‘Infected with human gore’: What really happened in Maine’s most notorious case of cannibalism?

Boon Island Lighthouse in 1910 (Public Domain image)

Boon Island Lighthouse in 1910 (Public Domain image)

It was late December of 1710 when a frozen body washed ashore in York.

Locals followed the ocean trail left in the wake of the grisly discovery all the way out to the barren Boon Island, six miles out.

Nothing could have prepared them for what they’d find on the desolate rock, which would not get its now-famous lighthouse until almost a century later.

In a piece for SeacoastNH.com, writer J. Dennis Robinson relayed accounts from the time of rescuers who described “the ghastly figure of so many objects, with long beards, nothing but skin and bone, wild staring eyes, and countenances fierce, barbarous, unwashed, and infected with human gore.”

Three weeks earlier, the 14 mariners were stranded on Boon Island after their merchant ship, the Nottingham Galley, wrecked there. By the time help arrived, there were 10.

The barren 700-foot-by-300-foot island was once reportedly described by New England poet Celia Thaxter as “the forlornest place that can be imagined.”

To stay alive, the crew members ate their shipmate, a carpenter who’d succumbed to starvation and the elements.

A previous man was pushed into the surf after he died, in hopes that his body would drift ashore and alert locals to the marooned mariners’ plight, while two others attempted to fashion a raft from the scattered remnants of the ship and reach land.

The first body never reached shore, Robinson wrote, and the two raft-makers didn’t survive their trip for help — but at least one did drift near land in death, motivating locals to form the aforementioned search party.

pageIn the three centuries after the Nottingham Galley crashed, splintering on the rocks and cruelly sinking nearly all of a cargo of potentially life-sustaining butters and cheeses, ship captain John Dean’s report of the incident was largely taken as historical fact, Robinson wrote.

“After abundance of mature thought and consultation about the lawfulness or sinfulness on the one hand, and the absolute necessity on the other, judgment, conscience, etc., were obliged to the more prevailing arguments of our craving appetites,” Dean would later recall matter-of-factly, according to the blog New England Folklore.

Perpetuating the Dean story, Pulitzer Prize winning author Kenneth Roberts cast the captain as a hero against impossible odds in his 1956 historical fiction about the case.

“All through history, the captain’s story is the one that has been taken, that has been sort of accepted as the truth,” Andrew Vietze, a former editor of Down East magazine and award-winning Maine author, told the BDN’s Aislinn Sarnacki.

Vietze partnered with historian Stephen Erickson to publish the 2012 book “Boon Island: A True Story of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Cannibalism.” In it, the duo investigates the long overlooked stories of surviving crew members at the time, whose accounts were very different from the captain’s.

The following items help put this gruesome tale into some context:

John Dean was accused of being a brutal commander whose abusive approach undermined the crew’s ability to sail the ship effectively.

In their account of the voyage, surviving crew members Christopher Langman, George White and Nicholas Mellen testified: “We were very uncapable to [sail], because the captain, by his barbarous treatment of our men, had disabled several of ’em, and particularly two of our best sailors were so unmercifully beaten by him … that they were not able to work in a month.”

The disgruntled sailor would go on to accuse Dean of hoarding food and water during the voyage, leaving the crew to drink the rainwater that ran off the deck.

The shipwreck may have been a case of insurance fraud that went too far.

Rather than a case of unfortunate circumstances, the dissident crew members argued that Dean’s family was in serious debt, and that he captained the ship recklessly in hopes that it would crash or be captured by privateers and he could collect the insurance money.

“We perceived he would either lose the ship or betray her to the French, because she was insured for much above the value,” they wrote in their joint testimony, adding that the captain sailed unnecessarily close to shore to tempt fate.

Whose idea was it to eat the carpenter?

Dean said the crew asked to eat the carpenter after he died, and the captain reluctantly agreed, butchering the carcass after dark to spare his shipmates the guilt.

Langman, White and Mellen disagreed, saying Dean himself proposed the cannibalism and that crew member Charles Gray reluctantly helped cut meat from the body.

“The captain’s pretensions of being moved with horror at the thought of it are false,” they wrote, “for there was no man that [ate] more of the corpse than himself.”

Another ship’s crew was stranded on Boon Island less than three decades before and were stuck on the island longer, but they didn’t eat anybody.

In 1682, the smaller coastal ship Increase reportedly wrecked on the rocky island, leaving four crew members marooned there for a month.

But the crew of the Increase had the luck of crashing in the summertime, when the elements were kinder and wildlife more active. The men allegedly got by eating fish and birds’ eggs until people on the mainland saw a fire they’d built and came to rescue them.