Friday, March 1, 2019

Franklin Symposium at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Keynote speaker David C. Woodman
In what will be the most significant gathering in many years of those who have searched for, researched, and written about the Franklin mystery, Mystic Seaport Museum will be hosting a symposium on April 5th, 2019. The keynote speaker will be David C. Woodman, who is in many ways the man most responsible for gathering and analyzing the historical Inuit testimony that eventually led Parks Canada's underwater archaeology team to the wreck of HMS "Erebus" in 2014. Woodman's two books -- Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, and Strangers Among Us, form the core of the modern understanding of this large and complex body of oral tradition; Woodman also followed up on his books by leading a number of expeditions on his own in the years before Parks became involved.

Joining him will be a number of other key figures in the modern history of the search for Franklin: from the Parks Canada team, Jonathan Moore will give us the latest on the dive team's work and plans; representing ground-based archaeology will be Doug Stenton, who has been a part of the most numerous and extensive excavations on King William Island since the search began. We'll also be joined by John Geiger, the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, whose 1988 book, Frozen in Time, described the exhumation and study by Dr. Owen Beattie of the three sailors buried at Beechey Island -- a groundbreaking book in every sense of the word. Others who have taken up this angle of research, including Peter Carney, who has extensively studied the ships' engines, heating apparatus, and water systems, and Keith Millar, a co-author on a number of key studies in recent years that have re-examined and built upon Dr. Beattie's work, will join the discussion.

Two other sessions will be no less vital -- I'll be on a panel alongside Leanne Shapton, whose feature article in the New York Times Magazine on the Franklin relics brought this fascinating history back before American eyes; we'll be looking at the broader history of Franklin in popular culture. Last but very far from least, esteemed historian and author Kenn Harper will host a session on the nature of Inuit oral tradition, as well as the role of individual Inuit in the Franklin search; he'll be joined by curator Fred Calabretta, along with veteran Arctic author Lawrence Millman. Millman, who is also a well-known mycologist, has promised to bring along some tripe de roche -- the lichen that Franklin and his men subsisted on in the last days of their first Arctic land expedition.  After the sessions, there will be a book-signing event with all the authors present, and rumor has it that sea-chanteys will be sung!

Tickets for the day's events are now available; for more information you can contact the Mystic Seaport Museum here.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Emil Bessels, serial poisoner?

Some time ago on this blog, I gave the evidence that Emil Bessels had a deeper potential motive to poison the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall -- he and Hall had both fallen for the charms of the young artist Vinnie Ream. A letter from Bessels declaring that he was "thinking of her all the time," along with a letter from Hall sent from aboard the "Polaris" to thank her for the gifts she'd sent and describing them on display in his cabin, seemed to seal the deal. It was still conjectural of course -- but it was the first motive specific to Bessels -- as opposed to the other German scientific staff, many of whom resented Hall's leadership style -- that was supported by evidence from the time.

And now, with thanks to the researches of a reader of this blog by the name of Jesper Zwiers, we have evidence that Bessels may have killed again. It's an old truism of crime that a criminal, once emboldened by a successful but undetected murder, is likely to repeat his crime -- and here again the method appears to have been arsenic poisoning. The victim, however, is a bit of a surprise -- it was Bertha Ravene, a German-American opera singer who was engaged to be married to Bessels! The wedding date had been postponed twice before, and her untimely death occurred on the third date she and Bessels had planned to wed. The sequence seems  suggest that, as with Hall, the course of the poisoning began some time before her death, and was accelerated -- perhaps while Bessels was "treating" his fiancée -- before the final fatal dose.

Something -- it's not entirely clear precisely what -- attracted the suspicion of people who knew the couple. It may have been that many still felt that Bessels was living under a cloud after the death of Hall; in some newspapers it's also said that he was acting "strangely" and that it was this behavior that raised questions. Madame Ravene's son apparently sided with Bessels, and one wonders whether he had some stake in his mother's life -- or death. If indeed Bessels hoped to profit by the death himself, it seems odd that he would have acted before rather than after the planned wedding. Numerous articles mention calls for Madame Ravene's body to be exhumed, and some even seem to assert that this was definitely going to happen -- but it appears from the lack of further news that it did not; one article states that "there will probably be no investigation" since "it is not generally believed that there was foul play." One factor that may be imagined to be in Dr. Bessels' favor is that, on the second planned date of their marriage, the couple did indeed arrive at the church, only to find the minister absent due to some confusion over the date. There's also the fact that Madame Ravene was, according to the physician who signed her death certificate, taking arsenic for malaria (!) but "only a quarter of a grain a day" (this would have been about 8 milligrams, far from a toxic dose). You can read more about these circumstances in this more detailed account of the events by a reporter who visited and interviewed Dr. Bessels. A note to those who want to dig a little further: Madame Ravene's name apparently posed a problem for newspaper and wire services of the day -- it appears both as "Ravena" and "Ravenna" -- so you'll need to do searches on each version to see all the available articles.

Sadly, no photograph of Bertha Ravene seems to have survived. Nevertheless, her image lives on, as -- around 1871, at the peak of her career, a new hybrid flower -- a camellia to be precise -- was named after her.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

How did it all start?

It's one of the first questions I'm always asked -- how did you come to develop this abiding fascination with the story of the Franklin expedition? And so of course I have an answer, one that -- while it's entirely true -- has grown a bit in the telling. Literary critic Hugh Kenner had a phrase for these sorts of tales -- things that might, or perhaps might not, be true -- but that certainly ought to be true! He called them "Irish Facts."

So here's mine: many years ago -- circa 1992 or so -- I was a newly-appointed and hence very "junior" assistant professor in the wilds of central Maine, at a place called Colby College. It's a time when most people would be a little tentative, a little unsure of their steps. Fortunately, a more senior colleague took me under his wing -- a guy then known by the name of Jim Boylan, who's now far better-known as the bestselling author and New York Times columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan. Boylan and I, along with an equally freshly-minted geology prof by the name of of Paul Doss -- a man who could play a mean blues harmonica as well as he could catalogue rock samples -- decided, in that most ancient of traditions, to form a band. And our name -- I can't remember who came up with it -- was one of the great band names in all history: we were known as the Diminished Faculties. Later on, when a fellow from the IT department joined up, we became "The Diminished Faculties with Staff Infection," a more clever but somehow much less epic moniker.

And it was in our quest for new material for this band that something happened -- something very small, but very consequential. Boylan had played a tune for me, "Arthur McBride," as performed by Paul Brady -- and I'd fallen in love with it. And so, the next time I had a chance, I stopped by the local record store and searched for it, finding it at last on an anthology CD named Celtic Graces. Pleased with myself for finding the tune, at some point I idly played the rest of the CD, and stumbled upon a song, "Lord Franklin," played by Micháel Ó'Domhnaill and Kevin Burke, which just captured me entirely. I found myself playing it over and over, and squinting at the finely-printed insert where, I was informed, Franklin's ships has been trapped in the ice for years, and all his men had died without being able to obtain any help. This stunned me: how could these men have been trapped in the ice for so long?

It was a tale of loss, profound loss, with a mystery following -- why had not the ships been found? What had happened to these lost souls? And oddly, as fate would have it, I was soon to undergo an experience which resonated, in a curiously profound way, with this loss: I lost my teaching position at Colby. Perhaps it wasn't a complete surprise -- the campus and its faculty were always a little clubby, and I was never much of a joiner. I also had a tendency to call out what I saw as bad leadership -- I have a brief recollection of the college's president turning beet-red at a meeting at which I spoke -- no doubt I was a very impolitic junior professor. To be sure, such a fall from a position of relative privilege bears, in one sense, no comparison at all with such loss of life as Franklin's crews endured -- but somehow the common feeling cemented the bond. And it wasn't at all helpful that Colby's library contained, on its open stacks, every Franklin search narrative from Kane to McClintock to Hall to Schwatka. My office was in the library -- I'd been demoted to a former broom closet by then -- but I heaped my desk with these volumes, and let them lead me where they might.

And here, to this extraordinarily rewarding and passionate interest, is where they have led me.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Arctic Grails

The "Erebus Chalice" at the Chapel of the Snows
In celebration of Sir Michael Palin's knighthood in this year's New Years Honours, I thought it might be an ideal moment to talk about Arctic Grails -- real ones, as opposed to the metaphorical ones that are the subject of books such as Pierre Berton's. Well, "real," in the sense of really existing in the physical world, although -- as with Grail castles, beacons, and secret caves, the magic of these cups is in the eye of their beholders. Perhaps the most notable example is the "Erebus chalice," which may be seen at the Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. There, the visitor is informed, is an ornate silver chalice that was aboard HMS Erebus during James Clark Ross's Antarctic voyage -- only, in fact, it wasn't. During a cleaning in 2006 at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch New Zealand, the silversmith's hallmarks and date marks were examined, and it was discovered that the chalice was made in 1910 -- about seventy years too late for it to have accompanied Ross. It seems that Betty Bird, a descendant of Lieutenant Edwad Bird  --who some years previous had gifted an actual Erebus plate to the same museum -- had made the claim that the chalice, too, had been aboard, and the museum didn't choose at the time to investigate its provenance.

Fitzjames's cup
There are other vessels, though, whose association with the polar regions are more secure -- among them the lovely ornate silver cup presented to James Fitzjames by the City of Liverpool in recognition of his having saved a man from drowning there, as well the extraordinarily ornate silver bowl -- including a model of the "Fox" -- presented by Lady Franklin to Leopold McClintock. The bowl remains in family hands, but Fitzjames's cup can be seen today at the Mystic Seaport Museum, where it's part of their version of the "Death in the Ice" exhibition, which runs through April of 2019.  Of course, it's more of a decorative item than a practical one -- it's entirely possible that neither Fitzjames nor anyone has drunk anything from it.

Sutton's cup
There is however, one other cup with a peculiar connection to the Franklin story. Ernest Coleman, who has trod the shores of King William Island in search of traces of the Franklin expedition, and is the author of The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration, made a bit of a splash in the local papers a few years ago when he claimed to have found the Holy Grail -- the actual one! -- in storage at Lincoln Cathedral. This silver cup was recovered from the coffin of Bishop Oliver Sutton, who died in 1299; according to Coleman, Sutton had been designated by the Knights Templar to keep and guard the Grail, and he took his secret -- literally -- to his grave. When I visited the Cathedral a couple of of years ago, I asked the docents if perhaps I could see this artifact, but they just giggled.

Among collectors, there's a term that explains as well as any the attraction of an item -- be it a rhinestone from Elvis Presley's jacket or (as a vendor in the Disney tune "Portabello Road" puts it) "the snipper that clipped old King Edward's cigars" -- we call it "association" value. Sometimes it's easily verified -- as when a book is inscribed from one author to another -- but more often, it rests on a less solid foundation. I can't, I'm sure, be the only kid to have mailed in an order for a coffin-shaped box said to contain soil from Dracula's castle -- and there are many other such things on offer, each with its certificate of authenticity. Maybe that's the most telling thing about Grails -- Arctic and otherwise -- it's where they have been, and who used them, that gives them their value, not any intrinsic worth as silver cups. And if indeed a cup from the Last Supper were to turn up someday, it's  likely to be quite a plain one -- as Indiana Jones puts it in the movie -- "this looks like the cup of a carpenter."

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Lady Franklin's Funeral

Courtesy of Mary Williamson & Rosalind Rawnsley
It was truly the end of an era. Having stepped into the public eye to champion every effort to rescue -- or, failing that, at least to find and recover -- her husband and his Arctic companions, Lady Jane Franklin died on 18 July, 1875 at the age of 83. She was eulogized around the world, perhaps never more poignantly than in the pages of the Chicago Tribune:

Lady Jane Griffith Franklin is dead. Her long waiting and weary watching are ended. Through the darkness of the grave she has passed to that country where the mystery so long hidden in the frozen fastness of the North has already been solved for her ... If there is any truth in the Christian doctrine of immortality beyond the grave, then are Sir John Franklin and Lady Franklin now together. She now understands the mystery, and all is clear. She has found him at last, not in that region of endless night, but in that higher region of endless day, where the sun never sets. There seeming becomes being,  hoping becomes enjoying, expecting becomes realizing, the lost is found.

Yet despite such resounding encomiums, the details of Lady Franklin's funeral service -- the small particulars of which any such event is composed -- have for the most part been wanting. It's only just recently that a first-person account has surfaced, and what an account it is! Its writer was Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, Sir John Franklin's nephew, a longtime champion of preserving and protecting the Lake District, and later one of the founders of the National Trust. He'd grown up in a lively literary scene, with Alfred Lord Tennyson (his second cousin) and Robert Browning among its frequent visitors, and the love of language -- and sharp wit -- of his description of the proceedings make it all the more valuable.

Hardwicke cast a stern and yet comical eye on the assembled mourners, Captain Hobson, who had first found the Victory Point note in 1859, was "a bold faced fine John Bull looking man with a determined face & blue eyes," but Admiral George H. Richards was "shabby and uncomfortable," looking like nothing so much as "a shrivelled Ruskin." Matthew Noble, sculptor of the bust of Franklin used in the Westminster cenotaph, told Hardwicke how pleased he'd been with a sonnet he'd written on seeing the bust in his studio. Bishop Francis Russell Nixon, who conducted the service, was an old friend of the Franklins from their days in Tasmania, and a pioneering photographer -- but in Hardwicke's eyes his countenance was out of joint with his manners; while he "talked very nicely about Colonial Church work," he had "an ugly face, dark penetrating eyes & grizzled beard." Although not mentioned in the letter, it's worth noting that John Powles Cheyne -- explorer, photographer of Franklin relics, and would-be polar balloonist -- was present, as were the Arctic artist Walter May, who had retired from the Navy to pursue his watercolors, along with the eccentric voyager Benjamin Leigh Smith.

But when it came to the funeral itself, Hardwicke's darkly comic treatment demands to be quoted in full:
I got there about one o’clock & found men standing in a close darkened room looking like sick cranes on a wet marshland night. Violent hands were laid on one by men who knew your name & all about you apparently. Your hat was robbed, your name shouted & then after spending an hour and ½ in this black company your name was shouted again, much crape was pinned upon you as soon as certain ties of relationship were acknowledged & after another lapse of time black gloves & hats in crape mourning were put into your hands & you were put into a  coach of decent black ... I got an horrid headache from the motion. ... the long procession of 10 coaches & several carriages reached at length Kensal Green. Up we passed thro’ rows of motley monuments, broken pillars, sad angels, tombs with photographs let in and glazed, with sculptured busts & painted faces It was grotesque but horrible.
The proceedings at the chapel -- which was built with an automatic lift for lowering coffins down to the level of the crypts -- received a still more dramatic treatment:
We alit at the doors of what looked like an Egyptian court in the Crystal Palace, & were ushered thro a mob of enquirers into the vaulted room. The coffin was placed on a dais in the middle – the old Admirals retired on either side. It was sad to see how they felt for her who had bade them venture so much & who was now but as the clay in the street - & we sat down in seats opposite the coffin. The Bishop of Tasmania Bishop Nixon mounted to the pulpit & read impressively the service for the dead. Sophy Cracroft bore up wonderfully. Then the meekfaced little burial clerk gave a signal & lo the mechanic grief was to be outdone by hydraulic machinery, for slowly & surely down went dais coffin & all as it were in a play or in a fairy story thro the ground, down down till it reached the vault beneath thence it was taken by strong hands and hauled off thro a dim taper lighted gallery to its niche where as it were in a pigeon hole all that is left of Lady Franklin lies beside her sister. And those of us who cared were then summoned thro a wicket gate down a winding stair and found men with murky lanterns & sad stolid faces waving us thro the dimness to where they had laid her. We passed pigeonholes with their dead occupants & their names engraven on the iron gratings that close them until here with “Barnetts” above her, piled to the roof, resting in the lowest pigeonhole, was the solid light oak coffin head contrasting strangely in its newness with the rusty weather-eaten black coffins beside & above. 
Photo courtesy Wolfgang Opel
And there she lies still, though the light oak of her coffin has darkened and weathered a bit in the past hundred and forty-three years. When, in 2009, in the company other Arctic friends and scholars, I visited Kensal Green, the underground catacomb was closed due to safety concerns, and it appears that it will not be re-opening anytime soon. I'm especially grateful, therefore, to Wolfgang and Mechtild Opel, who some years ago sent me a photo of her Ladyship's pigeonhole as it appeared when they visited it. You can still make out the oak coffin on the right, resting beside the lead-covered one of her sister Mary Simpkinson on the left.  For now, I can think of no better conclusion than that given in the Tribune:  "She has died poor in this world's goods by reason of her love for her husband, but rich in the world's love and memory by virtue of her peerless heroism."

Monday, December 3, 2018

Paying our respects at Inuit Graves in Groton

Pam Gross at Tookoolito's Grave
I've just come back from the magnificent opening weekend of Mystic Seaport Museum's "Death in the Ice" exhibition this past weekend -- it was a truly memorable occasion, from the evening reception prior to the opening to the welcome ceremony the next morning, hosted by the chiefs of the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, to Marc-André Bernier's marvelous lecture that afternoon updating us on Parks Canada's archaeological team's latest work on the wreck of HMS "Erebus." But for me, the highlight of the weekend was the visit many of us paid to the Inuit graves at the Starr Burying Ground in nearby Groton, These stones recall the names of six Inuit, although only three of them rest there. Two -- "Cudlargo" and "Oosecong" -- had been brought down from the Arctic by local whaling captain Sidney O. Budington, but had died at sea; these names are memorial to their memory. But it's the family of "Hannah" (Tookoolito) and "Joe" (Ebierbing whose presence is most felt here. They, too, had worked for Budington -- indeed, years before, they had been taken to England and had tea with Queen Victoria! -- but their subsequent careers were far more significant.  The two of them worked as translator (Hannah) and guide (Joe) for Charles Francis Hall, the American Franklin searcher who collected more Inuit testimony about his fate than any other man. And, as historian Kenn Harper -- who gave an interpretative lecture for us all at the site -- notes, if Hall was the most significant searcher, then Hannah was the most significant translator and interpreter, whose work enabled the accurate preservation of testimony that would otherwise have been lost forever. Hannah's son and daughter are buried nearby, but her husband -- "Joe" -- is not; he returned to the Arctic as a guide, and his bones lie somewhere in or near Hudson Bay.
Group photo courtesy Logan Zachary
Those of us who came represented many different peoples and perspectives, but it was the delegation from Nunavut for whom this moment was especially meaningful. Pam Gross, the mayor of Cambridge Bay and executive director of the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, along with Ed Devereux, a hamlet administrator from Gjoa Haven, represented the two northern communities closest to the Franklin wreck sites, as well as the Kitikmeot region generally; with them was Alex Stubbing, head of heritage for the Government of Nunavut. Marc André also came with us, as did Steve White, president of the Museum, and Nicholas Bell, Vice President for Curatorial affairs. Karen Ryan, the lead curator for the "Death in the Ice" exhibit at all its locations, Franklin researcher Russ Taichman, and myself rounded out the group. We are all of us indebted to Kenn Harper for his moving talk about the graves and their history, and to the staff of the Mystic Seaport Museum for bringing us all together at a place where all our histories so richly resonate.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Death in the Ice" Comes to Mystic

Inkstand from HMS "Resolute," courtesy Mystic Seaport Musem
It's been a long voyage. "Death in the Ice," which combines relics of the Franklin expedition recovered in the 19th century with new finds from HMS Erebus brought back and conserved by Parks Canada since her discovery in 2014, first set sail, (as it were) at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in the summer of 2017. Its second stop, at the Canadian Museum of History, began in March of this year, and ran through September. And now it comes into port at the Mystic Seaport Museum, in a stop that is both a fresh step on its voyage and also a sort of homecoming. For it's not far from here, in New London, where HMS "Resolute" first docked after being found adrift at sea, and -- even closer -- at the Starr Burying Ground, a fifteen-minute drive away in Groton, where Tookoolito, Charles Francis Hall's translator and guide during his nearly decade-long search for Franklin, lies at rest along with two of her children. The extraordinary roles played by Americans in that search have never been more evident, even as -- for the most part -- the story of the Franklin expedition is less well-known here than in Canada or Britain. There have been harbingers of change, though -- beginning with AMC's extraordinary television series "The Terror," and continuing with the warm reception given here to Michael Palin and his book Erebus: The Story of a Ship -- that this is about to change, and the exhibit in Mystic is about to launch a fresh cannonade.

Mortar shell fired by HMS Terror on the town of Stonington
And, appropriately enough, one of the items unique to this version of the exhibition is a mortar bomb, fired from the 13-inch mortar mounted amidships on HMS "Terror" on the people of Stonington, Connecticut, scarcely ten miles distant, in the War of 1812. Similar shells were "bursting in air" during that same vessel's bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, and are the very same that are sung of in our national anthem. That a ship of war could later become a vessel of discovery is but one of the many revelations that await those who come to visit this magnificent show. Here, nearly all the extraordinary relics of the previous exhibits are joined by this ball, an inkstand, chairs, and china ware from HMS Resolute -- along with a fiddle perhaps played there in the presence of Captain Kellett -- and the Grinnell Desk (on loan from the New Bedford Whaling Museum), one of four "Resolute" desks made by command of Queen Victoria from the timbers of that storied vessel. It is a show not to be missed! -- and opens, appropriately enough, on the first day of the wintry month of December. More information, and tickets, can be found on the Mystic Seaport website here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A bone to pick ...

Skeletal remains uncovered by the 1RCR in 1973
The question of the dispersal of the Franklin expedition over land has always been a difficult one; it's even been hard to say exactly how many individuals are represented by the known skeletal remains. When possible, DNA studies have been of extraordinary importance, telling us for instance that the human remains at Erebus Bay -- previously thought to represent only 11-13 individuals -- in fact include bones from at least 21. This study and others like it have been spearheaded by Doug Stenton, who since his retirement from the Government of Nunavut's Heritage office, has redoubled his efforts to check every known site. One welcome result of this has just appeared in The Polar Record, and it's the most comprehensive one by far. Stenton's study accounts for nearly every known site, and he's followed up by conducting digs whenever a site can be positively identified, and adding the bones and artifacts at those sites into his ever-growing record.

Very sensibly, Stenton strives in this article to classify finds into "confirmed" (sites where the remains can be attributed to Franklin's men with a high degree of confidence), "unconfirmed" (sites where the remains were most probably Franklin-era, but circumstances -- often the fact that the remains are unavailable for study -- prevent confirmation), and "questionable," where he feels that the evidence tends rather toward the sites being unrelated to Franklin. In nearly all cases, his reasoning is sound, but there are some instances where I feel a site has been misclassified. It's no easy task -- one of the hurdles is that historical researchers such as myself have some pieces of the evidence, while archaeologists have hold of others -- and so I think it's germane to go over the evidence on these cases in a more public forum, where all our wisdoms can be collectively applied. There may not be a definitive answer -- but in these few cases a reclassification may be in order.

A perfect instance of this is the skeleton located by the 1st Royal Canadian Regiment in 1973 as part of their "Operation Northern Quest," which I've discussed previously here. Stenton tags this as a "questionable" find, arguing that the presence of faunal bones (caribou) in a period photograph of the remains supports the view that they are more probably Inuit. The case is complicated, because although the 1RCR stated at the time that the bones and other artifacts were sent to the Museum of Man (now the CMH), no record of them there has been found; indeed, by some accounts they were reburied rather than sent to the museum. I've spent quite some time researching this find, and working closely with the 1RCR's regimental historian -- I wish that Stenton had contacted me before making his assessment. In the diaries of expedition members, and articles published in service magazines of the day, the evidence is quite compelling for it being a Franklin site.

First, in an 1974 article in the Sentinel, it's stated by Sergeant R.T. Walsh that "an almost intact skeleton was uncovered among the rocks. Along with it were several shirt buttons and larger jacket buttons ... the skeleton, buttons, and many other relics and artifacts may now be seen at the Museum of Man in Ottawa." Such buttons may be similar to those found by Stenton himself at Two Grave Bay, and used to authenticate that site, but he discounts them here -- and unfortunately, they are unavailable for examination. Secondly, in one of the expedition's diaries, a much more detailed account of the find exists:
"Ingraham and Eddy found the bones of a human forearm and hand on the beach. This seemed recent as the bones were still connected by ligaments. Immediately after this, Willard found bones protruding from the ground by a large rock. A quick check showed this to be an almost complete skeleton in a shallow grave. We thought it to be the bones of a large man; too large for an Eskimo. We uncovered as much of the skeleton as we could without disturbing things. We planned on returning tomorrow morning with the metal detector and shovel. Eddy said he knew where a sheet of plywood could be located on the beach to put the bones on. The skeleton had been covered by several inches of moss and rocks. The skull was not visible to us but the jawbone was there. The armbone found on shore does not appear to have anything to do with the buried skeleton."
In addition to these accounts, I have two higher-resolution photos of the skeleton (Stenton apparently made use of a reproduction from a printed article). The one of the skeleton on the plywood plank is quite clear -- it may well be that what the 1RCR men thought was a human hand was in fact  the bones of a seal flipper -- bear in mind that these men had no archaeological training whatsoever -- which would explain the presence of the same in the photo. The faunal bones may well have also been picked up by them and heaped up, unknowingly, with the human ones. Interestingly, at the Schwatka reburial site earlier studied by Stenton, faunal remains are also present, and probably for the same reason.

This evidence strongly suggests that the skeleton in question here should be reclassified -- at least as "unconfirmed." There's also a ray of hope, as in another reference in the Sentinel, it's stated that the skeleton was reburied rather than brought back to the museum. I think it would be worth checking the area in case it can be relocated -- and then, of course, we'd have much firmer grounds, one way or the other.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Two Grave Bay

Detail of map by Heinrich Klutschak
It was one of the more poignant finds of the expedition led by Frederick Schwatka from 1878 ti 1880. In the words of journalist William Gilder, who accompanied the searchers, "we found the graves of two white men, near one of which was lying the upper part of a skull; within the pile of stones we found the upper maxilla, with two teeth, and a piece of the cheekbone. No other human bones were found; but these were laid together for burial on our return." The find was apparently the cause for the name "Two Grave Bay," which isn't mentioned as such in Gilder's text, but appears quite clearly on Klutschak's map as "Zwei Gräber Bai." Klutschack noted that “the builders of this grave no longer had the strength to build an above-ground grave out of large rocks” and that “a few stones were all that they used to cover the corpse."
Gilder waxed a bit more poetic: 
"Near Point le Vesconte some scattered human bones led to the discovery of the tomb of an officer who had received most careful sepulture at the hands of his surviving friends. A little hillock of sand and gravel - a most rare occurrence upon that forbidding island of clay-stones - afforded an opportunity for Christian-like interment. The dirt had been neatly rounded up, as could be plainly seen, and everywhere, amid the debris and mould of the grave, the little wild flowers were thickly spread ... The fine texture of the cloth and linen and several gilt buttons showed the deceased to have been an officer, but there was nothing to be seen anywhere that would identify the remains to a stranger. Every stone that marked the outline of the tomb was closely scrutinized for a name or initials, but nothing was found."
And now, with thanks to a number of searchers, this reburial site has had a proper archaeological examination. First relocated in modern times by veteran Franklin searcher Tom Gross, the area was visited this summer by the team from Adventure Science, who observed grave-like features, as well as a cairn, in this same vicinity. They alerted officials in Ottawa and Iqaluit, but were unable to do more than photograph the site, as they only had a Class I permit. Doug Stenton, however, has apparently had this spot on his list for some time, and already had the necessary Class II permit in hand; news of his work at the site this summer shows that the material there still matches very closely with what Schwatka and Gilder reported. According to the CP24 website,
"Stenton and his team recovered three metal buckles, 10 gilt buttons and remnants of an 11th made of mother of pearl. Stenton said such accoutrements were likely only worn by officers or senior-ranking members of Franklin's crew. Stenton said his team then found human bones some distance away, including an intact skull and jawbone, as well as a partial calf bone."
It should be noted that this particular site, roughly that of #6 on Klutschak's map, is some distance out on an island out in the bay; the team reached it via a lift from helicopter pilot Alexander Stirling, whom many will recall as the man who first spotted the davit part that led the Parks Canada team to "Erebus."

Dr. Stenton has been in the process of accumulating a database of DNA from recovered remains, as well as obtaining samples from known direct or collateral descendants of Franklin crewmembers, so there's a chance that, once the laboratory work is done, the remains might be identified. Even if not, we are sure to learn more about the life -- and the death -- of one of Franklin's officers, and in the long run this kind of work offers us the best chance of reconstructing what happened to these men once they left the shelter of their ships, and set out on what was to be their last, desperate journey by land.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Michael Palin awarded first Louie Kamookak Medal

L-R Michael Palin, Gavin Fitch, and John Geiger at medal presentation
(Credit: Credit Ben Powless/Canadian Geographic)
Last week, I was delighted and honored to host Michael Palin at Providence's historic Columbus Theatre, where we enjoyed lunch together, followed by the evening's delightful "in-conversation" style talk about all things Erebus. Among the many subjects we turned to, that of Louie Kamookak was one of particular poignancy to us both. I recalled how, the last time I saw Louie in Gjoa Haven in the summer of 2017, he'd seemed in such good health and spirits, though that turned out to have been only a couple of months before his cancer was diagnosed. From him, I learned that Louie had planned to guide him a land excursion to some of the Franklin sites on King William Island -- a collaboration that, alas, is now never to be. In the Acknowledgements section of his book, Michael offers this moving tribute:
"Though, to my great regret, I never met him, the name of Louie Kamookak, the Inuit historian who died in March 2018 at the age of fifty-eight, came up again and again in my research for the book. He wanted, above all, to find Franklin's grave, and it is a huge sadness that time ran out for him. But he won't be forgotten. Everyone who has ever been curious about the fate of the Franklin expedition owes a huge debt of thanks to him for his dogged and thorough research."
Michael with Chris Cran's portrait of Louie
And now those thanks come full circle, as the Royal Canadian Geographical Society has presented Mr. Palin with its first Louie Kamookak medal. It was a surprise honor, given on the occasion of the book event at the new RCGS headquarters at 50 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, and although Michael was characteristically modest in saying he felt he didn't deserve it, to my mind it's entirely apropos. I feel sure that Louie, from wherever he journeys now, would feel the same. No book in many years has commanded the audience of Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time, and none has brought home the human elements of its dramas -- both in the Antarctic and the Arctic -- as eloquently.  It's those aspects -- both the courage and resourcefulness of Franklin's men, and the curiosity and 'doggedness' of those who have searched for him and his ships for all these years -- that both Louie and Michael embody.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lost and Found: The Beechey Island Anvil Block

Courtesy Glenbow Museum
Just in the wake of this year's round of dives by Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists, here's a powerful reminder that, sometimes, the most significant finds can be made right at home. Over the years, relics of the Franklin expedition -- the vast majority of which are in storage at various museums -- have sometimes gone missing -- not stolen, only misplaced, or perhaps imperfectly catalogued when paper records have given way to digital ones. One of the most intriguing of these items has long been the "anvil block" recovered from Beechey Island in 1850; although it was depicted in the newspapers and exhibited alongside other Franklin materials, it hasn't been seen in public since the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891, and efforts to trace it at the National Maritime Museum had -- up until quite recently -- led to a dead end.

But now -- mirabile dictu! -- it has been found in the collection of the Glenbow Museum. The story of its loss and discovery now forms a fresh chapter of the renewed interest in the Franklin story. Back in the early 1960's the Royal United Services Institute -- which had charge of the majority of the Franklin relics -- was understaffed and underfunded, and a decision was made to refocus its mission, with the closure of the museum one of the consequences. The vast majority of its collections of Naval interest were transferred to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but -- for reasons that are still unknown -- some of the items were made available to other institutions.

From Smucker (1857)
Some forward-looking curator at the Glenbow must have realized the significance of the return of such an object to the nation in which it was first found, and thus the anvil block -- which, in the interim of time, had become festooned with various metal items also found at Beechey -- was duly shipped to Calgary. It's a fascinating artifact -- not only because of its association with the discovery of Franklin's winter quarters at Beechey Island in 1850, but because of the still-unfolding mystery of the "metals" it wears. Early depictions of the anvil block -- such as the one at right from Samuel Smucker's 1857 compilation of Arctic narratives -- show it was unadorned when first retrieved. And yet, by some point in the late 1870's, someone -- presumably at the RUSI Museum -- had decided to fasten all manner of metal items to it, including a large eyebolt. The new photographs taken by the Glenbow show these items to be still very firmly in place, though some seem to have shifted a bit, and one (the horizontal metal strip shaped like a crenelated wall) has gone missing.

As depicted in 1878
The collections at the Glenbow are renowned for their depth as well as breadth -- but of course this has meant, in practice, that the proportion of materials is storage is high compared to the space for their display. Happily, the occasion of the rediscovery and conservation of the anvil block is also that of the opening of a new exhibition, curated in part by Travis Lutley, The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century.  The images and artifacts displayed are meant to show the  "contrast the cultural and technological differences between Arctic inhabitants and Arctic visitors." In this remarkable array of materials, the anvil block will be joined by Inuit tools and decorative items, a miniature Bible book-dummy carved from the wood of HMS "Terror," colored plates from the expedition narratives of Parry, Franklin, Back, and McClintock, and even an original tin of the notorious "Ox Cheek Soup." Among the highlights of the two-dimensional materials are some pencil sketches and watercolors made by Elisha Kent Kane, chromolithographs of Samuel Gurney Creswell's Arctic scenes, and William Bradford's striking "The English Arctic Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin." It's a dazzling array of visual and cultural materials, and one which brings back into the light many scenes and objects that have lingered too long in storage. With the "Death in the Ice" exhibit closing and heading to Mystic Seaport, it also offers Canadians as well as visitors from abroad a fresh opportunity to see significant materials relating to the Franklin expedition -- materials that happily are part of a permanent collection.


The finding and identification of the anvil block is a story all its own. Starting with a copy of an engraving posted to the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook page (the same one from which the detail above was taken) by Kristina Gehrmann in 2015, it led to a lively discussion involving William Battersby, Kat Stoetzel Andrés Paredes, and Randall Osczevski, but it was Regina Koellner who finally made the connection to a captioned illustration indicating that the mystery object was the anvil block. I then wrote to Claire Warrior at the National Maritime Museum, and she checked the records of the original transfer of items from the RUSI Museum to the NMM; the anvil block was not among them. It was a nearly two years later when I heard from Travis Lutley at the Glenbow; seeking to confirm the identity an object in their collections, he'd consulted Garth Walpole's book (which reproduces the illustrations above) and gotten in touch with Claire Warrior to confirm -- and the anvil block was found!