Thursday, March 17, 2016

True Story: W. Parker Snow and the Franklin Relics in Lincoln's Coffin

W. Parker Snow, wearing his Arctic medal
Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction -- an observation that has a special resonance in the history of Arctic exploration. With this post, I'm inaugurating a new occasional series of 'strange things' up north, and it's hard to think of a better candidate for the first installment than William Parker Snow.

Snow, a man who quest for making a name for himself in the Arctic always seemed beset with troubles, is best known for his involvement with the "Weesy Coppin" clairvoyant episode. Although not as well publicized at the time as other would-be Franklin soothsayers, the story of Captain Coppin's daughter Anne, and the "revelations" given her by the ghost of her dead sister Louisa ("Weesy"), later became the stuff of legend. The Reverend J. Henry Skewes, who first broke the story in 1890, met with skepticism in many quarters -- that is, until Snow stepped forward to vouch for it, and more: to disclose that he himself had first been guided to take up the search for Franklin by a message from the spirit world. Early in that search, Snow had served as the second officer aboard the Prince Albert, the first private vessel dispatched by Lady Franklin, and by all accounts served well; on his return he published an account of the voyage, which enjoyed modest success.

His later pursuits -- both navigational and literary -- met with less success. Hoping to command his own voyage in further pursuit of Franklin, he purchased a small ship, the Thomas, in Melbourne, Australia and had her outfitted for a polar voyage. He sailed for the Arctic, accompanied by his wife and a crew of four, in June of 1853, but encountered a storm which damaged the vessel, and dissent among his crew; the voyage was abandoned. He then took up missionary work, heading to Tierra del Feugo and the Falkland Islands, but was dismissed by his employers; at some point during this period his wife suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. Snow came next to America, where he was briefly allied with Charles Francis Hall, and was engaged by Hall to help him compile and edit his Life Among the Esquimaux. Snow, however, proved to be a most unreliable collaborator, dragging his heels for months at a time with almost no work to show for it, and complaining frequently of "fearful troubles" of an unspecified nature. Hall, exasperated, cancelled their arrangement and finished the book himself, only to have Snow later complain that he, Snow, had written almost the entire volume!

He apparently was having some sort of breakdown himself, but, never one to miss an opportunity, he found a way to insert himself into the preparations for the burial of Abraham Lincoln. Approaching General John Adams Dix, he offered Franklin relics and, remarkably, Dix accepted them. According to the New-York Herald:
Captain Parker Snow, the distinguished commander of the Arctic and Antarctic exploring expeditions, presented to Gen. Dix, with a view of their being interred in the coffin of the President, some interesting relics of Sir John Franklin's ill fated expedition. They consisted of a tattered leaf of a Prayer Book, on which the first word legible was the word "Martyr," and a piece of fringe and some portions of uniform. These suggestive relics, which are soon to be buried out of sight, were found in a boat lying under the head of a human skeleton.’
How Snow would have gotten hold of such things, which could only have been brought back by Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, is a puzzle -- apparently, they were accepted at face value on account of his reputation -- and, so far as anyone knows, they're still in Lincoln's coffin to this day.

Snow's later years seem to have been as unhappy as his earlier ones; after being profiled in the popular Review of Reviews in April of 1893, he wrote a letter to the editors, appraising them of his dire personal straits and offering his library of books for sale to save himself from privation. It's unclear whether such a sale ever took place -- though at least one book from his library, his copy of Life Among the Esquimaux -- eventually made it into Chauncey Loomis's hands. Filled with angry marginal comments pointing to "theft" of his words by Hall, it was one of Loomis's key sources on the Hall/Snow relationship in his book Weird and Tragic Shores. Scarcely a year after writing this letter, William Parker Snow died; according to the DNB, his wealth at death was a mere £80 17s., 0 d. -- the papers with which his small apartment was filled were later sold to the Royal Geographical Society.


  1. Interesting story. I'm still trying to understand why someone would offer up Franklin relics to go with Lincoln! Was he fascinated by the story? I would think that to place something in the coffin it would have to be connected somehow to his life, his interests etc.

  2. Given the number of times that Lincoln's coffin was moved around from place to place and reopened, I would indeed marvel if the Franklin relics are still there. I agree with Don....the burning question is why ? Do any of Lincoln's surviving letters show a fascination with the fate of Franklin?

  3. Well, I think the memory of Kane's efforts to search for Franklin was still fresh in many people's minds. There are also a few letters from Kane's brother Thomas addressed to Lincoln, andI'd guess that the Franklin story was still one of great general interest.

  4. There is anteresting article in the New York Times magazine this week on Franklin artifacts and the state of the Erebus exploration...

  5. Yes, indeed -- I supplied background and served as fact-checker for this article -- it's very well-done, and well-written!

  6. Shane McCorristineJuly 24, 2017 at 1:11 PM

    Hi Russell, I was going through my notes and have some information that might be relevant to your post.

    In the papers of Walter Trevelyan in Newcastle there is a letter to Trevelyan from Snow dated March 2 1860. Snow had recently met Trevelyan who became his sometime patron for the next 20 years. In the letter Snow asks would Lady Trevelyan 'like to have a leaf of the Prayer-Book found under the skeletons head in the boat?' This, of course, is a few months after McClintock returned with the relics.

    In May 1860, James A. Browne thanks Snow for his help in writing 'The North-West Passage and the Fate of Sir John Franklin'. He further thanks him for 'presenting me with "A leaf of the Prayer-Book found with the skeletons in the boat" as a relic of the Franklin Expedition'.

    Were these versions of the same 'Leaf' that was interred with Lincoln? Snow was very eccentric, but would he have manufactured these relics three times, and described them in the same way each time, five years apart? Yet, if the leaf/leaves was genuine, then how did Snow get it?

    Snow was still in good favour with Lady Franklin and her circle around 1860, and was campaigning for a renewed search of King William Island in search of documents. He received support at the RGS in this endeavour from Kennedy, Barrow, and Collinson. Snow was also a member of the Ethnological/Anthropological Society of London around this time, a membership he shared with several Arctic veterans like Belcher, Bedford Pim, and Ommanney. Could Lady Franklin or one of these veterans have given him such a relic?

    Even if it is genuine, where did the leaf come from? McClintock's relevant relics at the National Maritime Museum list 1) Prayer book 2) Holy Bible 3) Cover of Book of Common Prayer 4) Fragment of New Testament 5) New Testament in French. Maybe a leaf was taken from 1) or 4) by either Hobson's group or McClintock's? Apart from the published record, are there any relevant diaries that mention the location of the books? Was there a book under a skull? Were there any suspicions of relics going missing or exchanging hands?

  7. Hi Shane, Many thanks indeed for this! I know of no reference in McClintock (or Hobson) to a paryer book being "found under one of the skeletons in the boat -But there were any number of prayer books -- some benevolent society had provided each of the men with a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, so ineed it may be from one of them, and may for that matter have been in the boat. Still, I suspect Parker Snow might well have had a few more such leaves in reserve!!