Cannibalism on the Plains, 1859: Death, Mourning, and Accountability

Saturday, January 8, 2011
Ballroom C (Hynes Convention Center)
Lisa Miles Bunkowski , Texas A&M University-Central Texas, Killeen, TX
Amanda Hedstrom , Los Angeles City College
The poster presents the research related to an examination of the multiple layers of written text associated with the 1859 narrative of Daniel Blue, A Horrible Confession - the Case of Cannibalism on the Plains. These layers include Blue's published narrative, private letters to his family, a consolation poem and numerous newspaper articles recounting the events as they unfolded. Blue's narrative both titillated his contemporaries and served as a warning against the dangers of unbridled greed by drawing clear connections between the episodes of cannibalism and the negative consequences of gold seeking. There are also very clear parallels between his experiences and those of the Donner party more than a decade earlier. Blue's published narrative, the various newspaper accounts, the poem and the private letters each provide insight into the "horrible case of cannibalism on the plains." 

Blue's gruesomely detailed account transcended respectability in its content, but adhered to ritualized standards in its expression of grief and mourning. The research suggests that by conveying the events in this manner, by presenting the "good deaths" of his companions, Blue helped contemporary audiences to make sense of his unimaginable experiences. By emphasizing a chronology of the events that placed natural death before any acts of cannibalism, Blue succeeded in presenting the incidents in a manner that freed him from legal culpability for the deaths of his companions.

The poster presentation reveals the layers of Blue's experiences as depicted in the diverse texts. It explores the various meanings and intentions of Blue's "horrible confession," and how he utilized the mid-19th century language of consolation literature to achieve his goals.

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