Thursday, October 29, 2009

Franklin Memorial

There are numerous memorials to Sir John Franklin around the world -- the best-known ones are at Westminster Abbey and in Waterloo Place, but there are statues in his birthplace of Spilsby, in Hobart, Tasmania, and even in Alaska. Yet perhaps the least-well-known memorial is also one of the most remarkable: the enormous wall-size marble sculpture at the Chapel of the old Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich. For not only does it feature a lovely marble bas-relief of a ship and icebergs, but it incorporates into its base a sarcophagus containing the remains of one of Franklin's senior officers -- Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte -- sent back to England after its recovery by Charles Francis Hall in 1869.

This makes Le Vesconte one of only two officers (the other being John Irving) whose mortal remains received a proper burial back home. In Le Vesconte's case, his tomb has been a restless one; originally installed in the Painted Hall, the memorial was moved, bones and all, to a location in a back stairwell of the Chapel. In 2009, it was moved to a far more prominent position in the Chapel's entryway. As a matter of fact, this very evening, I've been invited to attend a special event at the Chapel which celebrates the rededication of this monument, and the legacy of the officers and men of the Franklin expedition ... I can't say more for now, but promise to describe the proceedings, and include photos and more, in another post soon to follow!


  1. Does any sort of autopsy report exist for LeVescount's (or Irving's) remains?

    I was hoping either he or Irving would be examined by modern forensic specialists but that doesn't seem to be likely now.

  2. There's certainly none for Irving, and no autopsy was done of Le Vesconte's remains. They were treated with the dignity befitting their being all that remained of an officer and a man, and nothing more intrusive than a camera was employed. There are arguments to made, certainly, for more extensive tests, but I'm not sure that there would be a great deal to be learned from them that we haven't already learned. In a future post, I'll be offering a link to a very thorough account of the disposition of the remains, and how they were re-interred, which Dr Huw Lewis-Jones has written for the latest issue of the Trafalgar Chronicle, so stay tuned ... I think you'll find it fascinating.

  3. Hello Russell. I would like your hear your thoughts as to the fate of the body of Sir John Franklin. If he died in 1847 my assumption is that his men were still reasonably healthy enough to give Franklin a decent and proper burial. But what did they do? Was Franklin buried at sea via an ice-hole his men dug or did they bury him in the ground or snow somewhere? If the later happened, I am somewhat mystified that no trace of Franklin’s gravesite has been found. You would think some prominence would have been given to his burial place. I highly doubt the surviving officers would have tolerated an anonymous gravesite for him. I’m convinced that they would have wanted someone to find the body eventually and have it returned to England. If that is the case, do you think important documents such as Franklin’s journal, letters, etc. would have been buried with him? Do you think there is any possibility that Franklin’s body was kept on either the Erebus or Terror with the hope that they would sail back to England someday?

  4. Ian, the question of Franklin's grave is an endlessly fascinating one. There is testimony, by a Pelly Bay Inuk hunter whom Hall named as Seepunger, of how he and his son went to the Victory Point area in 1863 looking for things to salvage. He said he found a deep vault, at the head of which was an enormous wooden pole (a flag-pole or part of a mast?) which looked as though it had been chewed off by bears. He and his son pried the lid off the vault, and found some skeleton bones, along with a clasp knife; bears had already clawed through the edge of the lid and parts of a skeleton lay scattered about nearby. Such a tomb, along with the pole, suggests a very important burial, but the site has not been located in modern times, despite Dave Woodman's ambitious "Project Seepunger." A land burial for a revered commander makes the most sense to me.

    Burial at sea is a possibility, but it would have required dynamiting the ice, and given that three ordinary sailors received land burials when the ships were near land, that seems unlikely for Franklin. Keeping the body on board ship would have been a macabre (not to mention smelly) option, and can I think be safely ruled out. The idea of returning bodies to England only seems to have found favor with American searchers such as Hall and Schwatka.

  5. It does seem likely that Franklin would have ben buried on land. But it is a bit strange that despite much searcing it has not been found on the nearby part of King Willam island. of course given the amount of area to cover perhaps it isn't so strange. Of course Franklin could have requested to be buried at sea. It would be of interest to know if Franklin expresed any wishes on the matter, or what Lady Jane Franklin thought.

    I'm curious about the vault story, which I have read about elsewhere. It is hard to believe that given people since c. 1859 crawling all over the place looking for Franklin remains all around and on Victory point that such a vault would have been missed. So assuming Hall wasn't being fed a bill of goods just what did the Inuit who told him this mean and how was it translatd as vault? I strongly suspect that assuming the Inuit discovered a grave and inspected it for useful items to take that they did not describe a European burial vault to Hall, but some how Hall ended up calling it a vault. Now I can see missing a grave.

  6. Hi Pacal,

    At the risk of making this post over-long, I present here a transcription from the Hall Papers -- this comes from Dave Woodman, with a few alterations/corrections I made after re-reading the original journal:

    Monday, June 4, 1866. An interview with Su-pung-er who with his family (natives of Pelly Bay) came with us keeping with our company most of the way from Lat. 68F8-00-00 N, Long. 88F8-17'-15" W (where I & my party met them) to this place. 3h-00 P.M. Present Su-pung-er, myself, my good Too-koo-li-too & the widow Mam-mark. Su-pung-er had just told us that when he & his uncle were on Ki-ik-tung (as the natives denominate King Williams Land) they saw something that was a great curiosity to them & they could not make out what it was for. From his description of it, Too-koo-li-too suggests that it was a cook stove - it was very heavy & all iron. It had on one side or end a great many small pieces of iron close enough together to make it look something like spears - fish spears. By his language & symbolizing, these pieces of iron can be none other than a grate in the stove for burning hard coal. There were several heavy Oot-koo-seeks (kettles) with handles or bales. Too-koo-li-too has asked Su-pung-er why he did not get these kettles. He answers that he & uncle had as much of other things as they could carry & these Oot-koo-seeks were very heavy. Su-pung-er himself had 3 Boats oars & a mast besides some smaller articles that he found. The place where this curiosity (stove) was, was close by the large tu-pik (tent). The tent they found was close by the coast above Back's Bay, not far from Victory Point as Su-pung-er has shown on the chart that I placed before him. A little back (inland) from the tent, was where his uncle 1st found a large piece of wood - a post or pillar sticking up & this drew his uncle's attention to something by it. The pillar was broken off. They both thought it had been broken off by a Ni-noo. This post or pillar was sticking upright in the ground & was beside some flat stones that were very tight to-gether. They thought there must be something covered up by these stones & they tried very hard to get one loose. There was a hole near one end that appeared to have been made by some strong wild animal. After trying to raise one of these stones & failing they went back to where the tupik was. After a while they concluded to go & make other attempts to raise some of the stones where the pillar was found. At last they were successful in raising enough of the stones to see what they covered up. They found a hole of the depth from the feet up to the navel & of a length more than a man's height & wider than the width of a man's shoulders & this was all nicely walled with flat stones placed one above another, flatwise. In this vault they found a clasp knife, a skeleton bone of a man's leg & a human head (skull). There was much water, mud & sand at the bottom of the vault. The sand had been carried in by water, as they thought, running in at the hole that had been made by the wild animal on one side of the vault. Near this vault they saw parts of a human skeleton with fragments of clothing on the limbs. There was no head about these skeleton bones & Su-pung-er & his uncle concluded that the same wild animal that had made the hole in the vault had taken these skeleton bones out of the vault & dragged them where he & his uncle saw them. Su-pung-er had on this page at my desire just been marking out with my pen the vault covered with stones. It is a very rude draft as Nuk-er-zhoo (who happened to come in at the time Su-pung-er was making it) placed his finger on this plan before the ink had dried thus defacing it. I will have Su-pung-er make another & then proceed to describe it.

  7. Thank you, Russell for your response.

    I am not familiar with the Seepunger account and I appreciate the information you have provided here. I certainly hope that wasn’t Franklin’s grave they found. Finding his body intact and undisturbed would be of tremendous value to us today.

    My suggestion of keeping his body onboard one of the ships was probably based on the “dead room” aboard the Terror that Dan Simmons described in his novel. I supposed it could have been cold enough to maintain a morgue but maybe not.

    Moving along, WHAT would happen if Franklin’s body was found? Would that be decided by the Canadian government or does the U.K. or Royal Navy still technically lay claim to it? Lady Jane Franklin almost certainly would have wanted him returned to England though I suppose an argument could be made to leave Franklin near his men. I’m curious if there are any living descendants of Franklin’s family who have expressed an opinion on this matter.

  8. I've read about Seepunger and his uncle visiting Victory Point and unearthing Lt. Irving but haven't heard about the "vault."

    Henrich Klutshack made a sketch of Irving's grave. The grave appears to have been marked (covered?) with flat stones like those on Beechy Island.

    An important question to ask is "Why would Franklin be buried at or near Victory Point?"

  9. There's been some confusion as to the exact location of this story -- Seepunger and his Uncle traveled up the eastern coast of KWI, and on their way came upon cairns (at one of these, they found an intact message cylinder, opened it, and threw the paper away). a signpost (possibly one with a pointing hand such as that found on Beechey Island) and eventually the load of equipment abandoned near Victory Point. It's possible that the grave covered with stones was Irving's, though the depth claimed was far greater than Irving's relatively shallow burial-place (described by Klutschak as "a grave-vault but built above ground"). The sketch you mention shows the skull just adjacent to this tomb, whereas in Supunger's story the skull was still within and it was other body parts which where scattered outside.

    Welcome to the fascinating but uncertain world of Inuit oral testimony! While there is, I am certain, an underlying truth in Seepunger's story, our ability to corroborate it with locations or other physical evidence is severely limited at this distance of time.

  10. "at one of these, they found an intact message cylinder, opened it, and threw the paper away"

    Good grief.

  11. Unfortunately, the Inuit threw away almost every book or note they found because paper was useless to them. (If they knew what it was then I believe they would have saved it).

    David Woodman's first book has a number of instances where books and journals were thrown away. Hobson finding the Victory Point document is a very good indication that the Inuit never visited the spot until after 1859. The the northern coast of KWI is almost a moonscape.

    McClintock also found some empty cairns along the south coast of KWI and he believed that something had been taken out the cairn at Cape Herschel. Except for these instances, any records would have needed to survive (at a minimum) until Schwatka's expedition in 1879. I don't mean to say that there can't be any record still out there but rather that records described by the Inuit at places such as Terror Bay and Starvation Cove would have been destroyed before a search could be conducted in the summer months when the snow is off the land. Also, in 1859 the tin containing the Victory Point note was close to disintegrating. Thinking of it this way, in number of cases it may not have made a difference if the Inuit left the records insitu or threw them away. (I still think there may be something preserved at Starvation Cove, down in the mud or permafrost).

    The Expedition would have taken many pages of notes and observations in addition to any journals kept. Some of these may survive in the wrecks of the ships.

    It doesn't make sense to me that the Expedition survivors would bury the most important records (Franklin's journals and the log books) unless they believed it was no longer likely that they would make it home. Now page upon page of scientific observations? Maybe that would be different?

  12. I know but its still frustrating to hear of new accounts of notes, documents, etc. being tossed away and lost to the sands (or ice in this case) of time.

    You raise an interesting question regarding what the men would have bothered to carry towards the end of their lives. I suppose some crewmen tasked with carrying pages of scientific observations might have thought, "Oh the hell with this!". But we can only speculate. Though I think its fairly certain that the ship logs would have been treated well towards the end. Question is, were they buried in a secure place somewhere or was the last man living carrying them when he died?