A Massachusetts man will be sentenced to at least 18 years in prison for planning to kidnap and eat children and other crimes. A lawyer for Geoffrey Portway, a 40-year-old computer operator, acknowledged that his client had a fascination with cannibalism and eating human flesh — specifically that of children — and had discussed in online chats abducting and eating a child.
While there is no evidence that Portway actually ate, abducted or assaulted anyone, he took his fantasy a step further, creating a dungeon of horrors in his basement, including a soundproofed room, a child-sized cage and bondage equipment.
Portway is not alone. Earlier this year a New York police officer, Gilberto Valle, was convicted in a similar case. Like Portway, Valle had discussed disturbing sexual fantasies involving abducting, raping, torturing and eating people — in his case, women. Though neither Portway nor Valle acted upon his cannibalistic fantasies, others have, including serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
The idea that consuming another’s flesh — or taking another person’s body parts — gives the cannibal or killer some special power or ability is ancient. Carole Travis-Henikoff, in her book “Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo,” notes that worldwide “archaeological evidence of cannibalism and brutality dates back hundreds of thousands of years,” including in America, where it wasn’t “uncommon for a Native American who killed an enemy in dangerous territory to eat his enemy’s heart on the spot or take some part of the body back as proof of the kill.”
Then there are stories of starvation-created cannibalism, such as the case of a Uruguayan rugby team whose airplane crashed in the frigid Andes mountains in 1972. Starving survivors of the crash were forced to eat the bodies of the dead before being rescued months later.
Many believe that the Donner pioneer group, which became trapped by a snowstorm during the winter of 1846 in Nevada, resorted to cannibalism, though recent research suggests that this may be a myth.
Interest in modern cannibalism surged in the wake of zombie-themed movies, TV shows and books over the past few years, in some cases adding a flesh-eating spin on news stories. For example, in May of last year a Florida man, Rudy Eugene, was accused of attacking a homeless man and biting his victim’s face and ripping his flesh until police shot him. Rumors spread that Eugene was high at the time on a new narcotic called “bath salts,” though later tests revealed that the only drug in his system at the time was marijuana.
Since Eugene was killed on the spot there’s no way to determine his motive. It’s possible that the attack was a genuine effort to eat his victim’s flesh. But the naked, unarmed man used his teeth as a weapon, not a tool for consumption. Without some documented history of interest in eating human flesh — as, for example, we clearly have with Portway — it seems more likely that it was not really a case of cannibalism after all.
However later that same month there was a genuine cannibalism incident: Alexander Kinyua, a student at Maryland’s Morgan State University, confessed to killing his roommate, then dismembering and eating the heart and brain. His motive was said to be related to belief in magic. Kinyua is from East Africa, where there is strong belief that eating body parts of others can bestow magical powers and abilities.
So, will humans always eat other humans? Sadly — and unnervingly — the answer is almost certainly yes. Motives for cannibalism vary greatly depending on the individual and situation, and include psychopathology, sexual fantasy, hunger and magical beliefs. Whenever a group of humans are faced with death by starvation, some of their companions will inevitably become food. And, of course, there will always be disturbed individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer and Geoffrey Portway who will fantasize about, and sometimes enact, the idea of eating others. The fact that these incidents are incredibly rare does not make them any less horrific.