Sunday, July 14, 2013

Weird and Tragic Grave

As some have pointed out, there is of course one other unquestionably authentic photograph of Charles Francis Hall -- the one taken at his exhumation by my late friend Chauncey Loomis. I suppose it's possible that the information in this image could be used to help sort out the photos -- but in any case, what's striking here is how much less well-preserved Hall's body appears to be than those of John Torrington and his companions -- why? A map of the average annual precipitation in Greenland offers one hint: "Thank God Harbor" turns out to be one of the driest places in Greenland. What I think we see with Hall's body here is that it was essentially mummified -- the water in the coffin is what was left over from hot water used to thaw the ice. In all probability, this and the colder temperatures mean that Hall's remains were better preserved than those of Torrington -- if you look at Torrington's autopsy report, you'll see that although he looked lively on the outside, most of his internal tissues had more or less dissolved due to cell autolysis.

But this remains a haunting image, and one not available outside of a first edition of Loomis's book (and then only in black-and-white). If you look closely, you can see that something of his beard remains. It's also surprising that he was buried in an American flag -- this would definitely not be the right naval or military protocol, but then again "Captain" Hall and his crew were none of them members of any organized navy.

The other question that invariably comes up with Hall's grave is whether he was poisoned, and by whom. I believe that a very strong circumstantial case exists that he was deliberately poisoned with large doses of arsenic, probably by the ship's surgeon Dr. Emil Bessels. Loomis removed tissue samples from Hall's body, and they tested positive for arsenic, but Chauncey was always reluctant to state the case too strongly. Bessels, one of the more notorious scoundrels in the annals of Arctic exploration, had many bad qualities even if one presumes him innocent of murder -- among other things, he seems to have stolen the ships' log and Hall's own diary; neither were accounted for at the time of the inquest into the death of Hall, and yet some small sections of them were published, in German, after Bessels's return to Germany (he was evicted from his office at the Smithsonian to make way for a toilet -- a definite improvement!). Perhaps someday these documents will re-surface, and we'll know more; until then, Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores remains the best account we have, and one of the finest books ever written about Arctic exploration. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Second photo of Charles Francis Hall?

Among his other peculiar qualities, the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall has always been "monophotographic"-- that is, a man of whom only one photograph exists. This photograph was the basis for all the engraved portraits of Hall in the books and newspapers of the day, one of which is reproduced as the right-hand image above. But who is the man in the image on the left? The resemblance is striking, although his eyes seem to protrude a bit more, his beard is a tad shorter, and his nose somewhat more elongated. Still the resemblance is close enough that the Library of Congress has suggested that the Daguerreotype of which this photo is a crop may possibly be Charles Francis Hall.

If it is Hall, then perhaps there's some dimension of his life we know little about -- as the man in the Dag is wearing quite a theatrical costume, prompting the archival description "Unidentified man, three-quarter length portrait, three-quarters to the right, seated, with arm over back of chair, hand to cheek, with full beard, wearing jacket with elaborate trimming." Perhaps he joined in some amateur theatricals while in New York lobbying for backing for his expeditions? Or might this be from back in Cincinnati? The Daguerreotypes process had long faded from popularity by the 1860's when Hall rose to fame; it would be unusual to see it used for a formal portrait at or after that time. The image is attributed to Matthew Brady, but by the time of Hall's emergence on the national stage, Brady had switched to using Ambrotypes, as with this one of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane. More research is clearly required before we can say for sure, but I'm a bit doubtful.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The "Other" Franklin Record

The original Franklin record left near "Victory Point" on King William Island in 1848 is quite well-known, and has been discussed at length here and elsewhere. Far less common is any mention at all of the other official Admiralty form, very similar in every respect (save the fateful addendum in the margins) to its brother. Both records were filled out by James Fitzjames aboard HMS Erebus, and both repeated the same mistakes (the longitude given for Beechey Island is too far to the east by several miles, and the year of the ships' wintering there is misstated as 1846-47 rather than 1845-46). The other record was recovered at what became known as "Gore Point," the tip of the peninsula that forms the western side of Collinson Inlet. The location is consistent with the idea of Gore and Des Voeux having commanded a party sent out to survey the western coast of King William Island, with the presumed goal of reaching Simpson's cairn on the shores of Washington Bay; such a party would have skirted the coast, taking advantage of the still land-fast new ice for smooth travel. On the Gore Point record, the only significant difference is that the phrase "All Well" was not underlined.

So, at first glance, this second record adds little to our understanding. And yet, having been deposited just 8 miles -- possibly one day's march -- south of the VP record, it strongly suggests that Gore had been instructed to leave a record frequently, perhaps daily, on his southward trek. One might reasonably expect, then, several other such records were left along the coast, and might yet be recovered. The most important of these, of course, would have been at Simpson's cairn, but since by the time McClintock reached it, it had been opened, this record will probably never be recovered (the attractive part of it, from the Inuit point of view, would have been the metal cylinder, which could be re-purposed for all manner of useful things). But would certainly be worth looking for the others -- a surviving record would be far more significant than, say, a toothbrush.

It is tantalizing to think of Gore's possible achievement of the long-sought dream of linking the eastern and western surveys of the Northwest Passage -- it seems hard to imagine he would have missed his goal. We know that he returned alive to the ships, as his promotion to Commander must surely have taken place on the death of Franklin, at which time Fitzjames would have been acting Captain of the Erebus, and Gore presumably promoted to acting Commander. The idea that he would have been promoted for finding Simpson's cairn, however, has less to recommend it; such field promotions were exceedingly rare in the Navy outside of battle situations.  And, alas, since Firzjames refers to him in the VP record as the "late" Commander Gore, he must have died at some point between his return to the ships and the depositing of the 1848 record.

So was a Passage then undiscovered? Not necessarily, since as they passed along their weary and ultimately fatal retreat, Franklin's men encountered the Inuit at Washington Bay, and the presence of human remains further along the southward-tending and southern coast indicates that they must all have reached and passed the location of Simpson's cairn. In so doing, they indeed 'forged the last link with their lives.'

[With thanks to Garth Walpole for tracking down Cyriax's article on the KWI records]