Monday, August 24, 2015

The Tale of a Table leg ...

One of the more remarkable finds of the earlier dives upon HMS "Erebus" was a wooden element, found near the stern (where the "great cabin" was located), much resembling the leg and part of the side of a table shown in an early woodcut of Sir John Franklin's cabin, as published in the Illustrated London News shortly before his departure for the Arctic. The resemblance seems much more than superficial; though the table looks slightlymore squat in the woodcut the way the leg -- likely machine-made upon a lathe, given the date -- is turned, with two long segments separated by a rounded, shorter one.
This seems a good visual match for the leg seen in the underwater photograph from last year's dive.

Some commenters have observed that, had the damage to the stern of the "Erebus" taken place prior to or at the moment of its sinking, smaller bits of wood such as the table-leg would have had enough bouyancy that they might well have floated to the surface; that they did not suggests that the damage occurred long after the sinking, perhaps when the ship's superstructure was scoured by a passing iceberg. The Inuit certainly recalled that, after the sinking of the ship at Utjulik, they were able to recover casks, boards, and other pieces of metal and wood; these may well have been from material that had been stowed on the deck, while items below deck, such as the table, remained there and became more thoroughly waterlogged.

But we actually do have another leg to stand on: in 1949, Henry Larsen -- who had himself navigated the Northwest Passage twice as the pilot of the RCMP vessel St Roch -- came to King William Island and searched its western coasts. There, among other objects, such as iron knees that doubtless came from a ship's boat, there was a turned wooden piece that appears very much like the leg of a similar, low table, about two feet four inches in length. It was apparently recovered from some point on the coast between Victory Point and Cape Felix; if indeed it came from a similar table abord HMS "Terror," then that vessel must have suffered a fairly catastrophic fate -- it would have to have been crushed in the ice severely enough that furniture from the great cabin would have broken free of the wreck and drifted to shore. And so, while I hold out some hope that the site of Terror's sinking may be found, this sort of evidence tends to give credence to fears that the wreck may be fragmentary -- what parts of it could be recovered, the Inuit surely took and make use of, leaving perhaps only a partial hull, or even just a field of débris.

[Image of table leg courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel; with thanks to Ship Modeler for his thoughts on this artifact.]

Friday, August 14, 2015

Where should the searchers search?

With the approach of the 2015 dive season, it won't be long before Ryan Harris, Marc-André Bernier, and the rest of the Parks Canada team return to HMS "Erebus" to renew their search for artifacts. This fabled vessel, certainly, has a wealth of secrets to tell -- but where to begin? Even with ideal conditions, the window for open-water dives is a limited one, and time will always be of the essence.

My personal expectation is that they will start with the stern of the ship. In the debris near there, we've already seen what looks like a table leg from a table shown in Sir John Franklin's cabin. Given the damage to this area, other items -- maps, log-books, and personal effects -- that were stored in Franklin's cabin are most likely to be found here. And, though the damage is regrettable, it's much easier to dive safely when one doesn't have to worry about enclosed spaces and diver safety. Small items that might otherwise escape notice -- message cylinders, eyeglasses, or (should they have been made and left behind) Daguerreotype plates, would all be much more readily found if one can sift freely through the silt, which itself forms an excellent preservative.

Secondly, it looks to me as though it may be quite possible that the ship's modified railway engine may be in this vicinity, or at least visible from there. Given its weight, and that fact that it was primarily secured in place by bulk alone, I'd think that there's a fair chance that it has settled to the aft of its original, installed location. It may be too delicately situated to move, but detailed imagery could help confirm the type of engine used, and settle many decades of research and speculation.

If time allows, it would be ideal to also search the officers' cabins, particularly Fitzjames's -- and they would be next in proximity if the search moves in a forward direction. It may be difficult for divers to enter the main area below decks, but if they can direct an ROV into that area, some imagery of the Fraser stove, which we've been told is still in situ, would be wonderful.

Lastly, it would be invaluable to account for as many of the ship's anchors as possible. To know whether any shows signs of deliberate deployment may well be -- until some detailed journal or log is retrieved -- the best evidence as to whether "Erebus" was piloted, or drifted to its present location (as would be the status of the removable rudder, as a commenter below pointed out!).

Some search for the "Terror" will doubtless go on this season as well -- but I would urge all possible efforts be directed at the bird -- that is the ship -- in the hand.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Franklin searcher of the week: Richard Finnie

Richard Finnie -- shown here on a search, in company of L.T. Burwash, of the northwestern coasts of King William Island in 1930 -- was not only an avid investigator of the Franklin mystery, but also a pioneering filmmaker; while his Among the Igloo Dwellers (1931) never attained the status of Nanook of the North, it remains a significant early depiction of Inuit life in the pre-settlement period. Finnie eventually gained steady employment working for Canadian Bechtel on a series of more than 60 films promoting its petroleum projects -- one of which, 1967's "Fabulous Oil Sands," would doubtless raise hackles among environmentalists today (the curious can see the entire film here).

Finnie was born to the North in Dawson City in Canada's Yukon Territory in 1906; his maternal grandfather had founded the Dawson City News there in 1899. His father, Oswald Sterling Finnie, was from 1921 to 1931 the "Director" of the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch. The younger Finnie shared his father's passion for the region, and started out at the age of eighteen as a radio operator aboard the C.G.S. Arctic. Late in the summer of 1930, he accompanied L.T. Burwash on the latter's search of King William Island; on September 6th they located what they believed to be a significant Franklin "camp" between Lady Jane Franklin and Victory Points; the results of their study were published in the very first issue of Canadian Geographic. In the 1930's he spent several years in Yellowknife, of which he left some very vivid descriptions.

Finnie later took an avid interest in music, and while on locations around the world for Bechtel, made a large number of field recordings of traditional music from Korea, Libya, Tunisia, Sumatra, South Africa, Lebanon, Cambodia, and Venezuela; these recordings are preserved in the Finnie collection at Stanford University. The collection also includes a number of significant live recordings of jazz performances and jam sessions, including some of Mugsy Spanier and Earl Hines.

Finnie is warmly remembered by those who knew him, my friend John Bockstoce among them. He eventually retired to California, but kept up an interest in northern doings for the rest of his life; he died in 1987. If anyone out there knows where a print of Among the Igloo Dwellers may be had, I'd certainly like to hear from them! It's a very hard film to find; the only copy I know of is a 16mm print at Library and Archives Canada.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Credit Where Credit is Due (Part 2)

Anne Keenleyside, Margaret Bertulli, and Barry Ranford (w. camera), 1993
As I described in my last post, the bones brought back for study by Beattie opened up a whole new era in the Franklin search. Many of the issues later raised as possible explanations of its demise -- scurvy, lead-poisoning, and cannibalism -- were present in these bones, in the form of ostitis, bone lead levels, and cut-marks. And yet, as with the previous search era, there was a certain amount af redundancy and uncertainty built into the story.

Beattie's report offered only a very rough chart of where these remains were found, without specific geographical co-ordinates, which makes it hard to say whether in fact some of the key sites were identified then, or at a later time. That said, two men whose work shaped all that came after arrived on King William Island in the early 1990's: Dave Woodman, whose Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony (1991) was the first comprehensive analysis of the written record of oral testimony, and Barry Ranford -- an unlikely searcher who, until the Franklin bug bit had been a high-school art and photography teacher in a small town in Ontario.

Woodman, although he'd initially been unsure whether he could get the funding and support to test his claims, launched the first of his nine searches in 1992, this one using a magnetometer in an airplane to search the area west of Grant Point for traces of the anomaly he hoped one of the ships' engines would cause. That same year, Ranford and a former student of his searched the coast of King William, finding the bones -- notably a number of crania -- which Beattie apparently missed. He returned the next year with archaeologist Margaret Bertulli and forensic specialist Anne Keenleyside, who made the first proper archaeological study of a Franklin site. NgLj-2 -- the location of numerous bones with cut-marks, as well as NgLj-3 -- site of some crania, later identified by Keenleyside, Stenton, and Park as the location of a reburial made by Schwatka in 1871 -- were all mapped at that time.

And there to cover the find in 1994 was Carol Off of the CBC, along with cameraman Andrew Gregg (later to be the director of the 2014 documentary Franklin's Lost Ships). The resulting news feature, which included Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton among its commentators, cemented the Franklin story in Canadian consciousness. Woodman -- who was back for his first on-the-ground serach, makes a cameo in the early program as well!

Sadly, Barry Ranford took his own life in 1996, but his friend (and former principal) John Harrington returned numerous times to continue the search. Woodman, too, came back again and again, along with his friend Tom Gross (who still continues searching to this day), trying every conceivable means to locate Franklin's ships, or any possible deposit on the shore, whether Franklin's grave or the famed 'vault' described to Hall by See-pung-ger. He scanned the stones in the summer, dragged a magnetometer on a sledge over the ice in the winter, and drilled down with an ice-augur to lower sonar booms. By his singular labors, a very large chunk of the "southern search area" -- that of the ship at "Ootjoolik" -- was covered.

In that same era, many other searchers -- among them George Hobson, Ernie Coleman, Cameron Treleaven (often accompanied by his friend Louie Kamookak), Wayne Davidson, Peter Wadhams, and Maria Pia Casarini -- trekked along these same shores, investigating mounds, cairns, and any other features of interest. Their searches were not all as persistent or methodical as Woodman's, but each of them found small, crucial pieces of evidence as to the fate of Franklin's men once they left the safety of their ships behind.

These searchers finally established a modern map of possibility -- even if, in one sense it was a negative map, that is, a map of where traces of Franklin were not. For in such a vast area, with such a small window of opportunity each year, such knowledge was vital all who came after; without it, the work of later investigators, such as the Parks Canada team, would have been far more daunting.

Photograph courtesy Margaret Bertulli

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Credit where Credit is Due (Part 1)

Paddy Gibson and Inuit, Richardson Island, Coronation Gulf, Sept. 1930
We've heard a lot in the press lately about who deserves -- or doesn't deserve -- credit for the magnificent 2014 discovery of HMS "Erebus." However that debate plays out -- and journalist Paul Watson promises his story will be out next week -- there's another, deeper kind of credit that's not yet been part of the conversation, either in Canada or abroad -- that due to the nearly fifty expeditions prior to Parks Canada's entering the field in 2008.

The count of fifty opens with L.T. Burwash in the 1920's, and "Paddy" Gibson-- Louie Kamookak's grandfather -- in the 1930's. Both these men, who were already present as part of their daily employment -- Burwash for the Northwest Territories government, Gibson for the HBC -- took advantage of their proximity to search anew for remains of Franklin's men. Burwash's finds consisted mostly of fragments of rope and cloth, but Gibson found numerous human remains -- including the skeletons of at least four individuals in the Todd Islets, who might represent the very last survivors. Louie has taken people to this site repeatedly over the years; its proximity to Gjoa Haven would make archaeological work there easy to support -- but so far, Doug Stenton and his colleagues have stuck to Erebus Bay.

The list goes on with L.A. Learmonth, another HBC employee; like Rae, he was an Orkneyman, and had an ability to survive and thrive, supporting himself on long journeys, that became the stuff of legend; he located the remains of at least three individuals at "Tikeranayou," a site ten miles west of the purported location of Starvation Cove (itself another site that's never had proper archaeological study). Henry Larsen was next, in 1949 (not long after he became the first to traverse the Passage from West to East) to search the coast from Cape Felix southward; a skull he found there was later identified as Caucasian.

Searches, though more sporadic, continued through the 1950's, with Paul Fenimore Cooper walking King William in preparation for his book, Island of the Lost. In 1962, Robert Cundy led an expedition to the mouth of the Back River, hoping to locate a cairn in which Franklin's men might have deposited their last record -- but instead found only a note from the Geological Survey of Canada saying they'd checked already and found nothing.

In 1967, a military exercise, "Operation Franklin" -- the only government-sponsored search of its kind to that date -- searched multiple areas, though an old boot-heel and some wood (quite possibly from the "Erebus, "which they'd dived near without discovering) were the sole results.

And then, in the 1970's came the "Franklin Probe," the first co-ordinated search, led by Bob Pilot and Stu Hodgson (the latter then the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories) which traveled to Beechey Island, Cape Felix, the Boothia Peninsula, and Starvation Cove, leaving historical markers as they went (it's always helpful when, since you are the government, you don't have to bother about permits).

By the time Owen Beattie conducted his two searches of King William Island in 1981 and 1982, his was, in fact, the sixteenth search of the twentieth century. He, as had others before him, found bones (including several which had already been seen and described by Gibson, but unlike Gibson he didn't leave them, or rebury them with a salute. He took them back for study, opening the era of serious archaeological work on Franklin expedition remains.

In Part II, I'll trace the searches from 1982 into the 1990's, which by any measure were the most productive ones of the modern search era.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Documenting Discovery

After the jubilation so many of us who've followed, or been a part of, the search for Sir John Franklin's ships, felt at the 2014 discovery of HMS "Erebus," still upright and proud upon the sea-floor, there was an inevitable period of letdown. We were, of course, well aware that it would take years to fully probe this find, to extract the secrets that she took with her to the bottom. We had to be satisfied with glimpses -- the propellor well, the deck illuminators, a bilge pump, a bell. When ice dives were announced for April of 2015, our spirits revived, and we shared in the excitement when new artifacts were brought to surface and sight: china plates, a cannon, even the buttons from a Marine's coat. What further wonders awaited?

But alas, as has happened with many such exciting ventures, the glow of discovery has now been dimmed with the clouds of acrimony. Jim Balsillie, whose Arctic Research Foundation was a key partner to last few Parks searches, wrote an angry letter to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkak, complaining that the television documentary Franklin's Lost Ships, co-produced by Lion TV in the UK, and Canada's  90th Parallel. Balsillie claims that the documentary shorted the contribution of the Parks Canada team and the role of the icebreaker Sir Wilifrid Laurier in the search, and gave and undue portion of credit to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Then, in a move that caught everyone by surprise, photojournalist Paul Watson resigned from the Toronto Star, claiming that a story he'd wanted to report on, which apparently included Balsillie's complaints, as well as a claim that 'civil servants' -- presumably either Parks Canada's team or the crew of the Laurier -- had been silenced.

It's a puzzling situation. Why on earth Balsillie would address his complaints about the documentary -- in the production of which the Canadian government and the RCGS had no role -- to the Environment Minister is the first puzzle. What could he expect her to do? But let's say he had indeed approached the documentary's actual producers, what then? All of them have stood behind their work, and as the lead fact-checker for this documentary, I do as well. To me, Balsillie's comments simply reveal a poor understanding of how documentary films work. (I've been involved with quite a few of them -- on-camera with the 2005 NOVA "Arctic Passage," for which I also served as an historical consultant, a role I've filled for John Murray's "The Lost Expedition" (2004), Mill Creek Productions' "The Northwest Passage" (2014), and now the Canadian, UK and US versions of "Franklin's Lost Ships").

The first stage, once the basic subject of the documentary has been established, is to obtain the visual and other "elements" from which the film will be made. Depending on the budget and the time-frame, these may include location shots (used to establish a sense of place); if the locations are remote, as is the high Arctic, the production company may send only a small "second unit" team, which can capture the big visual elements needed later. Then, a series of experts will be interviewed, sometimes at considerable length, with multiple takes of the same line of questioning. If the budget allows, there may historical re-enactments of key scenes. Lastly, there will be some in-studio visuals -- maps, old photographs or other 2D sources, CGI animations, titles, and so forth. 

The point of gathering as many elements as possible is to give the director as much flexibility as possible in the editing process. It's always best to have multiple shots, or "angles" of a certain subject, and multiple takes of an interview, so that they can be edited into a smooth sequence, and the director can choose the best, or clearest takes. The key imperative is to tell a compelling story, and having multiple elements to choose from makes this possible. Typically, for a documentary feature, a ratio of 10:1 of elements taken to elements used is common; in commercial feature films, this ratio can run much higher. Charlie Chaplin, famously a perfectionist behind the camera, often shot as much as 400,000 feet of film for a feature that, in its final cut, was only 9,000 feet long!

At times, though, a documentary director may have to do with a limited number of shots; it's too expensive to re-take shots at remote locations, and there may be some key elements -- newsreel footage, or live events -- for which only a single source is available. In those cases, the director works to use them in a way that fits most closely with the story being told. All along the line, as the story is being developed and polished, historical consultants such as myself are asked to confirm the particulars, and make sure the final edit, and the voiceover, are free from any factual errors; in my work, I'll typically review a series of several draft scripts, along with answering dozens of ad hoc questions as the process plays out.

As a result of this same process, it's meaningless to measure how "important" someone or something is by how many seconds, or minutes, they're shown on camera. Plenty of important people saying important things have ended up on the cutting room floor, if what they said doesn't form a vital link in the story that the documentary is telling. Some people do better on camera than others, and may become the director's go-to talking heads simply because what they say is clearer, and more to the point, and easier to edit into the storyline -- but in general, unless the program has a host, these voices will be spread around, as the effect of several experts or commentators with different backgrounds is stronger than having the same person talking all the time. We can't all be Jacob Bronowski.

Balsillie seems most miffed that the documentary doesn't show enough of the Laurier, along with the Martin Bergmann (a vessel he paid to outfit), or the Gannet and Kinglet, the boats that did much of the side-scan work -- though in fact, all these vessels are shown in the documentary, and repeatedly

As he doubtless knows, the small filming unit sent to the scene of the (then only potential) discovery was based on One Ocean Voyager, and had only limited access to the Laurier and the research vessels. Given that, they managed to take some impressive shots, giving the overall scene of the search, as well as a clear sense that it was indeed the Parks Canada team that was doing the actual searching; we see camera angles of the team, shots off the bow of the research vessel Investigator, and team members monitoring the sonar screen. And, in at least one sequence, we see a sonar boom being lowered from the Martin Bergmann -- one would think this would have made Balsillie happy.

John Geiger, fulfilling his and the RCGS's designated role of 'communications,' speaks in broad terms of the challenge of the ice, and the difficulty of the search -- not claiming any personal credit for it -- and his screen presence is modest compared with the multiple segments with Marc-André Bernier and Ryan Harris, showing them at work and giving their perspective both before and after the discovery.

Balsillie is also upset that the AUV, one of the much-vaunted technological innovations, is shown being deployed, when in fact it wasn't used in the 'southern search area,' and had nothing to do with the discovery. But if he'd looked more closely, he'd have seen that this is exactly the point: scenes of the AUV's being deployed are used as a segue from the earlier attempts to get at the Victoria Strait area, underscoring the limits of human endeavor, after which the story switches -- as did the expedition itself -- to the southern search, where we can clearly see the older side-scan sonar depoloyed.

Throughout the documentary, Ryan Harris and others from Parks Canada are featured prominently, and it's quite clear that it's their discovery; I don't think anyone watching the program could possibly miss this point, or the excitement felt by Harris, Bernier, and others. The credit, clearly, is theirs. It's not the documentary, in the end, that contains errors -- it's Balsillie's letter, which makes repeated, and demonstrably false claims about the documentary.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Unfriendly Millionaires

At the conclusion of several seasons of conducting a gruelling magnetometer survey over the ice of Wilmot and Crompton Bay -- a search which, he'd hoped, could pinpoint the location of one of Franklin's ships by detecting its engine -- I can recall David Woodman ruefully declaring that he felt there wasn't a great deal more that could be done, barring the sudden appearance of a 'friendly millionaire.' And doubtless many Arctic researchers of all kinds, their funds cobbled together out of grants, sponsorships, and their own dwindling bank accounts, have said much the same.

For a time, it seemed, Jim Balsillie was the answer to a Franklin searcher's prayer -- a man with deep pockets, broad enthusiasm, and the patience to find out just what was needed for each year's search, and provide it. The research vessel he donated, the Martin Bergmann, was a sort of dream: crammed with all the latest technology, it was carefully chosen so that it could be carried aboard an icebreaker, and lowered by crane into the water. Balsillie's Arctic Research Foundation proved instrumental to the last several years of Parks Canada searches, and articles in Maclean's and Canadian Geographic have lionized him as the prime mover behind the successful 2014 search for Franklin's ships.

But now he's angry. He's written a long letter to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkak, complaining about the way the discovery's story has been told in the Lion TV/90th Parallel documentary that aired on the CBC. Why he would write to her with his concerns instead of the the actual producers of the documentary is a mystery -- but of course by now they've read the letter as well, and stand behind their work.  And, as the lead fact-checker and historical consultant on the project, I can say without hesitation that they are right to do so. Every detail of these documentaries has been carefully researched, and neither the Government nor the RCGS had any say whatsoever in how the story was told. Balsillie's complaints strike me both as sour grapes -- he doesn't think that he's gotten enough credit -- and naive; he seems to have very little idea of how documentaries work.

I'll address the criticisms of the documentary specifically in a post to follow. But now, there's another wrinkle -- prizewinning photojournalist Paul Watson has quit his job at the Toronto Star, claiming that its editors suppressed a story of his about problems with the 2014 search. On his blog and in interviews, Watson alludes both to Balsillie's letter, and to (so far, rather vague) claims from 'civil servants' -- presumably Parks Canada employees -- about not being credited, or being allowed to tell their stories. It certainly is true that, as Government employees, Parks' archaeologists, or the crew of the CCGS Laurier, are not as free to speak as would be private individuals -- that's the nature of their jobs, not a scandal. Would I and other Franklin experts have liked information to flow more freely, or be less "managed"? Of course, but I don't know of any significant facts that were suppressed; both Ryan Harris and Marc-André Bernier have subsequently spoken at numerous public events and forums. Watson also implies, as does Balsillie, that the RCGS claimed outsize credit for its role, something of which I see little evidence. Watson promises a story, so we'll have to wait to see what it is before we judge -- but certainly, from what's now known, it seems a tempest in an Arctic teapot.

All of this, unhappily, obscures the tremendous achievement of the 2014 find of HMS "Erebus." It's sad to see such squabbling among partners, especially when there's plenty of credit to go around. The documentary acknowledges this, while making it clear that Ryan Harris and the Parks Canada team made the actual discovery. John Geiger, veteran Franklin searcher and CEO of the RCGS, practically wore out the phrase "and our partners" at the many press events he attended surrounding the discovery, and Canadian Geographic and other press articles all have given plenty of credit to Balsillie.

There is, however, one group of people I do think have not yet been given enough credit: the searchers and researchers who kept the search for traces of Franklin going for decades before the Government searches. Between 1925 and 2008 (the first year of the Parks Canada search), there were nearly fifty expeditions to the Arctic organized in part or in whole to search for Franklin and his ships, many of them accompanied by the Inuit who'd kept the oral traditions alive. Tremendous scholarly work, particularly David Woodman's careful analysis of written Inuit testimony, also laid the foundation for the eventual discovery by Parks. If there's anyone who has a right to feel slighted, it might be these folks -- but unlike Balsillie, they've all been supportive of everyone involved in the recent searches, excited by the results, and have expressed no rancor. There's more than one kind of generosity at stake here -- and the generous-spirited, in my view, are far better role models than the generous-pocketed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

'How true is your faith that we are going to conquer'

Since my post about Charles Francis Hall and the sculptress Vinnie Ream, I've been fortunate to be able to obtain a copy of the biography of Ream by Edward S. Cooper. And in it, as I'd hoped is a slightly larger glimpse of the love triangle that had emerged between Ream, Hall, and Bessels, and which was, I suspect, a factor in Hall's poisoning and untimely death.

I should emphasize that the discovery is Cooper's, not mine -- but the response to my previous post has shown that, among historians and aficionados of polar history, including myself, this is news indeed.

In my previous post, I offered a passage from a letter of Bessels' as quoted in Cooper's book -- now, its conclusion: "Send by the reply vessel, which leaves shortly, a few words to one who will cherish your memory, dear Vinnie, and who must now, however unwillingly, bid you a long farewell."

And now, from that same source, here is what Hall himself wrote to Vinnie, from what may possibly be the same letter once contained in the envelope that first caught my attention, sent on August 21st:
"Your notes, flags, & other valuables all quickly and safely received by the US Steamer 'Congress.' You should see my sweet little cabin. As you enter it our great noble-hearted President strikes the eye while beneath it hangs the photograph you gave me of the statue of Lincoln. Today I resume my voyage -- the Smith Sound remarkably open -- never known to be more so. You may expect that when again you hear from me and my company, that the North Pole has been discovered. How true is your faith that we are going to conquer."
These letters, as it turns out, have been at the Library of Congress for some time. Would that, on one of the many occasions I was working with the Hall papers, I had known of them!

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Motive for the Murder of Charles Francis Hall

From Chauncey Loomis's classic Weird and Tragic Shores, to later and lesser tomes such as Bruce Henderson's Fatal North or Richard Parry's Trial by Ice, biographers of Charles Francis Hall have seemed to agree on one thing: his frenetic pace left little room for any kind of love interest. Hall even seems to be one of the very few Arctic explorers never to have any attraction to, or liaisons with, Inuit women. So far as the history books were concerned, he was a man who spent all his romance on the Frozen North, and had no time for paramours. Of course, he was also a married man -- but exactly how warm his conjugal relations were may be judged by the fact that, with three Arctic expeditions spanning more than a decade, he spent no more than a week back home in Cincinnati, visiting his wife Mercy Ann and two children.

And the second, and more pervasive question about Hall was who, if anyone, murdered him. Dr. Emil Bessels, the ship's surgeon of the Polaris, who attended Hall throughout his final illness, and certainly had the opportunity to poison him, was always a leading candidate, but -- aside from the resentment he and all the rest of the German-speaking scientific staff felt toward Hall, it seemed impossible to find any more specific motive.

But, as it turns out, the answer to both these questions was there all along. My curiosity was piqued when I saw an envelope at an online auction, part of the stationery issued Hall and his men, bearing Hall's distinctive counter-signature, and addressed to "Miss Vinnie Ream, 726 Broadway, New York." Miss Ream, it turned out, was not hard to identify; she was a gifted artist, a child prodigy   who was commissioned while still a teenager to do a portrait bust of Lincoln -- for the sake of which the President endured weekly sittings. She was, at the time, the first woman, and the youngest artist, ever commissioned to do a work of art for the U.S. Government.

By 1871, she would have been 23 or 24 years of age. I wondered why Hall would have written her, and so checked out a biography of Ream by Edward S. Cooper, sections of which were available via Google Books. And it was there that I came upon a paragraph that stunned me:
"[Ream] was not always able to establish long-lasting relationships. In the case of the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall, it was fate that intervened. Vinnie met Hall in early 1871 in Washington where he was outfitting the ship Polaris for a government expedition to the North Pole. Vinnie was attracted by his bear-like quality, and gave him a photograph of her recently unveiled Lincoln.  On June 19th, Hall sailed down the Potomac bound for a two-week layover at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He knew that Vinnie was in New York setting up a studio and had dinner with her several times. He was often accompanied by the ship's doctor, a small man who spoke English with a heavy German accent. Hall enjoyed Vinnie's company, but Bessels became instantly infatuated with her. On June 28, he wrote her "While thinking of you all the time and anticipating the pleasure of seeing you tomorrow, we received very unexpectedly an order requiring us possibly to leave early tomorrow. I will never forget the happy hours, which kind fate allowed me to spend in your company before starting our perilous and uncertain voyage."

It appears that the Polaris may have left before Bessels could arrange another meeting. And, from the letter -- written doubtless prior to the ship's last port in Greenland, though it did not arrive in London until October 23rd, and in New York still later -- it's reasonable to assume that Hall was still quite fond of Ream. One has the feeling that Bessels was aware of this lingering love, and that it infuriated him. And, I would hazard to say, it may well have been a double desire -- to put an end to what he feared would be an endless voyage, and to do away with his rival, that motivated Bessels. I think it's fair to say, at least, that he had a very clear, personal motive for doing so.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Well-worn Skull

The news that one of the skulls found at the site of the Schwatka reburial at Erebus Bay on King William Island, having been subjected to facial reconstruction, is  said by some to resemble James Reid, the Ice Master of Sir John Franklin's ship HMS "Erebus," has reverberated around the world, and rightly so.

What hasn't been as widely reported is that this skull, catalogued as "cranium #80," was actually not in among the reburied remains; instead, it was found on the surface of the stony ground, right where it had first been spotted by Barry Ranford back in 1993. It's the same skull that he showed to the CBC's Carol Off when she was there for a short television documentary in 1994.

How can I be so sure? Well, Andrew Gregg, who was the cameraman on that occasion, also took a number of still photos, including this one:

Photograph © 1994 Andrew Gregg

As one can see, this skull -- when rotated to an upright position as I've done in the first image above, is an exact match for Keenleyside, Stenton, and Park's "cranium #80," the same now thought to be Reid's. The indentations associated with the missing teeth are identical, and so is the shape of the distinctive injury to the right maxilla. You can even see the small circular dot or indentation just above where the nasal bones meet the frontal bone.

The other skull, the one atop the reburial, had grown quite mossy, as can be seen in another of Gregg's photos, quite a different situation from its bleach-white brother:

© 1994 Andrew Gregg
A third cranium, catalogued as #79, was not studied as part of the facial reconstructions, as it was incomplete; according to the report, it consisted only of "the left and right parietal and temporal bones, the frontal and occipital bones, and a partial sphenoid."

In 1997, the two crania on the surface, along with a nearby femur, were placed in a metal box for protection and cached on the site in a new cairn, by Ranford's friend John Harrington. Ranford himself had committed suicide the previous autumn, but Harrington was to return on at least six more occasions, continuing the search for Franklin remains that his late colleague had begun.

Back in 1993, when Ranford first came upon the "Reid" skull, he was nearing the end of a long trek down the western coast of King William Island. His travelling companion had become so sick that he'd had to haul him along in the wheeled garden cart they'd brought for supplies, and time was growing short. At first, he'd thought it was a plastic bleach bottle, it was so white, but on coming closer he realized his error. It was to be a fateful discovery.