Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Keseberg the Cannibal"-MTEP13

"Keseberg the Cannibal"-MTEP13

Mystery Tidbits Episode 13-"Keseberg the Cannibal"
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We all know it. The stranger than fiction story that encompasses humans having to eat other humans in order try and survive a long, harsh winter, trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Most of us hear the words "Donner Party" and instantly think of a group who found themselves so hungry that their only option was to become cannibals. But that's typically where people leave it. Most people have probably never even looked into the whole story to figure out why they did what they did. There are journal entries that explain their situation and to be honest, who are we to judge their actions. Hunger, the cold, and isolation can, in some cases, make someone do things that otherwise they may not. This group i'm sure didn't happily choose to eat each other but rather did it out of desperation, at least most of them anyway. The story goes that one member of the Donner Party may have developed an unhealthy appetite for human flesh, a Mr. Louis Keseberg to be exact.

It is appropriate to first, in a condensed fashion that is,to give a little background of the Donner trip from its genesis.

It was spring of 1846 and a man by the name of George Donner had placed an advertisement in the Springfield Illinois Gazette for as many as 8 young men basically touting that, to those interested, much land was available for the taking in California, and it wouldn't cost them anything. It wasn't just young men that answered the call however, it was whole families.

The exact number of people associated with the Donner party varies, but it was approximately 87 Men, Women and Children. Their journey west began 3 years before the gold rush in 1846 as part of the settling of the west . Along their journey a few members passed away but it wasn't until their use of an untried shortcut, known as the Hastings cutoff, that would cut the lives of some 40 people short. The Cutoff proved unsuccessful and fatal when it was discovered to be more treacherous than thought, which added more time to their trip and ended up leaving them stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains during one of the harshest winters known in that area.

It was late October of 46' and the first blizzard hit them hard. They stopped and proceeded to build shelters and after being weeks behind schedule, the party soon found that their food supply had become diminished, They had even resorted to boilihng and eating the hides of their cattle.  One can imagine how hungry a person can get when they haven't eaten for a while. Members of the party began to die within the Sierra Nevada Mountains and that's when the survivors made the decision to partake of the deceased, giving them a glimmer of hope that they might survive.

Now, it is said that one member of the Donner Party, Louis Keseberg, developed an unhealthy appetite for human flesh. It is said that he loved it so much that rather than waiting for members of the party to die of starvation or of the cold, that he would murder the party members just to satisfy his cravings. Of course this sounds like a legend, and perhaps it is, but their is some pretty heavy evidence to back the claims up.

A party member named Tamsen Donner had a choice to make. A rescue crew was being sent in to take her and her children to California and her choice was either to stay with her dying husband or leave with the rescue crew with her children, leaving her husband alone to die. She opted to send her children with the crew and she stayed with her husband. When Rescue crews came back to pick up any remaining survivors, Keseberg was the only one still alive.

Now, Tamsen Donner and her family supposedly had some gold and silver that they had brought along on their trek west and it is also said that Keseberg was most likely healthy and strong enough to leave with earlier rescue parties but his accusers state that he stayed put because of his love for human flesh and organs as well as his desire to steal the Donner's riches. According to the final rescue teams leader, Thomas Fallon, in a diary he is said to have kept he states that they "Expected to find some of the sufferers alive.  Mrs. Donner and Keseberg in particular.  Entered the cabins, and a horrible scene presented itself.  Human bodies terribly mutilated, legs, arms, and skulls scattered in every direction.  One body supposed to be that of Mrs. Eddy lay near the entrance, the limbs severed off, and a frightful gash in the skull.  The flesh was nearly consumed from the bones, and a painful stillness pervaded the place."

Pretty harsh....

Of course, because the information is out there and it would not be fair to omit one important claim. According to B. Scott Christmas in his book Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada A Narrative of the Donner Party, He states that most likely the said journal was invented by the newspaper that had published its entries and that the journal in question has never been found. In any event, it is all part of the lore behind the Donner Party and therefore is still relevant. 

Continuing on with the journal, there are supposedly many accusations against Keseberg in it, one particularly disturbing incident is that he blatantly ignored available cattle beef which was uncovered by the melting snow and chose the human flesh instead, and of course was accused of stealing the Donner money. Keseberg allegedly  stated that the rescue crew  threatened to hang him if he didn't tell them where the money was. He eventually gave in and gave them what gold he had and told them where the silver was buried. 

Keseberg, having survived a harsh situation, was rescued and started a new life in California, but i'm sure it couldn't have been easy, you see he had become the villain. He was known as "Man-eater" and "Keseberg the Cannibal" for the rest of his days. He had been accused of killing people, for food. I suppose it's one thing to eat the already dead out of necessity, but to blatantly kill for the pure pleasure is, well, just wrong. Keseberg was known to rub people the wrong way. It is said that he was abusive to his wife and that his children hated him, so even if he didn't actually do the things he was accused of, it could have been just a good excuse to rub his name through the dirt by the ones that also survived the trek west with the Donner crew. His life after the event was difficult. Aside from losing 2 of his children during the expedition, and having lost one some time before the expedition, he had 8 more children, all but one preceded him in death Working was difficult because once people found out who he was he became a laughingstock.

Kesebergs story is sad, but whats more sad is the entire tragedy of the Donner Party. Its a good reminder to, for the most part, Follow the Beaten path.


Be sure to check out B. Scott Christmas book Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada: A Narrative of the Donner Party at

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