Hunger Games – An Irishman’s Diary about Mark Twain and the Donner Party

 Mark Twain: comic possibilities of cannibalism

Mark Twain: comic possibilities of cannibalism


One of Mark Twain’s funniest pieces of writing is a short (but also tall) story entitled Cannibalism in the Cars. It tells of his meeting on a Midwest train with an affable stranger, a former congressman, who recalls how a similar journey years before went horribly wrong. Stranded by a freak snow blizzard on the great plains, many miles from civilisation, he and his fellow passengers had begun to starve and then, slowly, to realise that the survival of any might depend on them killing and eating some of the others. Which they soon did.

That’s not the funny bit, of course. Twain’s inspired idea was that the events were being recalled by a career politician.

So as described by the stranger, the passengers’ descent into cannibalism is accompanied by much procedural wrangling as they first decide the order of courses (“I nominate Mr Daniel Slote of New York”, etc) and then, after each meal, make speeches of thanks for the departed members’ contributions.

Without giving the end away completely, I must point out that Twain does eventually let us know that none of it actually happened. And this is somewhat to the detriment of the story. But it may have been dictated by a certain sensitivity, because for Twain and his generation, the mention of cannibalism must have carried uncomfortable resonances of an all too real event from the 1840s.

There were no trains involved on that occasion. Instead, a group of 87 settlers had tried to make a journey westward to California, across the Sierra Nevada, in wagons.

They became known collectively as the Donner Party, after the group leader, but there were three Irish families among them too – the Breens, Reeds, and Murphys. And this added a bitter irony to the group’s fate, because it was the winter of 1846/47 when they were lost for months in the snow-covered mountains. By February of what in Ireland became “Black ‘47”, they too were starving.

So when the weak or unlucky ones began to die, at least some of the others did what they thought necessary to survive, although of the 48 eventually rescued, many insisted they had never eaten human flesh.

An exception was a teenager called Jean Baptiste Trudeau, who in one of the early accounts was quoted as boasting in graphic detail about who and what he had dined on (not unlike Twain’s stranger), but in later life disclaimed this.

When news of the horror started travelling east, 170 years ago this month, the big-city newspapers uncharacteristically downplayed it: partly perhaps from distaste, and also probably because westward settlement was considered a good thing, not to be discouraged.

But Twain certainly knew about it, and made a similar trek (without the hardship) to California himself in later years. His contemporary Brett Harte knew of it too. In fact, Harte built his literary career on the success of a story called The Outcasts of Poker Flat, which was clearly inspired by the Donner Party saga, but given a more uplifting message.

In that case, a group of supposed degenerates, including a brothel madam, a drunk, and an overly successful poker player, are banished as scapegoats from an impoverished mining town. The outcasts soon starve, but far from resorting to cannibalism, find heroism in death. The madam, for example, fatally denies herself food in a vain attempt to keep others alive.

Twain was scornful of such romanticisation of the west. Elsewhere in his writings, he lampooned Harte’s reformed sinners with another story of travellers lost in a blizzard who, in their supposed last hours, forswear whiskey, card-playing, and other vices, before (as they think) succumbing to oblivion. Then they wake up to find the blizzard cleared, and resume their former lives with renewed abandon.

Like most people, Twain had an irrepressible urge to see the funny side of dark events. He must often have wondered, as jokers now do on social media, how long after a tragedy is “too soon?” for humour. In the case of the Donner Party, 21 years was a sufficient lapse. Cannibalism in the Cars was published in 1868, to great hilarity.

A century later, Monty Python had a similar sketch, set among officers of the Royal Navy, but clearly inspired by Twain’s.

And the closure of lost memory has been completed in this painful case by a latter-day comedian familiar to anyone with a laptop or smartphone. When I looked up details of the 1847 ordeal this week, that relentless joker known as Autocorrect kept trying to change my search terms to “Dinner Party”.