In Desperate Hours, Did a Crazed Colonist Deem His Wife Good Enough to Eat?

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The famished Jamestown colonists began by eating their horses. The horses were followed by rats, mice, dogs, cats, snakes and . . . boots.

Then they began eyeing each other.

They would later call it the "starving time" -- a desperate period about three years after the first landing in 1607 that killed scores of settlers and might have driven some to cannibalism.

George Percy, one of Jamestown's early leaders, provided about 1625 what is probably the best-known and most gruesome account. He described a "worlde of miseries" that included hunger-crazed colonists digging up the dead and one man who killed, "salted" and carved up his wife for food.

This story was repeated, and luridly embellished, over the years. "Whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonado'd (barbecued), I know not," the colony's famous Capt. John Smith wrote in his version of events about the same time. "Such a dish as powdered wife, I never heard of."

Percy reported that he had the unnamed murderer hanged by his thumbs to extract a confession and then had him executed for the "crewell and unhumane" act.

But archaeologists have been wary of the Jamestown cannibalism reports.

"That's tricky to prove," says William M. Kelso, director of archaeology at the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and Jamestown's lead archaeologist.

Referring to Percy's story, Kelso says: "I think there was a sort of Jeffrey Dahmer-type guy that was there. Somebody that was insane . . . somebody that's just totally twisted and they get under stress and they do something like that."

"But I don't think . . . [the colonists] all sat around chowing down on each other," he says. "I think it was remarked upon because it was remarkable."

Joanne Bowen, curator of zooarchaeology at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, says no physical evidence of cannibalism has so far been found at Jamestown. She says archaeologists have found evidence that starving colonists did eat horses, rodents, cats, dogs and snakes.

She says archaeologists did find a piece of human skull mingled with ancient food remains at Jamestown, but it bore no knife or chop marks that would indicate it was part of a meal. It was probably mingled accidentally, she says.

As far as the bones go, she says, cannibalism at Jamestown "is still an open-ended question."

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