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Picture of Poe with claim

Edgar Allan Poe predicted the future. His only novel is about 4 shipwrecked men who run out of food and eat the cabin boy, Richard Parker. 46 years after it published, a yacht sank in real life and 3 of the 4 survivors also decided to eat the cabin boy... name Richard Parker.

This claim has been virally repeated in several places across the Internet, including @FreakyTheory and WTF Fun Fact.

It makes the claim that Edgar Allan Poe's novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, predicted a shipwreck in which three of the four crew members would succumb to cannibalism and eat the cabin boy named Richard Parker. The supposed shipwreck happened 46 years after the books publishing in 1838, which would make the year 1874.

Did this shipwreck really happen, and did its details match the book's story?

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Yes, an episode of cannibalism involving a cabin boy named Richard Parker did happen 46 years after Poe wrote the novel.

The shipwreck is that of the English yatch Mignonette, which became a famous criminal case (R v Dudley and Stephens).

As the Wikipedia page for the case points out:

The case is familiar among lawyers in the common law jurisdictions — that is, England and many, though not all, former British territories — and is universally studied by law students in such jurisdictions. Simpson observed that, though many murderers have become household names in Britain, the case is surprisingly unfamiliar to the public at large.

It became better known in 1974 when Arthur Koestler ran a competition in The Sunday Times, in which readers were invited to send in the most striking coincidence they knew of. The winning entry pointed out that in Edgar Allan Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838, decades before the Mignonette sank, four men are cast adrift on their capsized ship and draw lots to decide which of them should be sacrificed as food for the other three. The loser was the sailor who had proposed the idea: the character's name was Richard Parker.

Furthermore

Richard Parker is the name of several people in real life and fiction who became shipwrecked, with some of them subsequently being cannibalised by their fellow seamen. Writer Yann Martel in his 2001 novel Life of Pi picked up on these occurrences, surmising "So many Richard Parkers had to mean something", and included a shipwrecked Bengal tiger called "Richard Parker" in the book.

So, Poe did predict the future, in the sense that he (sort of) did write about something before it happened.

However, there seems to be an "implied" claim, that Poe did that using some sort of psychic powers, which needs to be addressed as well. Since there is no scientific proof that psychic abilities exist (see Do psychic abilities work? and references within), this would be quite an extraordinary claim, which would be much interesting, but would also require extraordinary evidence to support it. Alas, as for many psychic powers described so far, the most likely explanation is that it was just a coincidence; this is reinforced by the fact:

  1. The coincidence stops at the fact that the cabin boy was cannibalized after a shipwreck. The details of the death of the boy are different: in the novel Richard Parker proposes to draw lots and is killed as a consequence, while the real Richard Parker was sick (possibly in a coma?) when he was killed. Also the names of the other people on the boat are different. If Poe were able to see the future, he would have "seen" the correct names. The obvious counter-answer to this is that he couldn't see the future quite clearly, but then the onus of proof is on whoever says he was a psychic to prove this... (this becomes very quickly a "there is a dragon in my garage" argument).

  2. Richard Parker is a common name, shared by various well known people as well as generally common in the general population

  3. Shipwrecks were fairly common at the time, often even several per month (varies year by year, possibly because not all were recorded?).

In summary, as for many other supposedly psychic/supernatural events, there is a much simpler explanation.

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    @rjzii there are a few notorious people called Richard Parker en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Parker . My point really was that this is just a coincidence, Poe did not predict the future, in fact the death of the cabin boy happened in a different way than in the novel. – nico Apr 26 '15 at 14:40
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    Also, Parker is the 51st most common surname in North America en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… and Richard was a quite common name even in the 19th century: galbithink.org/names/us200.htm – nico Apr 26 '15 at 14:42
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    @rjzii Even if it were an uncommon name, it would still be a coincidence and/or a prediction (not 'intended' as a prediction, but literally a 'prediction' in the sense that it was 'said before it happened'). The question was, "Did this shipwreck really happen, and did its details match the book's story?" Evidence that it really happened (i.e. the famous case-law) is the answer to the question. – ChrisW Apr 26 '15 at 20:03
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    There's also the Conditional probability misunderstanding angle. Even if we limit the field to Edgar Allan Poe works, there are tonnes of potential predictions that never came true. Choosing the one that did and saying "how unlikely" is akin to firing a gun wildly at a wall, then drawing a target around the densest collection of hit and declare oneself a marksman. – Nathan Cooper Apr 27 '15 at 10:02
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    @NathanCooper very good point, also known as cherrypicking :) – nico Apr 27 '15 at 11:10

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