In the spring of 1874, Alfred Packer, sometimes called Alferd, a small, bedraggled prospector with the moustache of a much bigger man, stumbled into the Los Pinos Indian Agency claiming to have survived four months in the mountains by eating rosebuds and pine sap. Strangely, he wasn’t hungry, and asked only for whiskey. (The thing about him having the moustache of a much larger man may have literally been true, given what followed.)
When an Indian scout founded mysterious strips of meat along his back trail, the truth soon emerged: his group of six would-be prospectors had turned on each other as they starved and eaten the corpses in desperation. At Packer’s trial it was claimed the judge shouted, “Stand up, ya man-eatin' sonofabitch and receive your sentence! There was seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, but you… ya ate five of them!” Tragically for all historians, this outburst was actually the invention of a local joker who witnessed the trial. Packer escaped from jail and lived on the run for nine years, but was eventually caught and sentenced to death. (The sentence was reversed by the Colorado Supreme Court and he was paroled in 1901. He died six years later). Students at the University of Colorado continue to commemorate their state’s most popular cannibal at the Alferd Packer Grill (their genuine slogan: “Have a friend for lunch!”).
Cannibalism has been practised in many cultures and nations over the centuries, including Britain. A human femur, split lengthways with the marrow scraped out, was discovered in a cache of bones in Gloucestershire by University of Bristol archeologists, who estimate it to date from the beginning of the Roman occupation. Maoris in New Zealand occasionally ate their enemies until the mid-19th century in an attempt to destroy their essence even beyond death, and as recently as the 1960s, the eating of one’s enemies was still commonly practised in New Guinea. Unofficially, it still is.
More recently still, several serial killers have claimed to have indulged (and when you’ve confessed to sexually-motivated murder, why would you lie about your diet?). Two of the strangest cases, though, highlighted the inadequacy of the law in regard to eating people. In 1981, Issei Sagawa, a short, apparently unappealing Japanese student of literature in Paris, shot and ate his classmate Renée Hartevelt, reputedly fulfilling a lifelong desire to eat a beautiful woman. The French judge considered him mentally incompetent to stand trial and deported him to Japan, but after 15 months in a Japanese institution, he was decreed sane, and therefore released without having been tried for murder. He lives in Japan, and is something of a celebrity.
The German computer technician Armin Meiwes became briefly famous in 2003 when he was convicted of manslaughter after eating the penis of Bernd Brandes, then stabbing him and freezing his remains for later meals. As Brandes, whom Meiwes solicited on the internet, was a willing participant in the first meal and the killing, the trial centred on the debate over whether, in German law, the death counted as murder or “killing on demand”, a legal definition designed to separate mercy killing from murder. The cannibalism itself was not at issue, because it was not illegal: the only charge prosecutors could bring regarding it was “disturbing the peace of the dead”. Meiwes was convicted of manslaughter, then retried and convicted of murder.
The law in Britain simply doesn’t extend to eating human flesh. Grievous bodily harm and murder are straightforward crimes that require no dietary sub-clauses, but what if the person being eaten makes the incision himself, consents to the eating and doesn’t die as a result of it? Crucially, no law will have been broken.
And what if the “meal” was dead already? This last point may sound frivolous and grotesque, but in Cambodia in 2002, two crematorium workers were released without charge despite eating parts of their “customers”. Technically they had committed no crime.