Vivid, engrossing and starkly realistic, Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" is one of the most beloved novels of all time. One of it's inspirations -- the true to life sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820 -- is a story that's steeped in horrific events like starvation, cannibalism and the crew slowly driven mad by their tragic circumstances.

According to a report from Smithsonian, it was Essex's captain George Pollard Jr. who relayed the story of their failed whaling journey that set sail on August 1819.

On November 1820, the whaleboats from the Essex were dragged by harpooned whales, an experience described as "Nantucket sleigh rides." First mate Owen Chase was assigned to make repairs while Pollard whaled, and he spotted an 85-foot whale facing the ship in the distance.

Soon, the creature was barraging towards Essex at roughly three knots. It smashed into the ship, disappeared and then hit Essex a second time with even greater force before swimming away for good.

Pollard and his crew, a total of 20 men, crammed into three boats. It was a disaster from the start as saltwater in their bread caused dehydrations, rations thinned, whales attacked and the Henderson Island that they stumbled upon turned out barren. Still, three men chose to stay behind on land.

The Descent Into Cannibalism

Soon, a man in Chase's boat went mad and fell in convulsions before dying. The first mate wrote that the crew "separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again-sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea." The organs, they ate.

In the following week, the three boats were separated. Three other sailors died, which the men ate as well. On February 1821, Pollard's four-man boat drew lots to determine who would be eaten and the burden fell onto Owen Coffin, the captain's first cousin. Although Pollard protested and offered to take his place, Coffin accepted his fate and was soon killed and eaten.

Two days later, Chase's boat with three survivors were rescued by English ship Indian. Pollard's boat was only 300 miles away, but was in dire situation with only the captain and Charles Ramsdell left. The pair obsessed over the bones of their crewmates and when American ship Dauphin rescued them, the two crazed men continued to suck on the bones.

The five Essex survivors on boat were reunited, while the third boat was found with no one left. The three men who opted to stay in Henderson Island all survived.

Cannibalism a 'Custom of the Sea' 

No one judged the crew too harshly on cannibalism that was called the "custom of the sea." An article in New York Times in 2000 talked about "The Custom of the Sea" by Neil Hanson and described cannibalism as "an accepted fact of seamen's lives" in desparate circumstances.

Survivors are generally treated respectfully and even the law turned a blind eye to the practice.

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