Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Writing on the Wall

When little Weesy Coppin's ghost was called upon by Anne and her surviving siblings to show the fate of Sir John Franklin, the vision she gave was of a sort which was likely familiar to all the children and their parents: an enigmatic message, the 'writing on the wall' from the feast of Belshazzar in the book of Daniel:

In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. And then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.  The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and shew me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom. And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.

Quite probably the scene had been related in a sermon or Bible reading in the family, and even if it had not, the same scene had been the subject of a number of moving panoramas -- one of them displayed in 1833 alongside Sir John Ross's Arctic paintings -- as well as cartoons in Punch; the phrase "writing on the wall" was already proverbial.

And writing on walls seems always to be enigmatic; the Hebrew words on Balshazzar's can be literally translated as mina, mina, shekel, half-mina, with both mina and shekel being common coins.  The prophet Daniel, summoned to interpret them, decreed their significance to be "Mina, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; shekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; half-mina, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."  This was not what Balshazzar wanted to hear, no doubt, but since he was killed later the same night, he had little time to ponder it; in the proverbial sense, "writing on the wall" comes too late to be a warning, and is more of a sentence of fate.

We also learn in reviewing Skewes's account of the vision, along with what survives of correspondence about it, that at least one of the Coppin children had the 'gift of tongues.'  This supposed gift has to do with that given to the Apostles in the Book of Acts to speak in the tongues of many nations -- but in practice, it too means that one person speaks in "tongues" -- usually inscrutable in terms of earthly languages -- and another has the gift of interpreting these arcane utterances.

So it is little surprise that we have again an enigmatic text: B.S. = P.R.I. = N.F. = S.J.F. = B.V.F.R.G.R.L.S.P.F.M.F.M., with Victory and Victoria also "frequently written." The first few clusters immediately suggest a polar voyage, with Barrow Straits, Prince Regent Inlet, and "Sir John Franklin" -- N.F. eludes me -- and as to the remaining letters, the possibilities are too numerous to count.  On a later occasion, the child's ghost, asked for clarification, came forth with fuller phrases: "Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel." This seems a good deal more straightforward, and does indeed suggest a definite polar itinerary, as well as implying a passage from Prince Regent Inlet -- the Bellot Strait -- which was not yet discovered. It also, however, is problematic, as there was no "Victoria Channel" in 1849, this not having been given its name -- derived from Victory Point -- until Captain Collinson did so in 1852.

This last point is certainly evidence that the 'revelation' as such was augmented and altered over time, though perhaps unintentionally.  It is also, in any case, flawed in two other regards: Franklin does not appear to have ventured Prince Regent Inlet or traversed Bellot Strait -- the latter of which would have been quite tricky for ships with the draught and beam of "Erebus" and "Terror" -- and, although Weesy showed him waving his hat, he had already in fact been dead for some months.  Never the less, the fact that these revelations not only played a role in Arctic discovery, but also in at least some of their particulars proved uncannily accurate, cannot be disputed.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Londonderry Vision, Redux

I have posted before on the "Londonderry Vision" and Captain Coppin, but new interest in the subject -- along with some thought-provoking research by the indefatigable Ralph Lloyd-Jones, makes it worth a second go.  We are also fortunate in that both the first and second editions of the Rev. J. Henry Skewes's Revelation are now available online at for anyone to download or read (the book is exceedingly scarce -- only a handful of copies are in libraries, and it rarely comes up for sale). All this makes a fresh look at the story worthwhile, and opens it up the historical evidence to scrutiny by the wisdom of crowds.

The basic facts are simple enough: In 1849, Captain William Coppin -- a comfortably well-off shipyard owner in Belfast -- heard from his family of strange visions in which his recently-deceased youngest daughter Louisa -- known to the family as "Weesy" -- appeared to her siblings and offered revelations on various subjects.  The family became convinced of their truth after the child's ghost predicted the death of the family banker, and the children -- as the mystery of Sir John Franklin's fate was much in the air -- asked their spiritual sibling whether she had any intelligence as to his whereabouts. "Weesy" readily replied with a vision of his ships in icy waters, along with a map and some letters upon the wall.  When Mrs. Coppin, on one of her husband's apparently infrequent visits to the family home, related this story to him, he decided -- after some delay -- that he should inform Lady Franklin of the particulars, and bring her a chart drawn by Weesy's sister Anne from the one which had appeared on the wall. They corresponded, met, and it appears that Jane may well have passed on some of the advice apparently contained in these revelations to officers then preparing to leave for the Arctic to search for her husband.

It is at this point that we enter into uncertainty, as most of the claims that the Reverend Skewes published in 1889 in his book about the affair cannot now be independently substantiated.  The first suspicion that we might have, sensibly enough, would be that Skewes altered or fabricated evidence to make the Coppin story more accurate than in fact it was.  Such a possibility can't be entirely ruled out, absent any letters from the period, or the chart itself -- but as Lloyd-Jones observes in his recent article on the subject in the Polar Record, there is good reason to believe that the reason these materials are missing is that Sophia Cracroft retained, and probably destroyed them.

The evidence for this is in the second edition of the book, where the good Reverend took it upon himself to reply to an indignant public reprimand by Sir Leopold McClintock.  McClintock had gone to pains to stress that his search was not conducted under any supernatural direction, and denied that he or Lady Franklin would ever have credited such evidence if that had received it.  Skewes, warming to the battle, quoted in his rebuttal an 1859 letter of Lady Franklin's to Captain Coppin in which she very explicitly thanks him for his daughter's revelation, and reassures him that the chart and letters were in her safekeeping:
"I have received your letter of yesterday, requesting you to tell me how far the 'mysterious revelations' of your child, in 1850, respecting the expedition of my late husband, correspond with the facts recently ascertained by Captain McClintock's researches. In reply, I have no hesitation in telling you that your child's drawn by herself, without as you assure me having seen an Arctic chart before, represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at that time to be inaccessible, but which has since been found ... I have carefully preserved your letter and the child's drawing and you may be assured they are in safety."
There is, I think, no reason to doubt the authenticity of this letter, and it suggests not only that Lady Franklin took an interest in the original revelation, but eagerly noted that the subsequent discovery of the Bellot Strait -- via which McClintock had reached King William Island -- was exactly in correspondence with the map (she did not, it should be observed, note the map's error, in showing the Gulf of Boothia connecting with the waters south of King William Island -- an error which it shared with Arrowsmith's charts of 1844, which Franklin would have relied on).

As Lloyd-Jones has it, her Ladyship's willingness to try any and all means -- psychics included -- was nothing but admirable, though it certainly went against the religious feeling of many, and was a departure from the previous views of herself as well as Sophia.  By 1889, after Jane's death, Sophia and Sir Leopold doubtless felt that the whole thing might reflect poorly on Jane's posthumous reputation, and were willing to deny a story that -- so far as they thought -- was only known within private circles.  They had not, alas, reckoned on the limitless haughty enthusiasm of Skewes.

But what of the revelation itself?  There's a second post to be had on that (which will follow soon enough), but for now suffice it to say that, if the child's chart is somewhat cryptic, the "writing on the wall" -- a series of initialisms open to the possibility of standing for any number of things -- is another story altogether.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Amelia Earhart's Freckle Cream?

The recent conference, held under the auspices of TIGHAR, on new evidence as to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, was packed with fascinating material, particularly on the last few possible wireless signals from her aircraft.  Yet the thing that most caught my eye -- and perhaps, thanks to my fascination with Sir John Franklin, I am simply "relic crazy" -- was this broken glass jar, which has been tentatively identified as having contained anti-freckle cream.  As those at the conference noted, Earhart was self-conscious about her freckles, and might well have used such a product; researchers using the glass container's distinctive shape have linked it to Dr. Berry's Freckle Ointment, a long-gone cosmetic product sold in a similarly-shaped jar.  It's not an exact match -- the jar of this product is of milk-glass, not clear -- but it certainly is striking, the more so as one of the fragments of this glass shows signs of having been used as a tool.

But as an historical researcher, I had questions about this identification right away.  Milk-glass, I knew, was at its peak of popularity in the 1890's and the first decade of the 20th century, well before Earhart's flight.  And, as other bloggers had noted, the form of Dr. Berry's ointment sold in these jars was banned around 1912 due to its high mercury content.  Dr. Berry's apparently reformulated their product, as it continued to be sold for some years thereafter, and would indeed have been available to Earhart in 1937.  However, even in a clear jar, this sort of thing did not look like a 1930's-era product to me.  Fortunately, thanks to the vast digitization project of the Hathi Trust, I was able to find a 1936 Sears Catalog which included Dr. Berry's ointment among its products, and as I had suspected, it was shown in a pillbox-style cylindrical container with far more modern lines.  I suspect it hadn't been sold in the large glass jars for some time, and it's hard to imagine that Earhart, a woman who -- however much she may have disliked her freckles -- was very fashionable and had endorsed many "modern" products, among them a line of luggage (my family still has one of 'her' suitcases) would have deliberately brought along an outdated, heavy glass jar of such cream when a compact modern one was available.

I could be wrong.  It might be that, after the popularity of milk-glass faded, Dr. Berry's continued to sell its product in clear glass jars.  Earhart, perhaps for sentimental reasons, might have brought this sort of jar along.  It may even be possible that, as with other products of this type, some people preferred to have the old jar filled with the new product at their local pharmacy.  But alas, despite the freckled connection, this piece of evidence remains, I think, of uncertain value.