Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Grave of Lieutenant Irving?

Without a doubt, one of the most poignant discoveries of the American Franklin Searching Expedition led by Frederick Schwatka was that of the grave of Lieutenant John Irving. Unlike other burials made farther down the coast of King William Island, Irving's grave had been constructed with considerable care and labor, with a ring of stones which, at one point, may have been covered over to make a complete sepulcher of stone. The remains were identified on account of a medallion, awarded to Irving for his achievement in maths, which was found lying nearby. Schwatka, moved by this memorial, did something only done once before -- he decided to collect the remains and send them back to England for burial. This was in fact done, and apparently the identification of the body was fully accepted; the remains were buried at Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh, in an elaborate ceremony presided over by Irving's brother, who by then had risen to the rank of Major General.

And yet supposing this was this Irving's skeleton, one wonders: how could this be his grave? Its site, quite close to that of Ross's cairn at Victory Point, poses a difficult puzzle; since Irving is mentioned in the Victory Point note as having found Ross's cairn, we can safely presume he was fit enough to be sent on such a mission. And yet here, a stone's throw distant, lies his grave? Did Irving meet with some sudden end, so soon after the Victory Point record that the main body of the expedition had not yet moved on? It's often surmised that Irving must have for some reason been sent back later to the ships, and that this explains the gap in time. Yet a grave such as his, with its heavy stones, would almost certainly have been beyond the means of a small party of men some time after the abandonment to construct; with scurvy and exhaustion rampant, the graves the later survivors managed -- when they managed them at all -- consisted of laying out the body and covering it with a few shovels of gravel. The men who built this monument must have been fit, and the time ample, for such a substantial undertaking.

And even then, the scale of the burial seems significant. Irving, as an officer, would certainly have received a formal burial of some kind, but the heavy construction of this tomb suggests that the body was that of a very senior commander. Elsewhere in this blog, I've passed along the "Supunger" tale, in which an Inuk hunter, quite near Victory Point, discovered a stone tomb, partially filled with water. The tomb was covered with heavy slabs of stone, but Supunger and his uncle managed -- with considerable effort -- to pry one off. Inside they found part of a skeleton, along with a few rusted relics, among them a clasp knife. Other parts of the body were strewn outside, and by this, along with claw-marks at the grave's edge, Supunger deduced that a polar bear must have broken into the grave. Might not this same grave, its roof removed and its edges eroded by a decade of frost, ice, and water, be the same one later found by Schwatka and assumed to be Iriving's?

The identification by the medallion is certainly a weak one. In the case of Le Vesconte, an examination of the skull showed a tooth with a gold plug that evidently corresponded with dental work that officer was known to have had. There's no indication that Irving's bones received any such examination; they were simply delivered to his family. And indeed the math medal, according to the accounts of Schwatka and his men, was lying on the edge of the grave. It might have been left there by anyone; indeed, if we assume that this is the grave of a more senior officer, it might have been left there by Irving as a tribute to a dead friend.

I'm providing links to the complete texts of the Supunger story, as well as to that of Schwatka -- perhaps a fresh look at the evidence is in order. Many who have read Supunger's tale have come to believe that the grave could only have been that of Sir John Franklin himself -- if indeed this tomb was the same as that found by Schwatka, it could well be that Franklin's bones have, in fact, already been returned to Britain -- but simply buried in the wrong grave!


  1. Russell, are there any known verifiable items that belonged to Sir John Franklin or Lt. Irving such as a lock of hair that could provide a DNA sample?

    1. The DNA could perhaps be tested against living relatives. The more pertinent question, I suppose, is whether there is enough verifiable DNA evidence in the grave at Dean to make a comparison.

  2. That's getting way ahead of ourselves -- I'd think that much more substantive evidence would be needed to justify exhumation -- but there are Franklin descendants living, should it ever come up, and perhaps Irving as well.

    But the first question here is, I think, whether or not this grave, as discovered by Schwatka, might possibly be identical with Supunger's vault. If so, that would shake up a lot of our thinking about both accounts. I'll be posting more food for thought in this case later today!

  3. The Chronological History of Tamworth – NSW makes mention that my Great Great Grandfather, David Williamson Irving emigrated to NSW in 1837 and that he was appointed Police Magistrate of Tamworth in 1863; there is further mention that his elder Brother, John Irving came out with him but returned to Britain soon afterwards rejoining the Royal Navy. In family papers this John Irving is recorded as 3rd. Lt. John Irving RN and that he was a member of the ship’s company of HMS Terror where he was part of Sir. John Franklin’s ill fated attempt to find the North West Passage around Northern Canada. John Irving died in 1849. In 1879, an American, Lt. Schwatcha discovered John Irving’s remains, his body was transported to Edinburgh and was interred in Deans’ Yard. Sir John Franklin was at one time colonial governor of Tasmania where he may well have first met John Irving.

  4. 3rd. Lt John Irving is my Great Great Great Uncle.

  5. I think it is highly doubtful that it was Lieutenant Irving's grave as well. The two best candidates would be either Sir John Franklin or Commander Gore. Gore is referred to as the "late" Commander Gore in the Victory Point message. It is far more likely that he died in transit from the ships, or shortly after arrival to Victory Point. I like the idea that Lieutenant Irving left his medal at the grave as the only tribute available to him. My theory is that Sir John's body will be found on HMS Erebus.