The Untold Story of Cannibalism in Haiti
|U.S. occupation of Haiti, circa 1915|
From voodoo to zombies, Haiti is a land steeped in mystery and superstition. The outside world knew very little about this island nation until the days of the Second Empire, which began in 1849 after the Haitian military, led by former slave Faustin Soulouque, launched an attack against the neighboring Dominican Republic, which was being bolstered by the French. By the end of the century, Great Britain, Germany and the United States would all stick their noses into the affairs of the Haitian people, and it was the soldiers from these countries who brought back hair-raising tales of human sacrifice, occult rituals and cannibalism.
In July of 1891 a Hungarian mechanic, Maurice Feldmann, was working in the machine shops at a settlement called O'Gorman, about eight miles from Port-au-Prince. At the time, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a world leader in machine manufacturing, thanks in part to Haitian slave labor. He learned that there was to be a child sacrifice near his home, scheduled at 3:30 by the Papapoi, or voodoo priest, of the settlement.
Accompanied by an assistant named Schmidt, Feldmann cautiously went to witness the spectacle. Armed with revolvers and hiding in the brush, they had to keep out of sight because the natives knew that their butchering of children was seen as a taboo to the white inhabitants of the island. Feldmann reported that the ceremony began with the burning of aromatic herbs in order to lull an 3-year-old child to sleep. The Papaloi approached the infant and severed its head with a single stroke of a knife. He then cut up the body and put the pieces into a large iron pot and while the meat was cooking, the natives broke into a ceremonial dance known as the bamboula. Feldmann described the dance as being quite revolting, consisting of wild gyrations of the hips that continued until the dancers fell over from exhaustion. At this point they got up and feasted on the child and then burned and buried the bones.
Feldmann and Schmidt weren't the first white men to observe this gruesome ritual, and they wouldn't be the last. Another account comes from March 18, 1890, by the acting French Consul, Emile Huttinot. On that day, Huttinot stopped at a restaurant outside of Port-au-Prince and ordered a bowl of soup. To his horror he discovered the severed hand of a child at the bottom of his bowl. He immediately notified the police, who searched the restaurant and found the rest of the body simmering in a pot. The woman who ran the restaurant was arrested and imprisoned for three days.
The Haitian government did their best to put an end to these rituals, but to little effect. Official Notice No. 2202, written in 1891, reads:
Perhaps the first claims of cannibalism that reached the United States were from Christian missionaries who visited the island during the reign of Faustin Soulouque. However, many secularists disregarded these claims as sensationalized accounts created by religious zealots. It wasn't until 1864 when the long-murmured allegations of cannibalism were proven true, when Soulouque's successor, Fabre Geffrard, had eight convicted cannibals executed after a six-year-old girl was killed and eaten by Voodoo practitioners.
Geffrard, who was a Catholic, took office in 1859 and immediately went to work stamping out the occult practices that had been allowed to flourish under Soulouque. He ordered the destruction of Voodoo temples and altars and the arrest of those suspected of cannibalism.
On March 18, 1864, eight women and men were shot to death in the public square of Port-au-Prince, after having been convicted of "stealing, killing, cooking and eating children". One correspondent from the New York News named described the scene:
One of the negroes being questioned in prison, said with a leer that children 'were good, tender, fingers best part.' They went to the place of execution shouting, laughing and dancing, and defying the soldiers to shoot them; for they insisted that the Obeah priests would protect them against the balls. They fell, however, at the second round, and, according to the custom, the soldiers walked up to the bodies and fired a third round with the muzzles almost touching the quivering flesh.
In spite of numerous attempted coups by Soulouque loyalists, Geffrard held on to the presidency until 1867, when a general named Sylvain Salnave finally wrested away power. He proved to be a weak leader; he was court-martialed and executed in 1870. Another general, Jean-Nicolas Nissage Saget, became president. Michel Domingue, another military commander, assumed power in 1874. Like the other generals, Domingue proved to be a feckless and ineffective leader. All of this political turmoil and instability allowed cannibalism to make a comeback.
On January 26, 1875, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:
A black who was brought to Jacmel from the interior, on the charge of cannibalism, has been tried and convicted, and will be executed in a few days. When arrested he had in a basket the head of a victim, who seemed to have been recently killed.
Modern cannibalism in Haiti flourished during the presidency of Lysius Salomon (1879-1888). While historical revisionists portray Saloman as a progressive hero who built schools and hospitals and instituted Haiti's first postal system, the historical record indicates that Saloman was a tyrant who quashed individual freedoms. He was also, by many accounts, reluctant to take a stand against the practice of human sacrifice.
During one visit in 1881, a newspaper correspondent described the voodoo practices of the Haitians, claiming that the children selected for sacrifice must be of pure African descent and no older than ten years of age. The children are sold to the Voodoo priests by women who make a career out of it. As for consuming the children, the reporter stated:
So strong is the taste for human flesh that midwives have been known to devour the children they have just brought into the world. The part preferred are the knuckles and hands.
But when it came to eating children, records show that the cannibals did not stick to just consuming the flesh of black children. In March of 1879, the white child of an Englishman was kidnapped in Aux Cayes. The voodoo kidnappers threw the child's body down a well and escaped.
In May of 1879, two women were caught eating a female child. It was proven in a court of law at Port-au-Prince that the child had been drugged first, so as to make the parents believe that the child had died of natural causes. The body was buried by the parents, and dug up later by the two cannibal women. Both women were convicted-- one received a 30-day jail sentence, the other a six-week sentence.
In January of 1881, eight people were arrested and fined for "disinterring and eating corpses", and in the same month the neck and shoulders of a human male were discovered for sale at a market; they had been purchased and identified by a British physician. In February, a cask of pork was sold to a ship harbored at St. Mark's; the ship's crew became suspicious when they found human fingernails attached to the meat. A doctor inspected the "pork" and found it to be human flesh. Four Haitians were also arrested later that same month for disinterring and consuming corpses.
Official sources, naturally, denied the existence of cannibalism on the island. Ebenezer Bassett-- the first African-American diplomat-- was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Haiti in 1869, a post he held until 1877. He spent an additional ten years as the Consul General for Haiti in New York. Shortly before leaving office, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked him about cannibalism.
"I have lived in Haiti as United States Minister for nine years, and there is just about as much cannibalism there as in New Haven," stated Bassett. "I knew that there was such a thing as voodoo worship there, but I never heard that there was any such thing as human sacrifice connected with it, and I certainly do not believe that any such thing exists."
Of course, since Bassett's job was to improve relations between the U.S. and Haiti, it doesn't seem likely that he would have admitted to the existence of cannibalism, especially since the U.S. government considered Haiti of prime strategic importance at the time because of its shipping lanes and because the Navy had a coaling station there.
A private letter from Port-au-Prince written on Feb. 18, 1888, by an unnamed missionary to a relative back in the U.S. contains the following:
"Recently the body of a child was found near this city. An arm and leg had been eaten by the voodoos. During Christmas week a man was caught in the streets here with a child cut up in quarters for sale. Cannibalism still prevails, despite all the forced statements to the contrary. President Salomon, to the please the masses-- the negro element-- allows them to dance a voodoo dance, formerly prohibited."
Cannibalism in the 20th Century
In 1910, the United States began to assert its influence in Haiti in hopes of minimizing the influence of Germany. At the time, Germany controlled about 80% of all economic activity in Haiti. This eventually led to the U.S. occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934. There are many notable accounts of cannibalism taking place during this period. One such account was published on July 15, 1910, by Lisin Diario, a newspaper from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic:
A Haitian woman named Estels Liberis, accused by the inspector of Cambronal (Neiba) of having committed repeated acts of cannibalism, has been captured and sent to justice. The said woman confesses to have eaten parts of three male children, and adult, and one female child. The accused was brought to this town and interrogated. The impression of horror and indignation which this savagery has caused is indescribable.
In 1920 a Haitian voodoo priest named Cadus Belgarde was arrested by U.S. authorities and tried in a military court for killing and eating a young native girl as part of a voodoo sacrifice. During his trial, Belgarde joked that if he was executed for his crimes, he would come back as a mosquito and "make it merry for the Americans." He was turned over to Haitian officials after it was decided that the U.S. did not have any jurisdiction in the matter. President Dartiguenave, however, refused to have the cannibal prosecuted.
American occupation was not seen as a good thing by the Haitians, who eventually began killing and eating U.S. soldiers-- a documented fact that history books conveniently neglect to mention.
On January 2, 1921, the Naval Board of Inquiry in Washington began hearing testimony regarding the deaths of two Marines who were killed and eaten by Haitian voodoo practitioners during the event which later came to be known as the Second Caco War (the Cacos were armed peasants from the mountains of Haiti).
One of the victims known to have been eaten was Private Clarence E. Morris, a Marine aviator of Squadron E, First Division. After making a crash landing in the northern mountains, Morris set off on foot, taking with him the plane's machine gun and three drums of ammunition. He located three natives and hired them as guides, giving one of them the machine gun to carry. When he stopped to take a rest, one of the guides killed him with a machete. Another guide, afraid of the consequences of his comrade's actions, ran away and later turned himself in to American authorities. Patrols were at once sent out, and only Morris' bones and leather helmet were recovered; the rest of Private Morris had been consumed.
A few months after Morris' death, Marine Sergeant Lawrence Muth was leading a small force of Marines and Haitian soldiers against the rebel Cacos when his party was ambushed and Muth was carried away alive. A patrol found his partial remains a short time later. The official military report of his death reads:
All the clothing had been removed from the body. The body had been badly mutilated and the head cut off. The head and heart had been taken away and the latter probably eaten.
A rebel who was later taken prisoner confessed that the Marine had been killed by a voodoo chief named Benoit, who killed Muth as part of a religious ceremony in accordance to the "Grand Montore"-- the voodoo Black Bible-- and consumed his brains and heart.
Reports of cannibalism continued right up to the end of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. In 1932, John H. Craige, who served as the Chief of Police at Port-au-Prince during the period of occupation, wrote:
"I met a number of cases of cannibalism of the ritual variety. In one of these cases, an aged voodoo priestess was murdered, her heart, liver, and about five pounds of her flesh were eaten after savage religious rites by a younger priest and priestess, with the idea that they would thus acquire the old woman's control over the spirits and her proficiency in voodoo magic."
Daily Ohio Statesman, March 23, 1864. Page 1.
Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 29, 1864. Page 1.
Buffalo Morning Express, April 26, 1873. Page 2.
Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 26, 1875. Page 1.
Shelbina Democrat, Sept. 14, 1881. Page 2.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 6, 1886. Page 8.
Philadelphia Times, Feb. 26, 1888. Page 1.
Pittsburgh Dispatch, July 9, 1891. Page 1.
Lebanon Evening Report, July 22, 1910. Page 6.
New-York Tribune, Dec. 3, 1920. Page 4.
Marshalltown Times-Republican, Dec. 20, 1920. Page 1.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 3, 1921. Page 8.
Seattle Star, Nov. 16, 1921. Page 1.
Nebraska State Journal, May 30, 1933. Page 6.