10 True Stories of Survival Cannibalism

The Franklin Expedition
This memorial cross of empty tin cans, used as a post office to leave messages, dates to 1854 and the search for survivors of the ill-fated Sir John Franklin Expedition. It's located on Beechey Island in Nunavut, Canada. © Pat and Rosemarie Keough/Corbis

When Sir John Franklin and 134 other men set off to map the Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia in 1845, they had a five-year supply of food with them. When the remains of the Franklin expedition were found in 1850, searchers discovered 30 bodies that showed signs of cannibalistic feeding. What the heck happened?

To some extent, we'll never really know. The Franklin Expedition was well-known in London, so its disappearance did result in three search parties. The only success came from one in 1854, who met some native Inuits who claimed they came across about 40 white men in the winter of 1850, dragging sleds and meager supplies. They bought some seal meat from the Inuits. Later that year, the Inuits came upon about 30 dead bodies and reported to one of the search units that "from the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence" [source: Cassidy].

The charges shocked Victorian Britain, but in 1859 another search party finally found the bodies. In the last 20 years, there has been speculation that starvation and scurvy might not be solely to blame for the deaths of the men; some evidence of lead poisoning from those tins of food has also been found.