Sunday, March 20, 2011

Who's in that Grave?

To riff on an old American joke, it turns out that it may not be Grant in that tomb. According to a forensic facial reconstruction, the skeletal remains reburied with great ceremony in 2009 in Greenwich may not have been those of Henry Dundas Le Vesconte, but rather those of Harry Goodsir, surgeon-naturalist of the Franklin expedition. On one level, it matters not; any honors bestowed upon the remains by sonorous ceremony, with the blessings of the Bishop of Woolwich and the speech of the Canadian Chargé d'affaires would be no less deserved if performed over the bones of any of Franklin's officers or men as had they been made for Le Vesconte. Nevertheless, the identity of this curious skeleton -- brought back to England's shores by way of the eccentric explorer Charles Francis Hall -- remains a bone of contention.

There are questions, of course. How accurate is a facial reconstruction, when it comes to making a positive identification? The technique was originated in the 1890's, but was not widely known outside forensic circles until Wilton W. Krogman popularized it in the 1960's. A particularly well-publicized case was that of German forensic scientist R.P. Helmer's identification of the skull of Nazi "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele in 1985. Helmer looked at photographs of a cross-section of the skull and compared them with known photos of Mengele while alive; by "merging" these two images and looking at specific points and proportions, Helmer felt he could make an identification with a fairly high degree of certainty. Another technique, building up the muscles and skin tissue on a skull or a cast of a skull, came somewhat later; originally used to reconstruct the probable appearance of primitive humans, it was later extended to modern remains. This technique depends upon the reconstructor's knowing something of the age, race, and gender of the subject, and involves a certain degree of interpretation.

The photo distributed with the news of this fresh view of the remains brought back by Hall suggests a blend of both techniques: a facial reconstruction model photographed and then superimposed on a photograph of the candidate. There are questions: given that we only have photographs of perhaps half of Franklin's officers, and none of his men, there might be matches that could be missed; given the limits of this procedure, results would be far stronger if corroborated by other sorts of evidence.

Happily, having had the opportunity, with thanks to one of its co-authors, to see the actual study, "New light on the personal identification of a skeleton of a member of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition to the Arctic, 1845" (Journal of Archaeological Science) I can say that there is substantially more to this identification than facial reconstruction. The jury may still be out, but we have some remarkable additional clues: The skeleton is definitively male, and was of a man between 23 and 59 years of age; he was probably tall and slender, and an isotope analysis of his tooth enamel shows that this individual almost certainly did not grow up in Devon, as did Le Vesconte. Moreover, whatever the precise accuracy of the facial reconstruction, the proportions of the skull and jaw are inconsistent with those of Le Vesconte. Lastly, there is the gold tooth filling -- a very gracefully inserted bit of metal, hardly the "plug" described by its first witnesses, in a tooth showing signs of careful filing -- which suggests someone who had very advanced dental care, in nineteenth-century terms.

And as it happens, Goodsir answers excellently to all these features: he grew up in Scotland, and had never served on a naval vessel prior to his service with Franklin; his face shows the basic features present in the skull, and his eldest brother -- John Goodsir, a scientific pioneer renowned for his medical teachings -- had commenced his career with a careful study of dentistry, with an eye to reforming and refining a hitherto rather brutal practice imposed upon its poor sufferers by ill-trained barber-surgeons. Indeed, John Goodsir's portrait in the Dictionary of National Biography reveals a nose that looks almost the exact match of the facial reconstruction, a helpful additional clue given that the nose of the younger Goodsir, his face turned three-quarters from the camera's eye, is less easily measurable than it would be in a head-on shot.

But there is one remaining issue. If DNA was collected from these bones, then it should be possible to find a match in Goodsir's collateral descendants. As one of several successful brothers, it would seem likely that there would be many candidates, but research so far has not located any. A DNA test would make the identification definitive, or (possibly) rule it out completely, but this would depend on finding a suitable candidate -- preferably someone descended via the female line, where mitochondrial DNA would be passed on unaltered.

But does it matter? Not for the memorial, certainly, which would stand as proudly whichever Franklin officer it honored (and indeed, it honors all of them). But possibly, for the understanding of the last months of the Franklin expedition, it does. Was Goodsir sent along with an advance party of some kind? As a surgeon-naturalist, would the presence of his remains indicate that science was still taking the lead, or rather that circumstances were dire enough that he was sent to perform ordinary medical duties with some party of last survivors? More needs to be done, but if the identification of this body is in error, perhaps the remains supposed to be those of Lieutenant John Irving -- the only other skeleton brought back to England -- should be examined as well.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Franklin Projections in Hobart

The statue of Sir John Franklin in Hobart, Tasmania, has doubtless seen its share of strange things, but those who visit in the next few weeks will see something stranger still. As part of a series projecting art all over Hobart, the pedestal of Sir John's statue, as well as several of the surrounding trees, have become the canvas for an art installation inspired by the story of Mathinna, the young Tasmanian girl adopted for a time by Lady Jane Franklin, and then left behind at an orphanage on her departure.

According to a recent article by Carol Raabus which appeared on the ABC Hobart news site, these installations, by Craig Walsh, are but the first of many planned for the "Ten Days on the Island" festival, which opens officially on March 25th. Those at Franklin square are the first, and bound to be among the most compelling, as they transform an area which -- by day at least -- has a staid and solid feeling into one which evokes a story that has crept out from between the bloodied floorboards of the "standard" histories, and which many feel redounds poorly on Sir John and Lady Franklin's character.

Mathinna's story has been told several times in recent years -- most powerfully in a radio play by Carmen Bird, "In Her Father's House," which was broadcast on ABC Australia in 2003, and again by Richard Flanagan in his 2009 novel, Wanting. Lady Franklin apparently thought she could "improve" the child, and by so doing demonstrate the capability of the Aboriginal population of being educated. She was given a place at Government House, and educated at Lady Franklin's expense -- and yet, when she experienced difficulties, there was always the threat, implicit or explicit, of her being turned out. When Sir John was recalled to England, Lady Jane sent Mathinna back to the orphanage whence she had plucked her; not surprisingly the young girl did poorly after this, being found dead in the street some years later, apparently of acute alcohol intoxication. Perhaps most poignantly, there survives a lovely portrait of Mathinna, made in 1842 by the painter Thomas Bock, whose pathos depends on our awareness of a fateful truth unknown to the artist.

As conceived here by Craig Walsh, Lady Jane has become a tree, overlooking with strange, sad passivity both the statue of her late husband, and the ghostly image of Mathinna projected upon its pedestal. It's a haunting image to see online, and must surely be more so when seen in person.