It was a desperate situation in the Donner Party. Trying to get to California, 90 people left too late, gambled on the weather holding, and lost.
They were trapped in the Sierra Nevada by winter snows. Separated into several groups, stuck from November until April, they began eating their dead when the food ran out.
Forty-eight people survived; of that number, at least half had engaged in cannibalism. Of those who died, nearly all were at least partially eaten. Yum.
Lewis Keseberg was unlucky enough to be the sole survivor of one group. His wife and child had gone with an earlier rescue expedition, and after he had eaten twigs and everything he could find from the provisions, he waited four days before he decided, for his family’s sake, that he’d better try eating the bodies of his fellow travelers.
“The necessary mutilation of the bodies of those who had been my friends, rendered the ghastliness of my situation more frightful,” he recounted to an author in 1880 after 36 years of pained silence.
“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh.” For two months he was the only living being in the snowed-in cabin.
“Five of my companions had died … and their stark and ghastly bodies lay there day and night, seemingly gazing at me with their glazed and staring eyes. I was too weak to remove them…. To have one’s suffering prolonged inch by inch, to be deserted, forsaken, hopeless; to see that loathsome food ever before my eyes was almost too much for human endurance…. Many a time I had the muzzle of my pistol in my mouth and my finger on the trigger, but the faces of my helpless, dependent wife and child would rise up before me, and my hand would fall powerless…. I am conversant with four different languages, yet in all four I do not find words enough to express the horror I experienced during those two months, or what I still feel when memory reverts to the scene.”