Friday, April 17, 2009

The Londonderry Vision

In 1850, after hearing no word from Sir John Franklin for nearly five years, the entire western world was understandably anxious as to his fate. And yet the small flotilla of ships that sailed into the Arctic archipelago that summer were only part of the response; from London to Calcutta, physics, sensetives, and mesmerists were hunkering down to their crystal balls, each seeking to outdo the others in the vividness of their visions of Franklin in the realms of frost. Most of these were -- inaccurately, as it was later learned -- optimistic in tone; Franklin was sick but still living; his men were struggling with the ice but sure to break through. Such happy prognostications surely raised hopes and pleased those who believed them, and yet there was one such vision that offered no such solace. It was, in fact, remarkably accurate, although whether its accuracy can be attributed to psychic powers or fortunate chance is a matter of some debate.

A Belfast merchant captain, William Coppin, arrived in London seeking audience with Lady Franklin. Given that her Ladyship had refused many such offers, it's remarkable in the first instance that she decided to see him at all; her niece Sophia Cracroft wrote disparagingly of the plethora of would-be psychics, and did not have much faith in this latest offering. Nevertheless, a meeting was arranged, at which Coppin told a most curious story: his youngest daughter, Louisa (known to her family as as "Weasey") had died about a year past just short of her fifth birthday. The family took the loss hard, and indeed continued to set a place for little Weasey at the dinner table. Some months after her death, her older sister Anne, along with others of her siblings, began to report seeing a strange blue light which flickered, moved along the wall, and seemed capable of drawing images upon it.

After the blue light apparently predicted the death of the family's banker, the Coppin children had grown more bold, their father reported, deciding to ask the question that was on everyone's lips -- whatever had become of Sir John Franklin? The response was astonishing: an Arctic scene, in the form of a chart, was suddenly visible before them, while on the wall there appeared the words "Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin, Lanacaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel." This the children dutifully reported to their father upon his return from his latest voyage, and he -- though initially angry and skeptical -- was eventually persuaded at least of their sincerity. A second vision with the Captain present produced the same results, as did -- if later accounts can be credited -- a third seance in the presence of William Kennedy, who had been asked by Lady Franklin to investigate the credibility of the Coppin story.

These tests apparently being passed -- according to some sources she met with Coppin on as many as 30 occasions -- she supposedly asked Charles Forsyth and William Kennedy, who were about to embark on their search, to pursue this course of action if possible. It was quite possibly while following her instructions that they discovered Bellot strait -- no passage west from the Gulf of Boothia being known at the time of the original "revelations." Kennedy in fact was at this point closer than any other searcher had yet managed to discovering the fate of Franklin, but ice conditions and the lateness of the season persuaded him to push no further west. Apparently, although Lady Franklin made some efforts to persuade W.A.B. Hamilton, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, to search in this area (without disclosing the source of her wish), no further instructions along these lines were passed along to later expeditions.

These revelations were not published in full until 1889, when a certain Reverend Skewes published a book elaborating them. This brought strong objections from none other than Sir Leopold McClintock, who in a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, declared that "the whole story of the Londonderry vision is so ridiculous that I hesitate to mention it," and denied that he had ever been instructed by Lady Franklin to follow its directions. Nevertheless, it has continued to haunt the Franklin story, inspiring a novel (Liam Browne's The Emigrant's Farewell) as well as a scene in John Walker's film Passage (see above for an image of James Wallace, in his role as Captain Coppin). Noted Arctic scholars Talph Lloyd-Jones and W. Gillies Ross have also published fascinating studies of these clairvoyant claims about Franklin in the Polar Record [37:200 (2000)], [39:208 (2003)].


  1. Given my skepticism of so-called psychic phenomena, I have numerous questions here.

    Do we have contemporaneous (1850) evidence to corroborate the "full" account published in 1889? Specifically, do we have contemporaneous (1850) evidence that William Coppin actually spoke to Lady Franklin in 1850 and specifically mentioned to her Point Victory, Lanacaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, etc.? I'm not asking if we have 1850s evidence that Coppin met with Lady Franklin ... I'm asking if there is 1850s evidence that he specifically mentioned those geographic features to Lady Franklin.

    This strikes me as the crux of the matter. Every other psychic phenomena produces claims with no such specificity. Psychics typically produce un-specific blather that can be interpreted to mean just about anything; and when non-psychic means eventually solve the mystery, the psychic then goes ahead and re-interprets his earlier statements as an exact fit to the actual solution.

  2. The problem you mention about such claims being revised retroactively is not an uncommon one. However, in this case, there is at least some corroborating evidence that, at least, Lady Franklin was indeed in regular contact with Coppin, and had urged Hamilton to search these areas. W. Gillies Ross quotes her as stating, in an 1850 letter to Hamilton, that "Mr Coppin continues to write to us, & each time he says the ship is seen at the same place but the ice is breaking all around her." This letter, dated 3 June 1850, is in the Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Stef MS 180.

  3. So this brings up the next question ... in 1850, before any discovery of Franklin Expedition relics, were the locations "Lanacaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel" known? If a Brit of that time trundled down to his local library to read up on Franklin's expedition and view the maps of the area and check the 1850 edition of Google Earth, would he have found documents pointing out or mentioning those locations? How much of Franklin's planned path was known in Britain at that time?

  4. As of 1850, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, and Point Victory were all known and named. The only landmark I'm not certain about is Victoria Channel. The route said to be described by Weasey, however, is not the one Franklin would have been expected to take; he had been ordered if possible to sail southwest from Cape Walker, which would have meant avoiding Prince Regent's Inlet. Indeed, since the existence of Bellot Strait was unknown, the sequence of locations named in the "Revelation" would not have been considered a possible water-route by a person with the knowledge of 1850 (JC Ross had reached Victory Point by sledge).

    Among the most remarkable bits of evidence offered by Skewes is a copy of a map in the possession of William Parker Snow, said by him to have been drawn based on Weasey's revelations in 1850. Although the proportions are a bit off, the location of Bellot Strait (not named on the chart), the location of one of Franklin's ships (accurately labelled "ship with no men in it") and indeed the fact that King William was an island -- all unknown in 1850 and subsequently shown to be true -- are plainly shown.

    I have placed a copy of this map in my Picasa album -- there seems no way to easily include it within the comment box -- go to:

  5. "... said by him to have been drawn based upon Weasey's revelations in 1850". This is a very weak link in the chain of evidence. Mark me down as continuing to be a dis-believer in the hypothesis of Weasey Coppin having some psychic revelation.

    Also: We have no been introduced to Mr. William Parker Snow in this narrative. Who is he?

  6. Well, for starters, I'd emphasize that I myself do not believe in psychic powers of any kind -- but I find the human tendency to believe in them quite interesting. The Coppin story is interesting to me precisely because it is difficult to explain, but that does not mean I believe it.

    William Parker Snow's map would be more credible if his own character wasn't so poor. Snow was a professional idler and sometime journalist who, despite having as a young man gone AWOL from the Royal Navy, had managed to get himself appointed in 1850 to the crew of the Prince Albert, a ship sent by Lady Franklin to aid in the search for her lost husband. He wrote a book about the journey on his return, and his account of Franklin was widely reprinted in the UK and US. Later, he helped the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall get his first book through the press, but afterwards tried to back out of his contract, falsely claiming he, not Hall, had written most of the manuscript (his charges were eventually thrown out by the court). Skewes, the author of the book on the Coppin revelation, evidently went to the trouble of getting Snow to authenticate the map. If we could find some reference to the map from 1850, it might still be possible to establish its relevance, but as it is, I would certainly take it with a slight grain of salt.

  7. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the message the children actually delivered was something like "ETSJFLSPRIPVVC" which then got interpreted (by someone) to mean "Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin" etc. But I don't know where I read it. Have you heard such a thing yourself?

    By the way, I love reading your posts, old and new, as well as the Arctic Book Review. Thank you for so much fascinating information!

  8. "Kennedy in fact was at this point closer than any other searcher had yet managed to discovering the fate of Franklin..."

    I have a question about this. In Kennedy's 'short narrative' of this search, at the western end of Bellot Strait, he states:

    "We had arrived at a point where, in pursuance of a plan I had the privilege of submitting to Lady Franklin before leaving England, the future direction of our
    route must be regulated by the appearance this western sea might present. If such as to afford a reasonable prospect of Franklin's having passed through to the south, our proper course would have been south also; but on examining the coastline to the northward, nothing could be seen but a continuous barrier of land extending from North Somerset to ... Prince of Wales Land.
    ...and accordingly [we] had no alternative but to proceed westward with the view of ascertaining whether any more promising channel existed farther west, through which Franklin might have penetrated from Cape Walker."

    Why doesn't Kennedy consider that Franklin might have passed through the strait he had just discovered, Bellot Strait, and therefore turn south?