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On Cannibalism

Ethan Rarick’s Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West is an intimate portrait9780195305029.jpg of the Donner Party and their unimaginable ordeal in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Of course, what most of us remember about the Donner Party are the gruesome tails of cannibalism. In the interview below with radio host Dorian Devins, Rarick discusses the cannibalism aspect of the story. Hear other Rarick clips here.

[audio:canniablism.mp3]Transcript after the jump.

Dorian: Part of the story also is what did happen once some of the survivors made it back and some of the rescuers and how the allegations of cannibalism were changed by some of the people saying “well, some of the children ate human flesh,” it was kind of a disputed topic at a certain point.

Rarick: It was, it became obviously an incredibly notorious element of the story right away, really, as soon as people got down. And they initially, by the way, described the cannibalism rather matter-of-factly and said “well, yes, we had to resort to that.” There were disputes about what had happened. The last man to be brought down, the last survivor, was a guy named Louis Keysburg. And he had been up there by himself for weeks by the time he was brought down. It had been more than a month since the preceding rescue party had left. There had been at least one woman alive after the rescue party left with Keysburg, a woman named Tamson Donner, the wife of the captain of the party. And Tamson Donner was dead by the time the rescuers got back, and there were always allegations and stories about whether Keysburg had murdered her or whether she had died and he had eaten her body. He became kind of the ghoul of the story. But the fact that he was up there all alone living on human flesh led to these incredible ghoulish stories about what Keysburg had done. So all of that became one of the more sensationalistic parts of the story. And then eventually it begins to change and actually in the early part of the 20th century, the Donner party is cited as a great example of heroism, as the best of the pioneers, and the cannibalism begins to sort of fade into the background and that’s the point at which people begin to build monuments to them and things like that. So the whole sort of social reaction to the cannibalism element of the story changes over time both with regard to individuals and also with regard to the whole party.

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