Do People Who Resort to Cannibalism in Survival Situations Get in Trouble?

Gina K asks: When people have to resort to cannibalism to survive, is it considered a crime?

To begin with, cannibalism is absolutely legal in the United States (with the exception of the state of Idaho), the UK, much of Europe, Japan, etc. However, as Cornell Law School notes, a number of laws are in place across America “that indirectly make it impossible to legally obtain and consume the body matter”. The same can be said for the many other countries in which cannibalism isn’t directly illegal.

For example, in much of the world desecrating a corpse is a crime. On top of this, in cases where the flesh is somehow obtained legally, a cannibal can be charged for crimes ranging from “outraging public decency” to “preventing a lawful burial”, giving the law a number of avenues to prosecute cannibals in this regard.

All that said, if a person was mindful of all these laws and managed to obtain some human flesh legally, they could quite literally eat said flesh in front of a cop, all while wearing a sandwich board advertising the fact that they’re a cannibal and suffer no legal consequences.

While this might sound like a fantastical example, in fact, something like this has actually happened. Enter Canadian performance artist Rick Gibson. Before his cannibalistic endeavors, he was probably most famous for taking a couple human fetuses and making earrings out of them. These were then placed on a female mannequin in yet another “lovely” example of modern art at its finest. As for his cannibal “art”, he states,

I was given a bottle of preserved human tonsils by a friend of mine in London. He was hoping that I would make a pair of earrings out of them. Instead, I decided to eat them.

Preserved in alcohol, they made a wonderful canape. By eating this hors d’oeuvre at 1:30 PM on 19 July 1988 at the corner of Erskine Road and the High Street in Walthamstow Market, I became the first cannibal in British history to legally eat human meat in public.

Disregarding the questionable accuracy of that last sentence, despite some public outrage over the events, the police were forced to admit that nothing Gibson did was technically illegal and he celebrated getting away with it by eating a human testicle hors d’oeuvre in front of the police station.

The key here was that in each case, Gibson obtained the flesh legally from people who had surgery to remove organs and managed to convince the respective hospitals to give them the body parts back (A not so easy task- see our article: Will Hospitals Give Back an Amputated Limb if You Ask For It?)

In a similar publicity stunt, one Mao Sugiyama of Japan had his testicles, scrotum, and penis removed when he was 22 and served them to dinner guests at $250 per plate (a total of 6 plates). His motivation here was to raise awareness for sexual minorities- in his case specifically being an asexual individual.

As for legal ramifications, as in most countries, Japan has no specific laws against cannibalism, so there was no problem there. However, after the event, Sugiyama was initially charged with indecent exposure, as he’d shown pictures of his flayed penis and testicles to the 71 gathered guests before serving the prepared genitals to the few who’d paid for the meal.  However, as everyone at the event had known this would happen and why they were there, the charges were later dropped.

That said, according to the Culinary Director of Serious Eats, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Sugiyama had nevertheless botched the event. You see, it turns out his prepared genitals didn’t taste that great and were very rubbery, leading Kenji to lament, “The chef didn’t cook it right. What a waste of a perfectly good penis! Penis is pretty tough and needs to be slow cooked, either sous-vide or in a braise.”

The more you know…

In any event, the fact that there’s no direct law against cannibalism in most of the world means the courts often have to wrestle with whether a given act of cannibalism should be prosecuted for violating some tangential law. Most notorious on this front was the case of Armin Meiwes- a German man who infamously posted an ad on a cannibalism fetish website to find someone who’d allow him to eat them.

Armin got a surprising number of responses from people perfectly willing at first, but all backed out when it came time to do the deed. Important to arguments later made in the court battle, Armin did not pressure any of them to go through with the act.

But in a nutshell, ultimately Armin found a fully willing individual in a 43 year old computer repairman called Bernd-Jurgen Brandes. Plans made, the pair met, attempted to share a last meal for Brandes in his own penis, with the initial intent for Armin to bite it off, but this didn’t work out as apparently this is harder than movies sometimes imply to do, so they had to sever it…

And we’ll just stop there on the description of this attempted last meal. But if you care to be utterly revolted and simultaneously lose all faith in humanity, feel free to Google it and the full details of the rest of the story. Best to have some video footage of kittens playing loaded up on another tab at the same time to cleanse yourself after.

Skipping to the end of one of the most gruesome things we’ve personally ever researched (including, I might add, having done many an article on some of the most notorious serial killers in history), Brandes eventually passed out from blood loss and Meiwes proceeded to carve him up, with the whole thing capture on video, which was also key in showing Brandes was not only willing, but quite eager to be killed and at no point did Meiwes pressure him into anything.

Over time Meiwes ate approximately 20 kg of Brandes before police caught on to what he’d done when he posted another ad online looking for another willing participant in his self reported sexual fetish.

The horrific nature of these acts naturally led to something of a media sensation over the case, but as cannibalism isn’t illegal in Germany, and Meiwes’ victim wanted to be killed and was fine with being eaten, the court battle raged for some time before it was finally decided that Armin should be convicted of manslaughter and given an eight year prison sentence. This ruling was later overturned and he was convicted of murder and given a life sentence. (To wrap up this disturbing tale, it’s noted that today Meiwes is a vegetarian and strongly counsels anyone with a similar fetish to seek professional help to stop things from escalating as it had with him.)

An almost identical case a few years later similarly caused contention in German courts and they were unable to charge a former policeman called Detlev Guenzel for cannibalism after he killed and allegedly ate a man he met online. Instead, they resorted to charging him with “murder and disturbing the peace of the dead”.

This appears to be the case with virtually all examples of cannibalism we could find with nobody ever really being charged for the direct act of cannibalism itself.

But what about survival situations? The most famous example of this from a legal perspective is arguably that of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, a landmark case that involved the murder and cannibalization of a young cabin boy after a ship called the Mignonette was destroyed by a storm.

For anyone unfamiliar with the case, in 1884 three sailors called Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, and Ned Brooks and their cabin boy, Richard Parker, were lost at sea after a wave destroyed their ship. Cast adrift with only a few pounds of turnips for sustenance, Dudley and Stephens eventually made the grisly decision to kill and eat Parker. Brooks played no part in the murder, but would later admit to consuming Parker’s flesh and drinking his blood to survive.

Upon being rescued by a passing ship, Dudley and Stephens immediately confessed to killing Parker. The two men defended their decision by saying that Parker had become violently ill after consuming salt water and was at death’s door anyway. Both sailors argued that killing Parker was morally justified to necessitate their own survival, “citing the custom of the sea” which had seen many a marooned sailor drawing lots and eating one another to survive, generally with no consequences to themselves after the fact so long as the lottery of who should be killed was deemed to have been fairly implemented.

The thing is though, nobody aboard the Mignonette had drawn lots; Stephen and Dudley even admitted that they’d held Parker down as they slit his throat to stop him struggling.

The British courts disagreed that killing Parker was “necessary” as there was no way for the men to know that a ship wasn’t about to crest the horizon and rescue them. And the fact that they needed to physically restrain Parker seemingly meant he couldn’t have been that close to death. On that note, a judge would later argue that to justify Parker’s murder as a necessity, each man would have had to have been on the very precipice of death.

It’s also worth noting that in previous cases where sailors had cited the “custom of the sea” after being marooned and drawing lots to justify murdering and eating members of their own crew, cabin boys, slaves and other people of low rank disproportionately found themselves drawing the short straw… This led to people calling into question whether these lotteries were actually fairly implemented as the survivors invariably claimed, partially spurring the courts to finally set a legal precedent for how to proceed in similar cases- in effect making an example of Stephens and Dudley.

Thus, a decision was made to try each man for murder which was a capital offence at the time. The problem was the public was largely on the side of Dudley and Stephens and a jury seemed initially reluctant to condemn the men to death for doing something to survive in a desperate situation.

As for Brooks, he wasn’t convicted of any crime and was largely let off despite readily admitting to consuming Parker as well. The key distinction here was that he didn’t take part in the actual murder in any way.

As for the other two, they were initially convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but in part due to public pressure, their sentences were later commuted to 6 months in prison. But the case did set a legal precedent that there is no defence of necessity for the crime or murder in cases like this and it’s now well established in law that the killing of another human being to aid your own survival by consuming their flesh can never be justified in a legal sense. But, again, eating an already dead person in the same type of situation is perfectly legal in most countries.

Of course, the law is one thing- it’s a whole different thing to wrestle with the moral aspect of the act. For example, there is the case of the now infamous Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crash of 1972 which saw survivors cutting and eating strips of flesh from dead passengers to survive. Despite initial religious reservations from most on board, every survivor eventually gave in to hunger which speaks to the power starvation has to test the very limits of a person’s personal morality.

As survivor Roberto Canessa later noted,

Our common goal was to survive — but what we lacked was food. We had long since run out of the meager pickings we’d found on the plane, and there was no vegetation or animal life to be found. After just a few days we were feeling the sensation of our own bodies consuming themselves just to remain alive. Before long we would become too weak to recover from starvation.

We knew the answer, but it was too terrible to contemplate.

The bodies of our friends and teammates, preserved outside in the snow and ice, contained vital, life-giving protein that could help us survive. But could we do it?

For a long time we agonised. I went out in the snow and prayed to God for guidance. Without His consent, I felt I would be violating the memory of my friends; that I would be stealing their souls.

We wondered whether we were going mad even to contemplate such a thing. Had we turned into brute savages? Or was this the only sane thing to do?

But to sum up, people who find themselves in an impossibly dire situation and resort to the cannibalization of the dead are almost universally considered not guilty of any crime as far as the law in most countries is concerned. On top of that, even in non-survival situations, if you can manage to obtain the flesh of another human legally, you’re likely also going to get off scot-free if you eat it, even publicly.

This fact has been particular beneficial in recent times with the fad of people eating the placenta after a woman gives birth, including at times when their partner or family members might partake, which most consider technically a form of cannibalism.

Although, where one draws the line with regards to when consuming a specific bit of another human’s flesh is cannibalism or when it is not is hotly debated. (And if you search around enough, you’ll inevitably find many a mildly humorous heated argument over whether swallowing human sperm counts as cannibalism, as it’s technically flesh of a sort…)

And even in the state of Idaho in the United States where cannibalism is explicitly illegal and eating the placenta, by the wording of their law, is most definitely an act of cannibalism, it’s generally thought by various legal minds who’ve chimed in on this one that if any prosecutor actually tried to prosecute in this case (or other non-harmful forms of cannibalism) in Idaho, which could result in an up to 14 year prison sentence for the convicted, that the law in question would probably ultimately be deemed unconstitutional after a whole lot of legal wrangling.

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