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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

DYING TO BE WILD: Johnathan Croom and Chris McCandless

Young Johnathan Croom was obsessed with Chris McCandless and the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild which dramatizes the Alaskan misadventure that left the famed survivalist dead at 24.
So much so that, when 18-year-old Croom disappeared mid August after apparently ditching his vehicle roadside near a remote Oregon town called Riddle, his loved ones immediately feared he'd taken off for the wilderness himself.
But the reality is, the situation was even worse than expected -- Johnathan Croom was found dead yesterday, less than a 1000 feet from his car.
His camping gear, hiking guide and a wallet with $200 cash was still inside, undisturbed.
Johnathan Croom found dead
Oddly, that secluded area had already been combed by volunteers helping Croom's father hunt for his missing son, so it isn't clear why the boy's body wasn't found before this.

Police, however, say they are investigating the Croom death "as a suicide" based in part from recent statements made by relatives of the deceased which portrayed the teenage wilderness buff as being "heartbroken."
Posthumously, Croom's dead idol Chris McCandless has inspired thousands of other would be adventurers to follow his Spartan ways, too. Despite his own demise, creating a cult of believers willing to discard all their worldly possessions for roughing it in the wilderness, just as he had done years before he met a tragic end.
Into the Wild
McCandless, an experienced outdoorsman, encountered disaster in 1992 while braving the wilds of Alaska. There, he'd taken up residence in an abandoned old bus, hunting game and feeding on berries or wild legumes to survive.
DYING TO BE WILD, by Eponymous Rox
His emaciated corpse was eventually discovered by locals who'd grown concerned about his welfare. An autopsy determined he weighed only 65 pounds when he died.
For years it was presumed that Chris McCandless had simply underestimated the harsh Alaskan frontier and starved to death. A theory seemingly supported by his final diary entries and the fact that he had embarked on the grueling quest without so much as a compass.
As well, lab analysis conducted on McCandless' meager food stores, which in his final weakened days was mainly grasspea vegetation, debunked the belief held by admirers that he'd slowly perished from inadvertently ingesting plant mold or other natural alkaloid poisons.

No such toxins were found in any of the food samples tested.
But then a decade later, Ronald Hamilton at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, whose curiosity was piqued by McCandless' notes detailing what his diet consisted of and a subsequent inability to stand, walk or forage anymore, began suspecting a different type of toxin may have been the real culprit.
A deadly one with a sordid past that stretched all the way back to Nazi Germany, and which, because it was a protein instead of an alkaloid, hadn't been detected.

A gruesome Nazi experiment solves a modern day mystery
During WWII, at a concentration camp in German-Romanian occupied Transnistria in the Ukraine, a few sadistic scientists decided to conduct an awful experiment on their Jewish inmates, the results of which they already knew in advance.
They cruelly substituted horse feed made from the Lathyrus Sativus grasspea as the main staple of the unwitting prisoners' diet, a legume known for its drought resistant qualities as well as possessing a botanical toxin that, when consumed in excess by humans, can cripple and even kill them.

That neurotoxin is called beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha-beta-diaminoproprionic acid, or simply ODAP, and the devastating condition it brings on is called "Lathyrism". 

Especially vulnerable to the dire effects of prolonged consumption of grasspea and its notoriously toxic protein ODAP: Young males with a physically taxing lifestyle who are already malnourished. 
As expected, within days and weeks of eating only meals prepared from pea fodder, hundreds of young men at the camp developed pronounced limps and weakness in their lower extremities. 
Some victims fashioned crutches to remain semi-ambulatory; some became bedridden as irreversible paralysis set in; some went on to develop quadriplegia; some just died, unable to lift their heads to eat or breathe.

Out of the wilderness
Aware of this obscure Nazi-era medical atrocity and seeing in Chris McCandless' case identical circumstances and symptoms as well as a common food source, Ronald Hamilton retested the hedysarum alpinum and mackenziei varieties of grasspea McCandless was eating the year that he died.

And, lo and behold, these allegedly "harmless" cousins of Lathryus Sativus were chock full of the very same toxin, with astoundingly high concentrations of ODAP found in their seeds. 
Berry and seed-eater McCandless had not "starved out of stupidity" or "arrogance" after all, Hamilton realized. Instead, the otherwise savvy survivalist had unfortunately presented as the ideal candidate for severe grasspea poisoning: He was a young man, living an extremely rigorous existence and grossly underweight, when he began depending solely on the toxic plant for his sustenance.
Moreover, there was no way that McCandless could've known about the risk of contracting Lathyrism from it -- even a team of forensic pathologists and chemists had been unable to pinpoint that Alaska's grasspea legume, and specifically its miniscule fruit, was potentially poisonous. 

Nor did any of them grasp that, under Chris McCandless' special set of circumstances, eating it exclusively and on a daily basis would turn out to be fatal for him.
The official cause of death for his diehard teen-disciple, Johnathan Croom, who also perished in the wilderness this week, has not been disclosed yet. 


  1. UPDATE: Cadaver dogs reportedly found Croom hanged in the woods. Investigation is still ongoing.

  2. I can not take that into the wild stuff seriously if it is based on text messages.

  3. Official cause of death update?

    1. Death by hanging -- suicide -- RIP, poor kid.