On or very near this date in 1835,* a Limerick ship’s boy named Patrick O’Brien lost a casting of lots … then lost his life to feed his ravenous shipmates.
The spanking new 457-ton barque Francis Spaight was on the return leg of her second-ever run to Quebec to fetch timber back to her home port of Limerick. The ship was named for her owner, a big landowner and shipping magnate who had thriftily sent 216 passengers on the voyage’s first leg. As Spaight would explain to a state commission a decade later amid the Great Famine, replacing ballast with emigres on outbound voyages was pure profit. In a sort of microcosm of Ireland’s terrible economic machinery,** Spaight’s own commercial interests on land and sea dovetailed nicely in filling his hulls with Ireland’s surplus population. For example, when Spaight gained the 4,200-acre Tipperary estate of Derry Castle in 1844 he smoothly set about depopulating it** — as Ciaran O Murchada describes in The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852:
He [Spaight] did this by obligating unwanted tenants to emigrate to America on board his own ships and at his cost. It was all done extremely cheaply since the ships were cargo vessels which were empty on each outward voyage in any case. By 1847 Spaight’s businesslike approach had rid him of half the Derrycastle tenants, and by the time his consolidation was completed two years later he had removed some 2,000 persons in an operation which was admired by other landlords for its efficiency and the fact that it was done without arousing any overt protest on the part of the tenants.
As to the ship that bore the master’s name, discharged of her Irish exiles and loaded with Canadian lumber, she departed her last port of call in Newfoundland on November 24. Aboard were eighteen souls: fourteen crew and four boys among whom we find our principal Patrick O’Brien — a penniless 15-year-old bound over from the Limerick workhouse as an apprentice to Mr. Spaight approximately on the eve of the Francis Spaight‘s departure. He was destined never to lay eyes on his native soil again.
On December 3, the ship capsized.† Three men were lost at sea; the other 11 crew and all four boys clambered aboard a dinghy, adrift and unprovisioned in the frigid Atlantic. There the torments of privation worked them until they slaked their hunger on their comrades’ flesh, as the Irish and then the English press related months later to their titillated readers — such as this entry from Manchester Times, June 25, 1836.
On the 19th of December, the sixteenth day since the wreck, the captain said they were now such a length of time without sustenance, that it was beyond human nature to endure it any longer, and that the only question for them to consider was, whether one or all should die; his opinion was that one should suffer for the rest, and that lots should be drawn between the four boys, as they had no families, and could not be considered so great a loss to their friends as those who had wives and children depending on them.
None objected to this except the boys, who cried out against the injustice of such a proceeding. O’Brien, in particular, protested against it; and some mutterings were heard amongst the men that led the latter to apprehend they might proceed in a more summary way. Friendless and forlorn as he was, they were well calculated to terrify the boy into acquiescence, and he at length submitted.
Mulville now prepared some sticks of different lengths for the lots. A bandage was tied over O’Brien’s eyes, and he knelt down resting his face on Mulville’s knees. The latter had the sticks in his hand, and was to hold them up one by one demanding whose lot it was O’Brien was to call out a name, and whatever person he named for the shortest stick was to die. Muville held up the first stick, and demanded who it was for? The answer was “for little Johnny Sheehan,” and the lot was laid aside. The next stick was held up, and the demand was repeated, “on whom is this lot to fall?” O’Brien’s reply was, “on myself,” upon which Mulville said, that was the death lot — that O’Brien had called it for himself.
The poor fellow heard the announcement without uttering a word.
This same story, said to have been related by an unnamed survivor of the Spaight, appeared in a number of papers with slightly varying embroideries around this time. Some versions suggest that this blind man’s bluff lot-drawing was rigged to target O’Brien as the least popular crewman; whether or not that was the case, even the “fair” version of the game was rigged at the outset to exclude the adult crew members and leave only the apprentice boys for gobbling.
The lot having been cast, we resume the ghastly narrative with Bells Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, June 26, 1836:
The men now told him he must prepare for death, and the captain said it was better it should be done by bleeding him in the arm, to which O’Brien made no objection. The captain then directed the cook, John Gorman, to do it, telling him it was his duty; but Gorman strenuously refused. He was, however, threatened with death himself by the men if he continued obstinate, and he at last consented.
O’Brien then took off his jacket without waiting to be desired, and after telling the crew, if any of them ever reached home, to tell his poor mother what had happened to him, bared his right arm. The cook cut his veins across twice with a small knife, but could bring no flow of blood, upon which there seemed to be much hesitation among the men as to what could be done.
They were relieved by the boy himself, who immediately desired the cook to give him the knife, as he could not be looking at him putting him to pain. When he got the knife, and was about to cut the vein, the captain recommended him to try the left arm, which he accordingly did. He attempted to open the vein at the bend of the elbow with the point of a knife, as a surgeon would, but like the cook he failed in bringing blood.
A dead consternation now fell upon all; but in a minute or two the captain said, “This is all of no use, ’tis better to put him out of pain by at once bleeding him in the throat,” and some of them said it was true.
At this O’Brien, for the first time, looked terrified, and begged hard that they would not do so, but give him a little time; he said he was cold and weak; but if they would let him lay down and sleep for a little, he would get warm, and then he would bleed freely.
To this wish there was some expression of dissent from the men, and the captain shortly after said to them, “that it was useless leaving the boy this way in pain; ’twas best at once to lay hold of him, and let the cook cut his throat!”
O’Brien, now roused, and driven to extremity, seemed working himself up for resistance, and declared he would not let them; the first man, he said, who laid hands on him, ‘twould be worse for him; that he’d appear to him at another time; that he’d haunt him after death.
The poor youth was, however, among so many, soon got down, and the cook was again called upon to put him to death. The man now refused more strenuously than before, and another altercation arose: but, weak and irresolute, and seeing that his own life would absolutely be taken instead of O’Brien’s, if he persisted, he at length yielded to their menaces.
Some one at this time brought him down a large case knife that was on the poop, instead of the clasp-knife that he had first prepared, with which, pale and trembling, he stood over O’Brien, who was still endeavouring to free himself from those who held him. One of them now placed the cover of the tureen (which they before used to collect rain) under the boy’s neck, and several cried out to the cook to do his duty.
The horror stricken man, over and over again, endeavoured to summon up hardihood for the deed, but, when he caught the boy’s eye, his heart always failed him, and then he looked supplicatingly to the men again.
Their cries and threats were, however, loud for death — he made a desperate effort — there was a short struggle — and O’Brien was no more.
As soon as this horrid act was perpetrated, the blood was served to the men; but a few of them, among whom was Mahony, refused to partake of it.
They afterwards laid open the body, and separated the limbs; the latter were hung over the stern, while a portion of the former was allotted for immediate use.
Shocked, as, for the sake of human nature, it is to be hoped many were at the scene they had just witnessed, a gnawing hunger came upon them all when they saw even this disgusting meal put out for them, and almost every one, even the unwilling boys, partook more or less of it.
This was the evening of the sixteenth day. They ate again late at night, and some greedily; but the thirst, which was before at least endurable, now became craving, and as there was no more blood, they slaked it with salt water.
They then lay down to rest, but several were raving and talking wildly through the night, and in the morning the cook was observed to be quite insane — his eyes inflamed and glaring, and his speech rambling and incoherent; he threw his clothes about restlessly, and was often violent. His raving continued during the succeeding night, & in the morning, as his end seemed to be approaching, the veins of his neck were cut, and the blood drawn from him. This was the second death.
On the night of that day, Michael Behane was mad, and the boy George Burns on the following morning; they were both so violent, that they were obliged to be tied by the crew, and the latter was bled to death, like the cook, by cutting his throat. Michael Behane died unexpectedly, or he would have suffered the same fate.
Next morning the captain came off deck, and, feeling too weak and exhausted to keep a look-out any longer, desired some one to take his place above. Harrington and Mahony went up very soon after; the latter thought he could distinguish a sail, and raised a shout of joy, upon which those below immediately came up. A ship was clearly discernible, and apparently bearing her course towards them.
Signals were hoisted with as much alacrity as the weakness of the survivors would allow, and, when she approached, and was almost within hail, their apprehension of her passing by was so great, that they held up the hands and feet of O’Brien to excite commiseration.
The vessel proved to be the Agenoria [sic — Agenora is the correct name of the ship], an American. She put off a boat to their assistance without any hesitation, although the weather was so rough at the time, and the survivors were saved.
The notoriety of cannibalism did not translate to any sense that the famished survivors ought to be prosecuted: they were objects of pity and the survival of those who made it was rather celebrated than disdained since even weeks later as they arrived back at Limerick they presented an appearance “ghastly and spectre like with a singular woe-be-gone expression of countenance.” (Quoted in Neil Hanson’s book about a later instance of cannibalism, The Custom of the Sea)
Francis Spaight — the oligarch, not his barque — wrote an appeal that the public sustain with charity his own invalided employees … for, “mutilated by the frost and otherwise rendered helpless” they would “be unable not only to obtain bread, but to labour for it during the rest of their lives.” What, you think I’m going to hire them? (Actually the skipper who orchestrated O’Brien’s death went back to work captaining Spaight’s ships.) Spaight put in ten quid for the lot of them, something like US $1,000 in present-day money.
And the grief-stricken mother of Patrick O’Brien haunted Spaight’s country estate “where her hysterical cries were truly heart-rendering.” (Source)
* Understandably calendar-keeping was not foremost on the minds of the Francis Spaight survivors. Many sources give the 18th as the date of O’Brien’s sacrifice; I’m gingerly preferring the 19th in deference to the immediate newspaper reports such as the one quoted in this article. This also appears to square with rescue on the 23rd: by the quoted narrative, the cook is slaughtered two days after O’Brien (hence, the 21st), and Michael Behane and George Burns die on the following day (the 22nd), only for the survivors’ salvation to appear “the next morning.”
** “Irish genius discovered an altogether new way of spiriting a poor people thousands of miles away from the scene of its misery … instead of costing Ireland anything, emigration forms one of the most lucrative branches of its export trade.” –Marx
† Though useless to our survivors in their hour of need, the Francis Spaight did not sink. She was recovered, pumped out, and returned to service. Years later she went down for good at Table Bay, near the Cape of Good Hope.