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Originally published May 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 10, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Jamestown's "starving time" reveals unsavory tales of cannibalism

The famished Jamestown colonists began by eating their horses. The horses were followed by rats, mice, dogs, cats, snakes and ... boots boots. Then they...

The Washington Post

The famished Jamestown colonists began by eating their horses. The horses were followed by rats, mice, dogs, cats, snakes and ... boots.

Then they began eyeing each other.

They would later call it the "starving time," winter 1609-10. Some colonists dug their own graves and lay down in them, resigned to death.

They boiled their fancy collars, or ruffs, for the starch. They ate their dead.

George Percy, one of Jamestown's early leaders, in about 1625 provided what is probably the best-known and most gruesome account.

He described a "worlde of miseries" that included hunger-crazed colonists digging up the dead, and one man who killed, "salted" and carved up his pregnant wife for food.

This story was repeated, and luridly embellished, over the years. "Whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonado'd [barbecued], I know not," the colony's Capt. John Smith wrote in his version of events about the same time. "Such a dish as powdered wife, I never heard of."

Percy reported he had the unnamed killer hanged by his thumbs to extract a confession, then had him executed for the "crewell and unhumane" act.

By March 1610, more than half — by some accounts, 80 percent — of the settlers had died.

Archaeologists have been wary of the Jamestown cannibalism reports.

"That's tricky to prove," said William Kelso, director of archaeology at the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) and Jamestown's lead archaeologist.

Referring to Percy's story, Kelso said: "I think there was a sort of Jeffrey Dahmer-type guy that was there. Somebody that was insane ... somebody that's just totally twisted and they get under stress and they do something like that.

"But I don't think ... [the colonists] all sat around chowing down on each other."

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