Friday, December 8, 2017

The man with the long teeth

Not a man with long teeth
The question of whether there may or may not be human remains aboard either HMS "Erebus" or "Terror" is haunted by the long shadow of a story that was passed through Inuit oral tradition for many decades: the story of the man with the "long teeth" whose body was found on board the ship at Utjulik. A version of this story, with many of the same essential points, was told to Franklin searchers from McClintock in 1859 onwards. At one point, Franklin theorist Noel Wright theorized that perhaps HMS Investigator had drifted south, and that its figurehead, said to resemble a walrus, might have been mistaken for a man with long teeth by the Inuit! This of course, ignores two vital details: 1) The Inuit knew quite well how to tell a carved walrus from a dead man; and 2) figureheads don't "smell very bad," another key part of the story. And of course, we now know what he didn't: that HMS Investigator never moved from her final resting place in Mercy Bay.

But let's look at this story, with all its variants, across time. The version told to McClintock was second-hand, and provided by a young man whom they interviwed alongside old Oo-na-lee, a Netsilik elder then camped near Cape Victoria: "The [young man] also told us that the body of a man was found on board the ship [at "Oot-loo-lik]; that he must have been a very large man, and had long teeth; this is all he recollected having been told, for he was quite a child at the time."

As David C. Wooman has noted, Hall was repeatedly told of the “very large man” whose teeth “were long as an Innuit finger & of very great stature.” In-nook-poo-zhee-jook's account had several key details:
"The party on getting aboard tried to find out if any one was there, and not seeing or hearing any one, began ransacking the ship. To get into the igloo (cabin), they knocked a hole through because it was locked. They found there a dead man, whose body was very large and heavy, his teeth very long. It took five men to lift this giant kob-lu-na. He was left where they found him." 
As with the boy who spoke with McClintock, In-nook's story was a second-hand one; he was retelling what he had been told. In Hall's notebooks at the Smithsonian, another account adds this detail: the man's teeth "were long as an Innuit finger" and he was "of very great stature" (Hall field notes, book 22). Another witness in this same notebook, Seeuteetuar's wife, Koo-nik, offered the most detailed account of all:
"She says that Nuk-kee-the-uk & other Ook-joo-lik Innuits were out sealing when they saw a large ship - all very much afraid but Nuk-keeche-uk who went to the vessel while the others went to their Ig-loo. Nuk-kee-che-uk looked all around and saw nobody & finally Lik-lee-poonik-kee-look-oo-loo (stole a very little or few things) & then made for the Ig-loos. Then all the Innuits went to the ship & stole a good deal - broke into a place that was fastened up & there found a very large white man who was dead, very tall man. There was flesh about this dead man, that is, his remains quite perfect - it took 5 men to lift him. The place smelt very bad. His clothes all on. Found dead on the floor - not in a sleeping place or berth."
Finally, when during Schawatka's search a decade later, Puh-too-raq told of the ship he had personally visited, aboard which there was a "dead body in a bunk inside the ship in a back part." Both Gilder and Klutschak confirm that his story included mentioning "a dead man in a bunk," though none of their, or Schwatka's accounts include the detail of the teeth. Rasmussen heard from the grandchildren of some of these same witnesses, and they too spoke of bodies -- this time in the plural -- "lying in their beds" (presumably bunks or hammocks).

John Hartnell -- a man with long teeth!
The best explanation for this tradition of stories is that there was at least one body on board the ship at Utjulik. The points of general agreement are that it was in the "back part" (stern) of the ship, in a room that may have been fastened (locked) or nailed shut, and that it was a large, heavy, tall man. That he would have seemed tall to the Inuit who, historically, were a foot or more shorter in statue that the average European at the time, is not surprising; that he was "heavy" and that his remains were "quite perfect" suggests that he died aboard, quite possibly where he was found. The "long teeth" are doubtless due to the desciccation of the lips and gums, which has in known cases made the teeth appear much longer than they would in life -- see for example John Hartnell (right).

I would be willing to bet that these remains, which sank with the ship in question before the next summer, are still on the site. The ship must be HMS "Erebus," so if the body was in fact in the stern, it might well have been in the captain's or "great" cabin. By the same token, since portions of that area of the ship have been torn away and lie below the vessel, the most likely place for these remains might be in the d├ębris field at the stern.


  1. If for example, it took one year for John Hartnell's lips to curl out after he died, thus revealing his "long" teeth- then we would have somewhat of a time frame as to when the Inuit found the body in the rear cabin of Erebus.

  2. What stands out for me is the common thread of the heaviness of the body, which I am guessing was moved so they could riffle the pockets? But heavy bodies do not sound like they were starving and emaciated.
    Prior to them boarding the ship, didn't the Inuit speak of watching it? (Seeing smoke at one point?) Of seeing human footprints in the snow plus those of a dog? Of the floors/deck being swept? And once aboard, they found canned meat?
    It would seem if they still had a dog, and the means to feed it, then food was not an issue to those aboard the Erebus.
    Even in death their bodies were heavy. This contrasts so markedly with the "death march" stories on KWI.

  3. Is it just possible that the "heavy" body found in a locked room in the officer's quarters on Erebus was that of Franklin? Placed there in the hope that somehow it could be returned to England? Sir John was quite stout (heavy) judging from his last photograph. Just a thought.

    1. It was standard procedure in the Royal navy to bury the deceased as quickly as possible (therefore most often at sea in ships sailing and not in some sort of port, or in this case ice locked)

      (as an aside: the French navy "buried" their dead in the shingle ballast of their warships, thus taking them home for a "proper" Christian service and burial, possibly one of the reasons for the higher dead rate on French warships during the Napoleonic age, but i digress).

      Note tough that there are indications that Hartnell was kept some time in a warm place (presumably on board before his burial, but this might have to to with the effort it took to dig a deep grave in the permafrost),

      It would have been unthinkable to keep a body, whoever important he was in a bed and not a coffin in his locked cabin for years. Especially if it was Franklin , who died at a time when the expedition was most likely still well organised and not desperate for time (yet).

      As an Aside: high ranking captains of Royal navy ships had their coffins stowed ready for burial in their cabins often using them to sleep in, though i do not know whether this practice carried over to ships used in polar exploration and i doubt even Franklin was important enough for this practice.

      The fact that the body was locked in the cabin might be an indication that the remaining crew aboard this ship at the time of his dead was quite unable/unwilling to prepare even a minimalist burial.

      Note also that for example that when, contrary to all regulations and tradition, the body of Nelson was taken home for burial it was "preserved" in a case of Brandy.

      But as usual, the observations of Mr. Potter on the long teeth and great stature are very imortant in interpreting these testimonies. The only riddle might be why he was so well fed.