Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Mystery of the "Peglar" Papers

The sight was truly a melancholy one. In the words of Francis Leopold McClintock, “Shortly after midnight of the 25th May, when slowly walking along a gravel ridge which the winds kept partially bare of snow, I came upon a human skeleton, partly exposed, with here are there a few fragments of clothing appearing through the snow. The skeleton, now perfectly bleached, was lying upon its face; and it was a melancholy truth that the old Esquimaux woman spoke when she said, that they fell down and died as they walked along.” And yet this skeleton, remarkably enough, bore with it one of the most enigmatic documents in the whole Franklin mystery. In the words of Allen Young, who published his account in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860, “the Captain’s party found a human skeleton upon the beach as the man had fallen down and died, with his face to the ground; and a pocket-book, containing letters in German which have not yet been deciphered, was found close by."

Whose was this skeleton? And what were these letters? As it turns out, they were not written in German, although the mistake was understandable, given the frequent occurrence of words such as “Meht,” “Kniht,” and “Eht” – but on further examination, it was discovered that they were in fact in English, only written backwards. Why this would have been done is a difficult question – for my part, I can only suppose that there was some desire to conceal the contents of a sailor’s letters from his shipmates, whose rudimentary literacy would have made transposing the letters a daunting task.

The ownership of the letters posed yet another question; because among them was the seaman’s certificate of one Harry Peglar, they have been dubbed the “Peglar Papers” for years, and the name has stuck. McClintock’s description of the body, however, rules Peglar out; on its being turned over, the seaman’s uniform was found to be better preserved on the side that had faced the ground; his neckerchief was tied in the distinctive manner of a ship’s steward – something Peglar, a senior sailor with the title of “Captain of the Foretop,” would never have done. So the assumption now is that this must have been a friend of Peglar’s, carrying letters home for his since-deceased shipmate. An excellent candidate has been proposed in Thomas Armitage, who was the gun-room steward (servant of the junior officers) aboard HMS Terror, and had served alongside Peglar on several earlier voyages.

Backwards writing, it turns out, is only one problem facing anyone who tackles these papers – the paper is blotched and foxed, and has heavy folds, along which in many places pieces of the paper have broken off. At some point, an attempt to darken the ink with a re-agent damaged parts of the writing, perhaps irretrievably. Most frustratingly of all, where they can be made out, the papers consist mostly of a sailor’s reminiscences of warmer climes, particularly in Cunamar, Venezuela, a source no doubt of pleasure while trapped on board an ice-bound ship in the Arctic zone, but of no value in solving the Franklin mystery, and offering scant insight into the state of mind of Franklin’s men.

Nevertheless, scattered about in these letters are passages which are highly suggestive of events on board the ships. Like many writers with limited literacy, Peglar (or Armitage) added in asides about current events right in the midst of the old stories he was recounting. Thus we have phrases such as “brekfest to be short rations,” “whose is this coffee,” and “the Terror camp clear,” which – if only we could know more of their context – would seem enormously significant. Mixed in with these, alas, we have ample shares of doggerel verse, including a mildly obscene parody of the poet Barry Cornwall’s well-known ditty “The Sea,” accounts of tropical parties and turtle soup, and a paean to someone’s dog.

The most intriguing passage of all is one identified early on as possibly having some reference to life on the ships just prior to their abandonment: “We will have his new boots in the middel watch ... as we have got some very hard ground to heave a... shall want some grog to wet houer wissel ... all my art tom for I dont think for ..r now clozes should lay and furst mend 21st night a gread.” The “new boots” are assumed to be boots such as those found by McClintock and other searchers, which had been modified onboard by the addition of nails or cleats – these were clearly meant for the sledge-haulers. “Hard ground to heave” may be a reference to hauling sledges – or perhaps to digging graves (one thinks of the sailor buried by Parry near Igloolik, in the clearing of whose grave six pickaxes were broken on the frozen gravel). The “21st night a gread” is most tempting of all; might this be the 21st of April 1848, four days before the amended record was left near Victory Point?

Richard Cyriax, the founding father of Franklin studies, spent weeks on the papers, and prepared a typewritten transcript of what he could make out which still accompanies them at the Caird Library of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I myself have spent several days going over the original papers, which have been covered in archival gauze to preserve the fragile material, but have rarely been able to improve on Cyriax’s readings; some of the text readable to him has since faded away. It may be possible someday, by use of ultraviolet light or computer-enhanced imagery, to recover something of what’s now illegible, but even then, the enigmatic quality of these papers remains. Their writer never imagined that they would be among the very few written materials ever recovered from the Expedition, and there are uncertainties in their contents that will probably never be resolved. Nevertheless, they add a further sense of wonder to the larger mystery of the final fate of Franklin’s men.


  1. Are there other known instances of backwards writing during the mid 19th century?

    Is it even remotely possible (since the handwriting looks so neat and legible except for the backwardness of it) that the ink bled or absorbed through the paper and then somehow left no mark on the original side? (I guess I am asking if it is scientifically possible for ink and paper to act this way)

  2. Hi Paige,

    Good questions! I have asked a number of scholars who have some knowledge of 19th-century manuscript hands, but none so far has known of any other instances quite like this one. The odd thing is that it isn't mirror-writing like Da Vinci's, but forward-facing letters in backwards order (which is why bleed-through isn't a possible explanation). Ink does bleed through at places where it landed in blobs (most sheets are written on both sides), but other than that there's no connection. If any crypotographers or paleographers happen upon this blog entry, I'd welcome their insights or suggestions!

  3. I've looked at those papers at Caird as well. I recall the curator's description being very obscure, such that I had no idea what I was getting when the papers arrived--looking more like a surgical prep kit with all of the gauze. It took me a minute or two to find Cyriax's card and then I knew what I had. The only thing I would add is that Peglar's seaman's papers are on vellum (?) i.e. sheepskin, and they are congealed to make an amber colored, solid mass about the size of a box of Tic Tacs.

    The papers are so delicate. . . One really gets the sense of how tenuous a communication they actually are, having spent more than nine years in the Arctic weather in the pocket of a corpse.

  4. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/slang2.html

  5. What I meant to say before I pressed the "Post Comment" button inadvertently was that this reminds me of secret language or cant called backslang which was used by tradesmen amongst themselves to keep their conversation secret from their customers. One example which has become mainstream is the word "yob" which is "boy" backwards.

  6. I'd thought of the backslang angle, although even the densest examples of such cant that I've seen use it only for the main nouns and verbs, never for articles, prepositions, etc. It's worth noting that the author of the "Peglar" papers occasionally forgets to "backwards" a word, and in the few places where he inserts a word with a carat the word is nearly always forwards (there's an example in the small detail image I used here on this site).

    Here's an even bigger puzzler: most of the papers were folded and sealed with red wax, and addressed as would be letters -- but the addresses were *also* backwards. One wonders what the Royal Mail would have done with them ...

    thanks again for your comment!

  7. I wonder if whoever wrote that letter, did so just to kill time, find something to do, given the miserable situation they were in?

  8. Interesting. Paige (above) asked the same questions that I had.

    Could Peglar have had some kind of writing disorder? I didn't know these were sealed and addressed letters either. That might indicate that the writer didn't know he was writing backwards.

    Woodman lists the Gladman Point body as belonging to Thomas (not William) Armitage. This makes "all my art tom" stick out. It seems as if Peglar was writing to his friend Thomas Armitage.

    Thanks for posting an image of these papers. I have heard about the strange writing but never actually seen it.

  9. My bad, *Thomas* not William Armitage was the gun-room steward. So yes, "All my art Tom" suggests a conncection, although why a man would write a letter to a shipmate then puzzles a bit.

    I wish I could post the entirety of the images of the manuscripts, but the NMM is very protective of its rights ... I do plan to post again with the topic of the addresses and Cyriax's analysis ...

    best, RP

  10. In 1984, Cyriax's former secretary, A G E Jones, came down firmly on the side that suggests that the skeleton found on King William Island was that of Thomas Armitage. In his view, Peglar was already dead and Armitage was carrying his service record and letters as a service to an old shipmate. However, Jones was of the opinion that the backward writing was that of Armitage, not Peglar. If that was the case (and I would hesitate to challenge A G E Jones), it would probably rule out any form of 'writing disorder'. Armitage, being a gunroom steward, would have to be able to produce accounts and records for inspection. The presentation of such records etc. with backwards writing would have soon seen a smart change in direction. A clue may be seen in the 'mildly obscene parody' of Cornwall's poem. It would be unlikely that Armitage would have wanted this to have been widely read and, like the remainder of the backwards writing, simply a simple means of keeping them private.

    As for the backwards writing itself, it bears all the hallmarks of a typical Victorian parlour game, used to entertain children and lovers. There would have been plenty of time at sea to polish the skill to such an extent that a neat hand could result.

    Prior to deciding that the skeleton was that of Armitage, Cyriax and Jones published 'The Papers in the Possession of Harry Peglar, Captain of the Foretop, HMS Terror, 1845.' in the Mariner's Mirror, Vol 40, no. 3 (March 1954).

    E C Coleman

  11. Delighted to hear from my good friend E C Coleman on this post, and to learn that A G E Jones came 'round to the view that the body found by McClintock was indeed Armitage's. I think he was absolutely right.

    In their 1954 article, Cyriax and Jones note that Peglar was educated by the Marine Society. This institution, still active after 250+ years, was known in the nineteenth century for training sailors, and particularly for preparing young men to work as stewards -- I wonder if the connection between Armitage and Peglar might have reached that far back.

    I also agree wholeheartedly that the use of the backwards writing by a man trained in clerical work (Cyriax and Jones note that the writer's penmanship was excellent, even if his spelling was sometimes deficient) in order to shield it from the perusal of others makes excellent sense. The slightly racy nature of the material seems to match perfectly with such a simple "parlour game" level of encryption, which is also consistent with the writer's occasional lapses into "forwards" writing. It still does puzzle me that the addresses, too, were backwards (see the posting following this), but Armitage must have hoped and expected that his letters, conveyed in the hands of a trusted friend, would have been transposed and delivered had that friend ever reached safety.

  12. Thank you, Professor Potter, for the opportunity to dip my oar in waters that can often be both dangerous, and confusing. If I may refer to the research carried out by A G E Jones once again, Armitage (born 1807, son of Thomas and Jane Armitage) entered the Royal Navy as a 'Boy' in 1819. The first time he came across Harry Peglar was when he served in HMS Gannett from May, 1834 (he was noted as being 28 years old, 5 ft 9 inches tall, with a fresh complexion, brown hair, and hazel eyes). Peglar (5 ft 7 and a half inches tall, with dark complexion, brown hair, and grey eyes) had entered the Gannett a month earlier. Armitage was paid off from the Gannett in 1837, and Peglar in February, 1838. Whilst serving in the 'Tallavara' (Talavera)around 1830, Peglar would have met the supernumary clerk, Cyrus Wakeman, who had served with Parry in the Griper on the 1819-20 Arctic expedition. With him in the Gannett, was the purser, C H Osmer, and Midshipman J W F Fairholme - both of whom later served under Franklin in the Erebus.

    E C Coleman

  13. Absolutely fascinating! I too have heard about these letters but I didn't know rthat they were so extensive. Stuff I had read before gave me the impression that it it consisted of a short note about death. Well that is wrong. I'm curious about whether or not anyone as published the complete letters, notes whatever you might want to call them. Certainly in my opinion it would be worth while for all those Franklin researchers out their who might hve a hard time getting to the Caird Library.

  14. ***s77!>|S aJJez!q 7eJa/\aS do7a/\ap o+ h+!7!qe aH+ a/\eH a7doad '+ua7e+ Jo\pue aw!+ H6noua ua/\!6

    Let me translate:
    given enough time and/or talent, people have the ability to develop several bizarre skills...

    Very interesting story though, I'd love to do research on such fascinating questions!

  15. Dear Prof, I am thrilled and thank you so much,This morning i was reading about Peglar in one of the essays by Alistair Cooke's letter from America.and came across this, I being a graphic designer familiar about the backward writing, was surprised at many connections firstly the incidences are like Cannery row where Doc goes out for collecting samples and looks at a body staring at him.
    Later i realise , Alaister is talking about Westbrook Peglar.who died somewhere in 1969. and calls him " one of the outrageous man who was one of the best American humorist of any time" but i see a small para quoted from the life On the Mississippi. has some parallel with the writing of this Peglar papers. So interesting does all Peglars think alike?

  16. I’m a decade late to the party, but for those who come across this in the future, and for those of you still receiving updates from this comment section, I recommend checking out AMC’s The Terror, a masterpiece of television adapted from a masterpiece of literature by Dan Simmons. Both depict a fictional account of the Franklin expedition. The Peglar Papers make a brief appearance there, and one episode of the series actually takes its title from the rendition of “The Sea” found in the papers, and another gets its title from the enigmatic phrase “Terror Camp Clear.”

    In any case, for those interested, and who haven’t already seen it, I highly, highly recommend the series—it is perhaps the best TV show of 2018, and is easily one of my favorite series ever.

    1. Great comment -- and yes it was amazing to see the degree to which the Terror's writers took up the Peglar story. And yes, the series as a whole is fantastic -- my old recaps/reviews are now all here.