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.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Fateful Clipping

Over the years, numerous Franklin experts, from R.J. Cyriax to A.G.E. Jones to William Battersby, Glenn M. Stein, and myself, have pondered the faded, backwards-lettered and enigmatic leaves known as the "Peglar Papers," which have been dubbed "the dead sea scrolls of the North." What to make of songs about turtles, references to grog shops, and the infamous "Party Wot Happened in Trinidad"? The damage to ink and paper has only amplified their inscrutability. And yet, all along, there has been one readily readable document among the Papers that no one had bothered with: the clipping from Lloyd's Weekly News-Paper that was stuck in the back of the leather wallet in which the papers were contained.

Only a few words of this crumpled clipping are legible -- enough, however, for me to identify it as the "Weekly Summary of Maritime Casualties" published in Lloyd's on April 6, 1845. It seems a likely thing for a sailor to bring with him -- and one may speculate that perhaps the news in its columns related to some loss of life that touched the owner of the papers personally. Unfortunately, nearly all the ships mentioned in the column -- you can view it in its entirety here -- are merchant vessels, and nothing resembling a crew's list can be had for most of them. It's possible also that, as Glenn M. Stein has suggested, it was not a man but a ship, upon which the Franklin sailor had served, that was significant (we know from Glenn's work and that of Ralph Lloyd-Jones that a goodly number of Franklin's men had spent some part of their careers on merchant ships).

That, at least, opens some leads: among these vessels we have "The Lucy, of Dumfries, master John Anderson, lost off the Cliffs of Moher with all hands," the "Edward Kirkby, of Shields, sunk after a collision with the John Burrell," "The Fox, of Inverness, found adrift," "the Margaret Cunningham, sunk at Grimsby Roads" and the "Alexander, master Smith, from Dundee, wrecked at the Outer Fern Islands."

The Lucy offers one enticing possibility: her home port was Dumfries, and the registry shows that among her owners was one William Reid of Liverpool. The surname is the same as that of James Reid, ice-master aboard the "Erebus," but I have not as yet been able to draw a firm connection; the name is common enough.

The column also noted a collision between the Sappho and H.M.S. Black Eagle, which gives us a bit more to go on. Black Eagle, formerly Firebrand, was a paddle-wheel steamer noted for her powerful engines; her collision with the Sappho led to a court of inquiry at the Admiralty, which in part got caught up in the debate over steam versus sail. The Black Eagle being a Royal Naval vessel, we know that her commander was Charles Yorke (the Earl of Hardwicke); her officers included Henry W. Allen (second master), E.B. Stewart (1st Lieutenant), W. Peel (Lieutenant), H.T.S. Bevridge (assistant surgeon) and P.W. Coventry (mate). I have not yet traced any connection between these men and Franklin's, though Yorke's name was later given to a cape on northern Baffin Island.

Perhaps most significantly, though, H.M.S. Black Eagle was part of the Royal Squadron, based in Woolwich, which would have put it in very close proximity with "Erebus" and "Terror." The Morning Chronicle of 26 April describes a visit by the Lords of the Admiralty to Her Majesty's Dockyard at Woolwich to "look in on the progress" of the vessels' re-outfitting. One can imagine friendships forming between the crews of ships so near, and perhaps the news of the collision signified in that way.

Some are skeptical of the significance of this little paper -- perhaps it was merely a handy scrap, stuck in the wallet by happenstance. Perhaps, even, it wasn't the shipping news, but the other side of the scrap that was wanted -- it contains an advertisement for the plays available in Cumberland's British Theatre, a sourcebook for plays that could have been used in the staging of ship-board dramas. We may never know for certain -- but that someone had this clipping with them, and carried it to their death on King William Island, can surely not mean nothing.