From Chauncey Loomis's classic Weird and Tragic Shores, to later and lesser tomes such as Bruce Henderson's Fatal North or Richard Parry's Trial by Ice, biographers of Charles Francis Hall have seemed to agree on one thing: his frenetic pace left little room for any kind of love interest. Hall even seems to be one of the very few Arctic explorers never to have any attraction to, or liaisons with, Inuit women. So far as the history books were concerned, he was a man who spent all his romance on the Frozen North, and had no time for paramours. Of course, he was also a married man -- but exactly how warm his conjugal relations were may be judged by the fact that, with three Arctic expeditions spanning more than a decade, he spent no more than a week back home in Cincinnati, visiting his wife Mercy Ann and two children.
And the second, and more pervasive question about Hall was who, if anyone, murdered him. Dr. Emil Bessels, the ship's surgeon of the Polaris, who attended Hall throughout his final illness, and certainly had the opportunity to poison him, was always a leading candidate, but -- aside from the resentment he and all the rest of the German-speaking scientific staff felt toward Hall, it seemed impossible to find any more specific motive.
But, as it turns out, the answer to both these questions was there all along. My curiosity was piqued when I saw an envelope at an online auction, part of the stationery issued Hall and his men, bearing Hall's distinctive counter-signature, and addressed to "Miss Vinnie Ream, 726 Broadway, New York." Miss Ream, it turned out, was not hard to identify; she was a gifted artist, a child prodigy who was commissioned while still a teenager to do a portrait bust of Lincoln -- for the sake of which the President endured weekly sittings. She was, at the time, the first woman, and the youngest artist, ever commissioned to do a work of art for the U.S. Government.
By 1871, she would have been 23 or 24 years of age. I wondered why Hall would have written her, and so checked out a biography of Ream by Edward S. Cooper, sections of which were available via Google Books. And it was there that I came upon a paragraph that stunned me:
"[Ream] was not always able to establish long-lasting relationships. In the case of the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall, it was fate that intervened. Vinnie met Hall in early 1871 in Washington where he was outfitting the ship Polaris for a government expedition to the North Pole. Vinnie was attracted by his bear-like quality, and gave him a photograph of her recently unveiled Lincoln. On June 19th, Hall sailed down the Potomac bound for a two-week layover at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He knew that Vinnie was in New York setting up a studio and had dinner with her several times. He was often accompanied by the ship's doctor, a small man who spoke English with a heavy German accent. Hall enjoyed Vinnie's company, but Bessels became instantly infatuated with her. On June 28, he wrote her "While thinking of you all the time and anticipating the pleasure of seeing you tomorrow, we received very unexpectedly an order requiring us possibly to leave early tomorrow. I will never forget the happy hours, which kind fate allowed me to spend in your company before starting our perilous and uncertain voyage."
It appears that the Polaris may have left before Bessels could arrange another meeting. And, from the letter -- written doubtless prior to the ship's last port in Greenland, though it did not arrive in London until October 23rd, and in New York still later -- it's reasonable to assume that Hall was still quite fond of Ream. One has the feeling that Bessels was aware of this lingering love, and that it infuriated him. And, I would hazard to say, it may well have been a double desire -- to put an end to what he feared would be an endless voyage, and to do away with his rival, that motivated Bessels. I think it's fair to say, at least, that he had a very clear, personal motive for doing so.