Edgar Allan Poe and the Cabin Boy, Richard Parker

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When Edgar Allan Poe wrote his only novel in 1838, he included a grim story about a young cabin boy who was killed and eaten at sea so that other sailors could survive. 46 years later, an uncanny coincidence took place. This episode is all about the case of Richard Parker. We welcome back Comedian and Writer Jay Black to the show to play the quick quiz!

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In Life of Pi, a 2001 Novel by Yann Martel, a young boy is shipwrecked and stranded at sea with a host of wild animals, one of them being a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. The use of the name Richard Parker was deliberate. Martel wanted to pay homage to the crazy literary coincidence that we’ll be discussing. The very unfortunate case of a man named Richard Parker and his fate at sea. So to tell that story, we go back to July 5, 1884.

Captain Tom Dudley was commanding the Yacht Mignonette with a crew of 4. It was a 52 foot inshore boat and when it was built 16 years before, it wasn’t made for long ocean voyages. Nonetheless, Captain Dudley had selected his crew to sail it 15,000 miles from Southhampton in Southern England to Sydney Australia. An Australian had purchased the boat and selected this particular captain to deliver it to him in Australia. The crew was made up of Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker.

Parker was the youngest of the bunch at only 17 years old. He was an orphan and inexperienced at sea. He was the ship’s cabin boy. On the night of July 5th, the Mignoette was in the middle of the ocean, around 1,600 miles off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The seas were calm, so the crew was enjoying a good night’s sleep. During their sleep, a rogue wave washed onto the boat, ripping away one of the ship’s bulwarks and badly flooding the Mignonette. Within 5 minutes, the ship sank. In that time, the 4-man crew had enough opportunity to scramble on to their small, poorly constructed lifeboat. They only had time to grab a couple navigational instruments and two cans of turnips. 

On the first night, they fought off a shark with their oars. They waited a couple days to break into the first can of turnips and split it evenly among the men, which lasted the another two days. Then Captain Turner caught a seat turtle and the meat from the turtle helped to keep them alive for a few more days. After one week at sea, the men had run out of any drinkable water and hadn’t collected any rain water and were forced to drink their own urine. And despite knowing how it would affect, Parker and Stephens couldn’t resist the urge to start drinking sea water. Both men became ill.

Delirious and suffering from extreme hunger, the men started having the conversation about killing and eating one of the crew on the 16th of July. But after another week, the conversation started becoming more serious. And during that time, young Richard Parker had fallen into a coma. Captain Dudley suggested that they sacrifice Parker so the rest of them could live. The men argued amongst themselves about the idea. There was an old unspoken rule called the “Custom of the Sea” that was about keeping crewman alive at all costs. Dudley felt that this custom of the sea protected his actions, morally and leagally, of sacrificing Parker.

Now this next part is a bit graphic, so if you’re squeamish, you may want to fast forward the next few seconds. The men decided that it was important to not only have flesh to eat, but blood to drink in order to stay alive. So allowing Parker to die naturally wouldn’t do apparently. They decided they needed to murder the boy. Dudley said a prayer on the morning of July 25th, and with Stephens helping to hold the boy’s feet, Dudley pushed his pen knife into Richard Parker’s jugular vein, killing him. For the next few days, the three men stayed alive by cannibalism. Even though Edmund Brooks disagreed with the killing of Parker, he too took part. This next description that was later provided by Captain Dudley is pretty gruesome. “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.”

4 days later, the men were rescued by a German sailboat, and returned to England. And we may have never known about this case. I mean, it’s a tiny boat with no passengers or cargo of note. There weren’t famous sailors on this vessel. And it’s not the only instance of cannibalism at sea, either. The story of the whaling ship Essex is a very famous example. There are two main reasons that the killing and eating of Richard Parker is remembered. One of those reasons was that it results in a very famous court case. Dudley thought the men would be protected by the Custom of the Sea, but they were arrested for murder. Brooks acted as a witness against the men, but Stephens and Dudley were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. That sentence was later reduced to 6 months imprisonment, but it was a landmark case that established a precedent that you can’t kill someone in order to keep yourself alive. It destroyed this concept of the Custom of the Sea.

The other reason this story is remembered is because of an uncanny coincidence. The story coincides with a story told in Edgar Allan Poe’s only full-length novel. And that novel was written 46 years before the sinking of the Mignonette. And before any of the crew members were ever born.

Now, let’s talk about Edgar Allan Poe.

“…suddenly, a loud and long scream or yell, as if from the throats of a thousand demons, seemed to pervade the whole atmosphere around and above the boat. Never while I live shall I forget the intense agony of terror I experienced at that moment. My hair stood erect on my head-I felt the blood congealing in my veins-my heart ceased utterly to beat, and without having once raised my eyes to learn the source of my alarm, I tumbled headlong and insensible upon the body of my fallen companion.”

That was a passage from a 1838 novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” It was the only novel that Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote. Famous for his gruesome short stories, this book was a departure from his normal format, but not from the gruesome depictions that most people think of when they think of Edgar Allan Poe. This was yet another work in the pulp-fiction genre that Poe invented and it told a story of a stowaway on a whaling vessel, a shipwreck, mutiny and eventually cannibalism.

The novel was met with mixed reviews. One reviewer, Lewis Gaylord Clark, said it was “too liberally stuffed with ‘horrid circumstances of blood and battle.” But then again Clark was always feuding with Poe. Others criticized the book for its inaccurate depictions of nautical life and navigation. Even Poe himself referred to it as “very silly book.” But authors from Jules Verne to Herman Melville said that Poe’s novel influenced their writing.

But nonetheless – we know about this book because of this eerie coincidence. In “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket,” we hear a tale of a shipwreck and 4 sailors who are adrift in a sailboat. After catching and eating a sea turtle, they again become hungry and decide to kill and eat one of their party. They drew straws and the unlucky person among them was eaten and killed. He was the cabin boy and his name…was Richard Parker.

Again – this was 46 years before the real Cabin Boy Richard Parker would be killed and eaten after being shipwrecked. There are some other strange coincidences with this name Richard Parker. For instance, in 1879, there was an English Sailor named Richard Parker who was tried for organizing a mutiny on board the HMS Sandwich and was very publicly hanged for it. In 1864, a man named Richard Parker was the last person to be executed in Nottingham. He had killed his parents.

Now when Yann Martel wrote Life of Pi, he had heard these stories about the various Richard Parkers and how this name kept popping up throughout history and thought in dealing with themes of fate, he needed to use the name in the book. Although he also mentioned another case of “Custom of the Sea” cannibalism of a third man named Richard Parker on board the Francis Spaight in 1835, but I did some research and can’t come up with anyone with that name on board. They did cannibalize a 15 year old cabin boy named O’Brien on that ship however.

In any case – it’s just a crazy coincidence. There’s little to no chance that anyone on board the Mignonette had ever read Poe’s novel. And none of the men on board had ever been born when it came out. Sometimes the universe just aligns in uncanny ways. Even still. If you’re reading this and your last name is Parker – just to be safe – maybe don’t name your son Richard.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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