S4 E1. DINNER GUESTS – Stacy Hackner & Paul Cowdell

Are you ready for an extra bite? In this bonus mini-season, Alix and Carmella invite some special dinner guests to the table.

Today, bioarchaeologist Stacy Hackner and folklorist Paul Cowdell join us to talk cannibal ballads, coprolites and the custom of the sea.

Did you know Casting Lots now has merch? Find us on Redbubble: https://www.redbubble.com/people/CastingLotsPod/shop


Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis. With guest appearances from Stacy Hackner and Paul Cowdell, and special thanks to Chris Wilson of the London Sea Shanty Collective for vocals.

Stacy Hackner can be found on Twitter as @stacytg, or check out her drag projects on Instagram as @professor_q_cumber.

Paul Cowdell can be found on Twitter as @PaulCowdell, and on his blog: http://humphreywithhisflail.blogspot.com/. ‘Cannibal Ballads: not just a question of taste’ was first published in 2010 in the Folk Music Journal 9(5), pp. 723-747. Read it online here: https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Cannibal+ballads%3a+not+just+a+question+of+taste+…-a0213983185.

Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.

Logo by Ashley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.

Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.


Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?

Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.

A: I’m Alix.

C: I’m Carmella.

A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…

[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]

A: Welcome to our bite-sized Season 4. We’re expanding the menu for this mini-season by having some old friends for dinner. This episode, we’ll be speaking to bioarchaeologist Stacy Hackner and folklorist Paul Cowdell.

[Intro music continues]

C: Welcome back to Casting Lots, and today we have Stacy Hackner joining us. Stacy, would you like to tell our listeners a little bit about who you are, your connection to survival cannibalism, why you’re here today?

A: Asking for someone’s connection to survival cannibalism does sound a bit like we’ve gone very far in an interview direction I didn’t think we’d land.

Stacy: I don’t think it’s an unusual question. I am Stacy Hackner. I am a bioarchaeologist; I study dead people in archaeological contexts. Mostly I dig up bones or look at mummies, and I have always been interested in the idea of eating people, because people in my profession tend to be really weird anyway and spend a lot of time thinking about our own deaths and burials, and when I was about 15 I started asking people, ‘Would you eat your own limbs if they were chopped off in a clean industrial accident?’, and I don’t know why. And from then I kind of realised that most of the people who said ‘Yes, I would definitely do that – also I would eat yours’ were my good friends. And from then I just became more interested in it.

C: I think that those are the kind of conversations that test a friendship and prove a friendship.

A: Like, if you’ve not been wandering around on sort of a hike with friends and gone ‘Oh, yeah no we’d eat you first,’ then is it a real friendship?

S: Yes, exactly. I would happily, you know, give my limbs to someone who was starving.

A: See, I’m not sure if I’d give my limbs… But I would definitely consent for them to be eaten if I was no longer using them.

[Stacy laughs]

C: Not just, ‘here you go, get started.’

S: I also do a lot of wilderness first aid and I was doing some training with mountain rescue and it’s always kind of in the forefront of my mind, you know: if I’m trapped somewhere, first, how do we get everyone one? But second, if we have to stay here for a number of days or weeks, who do we eat first?

A: And surely if you’re off on a mountain rescue, what might you walk into?

S: Exactly. Unfortunately, I was hiking with my partner a few months ago and we became encased in fog, and I’m not sure if they were particularly scared that I was going to eat them, but we were both quite frightened in general and I know that without a doubt I would eat them.

A: It’s been, what, five minutes? Ten minutes? I’m like ‘definitely time enough to start.’

S: [Laughs] We had been lost for an hour.

A: Now, you said that you were a bioarchaeologist. Now, I’ve got a couple of friends who are archaeologists and it is, as professions go, one that I’ve encountered a little bit of people-eating in. Apparently the best way to test whether a substance is bone or rock involves eating it. Is that true?

S: That– It is a way. It is, however, the amateur way. At the professional standard, you shouldn’t be putting anything in your mouth because it could be contaminated with things like anthrax or tetanus or other soil bacteria. The way that you do tell is actually bone tends to be very spongy and light, and it will stick to your tongue, but pottery also sticks to your tongue – just in a slightly different way. Rock never sticks to your tongue. This is something that I did do in the past, but now I have been trained to recognise them by sight instead, which is the healthier way.

A: Been trained not to eat the artefacts.

S: Yes, yes.

A: I work in a museum, so that is quite a common thing that we have to deal with as well.

S: Yeah. It’s a conservation nightmare, you shouldn’t be putting your own saliva onto things that may be valuable for historical reasons. There is a wonderful poem that’s: “My name is Jane / and when I dig / I find the rocks / both small and big / I put my tongue / upon the stone / for science, yes / I lick the bone.”

[Carmella laughs]

A: So there is a little bit of, shall we say, cultural crossover between the archaeology sphere and the cannibalism sphere – even if yours is more amateur and not necessarily involving consumption, more just sort of a flavour test.

S: Yes. Although, what I became particularly interested in was researching cannibalism in the ancient world and archaeologically. 

C: And yes that’s one of the reasons we were so excited to have you on the podcast. We did, as our listeners will know, do an episode on prehistoric survival cannibalism, reading up on how archaeologists can predict when cannibalism may have happened, and when it’s for survival.

S: [Following along] Uh-huh.

C: But, you know, that was a couple of weeks of research rather than a career. So we would love to hear an expert opinion and, yeah, what your experience is with how one might come across cannibalism in your field, and how you would determine that.

S: There are a couple of interesting incidents that everyone likes to talk about within the cannibalism research sector, I would say, and all of them are extremely contentious because of the place that cannibalism has in our society as very taboo. Nobody likes to admit when they’ve found something that’s cannibalism, and in archaeology we can never prove anything with 100% certainty, and so that makes it even more challenging. Because if you say ‘This seems like it could possibly be evidence of cannibalism,’ someone else will come back and say, ‘No, this is hyena scavenging behaviour!’

C: Oh, those hyenas.

A: We have enough difficulty authenticating when we have first-hand accounts.

S: Yes.

A: Let alone if we are several thousands to millions years old.

S: Indeed, it is– it’s so contentious, and it’s just because of the difficulty of proving anything. Which is why – I thought I probably cannot name names in the juicy gossip – but I did witness first hand a near fist fight at a conference, a true academic conference, where the speaker was trying to prove that they had evidence of cannibalism from parasites in fossilised faeces, and an audience member who was another researcher who had also done research on the same site, stood up and, you know, shaking his fist in the air and pointing finger, said, ‘No, you’ve completely misinterpreted the evidence!’ And they got into a screaming match. So it was… I may already have said too much with the topic; people might be able to identify [laughs] who the individuals are, but both prominent members of their field. And I’ve never seen that happen before in academic settings.

A: What can we say? Cannibalism really is a hot topic that everyone has an opinion on.

S: Yes, yes. Would you like to hear about the ways that we can identify potential cannibalism? 

C: Yes please!

S: It’s always potential, even if we 100% know something. There is, in fact, in archaeology only one time, I think, when all the evidence has been corroborated, and that’s about a particular skeleton on the Mary Rose. He died of sinking, obviously, but– 

[Alix and Carmella both laugh]

S: So a lot of what I do is trying to figure out what activities people did during their lifetime, based on musculature, and so he was found with all the musculature of an archer, and he was also found holding his bows and arrows, and that is the only 100% certainty ‘this person was an archer’ that we’ve ever had.

[Carmella chuckles]

A: I think I’ve seen that skeleton, I think– Is it on display at the Mary Rose exhibition?

S: Yeah, he’s very cool.

A: Sorry, I’m going off on a Mary Rose tangent here. 

S: I love the Mary Rose

A: They found a dog.

[Carmella gasps in delight]

A: They called him Hatch.

C: Aww.

S: Yeah, how cute is that?

A: He’s called Hatch because he drowned to death underneath the hatch. So it’s less cheerful there.

S: The hatch that kept everyone from swimming to safety. 

C: That’s less cute. [Laughs]

A: It’s not an episode of Casting Lots unless there’s a dead dog.

S: [Laughs] Never. Okay, so the ways that we attempt to distinguish cannibalism from animal scavenging or different burial practices – because sometimes different cultures will deflesh the bodies or dig them up years later and rebury them in some way, and so they get scratched. So we look for butchery marks, which is treating human bones as if they are animals and cutting off the meaty bits; particularly taking out the brain, chopping bones in half so that they expose the marrow cavities, and, in at least the one at Jamestown, there’s a lot of butchery around the face as well to get to the tongue and the meaty cheeks. I’ve never really thought about cheeks being meaty, but…

A: Poor Jane.

S: We look for gnawing, and particularly using a microscopy to see that the gnaw marks are from human teeth and not from other scavenging animals.

C: Those hyenas.

S: Yes, hyenas definitely. Wolves. Even human pets – cats will eat humans. We also look for something called pot polishing, which is when the ends of the bones get kind of shiny because they’ve been stirred around in a boiling pot.

C: I always love that. That’s a proper witch’s cauldron image.

S: Yeah, like you just have a big thigh bone and you’re just holding it, like, stirring it around.

A: Quite cartoonish. That’s sort of what people envision when you say ‘cannibalism’. Is it quite self-evident when it’s human teeth marks compared to other creatures, or is that quite a difficult science, as it were?

S: Yes. We have quite a rounded dental arch, and most of the scavenging creatures have a more elongated jaw. Also all the scavengers have really pointy teeth, and we do not. Then other ways that I think it is possible to tell whether it’s particularly survival cannibalism, that I don’t think anyone has really looked into, is nitrogen isotopes. So this is the amount of nitrogen that builds up in your bones and in other soft tissues as you go up the trophic chain. So prey animals will have lower nitrogen and top-level predators will have very high levels of nitrogen, and this you can tell through various scientific analytic methods of the bones. And interestingly, we find much higher nitrogen isotope levels in infants, because they are exclusively eating breast milk.

[Alix and Carmella both make intrigued noises]

S: So they are top-level predators.

[Alix snorts]

C: Yeah, top of the food chain! 

S: And also in people who are starving, because they are effectively eating themselves. So I have a theory that has not yet been tested that, if we are looking for survival cannibalism rather than just ritual cannibalism, then we should look at nitrogen isotopes to see how far up we are on the chain.

C: Because then we’d know that either they were starving, or they’d been eating nothing but babies…

S: Yes. Only babies. Or only breast milk. Which also would be really interesting!

[Alix and Carmella both laugh]

C: Hmm…

A: See, we often get the question of, like, where does cannibalism begin? And it’s like, while having a diet exclusively of breast milk isn’t technically cannibalism, it is a little bit weird.

C: I’m looking askance at newborn babies. [Laughs]

S: Actually, the one site on which this was tested was on Jane from Jamestown, who– She is called Jane. It is quite contentious to name your skeletons in archaeology, so I’m not particularly pleased that they have named her that. But that’s what we’re rolling with. It’s also strange to give genders to your skeletons in archaeology. Particularly because all that they found of this individual was a leg and a skull, and a skull is not particularly good for sex estimation, and as a queer person who is very into looking at alternative gender representations… Yes, I was doing all the background research on Jane and thought it’s really kind of sketchy, they don’t know the gender of the skeleton and yet they’ve given her a name and a pronoun.

A: That became a story quite quickly with Jane and when they did the recreation.

C: This reminds me a bit of with the Franklin Expedition and how there were some skeletons that appeared to have XX chromosomes and be European in origin, and those conversations around is it degradation of DNA, or is it possible there were trans people or women aboard the Franklin Expedition. And yeah, it’s interesting that people would assume this about Jane, because it’s clearly something that gets considered in archaeology already.

S: Yeah.

C: And in survival cannibalism-related archaeology.

S: If we’re rolling with calling this individual Jane, as in the popular media, that individual had very high nitrogen isotope levels, which to me indicates that everyone there was eating a fully meat-based diet, because they were hunting and all of their crops had failed – or Jane was already a cannibal herself.

C: Or a mixture of the two?

S: Or a mixture of the two. But neither of those can ever be proven really.

A: Well, I’m not gonna look at her the same way.

S: [Laughs] You see that beautiful innocent face and say, ‘You’ve already eaten people.’

[Carmella laughs]

S: In addition to nitrogen isotopes, there has been another microscopy method established, which is looking at degradation of collagen, and collagen tends to degrade in different ways if someone is cooked versus being buried in the ground, and so that’s another way that someone could tell evidence of cannibalism. However, it could be argued that perhaps boiling people and cooking their bones down was part of another funerary practice. So it depends whether you fall on the ‘cannibalism is okay’ or ‘cannibalism is not okay’ side of the debate, putting a lot of moral assumptions on it.

C: And of course there are instances where people have to eat flesh raw, so–

S: Exactly.

A: It’s not gonna be a catch-all answer either way.

S: Exactly. The more evidence you bring up, the more evidence there is to disprove, and then someone will definitely disprove it. Because we love to argue.

A: Sometimes physically, I’ve heard! See, it’s definitely more scientific than our ‘do you think this is survival, ritual or just for fun’–

[Stacy laughs]

A: Quiz round that we did to try and answer these prehistoric questions.

S: Archaeology is really… I love it because it adds to the historical evidence. So it’s another way of looking at history, and another way of bolstering or disproving what we know from history.

A: There’s no such thing as too much information.

S: No, never! So I was looking through the literature of all of the sites that we have potential cannibalism at, and survival cannibalism tends to be proven extremely rarely. And so all the earliest evidence of cannibalism in general was from a site in Spain called Gran Dolina, which was about 780,000 years ago. The oldest in the UK is a site called Gough’s Cave. And another one called Herxheim in Germany from I guess we can say roughly the same time period – which is in the hundreds of thousands of years ago. But all of these show evidence of cannibalism that was practised in concert with a lot of animal bones, and so it was probably not survival because they could have also eaten those animals. But that’s not particularly proven, because they could have been going through a drought and those animal bones could be a thousand years from the time that the people were butchered and eaten.

C: Just because there were animals there at some point, doesn’t mean that there were at the specific point.

S: Yes. However, the evidence seems to point to ritual cannibalism. Oh, and in one of them I did learn a new word.

A: We love expanding our cannibalism vocab.

S: Yeah, so there’s endo-cannibalism (eating members of your own group) and exo-cannibalism (eating members of other groups), and one article referred to endo-cannibalism as ‘affectionate cannibalism’.

C: [Delighted] Aww!

S: In which you’re showing your love for the individuals by consuming them.

A: [Pretending to cough] Gastronomic incest.

S: [Laughs] Yes, exactly! 

C: Affectionate cannibalism, I love that. Adding that one to the dictionary right now.

S: Yeah, just– it’s very happy. I was saying about the site at Herxheim, which is from around 5,000 years ago. So there is a lot of evidence of very ritualistic butchery and the researchers do suggest that it kind of sprang up out of nowhere, that there wasn’t any evidence of ritual cannibalism before then, and perhaps there was some kind of social crisis. Usually when we talk about social crises in ancient times, it’s going to be water- or food-based, some kind of drought, some kind of famine, and everyone starts eating each other. However, these people were also found alongside animal bones, so to what extent was it ritual, or to what extent were they perhaps sacrificing and eating humans to control something in their environment.

A: Or just something to do.

S: Yeah. Which is actually not changing the idea of cannibalism, but changing the idea of survival.

A: I do quite like when we do that, when we sort of twist, and like okay we only talk about survival cannibalism, but what if they felt like they needed to do the cannibalism in order to survive? So it is a fun twisting of definitions there.

S: More of a spiritual survival. The site that I think is really interesting because of how contentious it is – and also the evidence is going to be really cool for this one – is a site called Cowboy Wash in Colorado.

C: [Intrigued] Ooh, cowboys…

S: And it belonged to the ancestral Puebloans in the 12th century. It’s a series of pit houses which are built into the ground underneath cliffs, and I’ve actually been to sites nearby and they’re really, really cool. There are the remains of 12 people, seven of which had evidence of dismembering, pot polishing and gnawing by human teeth. There was human blood residue found on stone tools nearby.

A: [Excited] Ooh!

S: And – the best – someone had done a poo in a room nearby! And they did an analysis of this piece of human faeces, which is called a coprolite. I almost did my PhD on this topic. The site was abandoned and it wasn’t packed up, like a grisly murder and cannibalism event had happened. They proved this by looking at the proteins within the poo and found that they were entirely human proteins.

C: Wow!

A: That sounds like a maybe 99% that someone definitely ate human at that site?

S: It is 99%, sure, that somebody ate humans. However, could this coprolite have come from a scavenging animal?

[Carmella laughs]

S: Who also went on a violent rampage!

C: With tools!

S: Yes. With tools.

A: Damn those hyenas!

S: Yes! Getting into whether this was survival cannibalism or not gets very complicated, because it does involve indigenous groups and white people’s expectations of the groups in the area. So the remains of the individuals have been reburied, as is protocol and as is respectful. The land is ancestral to the Ute people, who in their history have always been extremely peaceful. The ancestral Puebloans are known as a very peaceful people. And so whether this was some kind of outsider coming in during a drought and eating all of the ancestral Puebloans… Really there isn’t any more evidence showing who had done the eating. And a researcher called Karl Reinhard, whose special topic is coprolites – he is very cool and his research is very gross, if you’re not into such things…

C: I think you can assume that our listeners are into gross research.

S: Karl Reinhard has said that he studied hundreds of ancestral Puebloan coprolites and has found that all of them, except for this one individual, contains residues of a diverse mixture of plant material and also meat, particularly small game – things like lizards, insects – because the hunting around there, especially in times of drought, was not particularly good. In the 12th century, there had been a drought and people had started to move closer to the water sources because everything was drying up. There is evidence of eating more and more wild foods and less domesticated foods. But still no evidence of cannibalism. They seemed to be surviving. There had been evidence of droughts in centuries prior to this, and they did change their diet, but not significantly enough to eat humans. As he said (I have to read the entire quote because it’s very nice): “Cannibalism does not make sense for a people so exquisitely adapted to droughts by centuries of hunting-gathering traditions and agricultural innovation.” So he strongly believes that this is not an act of cannibalism by the ancestral Puebloan people. However, there has been proven evidence of cannibalism from Central America – well, proven in archaeological terms. If we think that the reports of the Spanish invaders can be trusted, which… Probably they can’t.

C: Yeah.

S: Yeah, they were trying to paint the Central American indigenous people in a pretty negative light.

A: There’s a little bit of bias there, we can acknowledge that.

S: Yeah, they are quite biased, since they were trying to kick them off their land at the time. However, many of the things that they did say about human sacrifice are attested from the Mixtecan and Aztec records. And what if our attempts to identify those people as non-cannibals is also unfair to their culture? What if they were really proud of their cannibalism traditions, and the Spanish came in and noted it accurately, and now we’re coming in and saying, ‘no, they’re not cannibals’, and that’s putting our own moral judgements back on the situation?

C: That’s a good question. It’s that ever-present anti-cannibalism bias. I say with humour, but it’s true.

S: So what if there was someone, or a group of people, who were moving northwards from Central America and introducing the idea of cannibalism to this famine and drought-ridden region? Or maybe just one person who went on kind of a terrible rampage.

A: The idea of introducing cannibalism as sort of a door-to-door salesman.

S: [Laughs] Yes. ‘Excuse me, have you heard about cannibalism today? It’s very good and will solve many of your problems.’

A: I mean, is that not this podcast?

[Carmella laughs]

S: Yes! [Laughs] So it’s possible that it was an outsider who potentially was also starving. Maybe they didn’t know about, you know, they didn’t know the right lizards to catch, they didn’t know the right wild grasses to pick. In which case, I think this is a really good example of survival cannibalism, perhaps not by the individuals who actually lived in the area, but by somebody else.

C: Thank you for sharing that! I think I’d vaguely heard of that case, but hadn’t read into it, so all of that was completely new and delightful. Thank you.

S: Yeah. It also– It goes really deep. There’s layers and layers of how the indigenous people look at themselves and their history, versus science and how scientists and archaeologists want to examine them, and changes in archaeological understanding in the 1960s, and then layered on top of that is new ways to analyse archaeological faeces. And all of these create this kind of wonderful melting pot of–

A: A cooking pot, if you will.

S: Everybody’s kind of wrong, but definitely cannibalism happened.

A: Before we let you go, a little birdy told me– the little birdy’s also you.

[Stacy laughs]

A: That you may have also spoken, or shall I say sung, about a topic that’s rather close to my heart?

S: Yes!

A: Such as the Whaleship Essex. So I would love to hear more about this.

S: Yes. I was very inspired one day. I was listening to a remix by an artist I quite like, Cosmo Sheldrake, and it’s a song about a storm, and I was kind of thinking about it, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve been meaning to write something about the Essex for a long time.’ I write a lot of songs because I’m also a drag king. And so I did. And I completely wrecked my voice over the past few weeks – I have to shout a lot at work.

A: It’s all those fights that I’ve heard about over cannibalism.

S: I am having a friend record it in a nice way with a good voice.

C: And here is the song now, performed by Chris ‘Chip’ Wilson of the London Sea Shanty Collective…

[Song plays. It is performed acapella, in the style of a mournful sea shanty]

I signed on board to go a-whaling /

To hunt that oil on southern seas /

A crew of men seeking their fortune /

I told my love to wait for me /

But round Cape Horn, a storm was brewing /

It wrecked a hole and tore our sail /

And when we cleared,the beast was near us /

That creature chased us, that white whale /

When the storm blows the sea /

In the wind, you’ll wait for me /

And we’ll meet by the quay /

Sad and sweet and fair and free /

I drift at sea, our numbers fading /

No food to eat, we wouldn’t last /

So we chose to eat our brothers /

So far at sea, our lots were cast /

So we ride by the tide /

To the fates that hide inside /

By the deep, by the die /

By the dark, I will survive /

What happens when your prayers aren’t answered? /

What happens when your time is near? /

They killed me there upon that ocean /

And sucked my bones, and dried their tears /

They sing the tale of whaler Essex /

And of the fate that came to me /

I drifted down to deepest waters / 

What’s left, they buried me at sea /

To the foam, to the spray / 

I shall meet the coming day /

Man the oars, beat the drums /

Hold tight, here it comes /

Of twenty men, so few were saved / 

One marooned, the rest like me /

You wouldn’t know unless you’d been there /

It’s called the custom of the sea /

So I go and it blows /

From a place where no man knows /

And it holds and it grips /

And it sings to sunken ships.

[Song ends]

[Alix and Carmella applaud]

A: It doesn’t translate very well for an audio medium, but the absolute beaming smiles! When you said ‘I’ve written a folk song about the Essex’, I was already – as you can imagine – absolutely delighted!

[Stacy laughs]

A: And that was absolutely fantastic.

C: Impeccable.

S: I thought from the point of view of someone being eaten, you know, it’s– I quite like the murder ballad tradition.

A: We actually have the author of ‘Cannibal Ballads: it’s not just a matter of taste’ as one of our up-coming interviewees, so we could always share it with him and get his opinion as well.

S: Ooh, that would be very exciting!

C: Thank you so much for joining us today Stacy, that was absolutely brilliant. Before you go, one final thing: do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to plug to our audience? 

S: I don’t have any long-term projects, but if anyone would like to follow me on Instagram, they can see my other drag projects, which is more publicly accessible than my archaeological projects. So there you can see more things like the whaleship Essex ballad.

A: Fantastic, we will of course link that down below. It has been wonderful to meet someone who both personally and professionally ‘digs’ the survival cannibalism genre, as it were. 

S: Indeed!

A: That was terrible… I will see myself out.

[Casting Lots theme music plays]

A: Our next guest is someone who on Twitter I once genuinely described as a ‘cannibalism celebrity’, and who took that positively!

Paul: I genuinely couldn’t have been happier!

A: So, Paul, would you like to tell us a little bit about who you are and where cannibalism comes into your life? I do like phrasing this question as awkwardly as possible.

P: No, it’s fine. Thank you for having me on. I’m Dr Paul Cowdell. I’m a folklorist, currently serving on the council of the Folklore Society here in Britain. Like a lot of folklorists in England, where there isn’t an established academic route into studying– a secure academic route into studying the subject, I came to folklore through hobby, through an interest in folk song specifically, where, as we’ll talk about, there are a lot of songs touching on cannibalism at sea. And from this kind of first interest in song, I got more interested in how songs fit into people’s lives, which means you start to look at everything else in people’s lives, which means you start to look at folklore much more broadly. Folklore is a massive area of, if you like, informal culture. It’s the things that people say and do about their immediate lives that aren’t necessarily what you’ll find formally encoded in history. But they’re there, and they’re actually substantial. From folk song, I started to collect other folklore material. I ended up doing a PhD on contemporary belief in ghosts, focused in Britain particularly, which led to me being introduced at one talk at a museum as an ‘expert in morbid eschatology’.

[Carmella laughs]

P: Which, until you’d described me as a ‘cannibalism celebrity’, was the highest praise I’d ever received.

[Alix and Carmella both laugh]

P: So apart from cannibalism, which is just a hobby.

A: [Snorts] Not a professional!

P: No, no! One should only dabble. I have a lot of interest in what happens when people die, and when people die in unfortunate circumstances, and how this plays out. Which is how I came to survival cannibalism, through a traditional song which is a parody, but it seems a very sympathetic treatment, even though it’s parodic, of quite a serious subject.

C: I think ‘parodic by sympathetic’ is often our approach. Er, maybe sometimes less of the sympathetic and more of the parodic, in some cases.

P: I have, I think, probably rather lurid tastes.

[Carmella laughs]

P: That’s why I started to read around and look around and listen around to material on survival cannibalism.

A: Avid readers of our bibliography will definitely know your name. Your ‘not just a question [sic.] of taste’ cannibal ballads work has been cited in a lot of our episodes, and a personal thanks from me for the fact that you’ve done a wonderful little list of ‘here are all of the ships that I’ve managed to find some survival cannibalism on’, which you would be surprised at how rare those actual lists are. So that thanks has been about five years in the making.

P: And I guess I should kind of carry forward my thanks, then, to the person who really focused how I approached it, who was A.W. Brian Simpson, the legal historian who wrote on the Mignonette event and how that was used as a test case in British law. There is this chain of peculiar interest, if you like, that we are all part of. Which also interests me as a folklorist – the transmission of stories, and how stories change and how the narration changes, I think is really interesting. And it’s really important in survival cannibalism, precisely because you get that, when survival cannibalism is a resort, there is generally sympathy. You know, Brian Simpson used the phrase ‘the custom of the sea’ – nobody wants it to happen, nobody likes it, but it does happen, and so we have to accept it. Actually, shortly after the article was published, I gave a talk on it, and somebody who’d grown up in Hull was telling me in the late 60s, a Hull fishing vessel went missing for I think two weeks, and when it came back one of the crew had died. And this guy said to me, there was a lot of comment privately that they suspected that he may have had to have been eaten, and it wasn’t criticism of them if that had happened – it was more of ‘it’s a pity it was him and not the young, feckless one’. Which is interesting because that also comes up as a theme in the whole lot-drawing motif that kind of runs as a red thread through all survival cannibalism stories, too.

A: It’s very rarely the cook.

P: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s very often the youngster with the least experience and no dependents. But that sympathy survives, but as it becomes less common as a practice, you also get much more the emergent parody. And so the song that interested me was this song ‘Little Boy Billee’, which was written by William Makepeace Thackeray originally, and is a parody of a French traditional song. It does wear its parody lightly. It’s not insulting about its content at all. Boy Billee does escape, and actually the villains who are going to kill and eat him are hanged and Billee is elevated to the Admiralty.

C: That’s how you know it’s not based on reality…

P: [Laughs] Yes, I’d be interested to know if any of the major Admiralty figures were involved in any survival cannibalism vessels.

A: Closest I can think of is Byron, George Byron’s grandfather. He has a couple of brushes with survival cannibalism on the Grafton, I believe, then goes off and attempts to find the Northwest passage (and fails). But he’s about the highest member of the Admiralty that I can think of who has a direct connection.

P: Do they pre-date Don Juan

A: So there’s a little section where Byron actually is inspired by his grandfather’s narrative and makes direct reference to it in the poem.

P: For all Byron’s usual hilarious tone, what he describes is pretty much what everyone else describes about how survival cannibalism is conducted. At that point, there is no legal requirement to rescue shipwreck survivors. And, in fact, there is probably every incentive not to, because if you pick them out of the water, you’re responsible for feeding them before you can off-load them onto somewhere else. It’s much, much later – 1846, I think – you get the first legislation requiring the reporting of sinking of steam vessels. 1850 it comes in for sailing vessels. And that kind of cavalier attitude prevails for quite a long time. And all the time it’s in existence, the likelihood of survival cannibalism as a resort becomes higher. As vessels become safer, as legislation is increased, the likelihood diminishes, which makes the parody become much more likely, because it’s becoming more remote from daily experience.

C: Yep.

P: I mean, if you look at some of the American examples, there’s a certain sort of rugged frontier pork-and-beans over a campfire attitude to some of the American survival cannibalism stories. But in the 60s, with the emergence of a counter culture, you start to see a much more vigorous parody and finding of amusement in, well, Alfred Packer particularly.

A: Packer’s Bar and Grill.

P: Packer is irresistible. Phil Ochs writes this brilliant song about him, ‘The Ballad of Alfred Packer’, the best joke in which is actually from the court case, when the Judge said to Packer, ‘This county had six democrats and you ate five of them!’

[Carmella laughs]

P: But because it’s not going to happen now, it’s funny. You know, and then you end up with Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Cannibal! The Musical.

C: Yeah. A classic.

A: And I think it’s one of those things that I know we’ve encountered with doing episodes, because our episodes are factual but they are also stories. And it is much easier for us to have a more light-hearted approach to the historical episodes.

C: [In agreement] Mmm.

A: And our tone does intentionally shift once we get up to the, you know, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and even the ones that have happened in the 2000s. I don’t think we’ve had one yet that’s hit the 2010s. But it is instances of survival cannibalism where they creep closer to our daily reality which are the ones that we find less humour in. We find more humour in the ones that have that significant delay between how we live now and how it was then.

P: We also see, I think, a return to that use of cannibalism as what Gerald Porter called ‘the representative other’. There was a Sun headline from 2006, ‘Cannibal Eats OAP Alive’, so not survival cannibalism stories, but actually just cannibalism as the monstrous, the barbaric, and specifically the uncivilised. Which is lurking in the background through the 19th century ballad material, but it’s not played out until you get the parodies. You get it with W.S. Gilbert’s ‘The Yarn of the Nancy Bell’, where he lists all the crew that he’s eaten.

A: Like a menu.

P: [Laughs] Well, yes. There is a certain inclination to see how these meals will play out in some of the texts. So there’s a Guernsey version of ‘La Courte Paille’ (‘The Short Straw’): “Il était un petit navire” – “There was a little ship / which had never sailed before”. And this is– It’s become an incredibly widespread kids’ song. So they eat him and they have the incredible good taste not to eat his share. They eat him with raw salsify, so if anyone wants any serving suggestions, raw salsify is the recommendation there. Because actually a lot of the songs feature miraculous escapes, it’s actually about staving off the resort to this terrible moments. You read in song texts how the victim, having drawn the lot, pleads for just a little extra time, so they give him one more hour, one more night, and you think, ‘Hmm, if you’ve got to drawing lots, I don’t think this is actually going to be how it played out.’ But then amazingly, there’s the ship that’s come to rescue them!

C: Why do you think that is, that in ballads and texts that there’s this temptation to have this happy ending. Is that just to strike a more cheerful tone so it’s more fun to sing about?

P: I don’t think it’s more fun to sing about; I think it’s more realistic about the likelihood of it happening in real life. So those texts tend to be the earlier texts from a period when it is being reported much more widely. I’d actually gone back to look again at the Swedish text ‘Georg Sjöman’, which just means ‘George the Sailor’. When the ship gets in trouble and they know they’re gonna have to resort to this and drawing lots, he goes berserk and it ends up being a big fight between him and the captain. The captain kills him and everybody’s shocked, but also hungry, so they eat him.

C: Like, not shocked enough to be put off their food!

P: [Laughs] No. No, the text says they’re burning with hunger, so they cut him up, take him down to the Galley where they make a meal of him. But they forget where this meal’s come from: a good shipmate, “en bra kamrat”. I mean, I have this feeling that one of things with the custom of the sea, the removal of the head, it’s because you don’t want the face looking at you.

A: The head, the hands and the feet do tend to be one of the first things that gets thrown overboard. Because those are the real articles of humanity on a body, I think.

P: With the hands and the feet also, they’re the least edible. I suspect. They’re the hardest to get the meat off. I mean, Francis Spaight, O’Brien’s hands and feet were being waved to try and attract the attention of passing ships.

C: But they weren’t eaten, so…

P: [Laughs] No.

A: And Captain Pollard of the Essex was found sucking what little nutrition was left in the knuckle bones of his cousin.

P: Gastronomic incest.

A: [With worrying pleasure] Oh yeah.

C: Alix’s favourite.

A: That makes it sound much worse than it is. I just think it’s an incredibly academic phrase. Like, of course it’s called gastronomic incest, of course that’s what it’s called when you eat a member of your own family. It couldn’t be, you know, like, culinary… comradeship or something.

[Carmella laughs]

A: No, it’s gastronomic incest.

P: Culinary consanguinity.

C: [Delighted] Yes!

A: Exactly. Something a bit nicer. But no, I will not waste an opportunity to say the words ‘gastronomic incest’.

P: It was another phrase that Gerald Porter used. But he was trying to get at the idea that this would therefore be something that people would be even more ambivalent–

C: So this double taboo wrapped up in one.

P: Absolutely. There’s at least one case where – going back to what we were saying about the rigging of the lots – the lot not only fell to somebody with a dependent, it fell to a passenger whose wife was on the ship. They didn’t query it, but his wife said ‘I get first dibs, because he’s my husband.’

A: Ah, the Frances Mary.

P: Yes!

A: This is a very weird party trick…

[Paul laughs]

A: To be able to identify ships by their lots.

C: By how the cannibalism went down.

P: [Laughs] Well, it’s interesting because that touches on this fear that it might actually be nice. Which does actually get to the kind of, even if we don’t want to use the phrase, gastronomic incest. It does get to what Gerald Porter was a little bit kind of worrying about.

A: We do only really encounter, where we’ve touched on a few times – especially in the Wild West with, like, the ‘Colorado Cannibal’, the ‘Kentucky Cannibal’ – it’s always these larger-than-life villainous myth figures who say, ‘Oh, it tasted wonderful and I went back for seconds and I love the taste of human flesh.’ I can’t think of a survival instance where people have ever commented other than, ‘We ate it, it tastes like this. It was food.’ So there does seem to be quite a black-and-white villany/survival tilt to whether or not it ‘tastes good’. 

P: The suspicion that it tastes good does play out in contemporary legends. I’ve just been reading a collection of Victorian urban legends. There’s a lot of baby in pie stories.

C: Of course, of course. Gotta have a baby in a pie.

P: Of course, yeah. And the suspicion is because it tastes so strong.

A: Was it The Curse of the House of Atreus that started with a little bit of baby eating? 

P: There is baby eating in The House of Atreus. It plays out much as in Titus Andronicus with the serving the children up in a pie.

A: And it becomes this sort of family curse. If you ever had human flesh, that’s not only something that’s defiled you, but has defiled your family and has been passed down.

P: Yes, and honestly the Atreides were not blessed with great luck in family fortune. There’s this constant escalation of the catastrophes. But that’s not really how it plays out in any of the later folkloric material around cannibalism.

A: For a lot of our real life instances, people who’ve survived do tend to just go home. And, while they’re inevitably going to be pretty traumatised from the events that happened… I’m going back to George Pollard, he ends up as the night watchman of Nantucket and is well-loved by the children of the island. You have the Uruguayan students going on to live normal lives. You have a return that I think people might also be a little bit scared of, the idea that you can do such a thing, you can have to resort to eating human flesh, and then just–

C: Get on with it.

A: Get on with it. Be unchanged.

P: Yeah.

C: Yeah. And therefore, could anyone who you meet have potentially eaten a person in their past, and you wouldn’t know?

P: Because Tom Dudley from the Mignonette screwed up his employment in Britain, as you can imagine, so he emigrates. He emigrates to Australia and establishes an extremely successful Sydney harbourside business. Just going back to my lurid tastes, one of the things that I’ve written and talked a lot about over the years as a folklorist is folklore about rats. And one of the stories about rats is as a first indicator of outbreaks of plague, is when the rats start dying. And in 1902, Tom Dudley found a storm drain at his harbourside business clogged with dead rats, which he removed, and within a week he was dead – one of the first victims of a plague outbreak in Australia.

A: You couldn’t write that sort of symbolism.

C: No.

P: No. But there is also this– [Laughs] For me, this is the merger of a number of my possibly less salubrious interests.

A: What connects cannibalism and the plague?

P: Tom Dudley.

A: That is a pub quiz round for us.

P: Yeah. And it’s probably not quite as obvious as the Richard Parker, Richard Parker. Extremely strange coincidence of Richard Parker, the cabin boy on the Mignonette, sharing his name with Richard Parker, the cabin boy in Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym.

C: [In recognition] Oh yes.

P: Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Which was actually written before the Mignonette disaster, so it’s pure coincidence that these two dead and eaten cabin boys, one fictional and one real, shared a name.

C: Unless that was a very cruel predeterministic choice from Richard Parker the real’s parents.

P: [Laughs] ‘We’ll call him Richard because we’ve always like this Poe fellow.’

C: ‘I’ve always thought this name sounded like a good one.’

A: Now, before we wrap up, one of our guests actually let slip right at the end of her interview that she has written her own cannibalism ballad. So we wondered if you’d like to take a listen?

P: Yes!

A: And then if you would like to…

C: Give your live review?

A: [Agreeing] Give your live review. [Beat] Here, we played Stacy’s song for Paul to listen to.

[Brief pause]

P: God, that’s great! And I’ll tell you what, it’s interesting because the sort of change in some non-cannibal sea songs, you get a sort of ghostly narrative and ghostly apparition figures crop up as quite late developments. So I’d say Stacy’s narrative voice of that is very consistent with developments in sea songs over the last couple of hundred years and where we’ve got to now. But also it’s interesting because it sort of takes it serious as a historical– the historical distance allows them to be sort of serious about the subject. If it were contemporaneous, it would be serious in a different way, I think. All of which made me think that I do have to share where I came into this…

[Singing acapella, in the style of a folk ballad]

There were three men from Bristol city /

There were three men from Bristol city /

They stole a ship and they sailed to sea /

They stole a ship and sailed to sea /

There was Gorging Jack and Guzzling Jimmy /

There was Gorging Jack and Guzzling Jimmy /

And also Little Boy Billee / 

And also Little Boy Billee / 

They stole a box of captain’s biscuits / 

They stole a box of captain’s biscuits / 

And one large bottle of whiskey / 

And one large bottle of whiskey / 

But when they reached the broad Atlantic / 

But when they reached the broad Atlantic / 

They’d nothing left but one split pea / 

They’d nothing left but one split pea / 

Says Gorging Jack to Guzzling Jimmy / 

Says Gorging Jack to Guzzling Jimmy / 

‘We’ve nothing to eat, some I’m gonna eat thee’ / 

‘We’ve nothing to eat, some I’m gonna eat thee’ / 

Says Guzzling Jim, ‘I’m old and toughest’ /

Says Guzzling Jim, ‘I’m old and toughest’ /

‘So let us eat Little Boy Billee’ / 

‘So let us eat Little Boy Billee’ / 

‘Oh, Little Boy Billee, we’re gonna kill and eat you’ /

‘Oh, Little Boy Billee, we’re gonna kill and eat you’ /

‘So undo the top button of your little chemie’ / 

‘So undo the top button of your little chemie’ / 

‘Oh may I say my catechism?’ / 

‘Oh may I say my catechism?’ / 

‘That my dear mother taught to me?’ / 

‘That my dear mother taught to me?’ / 

So he’s gone up to the main-top gallant /

So he’s gone up to the main-top gallant /

And there he fell down on his knee /

And there he fell down on his knee /

But when he reached the eleventh commandment /

But when he reached the eleventh commandment /

He cried, ‘Yo-ho! For land I see!’ /

He cried, ‘Yo-ho! For land I see!’ /

‘I see Jerusalem and Madagascar’ /

‘I see Jerusalem and Madagascar’ /

‘And North and South Amerikee’ /

‘And North and South Amerikee’ /

‘I see the British fleet at anchor’ /

‘I see the British fleet at anchor’ /

‘And Admiral Nelson K.C.B.’ /

‘And Admiral Nelson K.C.B.’ /

Well, they hung Gorging Jack and Guzzling Jimmy /

They hung Gorging Jack and Guzzling Jimmy /

But they made an Admiral out of Boy Billee /

They made an Admiral out of Boy Billee.

[Song ends]

[Alix and Carmella applaud]

A: Fabulous!

C: I think that’s the perfect place to end this episode. Thank you so much for sharing that with us!

P: It’s quite alright.

C: What a brilliant song.

P: Now I must go and think of something that I can possibly eat with white sauce and raw salsify…

C: [Laughs] Thank you so much for joining us today. One final thing before we let you go. Did you have any projects or work that you’d like to plug to our audience, or suggest that they go and explore further?

P: Post-lockdown, I’ve not been able to go out and do any fieldwork, and like many good folklorists, field work is really standing around in pubs talking to strangers about interesting stuff.

[Carmella laughs]

P: There’s a really good project coming at some point, but it’s not anywhere near fruition yet, about a local legend to me involving shipwrecks and washed up barrels of brandy. But unable to speak to people for a long time, I’ve tended to be doing a lot of quite abstruse but important stuff on the history of folklore as a discipline, which perhaps is not for all of your listeners. Although I would encourage them all to kind of get involved!

C: I think it probably is, actually!

P: I’ve gone back recently to doing stuff on ghosts, so that’s sort of– My ghost stuff is out there a little bit to keep an eye out for. I think the thing that I would encourage, with my lurid tastes, your listeners to go and check out is probably my stuff on folklore about rats. Which, as a fellow member of the council of the folklore society once said to me when I said, ‘Oh I’ve been invited to do a talk about rats’, he said, ‘Yes, it’s always rats with you as the entry, isn’t it?’

[Carmella and Alix both laugh]

P: Because let’s face it, if you like stories about eating people about eating people at sea, you will like stories about whether rats are really clever or not.

C: [Laughing] Thank you so much.

A: This has been brilliant.

P: Thank you. Thank you very much. I hope you’ve had a filling time…

[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]

C: Thank you for listening to today’s episode, featuring Stacy Hackner and Paul Cowdell. Next time, we’ll be speaking to two horror experts.

[Outro music continues]

A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.

C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.

A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Ashley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.

[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]


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