday Times, in which readers were invited to send in the most striking coincidence they knew of. The winning entry pointed out that in Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838, decades before the Mignonette sank, four men are cast adrift on their capsized ship and draw lots to decide which of them should be sacrificed as food for the other three. The loser was the sailor who had proposed the idea: the character’s name was Richard Parker.


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