The loss of the New England bark Orline St. John off Cape Hatteras provided the only case where cannibalism was actually resorted to by shipwreck survivors on the Carolina coast.
The Orline St. John, was built in 1848 and under the command of a Captain Redbird. The 250-ton bark left Norfolk in mid-February, bound for Barbados, BWI, but was dismasted in a severe gale off Hatteras on the 21st. That night a heavy sea swept the vessel, nearly filling the cabin and drowning a colored seaman named Martin.
The Captains bride, Hannah Redbird, was caught in the cabin but was extricated through a small window by the Captain and a crewman. She was carried out on the deck and hauled up into that part of the rigging still standing, where she was securely lashed to a spar. The Captain and crew sought positions of safety nearby, for the entire deck of the vessel was regularly swept by storm-driven seas.
The next afternoon, Mrs. Redbird died in her husband’s arms, and her body was lowered into the sea. That night the second mate, who ha been drinking salt water, became delirious and, against the advice of the Captain, tried to enter the cabin in search of fresh water. He was never seen again.
The following day another colored seaman named Douglass, died in the rigging from exposure and want. His body was left hanging there. For a full week the survivors, including the Captain, first mate and several seamen, remained in the rigging without access to food or water, and suffered constantly from cold and exposure. As a last resort, according to a report published in Boston the following month, “they were compelled from necessity to feed on the body of the colored sailor named Douglass.”
During this period several vessels came within sight of the wreck and attempted to reach it, but they were driven off by the extreme state of sea and weather. On March 1st, 10 days after the vessel was wrecked, the bark Saxonville, bound from Calcutta to Boston, appeared near by, and through the persistence of her master and crew, remained there until a rescue to be made.
On arriving in Boston it was necessary to amputate both feet of one sailor, Thomas Grant, described as “being in horrible condition from frostbite and continually in salt water.” All of the other survivors were in bad condition as well from the same causes.