Cannibals in Duluth?!

If you’ve been following our articles and blog posts, you’ll know that we love to uncover strange – sometimes unsettling – stories from Duluth’s rich history. Some of these stories of weirdness and tragedy make their way into our Dark History Bus Tour. Other stories – while strange and unsettling – are catalogued and put into our archives for future use.

We also like to share some of these stories in our blog and “Cannibals in Duluth?!” just begged for a blog post.


Shipwrecked Among Cannibals in Duluth

By Kyle Chisholm

October is here and we’re excited that the Dark History Bus Tours are starting up this weekend. To celebrate, we decided to post a series of stories from Duluth’s Dark History and the story below is definitely unsettling, disturbing, and controversial. I stumbled across it as I was doing research for the previous post – which is rather “explosive” in nature. If you haven’t read that one… check it out.

Related: Duluth’s Bomb Plot Conspiracy

Cannibals in Duluth Advertisement

This strange advertisement in a 1920 issue of the Duluth News Tribune caught my attention. Image: Duluth News Tribune.

I was pouring over rolls of microfilm from the October 1920 edition of the Duluth News Tribune and the curious advertisement caught my eye. It read: “CRUEL, SAVAGE, MAN-EATING CANNIBALS To be seen in Duluth Sunday.” Well, it’s not every day you come across an advertisement like that so I started to scan subsequent days’ papers hoping to get more information – and ultimately an explanation for this ridiculous notice.

As it turns out, the advertisement was announcing the arrival of a new motion picture – Shipwrecked Among Cannibals – to the New Astor Theater located on 109 W. Superior Street. The picture was produced by Universal Pictures and the Southern California Academy of Sciences and apparently documented the journey of two film makers as they explored islands in the South Seas.

The promotional movie poster suggests the film to be an real-life ethnographic study of a remote tribal culture of “man-eating savages” on an island off of Papua New Guinea. A quick search online suggests that (at least) some of the footage was staged – though no specific evidence exists to prove that assertion.

Regardless of its authenticity, the film follows two filmmakers – Edward Laemmle and William F. Alder – as they act against advice from Dutch authorities and charter a sailing ship for their voyage. Eventually the men are shipwrecked on Frederick Henry Island (now known as Pulau Yos Sudarso Island) which happens to be home to the Kia Kias who are described in a film review by Visual Education as “famed head hunters whose disregard for human life was nothing short of magnificent“.

Apparently, the two men “bravely” filmed the unaware cannibals for months before being discovered. Upon discovery they are pursued by the Kia Kias. Luckily for Laemmle and Alder, they flee from their pursuers and run to a perfectly timed rescue by Dutch sailors. An excellent climax to a strange film and perhaps an inspiration for the opening chase scene in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark!

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Classic chase scene at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Image:

The few sources I was able to find describe the film as a true and accurate depiction of the people living there – even suggesting it be showed in classrooms. Others suggest it a fake. Unfortunately there is no easily accessible copy of the film to view and some sources indicate that there may not be a copy Shipwrecked Among Cannibals at all. Could this have been just another exploitation of remote cultures for the sake of “edu-tainment”? Possibly. This type of exploitative film making – where natives were depicted as monsters and savages – was pretty common for the time period.

Despite the potentially fraudulent nature of the film its director and cameramen received Academy Award nominations for Best Dramatic Picture. Absurd by our current standards, the controversial and racist undertones of this story are exactly why it classifies as “Dark History” today.

Barley's Angels border

If you are interested in learning more about Duluth’s Dark History then please visit our Dark History Bus Tour Page.

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