Freaky Friday (Again): This Clown Tastes Funny – The Cannibalistic Case of R. vs. Dudley & Stephens, Part 1.

Welcome back to Lawyers & Liquor for another Freaky Friday, where we toss open the crypt doors and invite you, dear reader, to descend into the dungeon of the legally macabre. I’m your ghost host with the barely sufficient most, the BOO-zy Barrister, and in a special two-time Freaky Friday month of April we’re going to continue the theme we talked about last week in discussing a case of high seas passenger murder and expand it out to ask what happens when, instead of drowning passengers, the crew simply decides to dine on a delectable all you can eat buffet of seaman.

Stop giggling.


Stop giggling, because we have a lot of ground to cover as we explore the English eatery that is the case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens this time on Lawyers & Liquor: Freaky Friday! But first, a general disclaimer.

The Real Horror is I Don’t Represent You.

Remember when reading this that you probably shouldn’t be taking legal advice from a sentient whiskey glass on the internet. I’m a lawyer, but folks, I’m not your lawyer, and when we’re talking about crap on here we’re talking about it in the vein of entertainment and education, not legal advice. The only way to get me to represent you is to call my office, make an appointment, have me agree to do so, then pay me a retainer fee of my choosing (you don’t get to PayPal me a dollar out of the blue and have me represent you). If you haven’t gone through all of those steps, there’s absolutely no attorney-client relationship or privilege, and frankly, if you’re planning to rely on a discussion about eating your shipmates you should probably be talking to someone other than me in the first place.

Like a therapist. 

A therapist is a nice place to start.

Let’s be absolutely clear: This is not a case where someone named “Regina” sued a guy for cannibalism.

You’ll notice from the title of today’s morsel of legal luncheon that the case seems to indicate a person named Regina initiated this whole matter, and you’d be somewhat justified in thinking that given the fact most cases that look like they have names take this form. However, this case is from the past, specifically 1884, and pulls into the port of our review from “across the pond” so to speak. Yes, I’ve decided that the American cases regarding cannibalism simply aren’t interesting enough for discussion and have decided we should follow in the footsteps of PBS in presenting to you an English case we can devour ravenously.

To that end, it’s worth noting that what we’re reviewing today is actually a criminal case. In 1884, much like today, The United Kingdom was headed by a Queen (in fact, there’s always a fair chance it may be the same Queen they have today. For all I know there are cryogenic tubes and eldritch rituals being held below Westminster to maintain her youth, and they reintroduce her every few generations). In such cases, muck like in the United States where we use “State,” “Commonwealth,” or “U.S.” to denote a prosecution of a criminal matter (as the government is, itself, the actual party), over there at that time they used “Regina,” which is really a latin term for “Hey, Hey dude, the Queen and her Corgis are about to come into this courtroom and beat you down mightily.

So with that out of the way, let’s take a look at the historical background behind this case that criminalizes murder and cannibalism no matter how dire the circumstances may be.

Like all good cases of cannibalism, it’s really a lawyer’s fault.

Australian attorney John Henry Want had done pretty goddamn well for himself by 1883. He was at the top of his game professionally, having spent 14 years as a barrister at fis own firm and was a pretty good venture investor, having gained a lot of cash from holding his nose and diving into “suspicious” investments at the start. He was doing so well that he decided just wearing a nice, bespoke suit instead of whatever the 19th century equivalent of a Jos. A. Banks 2-for-1 special wasn’t cutting it in screaming to the world, as all attorneys who succeed are bound to do, “Look at the wealth held betwixt the folds of my big lawyer dick!” No, not for old John Henry there, he needed something bigger, something better, something more appropriate for a man whose name is literally a euphemism for a penis.

John Henry needed a boat. Something he could give a clever, nautically themed named that was also a legal pun, like the Sea Tort-oise.

That’s why, in 1883, he travelled to England to view, purchase, and have shipped back to Sydney a yacht known as The Mignonette, a 52 foot vessel designed to sail inshore waters and in no goddamn way made for a voyage from fucking England to Australia. And John Henry, an avid yachtsman (God do I hate him already), recognized this, which is why he promptly noped the hell out of the option to ride his new penile replacement over the open waves and instead hired a crew of four folks: Tom Dudley, a captain of some years experience, Edwin Stephens, Edwin Brooks, and Richard Parker as the cabin boy. All of the four, except Parker, were experienced sailing men, though, and presumably more than capable of handling the issues that would arise during a voyage around the goddamn continent of Africa on a vessel never made to be outside of the sight of the white cliffs of Dover.

Did I mention that Parker, who was 17 years old, had never gone to sea before and was an orphan?

Because shit always ends well for young orphans on small vessels at sea.

Narrator: Shit does not ever end well for young orphans at sea.

To get to Africa, the The Mignonette had to go through the Cape of Good Hood because that’s how shit was done then, you sailed around Africa and not through some canal. You did this shit like men. And, while the weather was mild for the most part (a small blessing in the cape itself), The Mignonette was not a vessel built for the weather and waves of the Cape of Good Hope at all. Which is why a wave literally ripped the boat apart and caused it to sink in five minutes.

Luckily, all four of the crew were able to abandon ship! Unluckily, they were about 1,000 miles from land, out of the way of an sea route right then, and…uh…only had two pounds of turnips. Like no water or anything else, just turnips. So they floated on the ocean, eating their turnips, getting what water they could from the random rains – except for the time they managed to kill a sea turtle. And they drank their own pee.

A lot of their own pee.

Water Water Everywhere…

There’s a poem called the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Sam Coleridge, that contains a refrain of

Water, water, every where, 
And all the boards did shrink; 
Water, water, every where, 
Nor any drop to drink. 

Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The line there was based on the belief that sea water, if consumed by a becalmed sailor, would lead to death. Which is a true thing known to mankind from the first time some dude stood on a beach and screamed “I’m gonna drink the whole ocean!” to impress somebody he had a crush on. It’s all related to the amount of salt in seawater, and how as you drink it your kidneys have to process that salt, so you pee more, which depletes your body of more water than you actually received from drinking the sea water and – I mean, the point is, drinking seawater literally makes you piss yourself to death which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing and want to go in a manner that makes sure the grass over your grave will never grow unstained but isn’t so good when you’re in a goddamn lifeboat 1,000 miles from land with three other guys and you aren’t doing too well at that whole “Catching rain so we have something to hydrate with” thing.

Dudley, Stephens, and Brooks, all being experienced sailors, were very aware of the fact they shouldn’t drink seawater. Parker, though…I mean, he was 17 and we all do stupid shit at 17, which is why he probably said “Whatever old men, you just don’t understand, my generation is hip and with it and Tide Pods with a seawater chaser are how we live! YOLO!” Then he promptly dunked his head in the ocean and began guzzling seawater with gusto. Which proved to be a pretty bad idea, because he more or less instantly got sick and started pissing all over the place.

And, have gone at this point weeks with very little food and very little water, he was starting to look pretty damn good to the rest of the folks in that boat. The folks who would later say they were just abiding by the “custom of the sea.”

A Captain and a Mate can’t be charged for the same crime: The Custom of the Sea.

See, there is maritime law, which governs the oceangoing vessels on the high waves under the purview of the courts of their respective lands, and then there’s the maritime law that is held amongst ship officers and crewman. While the former is a good way to determine shipping disputes, the traditions, customs, and all that other shit which makes the sea so alluring are a result of the latter. And according to those customs, generally accepted amongst all men at that time, was the concept of consensual cannibalism for the betterment of the whole crew that has become shipwrecked.

In essence, the custom of the sea said “Okay, long pork is kosher but only if done in circumstances where it’s everybody or one person – that’s the first thing – and you gotta do it by chance. No, just, randomly choosing a guy to matter. Draw lots, fuckers.”



The same method suggested by the Court in U.S. v. Holmes. Drawing straws is apparently serious fucking business on the see, because it can and will get your ass killed and broasted.

But in this situation, the crew didn’t draw lots because, taking a look over the boat, it was pretty sure Parker’s sea-drinking chugfest had left him in a state where, no matter what they did, he wasn’t going to survive. Or as a court would eventually put it:

That the boy, being in a much weaker condition, was likely to have died before them.  That at the time of the act in question there was no sail in sight, nor any reasonable prospect of relief.  That under these circumstances there appeared to the prisoners every probability that unless they then fed or very soon fed upon the boy or one of themselves they would die of starvation.

R. v. Dudley & Stephens

So, starving, certain of death, and in the presence of a person unlikely to survive, the three relatively healthier men made a decision.

They were going to fucking stab Parker in his sleep and then drink his blood.

And then, on July 24-25, 1884, did just that. I’ll let the court take it from here:

 That on the 24th of July . . . the prisoners spoke of their families, and suggested it would be better to kill the boy that their lives should be saved, and Dudley proposed that if there was no vessel in sight by the morrow morning the boy should be killed.  That next day, the 25th of July, no vessel appearing, Dudley told Brooks that he had better go and have a sleep, and made signs to Stephens and Brooks that the boy had better be killed.  The prisoner Stephens agreed to the act, but Brooks dissented from it.  That the boy was then lying at the bottom of the boat quite helpless and extremely weakened by famine and by drinking sea water, and unable to make any resistance, nor did he ever assent to his being killed.  The prisoner Dudley offered a prayer asking forgiveness for them all if either of them should be tempted to commit a rash act, and that their souls might be saved.  That Dudley, with the assent of Stephens, went to the boy, and telling him that his time was come, put a knife into his throat and killed him then and there


Oh, if that doesn’t sound brutal enough, there were some reports that the boy’s last words as they drove the knife home were “What, me?”

…Holy shit, I just realized those guys literally ate Dick.

The Case: How it started

It was four days of eating some Spotted Dick Parker in the bottom of the lifeboat and then the survivors spotted a sail on July 29, 1884 and were promptly picked up by a German flagged vessel which seemed completely understanding of the situation, I assume. I mean…probably because they were sailors, but when it comes to the Germans who really knows? Like, maybe one of them was like “Ja, I like to eat people too.”

Anyhow, upon being returned to land Dudley and Stephens immediately presented themselves to the offices of the maritime authority to…uh…report the loss of the ship because that was legally required of all vessels under maritime law. So they showed up, reported the vessel missing, and then apparently openly acknowledged that they had murdered and ate Parker without hesitation. I like to imagine the conversation went like this:

“A dipshit lawyer bought a yacht that never should have been on the ocean. It got swamped and sank off the Cape of Good Hope and we spent like four weeks in a tiny lifeboat.”

“Fucking lawyers, right,” says the junior clerk taking their statement.

“Right,” Dudley responds, “We tried to tell the bloke this would happen but he just wouldn’t listen!”

“Well, not much you could do then,” said the clerk, “So if there’s nothing else we’ll just get this typed up and signed and you gents can go on about your day then…”

“Oh yeah,” says Dudley, lighting a cigarette, “Did I mention we killed and ate the cabin boy?”

“…No. No you did not.”

Obviously, they were charged with Murder. But only after some great discussion because they were not immediately arrested after sitting there and saying “Oh yeah, we killed and ate that kid.” Shit, a cop overheard the statement, took the knife, and still was like “Well, that sounds horrible. Have a nice day now.” It was only when the Home Office got involved that there was a decision made to arrest and charge them with “Murder on the high seas” under English law.

Problems with the Prosecution

There’s a weird thing about towns or places where a lot of people are in a profession, namely that the whole town, from the butcher to the street sweeper, knows something about the profession in question and in particular has someone they love in that same profession. Falmouth, England was such a town, and that profession was taking to the sea like an ill-advised client in a sitcom cancelled by Fox. So every man, woman, and child in that town was well aware of the custom of the sea and the longstanding belief that it was better to eat Dick than let the rest of them die alongside him. By the time of trial, the sympathies of the public firmly rested with the three defendants, to the point that the deceased’s brother, an experienced seaman himself, showed up to shake their hands and give them encouragement.

Then the two defendants.

Because, get this, Brooks never gave a statement to the maritime inquiry, and therefore had given no confession…and the confessions of Dudley and Stephens couldn’t be introduced against him. Coupled with a right to silence and a prohibition against compelling them to testify, the prosecution quickly realized it had nothing on Brooks, and moved to dismiss the charges against him, maintaining them only against Dudley & Stephens – the two who had given sworn statements regarding the quality of the meal. In doing so, the prosecution at least opened up the ability to call Brooks as a witness on behalf of the prosecution.

Brooks, in essence, had gotten a free lunch.

Meanwhile, in both the eyes of the public and those of the defense, which, we should note, was entirely funded in the 19th century version of a GoFundMe by sympathetic folks who understood sometimes, damn it, you just have to eat a human being, Dudley and Stephens had not committed an inexcusable murder. Instead, they had, much as pled in Holmes, merely done what was ultimately necessary to ensure survival, and should not be held criminally accountable for that act given the dire circumstances.

But, as we covered in U.S. v. Holmes last week, that wasn’t a valid defense! Necessity never justifies the taking of another life and…wait? Holmes didn’t really say that? Holmes just said “Necessity won’t justify taking another life when you have a duty to protect that life and there are other options before you take that life you should explore first“? Oh. Well then. I guess we’ll turn away from that principle and look to the other overwhelming precedent that strikes down a defense of necessity to a homicide where the person killed wasn’t the person creating the necess…


…oh no.

But wait, there’s more.

I’m not a fan of cutting this one off here. Because the whole story behind this trial is really fucking interesting and involves unclear precedent on the status of people eating in English, the law of the sea, political machinations, a hanging judge corrupting the record, and discussions of morality versus legality all in the context of killing and eating the cabin boy

But it’s precisely for that reason I have to cut it off here, because otherwise this post will go on for way too long, and it’s already double the length I try to keep my shit at.

So…we’ll be back again next week with yet another Freaky Friday (a theesome month of freakiness!) to finish out the Cannibalistic Case of R v. Dudley & Stephens! And until then, I’m your narrator…


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