Sunday, November 17, 2019

The grave at Comfortless Cove

Those who know the story of the infamous "Peglar Papers" -- those enigmatic documents discovered in a leather wallet in the coat pocket of the corpse of one of Franklin's men -- will recognize at once the phrase "the grave at Comfort Cove" (well, since the papers were mostly written backwards, it was actually "Eht evarg ta Trofmoc Evoc"). This is an apparent reference to some place in the Arctic, though it took its name from a place on Ascension Island, and it's also possible that it referred to that site. For many years, Ascension -- due to its remoteness -- had been used as a harbor for quarantined ships and men; those who died during these quarantines were buried on shore there. The name, appropriately enough, has since shifted to Comfortless Cove, and the graves there remain almost entirely undisturbed.

Just recently, though, I received an e-mail from Dr. Karl Harrison who had participated in an archaeological dig there in 2008 under the overall direction of Dr. Carl Watling and the RAF. The dig focused on a group of five cairn-like structures just north of Comfortless Cove at a site known as Pyramid Point, excavating one of them. What they found was a somber sight -- a male skeleton of relatively short stature, wrapped in a fabric wound about with twine. There were no other material artifacts, and no marker of any kind, but given the period of use of this area, the remains were very roughly dated to circa 1828.

The vicinity of the grave
If, indeed, the writer of the "Peglar" papers was thinking back to the burial of a shipmate, it's entirely possible that this was he -- or else, he lies nearby, quite possibly buried in a similar manner. And it's the manner of burial that strikes another chord -- for just so, the body presumed to be that of Lieutenant John Irving, discovered in 1880 by the Schwatka search expedition, was found wrapped in canvas; in William Gilder's words, "there was also a large quantity of canvas in and around the grave, with coarse stitching through it and the cloth, as  though the body had been incased for burial at sea.” A fragment of this same canvas -- stamped with the words "NAVY SAIL CANVAS" -- is still in the collections of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. In both cases, it seeems, these seamen were buried in a kind of hybrid manner -- wrapped in sailcloth, or a hammock, as though destined for the sea, but then laid upon land, and stone upon stone thereafter.

It's suggestive of the likelihood that, at the time of Irving's death, one or both of Franklin's ships must have been nearby -- after all, men hauling sledges -- some of which, according to Inuit testimony, were assisted with sails -- would have had no canvas to spare. And it's a reminder that the Arctic is far from the only place with lonely cairns of stone.

With deepest thanks to Dr. Harrison for sharing this remarkable find.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Hall Cairn

Eternal glory never lasted such a short time as it did on the 'lonely cairn of stones' erected by Charles Francis Hall on King William Island. He'd spent years trying to reach the place, only to be defeated by the constraints of time (his Inuit guides needed to cross  back to the mainland to hunt) and visibility (snow still covered the ground thickly, such that even those of his guides that knew the terrain intimately, couldn't re-locate all of the skeletons they'd seen there in past summers. On a horizontal stone, Hall had scratched the inscription "ETERNAL GLORY TO THE DISCOVERERS OF THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE," but part of the stone with the last few letters (EST PASSAGE) eventually broke off. Below, on a smaller stone, he scratched the date "May XII 1869," adding an "H" for Hall.

And there's another reason most of us haven't seen an image of this cairn before: although Gilder's account of its discovery is well-known, its only known depiction is in Richard Galaburri's pamphlet Lost! The Franklin Expedition and the Fate of the Crews of H.M.S. Erebus and Terror, privately printed and rather hard to find. Years of scouring the Internet for its source had led nowhere, until I tracked down Galaburri himself. He identified it as having come from a December 1880 issue of Harper's Weekly -- a publication of which only scattered copies can readily be found online -- and I was able to obtain a copy from a dealer in rare newspapers.

Slide used in Stackpole's book
The article is apparently by Gilder himself, with illustrations credited to "Henry" Klutschak. And yet there's a small discrepancy in this: Klutschak was not among the party that went to visit the site of the cairn; Gilder mentions having made a "quick sketch" but this did not appear in his book. Apparently, Kultschak drew a more professional version based on that sketch -- it appears as slide #29 in Schwatka's lantern lecture to the American Geographical Society that same year -- and this was used as the source by Harper's. The engraver for Harper's probably did a fairly close copy for this depiction, which is opposite the more familiar one of Irving's grave marker, but other elements of his two-page spread are somewhat more freely adapted than the corresponding images in the Illustrated London News or Gilder's book. The confusion over Hall's marker was also accidentally amplified in Stackpole's edition of Schwatka's Long Arctic Search -- he used a set of commercially available lantern slides, and misidentified the slide depicting the Irving marker as Hall's cairn.

These stones have another significance: near them, Hall's guides uncovered a skeleton, which was sent back to England, and for many years misidentified as Le Vesconte's -- it was only when it was examined during the move of the Franklin memorial to the front of the chapel that it was found, by analysis of the teeth and a facial reconstruction, to be far more likely that of Harry Goodsir. The archaeologist Doug Stenton, who's done so much work to re-locate historical sites on King William Island, hopes to use this image to identify the site of the cairn in a future visit.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

New artifacts from HMS Erebus

Photo courtesy Hailey Aklah Nalungiaq Okpik
We're all aware of the fantastic new video from below the decks of HMS Terror -- but this year, Parks Canada's archaeologists also enjoyed a remarkably long window for dives on HMS Erebus. As she's in much more shallow water, and subject to ongoing forces of tides and currents, work on Erebus has been given a priority, with the recovery of artifacts proceeding along much more urgent lines. This is beacuse, for archaeologists, context is everything; it's not about bringing things up so much as it is about learning from where things are. If the ship, or parts of it, are moving or being damaged, the context will be destroyed with it, and there's no way to recover that lost knowledge.

Parks Canada hasn't yet given out any official press account of the items brought up from the Erebus. Fortunately, thanks to Hailey Aklah Nalungiaq Okpik and other friends in Gjoa Haven, along with careful work by Logan Zachary and many other members of the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group, we've been able to see some of the items that were shown to the community, and learn something about their context ourselves. Seen above, for instance, is a Whampoa pattern meat strainer plate, which was found in a portside officer's cabin, probably the Mate's. At that same location were found a button, a pencil, a wooden handle, and a regular Whampoa pattern plate. At another location, the Officers' Mess Room, a bottle, apparently intact, was recovered.

Some items, though fascinating, weren't tagged with a visible label in the photos; these include a pair of tongs (probably meant for sugar), a ceramic ink bottle, and a boot-brush missing its bristles. Also recovered were a leather boot sole, a glass decanter, and a liquor bottle, quite possibly the same as seen in Okpik's photograph (right). It's also noteworthy that the numbers of the tags are well into triple digits, which suggests that, well beyond the items which were displayed in Gjoa Haven, there is much, much more to come! It's tantalizing to wonder what other wonders await -- but at least for now we have a sample to savor. One thing is for certain: the success of the Parks team during this extraordinary season more than makes up for last year's truncated one, and will surely add a vital new chapter to what we know of the men whose lives were lived aboard both HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Hand of Crozier?

Fragments enhanced by Logan Zachary
A guest post by Regina Koellner

When my fellow researcher and member of the "Remembering the Franklin Expedition" Facebook group Alison Freebairn discovered the Beechey paper treasure in the National Archive (see the previous blog post) I was coasting along Norway in a Hurtgruten ship and could only look at the scraps with my phone. They looked interesting, and some of the contents made me think of magnetic observations, but every time I tried to zoom in on one of the photos it took ages -- Internet reception along the Norwegian coast can be quite poor when you leave the coast for the open sea. So I thought I would look at them on the computer when I got home, which had to be postponed – it seemed that, every evening, something else came up. It was only when I saw her lovely guest post yesterday that I finally decided to take a casual flick through the images, on the bus on the way to work.

These papers, found by Franklin searchers in 1850-51 on Beechey Island are always described as one scrap of paper in Fitzjames's handwriting most likely having to do with magnetic observations, along with some newspaper articles. One of the scraps is clearly in James Fitzjames's somewhat unruly handwriting but when I came to the other paper (or rather two pieces that clearly belong together) I felt a sudden sense of vertigo -- it was as if Francis Crozier was waving at me from the depths of my phone. It was quite surreal. I know his handwriting pretty well as I’ve spent two years transcribing every scrap written by him that I could find across the world. So even without a direct comparison on the bus I thought it was highly possible this was written by him; I sent Russell, Alison and Logan Zachary, another fellow researcher and digital wizard, my thoughts.

After a long day at work itching to get home I finally started to compare handwriting samples by Fitzjames and Crozier with the pieces of paper. I think it is pretty obvious that the two parts that deal with what I think are instructions for erecting a portable observatory are not written by the same person that wrote about observations in 2.5 minute intervals (which, by the way, points towards the time consuming observations of several delicate instruments on an international magnetic term date – a quite interesting fact. These term days happened every month for the remainder of 1845; the first feasible for the Franklin Expedition was the one on August 29th).

The other scrap – or rather two scraps – is in my eyes part of instructions on how to put up one of the portable observatories which were carried by each ship and put on shore whenever possible. The comparison of the handwriting samples certainly rules out Fitzjames as the writer, and in my opinion it looks very similar to Crozier's hand. At left is a comparison of the two hands. And above right, a comparison by Logan Zachary who thinks that we can probably see the reminder of Crozier's signature which I think is very possible indeed.

NEXT: The significance of Crozier's writing on this document.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Lost and found: the Beechey Island papers

A guest post by Alison Freebairn

It was a ridiculous dream. “I’m going to the National Archives in London to look for some papers that have been missing for 168 years,” I told friends. “I’ll go through a pile of musty old ledgers line by line and, just when I’m starting to lose hope, I’ll turn over a page and that’s when I’ll see them.”

Of course, nobody believed that this would happen, least of all me. And we were all correct: I didn’t find the specific missing papers I had been looking for. But I found something else.

I’d never visited the National Archives before. But in July 2019, W. Gillies Ross published Hunters on the Track, and I realised that not all of the 1850-51 search expedition journals had been returned to their authors following the conclusion of the Arctic Committee investigation. I weighed up the probability that these papers still lurked in a ledger somewhere in Kew, ordered every record relating to those specific search years, and started to go through them page by page. This is how I spend all my holidays: sitting in silence and reverence with the history that I love.

A few hours into my first day, I turned a page in an unpromising-looking collection of letters and press cuttings and saw two beautiful pieces of paper that I had read about but had never seen before: a colourfully-treated scrap with Captain James Fitzjames’ writing on it, and a far smaller piece marked “Mr M’Donald” in pencil. I took a photo, and sent it to my Franklin research partner Logan Zachary, who was travelling with me via web chat. I told him: “I’m having an emotion”. I turned another page, and then another, and then I started to have ALL the emotions.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. So many pieces of paper, all clearly identified as having been picked up on Beechey Island by Captains William Penny, Erasmus Ommanney, Horatio Austin and other members of the search teams in August 1850. I kept turning pages. Each one contained a Beechey scrap. A second page in Fitzjames’ hand: was that from a journal? A ragged wrapper from a chocolate bar. A long strip, opalescent with age, and yet the words ‘To be called’ are still visible. A few lines of faded calculations elsewhere. A torn piece of brown wrapping paper with large, incomplete lettering. Small fragments of newspaper; a larger fragment of newspaper, substantial enough for me to very gently open by hand. I was touching a newspaper that had travelled to Beechey Island on HMS Erebus or HMS Terror and had probably been read by the entire ships’ companies several times over. The room started to sway around me.

I sent all the photos to my research partner and went outside to sit by the pond and try to clear my head. A swan stared at me, balefully. I smiled at it, foolishly.

Over the next 48 hours, we ransacked the Remembering the Franklin Expedition group’s rich archive of posts for any reference to papers found on Beechey. Books were consulted. The  internet was turned upside down and given a good shake. We brought in Allison Lane and John Wilson, RtFE’s experts on Harry Goodsir and James Fitzjames respectively.

I was hoping that someone – anyone – would say: “Oh, those old things. Obvious hoax. John Bertie Cator got into the rum ration and decided to play a joke on Captain Austin.” But nobody did. And then I got in touch with Russell Potter. Russell was in the Arctic, because of course he was. This caused some initial communication problems:

[Scene: domestic, somewhere on the west coast of Scotland] 
My mother: “Why isn’t that man replying to your email? Doesn’t he know how important this is?”
Me: “Mum, he’s on an icebreaker in the Canadian Arctic.”
My mother: “Well, that’s no excuse.” 
[Scene ends]
Russell replied as soon as he could. I had said: “I wouldn’t be trying to contact you if I didn’t think this was really important.” We spoke, and I had confirmation that, yes, this was really important. And at that moment, everything changed.

Identified as a page from John Stephens's Incidents of travel
 in Egypt, Arabia, Petræa, and the Holy Land (1838)
Somewhere along the path, the 1850 discovery and recovery of the Fitzjames/Mr M’Donald/To Be Called fragments may have slipped below the collective radar of Franklin researchers. I can only speak for myself when I say that, yes, I was aware that some scraps had once been found on Beechey Island, but I thought that they must have been lost long ago or had fallen into private hands – which can sometimes feel like the same thing.

But now here we all are most unexpectedly, with a little more knowledge than we had three weeks ago, and with a lot more Franklin relics.

At this stage, it’s impossible to know the stories they can tell us, and the full significance of the papers may take years to unpack, analyse, and set in context. But this find, following on from RtFE members’ identification of the Beechey Anvil Block last year, gives continued hope that more traces of the Franklin Expedition are still out there somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered.  

And those specific missing papers I was looking for in Kew? Well, they’re still missing. But I will find them: I just need to keep searching. 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Southward, Ho!

Sunset in Ulukhaktok
I'm writing this from the beautiful hamlet of Ulukhaktok N.W.T., the final stop on this year's voyage through the Northwest Passage. Later this afternoon, I'll be getting on the first of several flights that will take me to Kugluktuk, Yellowknife, Vancouver, Boston, and finally home to Rhode Island! The people here have been very friendly and welcoming, and we were lucky that one of my fellow expedition team members had brought some caribou meat that she'd picked up in Cambridge Bay, so we had a lovely final dinner last evening. In just a few days, all the members of the expedition team I worked with will be at their respective homes, though some of us a longer journey ahead than I do -- one to South Africa! -- and the sense of adventure we shared will become just photographs and memories.

We were able to stop at just one Franklin-related spot -- Beechey Island, which I was glad to visit, as last year ice conditions prevented any landings there -- but we did manage to follow his original route through Peel Sound, which was a treat. And, when the news of Parks Canada's new below-decks video from HMS Terror reached us, it was a special thrill to be able to share it "hot off the press" to a shipboard audience.

The Passage was busy this year -- more ships than before, if my informal count is correct -- including old veterans like the Bremen and newer vessels such as the Roald Amundsen and the new Fram. The interest in the natural beauty, land and sea mammals, birds -- and, of course with the ice itself -- is running high, as is the fascination with the Franklin story.  There was some lingering ice, some from last year, but most vessels were able to manage to find a track through, with very minimal support from icebreakers. One must always take the ice seriously, though -- another expedition cruise ship in Svalbard was trapped in rapidly-encroaching ice, and its passengers had to be rescued (the ship itself was freed not long after).

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting highlights from my trip, especially our historical sites and community visits, with some reflections on this ever-changing, ever-constant part of the world. But just now, I'm very happy to be on my way back. As the late, great Stan Rogers put it:

How then am I so different from the first men through this way? 
Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away. 
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men 
To find there but the road back home again . . .

Thursday, August 29, 2019

HMS Terror Revealed

After what has seemed, to the waiters, an excruciating interval -- but in fact only about three years -- the underwater archaeology team at Parks Canada has opened the door -- or rather, the hatch -- into a world of wonders beyond anything any of us could have imagined. The newly-released video, mostly made using its brilliantly small ROV, takes us far inside the ship, both forward (we see bottles and mugs on a shelf in the forecastle) and aft (in one of the most stunning sequences, through the passageway along which the junior officers' cabins lie, and eventually all the way to Francis Crozier's "Great Cabin." There, aside from the thick layer of protective silt; things look much as they must have when the cabin was last in use; though a table seems overturned, Crozier's desk, with its enticing drawers, is upright and looks to be in perfect condition. Nearby, we see what must be his chair, and what looks to me like a parallel rule that would be used in plotting routes on a chart. The bank of cubbies and drawers which, as on Erebus, would have held those charts, looks similarly pristine, while on the port side another set of larger drawers seems a bit more damaged. On the starboard side, two shelves -- are those dusty books? -- while in the back, the eerie light of the surface world still peeps through the mostly intact windows.

On our way, we note the sliding doors that open into the officers' sleeping quarters (so wonderfully reproduced in AMC's The Terror), and peep inside one -- the bed-rail is still in place (is that someone's back-scratcher hanging from it?), and the chamber-pot tucked away on the floor, its user having gone more than a century and a half without the need of it. A couple of plates are seen behind a rail, with stacks more on another shelf; we seem to be looking into a storage area for the officers' mess. In other images, a wall of cubbies holds numerous intact bottles (apparently Crozier did not drink up all the whiskey!), some of which seem to have slips or papers underneath them, while on a nearby shelf a large, ridged bottle has become a home for anemones.

And we realize, of course, that this ultimate teaser-trailer is only a tiny selection from what are likely hundreds of hours of video, over which the Parks team will be poring for the next year, and longer. In much the way that Bob Ballard's earliest ROV video of RMS Titanic evoked a powerful sense of luster and loss, the camera becomes for us a kind of mournful visitor, urging us on even as, on another level, we feel a bit like intruders. Already, of course, Franklinites around the world are pondering, sifting, and will soon be having a grand back-and-forth over the finest of details in a single video frame. But for this first gilmpse -- so quickly shared with the public -- we must always be simply grateful.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Northward, Ho!

Image courtesy London Science Museum, cc-by-SA 4.0
It's that time of year again. And although, unlike last year, there aren't any eggs frying on any sidewalks in my neighborhood -- in fact, it's been an unexpectedly mild August so far -- the lure of the Arctic is as inviting as ever. Each year, I understand more why so many people -- explorers, adventurers, scientists, and artists -- who've experienced the wondrous beauty of these regions yearn ever to return to them.

I'll be on a different route this time, working my way up the Greenland coast from Nuuk northward, then crossing over and heading north along the coast of Baffin Island, calling at Clyde River before I get to Pond Inlet, where I hope to meet up with old friends and see some familiar sights. Soon after, it's on to the Franklin expedition graves on Beechey, which due to heavy shore ice I was unable to reach last year. The ice charts, so far, look favorable, although the complex nexus of the Bellot Strait and the northern tip of King William Island is still in flux.

And of course I'll be eager to gather news of this year's search by the underwater archaeology team at Parks Canada, working with the cooperation of Inuit organizations and the Guardians program, as well as the dedicated support of the newly refurbished RV David Thompson; their work this summer on HMS Erebus and HMS Terror promises great things. And, as time away from my other duties allows, I hope to share what I find here, with the readers who have followed me on my previous journeys north. I have a feeling it's going to be another memorable year!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Black Graves of Beechey Island

Photo courtesy of and © 2019 Derbyshire Record Office
Every so often, a discovery is made in the archives that completely upturns our assumptions about the history of the Franklin expedition. For most of the past century and a half, almost all of us have thought of the graves at Beechey Island as white -- whether we've seen the current replacement markers, or photos of the originals in the archives of the NWT or Nunavut, or the scarcer ones of the monuments prior to their initial removal in 1972 (I shared a selection of these in my last post).  The visual identity of the grave markers, indeed, was tied up with our idea of these lonesome white headboards surrounded by a wilderness of white.

It was easy to dismiss or set aside Miertsching's account of the headboards as being black, even when it was echoed by Robert Goodsir -- by his account the first person to stand beside them after Erebus and Terror departed. And yet, thanks to a fortuitous discovery among the Franklin materials at the Derbyshire Record Office, we now have an image that shows -- definitively -- that they were originally black, with the incised lettering in white.

The discovery was made by assistant conservator Clare Mosley, who discovered the photo carefully lain within a volume of "Arctic Scraps"(as in scrapbook) atop two newspaper clippings. These clippings appear to date to the period between June and September of 1851, which might possibly help date the photo. Since the other exposures made at Beechey by Leopold McClintock and Dr. David Walker date to 1858, if the photo is from 1851 it is by far the earliest. Like McClintock's and Walker's, it is a paper positive print made using the Calotype or "Talbotype" process, but its dimensions don't correspond with theirs (since Calotype cameras used a wooden frame to hold the sensitized paper, and all prints were "contact" prints, each camera produces prints of the same size). Research is ongoing to determine whether anything more can be learned about the image from other materials in the archives.

So what does all this mean? For one, it would suggest to me that further examination of the surviving original headboards be made; knowing the original paint scheme should enable us to look for traces of the pigments used. The Royal Navy employed black paint for a number of shipboard uses, and it may be possible to match the chemical profile of any surviving pigment to that of other period painted fixtures. Why and how the markers came to be painted white, and the incised white lettering switched to black, is also unclear. As late as 1972, seems that the three Franklin crew markers still appeared to be black, though Torrington's was now framed in white trim; the actual markers (now part of the Archives of Nunavut) show no outward trace of this scheme (we know this thanks to this photo taken in 1972 by Stuart Hodgson). That photo also shows the "tablet" marker at far left, and the "door" marker with its horizontal crosspiece at far right.

There are still more mysteries, it seems, yet to be probed when it comes to the graves of Beechey Island.

NB: The Derbyshire Record Office is in the midst of a fundraising campaign that I urge all readers of this blog to consider supporting: check out the Lady Jane's Museum Crowdfunder website where you can learn more, and make a contribution to this very worthy effort. Discoveries such as this one are a dramatic example of the enormous value of archival work that is being done at local and regional archives such as the DRO.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Earliest photos of graves at Beechey

Graves at Beechey; photo by Allen Young (courtesy of Doug Wamsley)
In the quest to understand the history of the graves of Franklin's men at Beechey Island, and more particularly that of the markers themselves, I've had occasion to track down the earliest known photographs, which are seldom seen today. With the invaluable help of my friend Doug Wamsley, I've been able to see two of the very earliest: that taken during Sir Allen Young's "Pandora" expedition in 1876 (above), as well as an earlier, though much faded, image made in 1858 by Dr. David Walker, who was then aboard Sir Francis Leopold McClintock's yacht the "Fox" (below). These two photos give us invaluable evidence as to the early state of these graves and their markers, and may help clarify the situation today, when some of the replica markers are likely to have been inaccurately placed.

1858 image by David Walker, courtesy Doug Wamsley
One of the more confusing features of these graves is that they seem to have had markers or stones at the foot of the graves, as well as headboards. The gives the leftmost grave in the Young image of being two graves, until one sees the burial mound that connects them; the same applies to the middle grave. In the grave mound closest to the shore (the rightmost), the foot marker is obscured, I think, by its neighbor's headboard. Lastly, at the far right, one can see a tall, rounded white board unlike the others in scale and shape -- this is almost certainly the one made from a repurposed door, which Todd Hansen believes was most likely that of Thomas Morgan. There is one further headboard visible at the far left, which, if Hansen's conjecture is correct, must be the cenotaph erected in memory of Bellot.

With Dr. Walker's image, which has faded considerably, we're on somewhat firmer ground: the perspective is head-on, with only the headboards visible. By turning up the contrast, as I've done here, we can see four clear markers, as well as a dark area at the far right which may be in imperfect image of the marker closest to the shore (or that marker may have fallen).  From this angle, one can see that the furthest shoreward marker is set apart from the others by a greater distance, which again seems consistent with its being Bellot's; in neither image is any grave-mound seen in its vicinity.

There is one last image, which may well have been based upon Young's; this was an engraved vignette in the Illustrated London News article about his voyage. The engraver here has helpfully separated out the headboards by showing them in lighter colors, with the mounds and foot-markers much more darkly shaded. This version also seems to show a cross-piece on the rightmost marker, clear evidence that it must be the modified door, as this was the only marker to have that feature.

So what does this all mean? Well, we can judge something by the shapes: the innermost marker, has the same squared-off rounded shape, which corresponds with Torrington's marker (the second to outermost) as well as the large "tablet" marker Hansen believes was Bellot's. Hartnell's similarly-shaped but far shorter headboard seems to come next from the left, though it's similar enough to Braine's that it's hard to say precisely; it's perhaps no wonder that the NWT staff charged with inserting the replica markers got these reversed.

These features correspond with Walker's and Young's photos -- and Young's adds one further, striking detail: just as described by Miertsching and Robert Goodsir, the three Franklin graves appear to be quite black, while both the "tablet" and "door" markers are brightly white.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

First sight of the graves at Beechey

We often hear about the first discovery of the graves of Franklin's men at Beechey Island -- but not, before now, have we had a vivid a first-hand description of the event. Thanks to the discovery of an 1880 newspaper article by Alison Freebairn, we now have a reminiscence by none other than Robert Anstruther Goodsir, brother of Harry, who by his own account was the first to reach the graves originally sighted by Carl Petersen. It's such a fascinating, gripping account that I'm going to give it almost in its entirety. In my next post, I'll give the rest of his account, which has elements in it that suggest that his memory was not quite as "undimmed" as it seemed, but never the less there's no question that he still recalled -- and felt -- the events with extraordinary vividness some thirty years after the events.

It is to the day on which we discovered the first traces of the ill-fated ships and their crews––ere yet we had come to talk of " relics," ere yet the least sanguine had lost hope. And albeit it is but an old tale re-told, I can tell it with undimmed memory, for as I put down the paper I have just been reading, and with closed eyes sadly allow each clearly cut outline, each unblurred detail to display itself to my mental vision, I forget that I have to bridge over 30 years and three months to do so; I forget that most of the eager faces I see so plainly about me have long been dust; I forget that nearly all of the well known voices I hear so distinctly have long been stilled in the grave.

I write now of what I saw, and what I did and felt on that day with as little stretch of memory as when I sat down the same evening to enter it all in my journal. Much writing in journals and filling-in of log-books was done that night. There are but few who may read these lines that can recollect or realise the intense interest with which everything connected with the name of Franklin at that time excited. Five years and six months had then elapsed since they had sailed from Greenhithe on the 15th of May, 1845. Alas six times five years have now run into the past, and still all we hear of is––relics. Sir John Ross that night, in his close little cabin in the Felix, recorded many marvellous things. Kane, in the Advance, was inditing all that his bright, observant eye had seen. Sherard Osborne that night must have filled sundry folios of that huge, ponderous bank-ledger-looking tome––an awe-inspiring volume it was, which used to make us wonder at the man who could have the courage to contemplate the idea of ever living to cover its wide-spreading pages with closely, neatly written MS.

The day previous to that of our memorable landing at Beechey Island (which had been appointed a place of rendezvous by the different commanders), we had crossed the mouth of Wellington Channel and stood some ten miles to the westward. Here Captain Penny, of the Lady Franklin brig, examined a bay with the view of making it his winter quarters. Captain Ommany had also before this examined the bay with the same view, and named it Assistance Harbour, though, as it turned out, only Penny's two brigs and Sir John Ross's little Felix ultimately wintered in this place. Here a party, of which I was one, was landed to examine the coast thence to Cape Hotham, on the western side of the mouth of Wellington Channel, whilst the vessels put about and ran back under easy sail to Beechy Island, where theymade fast for the night to the "land ice."

During our walk that day, and close examination of the beach, we found various undoubted proofs that parties from the Erebus and Terror had been here before us, but still nothing of any importance. At one place, which I recollect looked as if it had been camped at for some time, I picked up a nondescript sort of apparatus made of hoop iron, something between a long grappling iron and a naturalist's dredge. Many conjectures were formed at the time as to what this had been need for. During the whole day's march a bright look-out was kept for cairns, which we expected to find papers left by the Erebus and Terror, but we did not fall across anything of the kind.

We returned on board that night in a hopeful mood, for, although we found nothing of importance, yet we knew that we had struck the trail, that the scent was strong, and that we were in a fair way of soon gaining more explicit tidings of the lost voyagers. I was the first to start early next morning for the shore, accompanied by John Stuart (the late Dr. John Stuart, of Sandhurst), Petersen, the Esquimaux interpreter, and Alexander Thompson, a seaman. Proceeding across the land ice, we could see on our right front to the eastward the precipitous limestone cliffs and the flat table-top of Beechey Island ; to the left, and stretching westward, the long, gradually sloping and descending gravel spit nearly reaching the opposite cliffs, which there trending northwards, rounded into Wellington Channel.

Our little party made for the lowest orwestern end of the spit. Where we struck it, it rose rather abruptly from the ice, about 10ft, but before we had put foot upon the shingle the quick eye of Petersen had seen something, and his shrill cry in broken English of "Caneesterres! Caneesterres !" made our hearts beat faster with the knowledge that the scent was again breast high. I can hear Petersen's cry, and his next more stirring exclamation ringing in my ear at this moment. Quickly breasting the loose and shifting shingle, we saw before us a neatly-built pyramidal cairn of canisters or meat tins, about 9 ft high, a little broken at the corners by the bears or from other causes, but still evidently carefully constructed ...

Our excitement was at fever beat, for scarce a second elapsed between Petersen's first exclamation and his next more startling cry of " Mans! mans!" his Scandinavian features all aglow, and his blue eyes almost starting from their sockets. Almost at the instant of his utterance I had descried three dark objects about a mile off, where the spit merged into the talus at the foot of the cliffs of the northern sideof Beechey Island. God! Can I ever forget the strange feelings of that half-hour of half hope-the deep excitement with which I started off at headlong speed towards these dark objects, all too willing to be cheated by the thought that the Dane's vision was quicker than mine, and that they were, indeed, men? I recollect dashing down my gun ere I had gone many yards; I recollect tearing madly at the strap of my telescope (a rare Dollond, the gift of ever good and kind Lady Franklin), and of recklessly casting it on the stones. Ammunition belts and pouches were cast aside. I recollect slackening pace for a second or two to get rid of my heavy pea coat and sealskin cap until I could speed more freely along, with the panting Petersen well behind, whose wind had not been improved by years of semi-Esquimaux habits. I recollect noting as I sped along the thousand articles with which the beach was bestrewn, pieces of rope, fragments of timber, scraps of iron, but I did not pause, though I remember me well of gasping out to myself the word 'wrecked.' I recollect that soon after starting I became satisfied that the objects towards which we were so anxiously pressing could not be men.

I recollect that my next idea was that they were huts, and deluding myself into the fond fancy that a filmy smoke rose from one or all of them. I recollect how soon this idea also proved a mockery, and that as I quickly, stride by stride, drew closer and still closer to the dark objects, the ghastly truth dawned upon me that it was their graves that I at last stood beside. Three heavy slabs of wood shaped like humble headstones, painted black, their backs to me, and on the other side the low, oblong-rounded mounds, under neath which three at least of those we were in search of were peacefully lying. 

How well do I remember the pause I made, when the still, quiet desolation of all around me was unbroken, save by the quickly-advancing steps of Petersen crunching over the gravel, the loud beating of my heart and quick-drawn breathing, ere I could gather courage to advance and read the inscriptions that I rightly guessed would appear on the other side of the headboards. I dreaded seeing the name of one near and dear to me who had sailed in the Erebus. After the names, my next glance was at the dates: from these I could judge that in this bay the Erebus and Terror had lain during the winter of 1845-6.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Grave mysteries of Beechey Island

The Franklin expedition graves on Beechey Island are probably one of the best-known and most often visited sites in the Canadian Arctic, and have been a place of pilgrimage almost since their first discovery -- made by a detachment of men from William Penney's search expedition in 1850. The graves of their three most famous occupants -- John Torrington, William Braine, and John Hartnell -- were opened in the 1980's, and a forensic examination of their remains made by the anthropologist Owen Beatte -- during which time photos of the men's faces made headlines around the world, and were the subject of his and John Geiger's groundbreaking book, Frozen in Time.

But what's far less well-known about the Beechey graves is that there's still a measure of uncertainty about which is which. I've guided expedition cruise passengers there for years, and the first question I'm inevitably asked is, what's with that first seeming burial mound -- closest to the shore -- without a marker? The traditional answer has been that this was the site of a memorial to Joseph René Bellot, which was shaped in the manner of a wooden headboard. This headboard, along with all the others, was removed in the 1970's by the NWT government, and taken to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre for conservation and storage. Resin replicas replaced them, but these did not last well; treated wooden boards with bronze plaques replaced those -- and these are the markers we see today. It was decided at that time not to replace Bellot's marker, since that would confuse visitors by making them think he was buried there, rather than lost in the sea-ice some miles distant. And yet, to this day, other sources of confusion persist.

To begin with, there are not three graves but four -- the fourth had was added early on, as Thomas Morgan, late of HMS Investigator, died on his way home while aboard HMS North Star -- this has been assumed to be the grave furthest from the beach, and the replica headboard is there. Then, due to a mixup when the replacements were installed, Braine's and Hartnell's markers were reversed, adding to the work needed to properly interpret the grave sites. And now, thanks to a recent study of the original markers by Todd Hansen, it seems there may be a further issue: the wooden door originally thought to have been the Bellot marker is not nearly as tall as the other markers; it seems unlikely to have been large enough to contain the lengthy tribute -- 17 lines -- it was said to bear, while a taller, rounded "tablet" marker" seems more likely to have been his. But if that's the case, the taller marker -- which originally adorned the furthest grave -- suggests that that it -- not the first one -- was the site of the Bellot marker, and that the closest grave may actually be a grave, with Morgan at rest beneath its stony mound. Corroborating this, no such substantial mound is to be seen behind the present-day Morgan marker.

Hansen's inference seems to me a sound one -- but it's complicated by the fact that neither panel has any surviving writing legible upon it. It's possible that the inscription for Bellot was stamped into lead tablets, similar to those that originally hung on the pillar next to Northumberland House; since the "tablet" marker is extremely worn down, it's also possible that the wood containing painted letters simply wore away. All the markers, now part of the Archives of Nunavut, are presently in temporary storage outside Ottawa at a facility operated by the Canadian Museum of Nature; one can hope that, when the time comes for them to be sent to a permanent home in Nunavut, further study can be conducted using modern, non-destructive techniques.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Frederick Schwatka

Of all the 19th-century Americans who spent a significant part of their lives searching for traces of the Franklin Expedition, Frederick Schwatka is perhaps the least well-known. Elisha Kent Kane, Isaac Israel Hayes, and Charles Francis Hall have all had their biographers, but Schwatka alone has yet to meet his modern chronicler.1 Part of the problem goes back to his original mission; William Gilder, a newspaperman chosen as his second-in-command, used his ties with newspapers and publishers to make sure that his account of Schwatka's search became the most popular and profitable. Schwatka's own narrative appeared only in obscure periodicals, and was never published in its entirety in his lifetime. And, although he subsequently led two further expeditions into Alaska, Schwatka's addiction to laudanum put an early end to his career as an explorer. He was able to turn his experiences into popular lectures, but his abuse of the substance led to embarrassing incidents; in 1891 he fell from a balcony inside his hotel in Mason City Iowa and was believed for a time to be close to death -- but he recovered. Finally, in 1892, while in Portland Oregon to give a lecture on his Arctic exploits, he overdosed one last time, and was found dead in a doorway, a bottle of the fatal drug still clutched in his hand.

Fortunately, we today have the ability to study Schwatka's own account of his Franklin search in detail. Thanks to the archivists at the Mystic Seaport Museum -- where his manuscript is held -- we can now view the original pages online -- and, thanks to the the diligent work of Jacci Greenlee, we now have access to a .pdf which contains a diplomatic transcript of his entire narrative. These materials will surely be the basis of much valuable research to come, we can now both search the transcript and examine the original manuscript to confirm any doubtful readings. Other sources for Schwatka's life and career include his account of his 1883 expedition in Alaska, the records of the American Geographical and Statistical Society (Schwatka's sponsors), and the published narratives of Gilder and Heinrich Klutschak, the expedition's gifted artist. As one of a relatively few nineteenth-century explorers to value and record Inuit oral tradition, Schwatka -- despite his prejudices about indigenous people -- remains a key figure in the early documentary record, upon which we today must draw if we are to connect historical testimony to modern-day archaeological findings.

1 There have been two near-misses -- Schwatka's granddaughter worked on a biography in the 1950's, but it was never completed or published, though in 1984 her collaborator Robert Eugene Johnson published a "précis" of that biography, running to 26 pages, but no more.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Videos from "Franklin Lost and Found" at Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo courtesy Mystic Seaport Museum; key at bottom of post
I'm delighted to be able to announce that our wonderful hosts for "Franklin Lost and Found" on April 5th at the Mystic Seaport Museum have now made available videos of the event. I know how many people around the world had very much wanted to attend, but for varied reasons weren't able -- these videos will give them a sense of the many exciting presentations and panels that day. And, even for those of us who were there, they're a valuable record of our proceedings, one which we can now peruse at any time, and check against those hastily scribbled notes we may or may not have not thought to make at the time.

First up are the opening remarks by Steve White, the President and CEO of Mystic Seaport Musuem, followed by David C. Woodman's keynote address, complete with his slides; as the key figure in understanding Inuit testimony and the search for Franklin's ships, I know his was perhaps the most anticipated of the day.  And then, in order:

• The panel on Inuit oral histories, featuring Fred Calabretta, Lawrence Millman, and Kenn Harper.

• The panel, "Of Ships and Men," about forensic work on the Franklin mystery, featuring John Geiger, Peter Carney, and Keith Millar.

• The panel on current archaeological work on Franklin, with a report from Doug Stenton on past and ongoing land archaeology.

• The panel on Franklin and Popular Culture, with myself and Leanne Shapton in conversation.

• The overall Q&A following all the panels (with a great opening question from my friend Frank Michael Schuster.

• The wonderful musical send-off from Geoff Kaufmann!

KEY: In the photo, from left to right: Jonathan Moore, Keith Millar, Peter Carney, Kenn Harper, Dave Woodman, Steve White, Leanne Shapton, John Geiger, Russell Potter, Lawrence Millman, Nicholas Bell.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Tasting "Tripe de Roche" at Mystic

Photo courtesy Peter Carney
One of the highlights of our time at the "Franklin Lost and Found" event at Mystic took place a bit out of the public eye, in the upstairs area that served as a sort of 'green room' for the speakers. There, thanks to the inestimable Arctic author (and mycologist)  Lawrence Millman, a serving of genuine tripe de roche -- rock tripe -- was available. As those who've studied Franklin know all too well, this humble lichen was, for the final weeks of his disastrous first land expedition, one of the few reliably available foods. As Franklin described it in his Narrative:
The tripe de roche, even where we got enough, only served to allay the pangs of hunger for a short time ... this unpalatable weed was now quite nauseous to the whole party, and in several it produced bowel complaints. Mr. Hood was the greatest sufferer from this cause.
Species of tripe de roche, after Richardson
Hood's sufferings, according to Millman, may well have had to do with the fact that the Franklin party didn't always boil its tripe de roche; when eaten raw, it contains an enzyme -- employed to help dissolve the uppermost layer of the rock surface -- which can cause intense intestinal discomfort and diarrrhoea. Thankfully, the samples I tasted -- both of a North American and Japanese species -- had been cooked in advance. As to their taste, I would say this: imagine that, by some magic, a piece of textured silk or rayon fabric were to be rendered soft and edible -- that is the texture, but taste there is none. Apparently, the texture alone makes it specially prized by the Japanese, who treat it, like tofu, by adding various flavors.

In fact, as to boiling, there are relatively few references to it in any part of Franklin's account. They boiled all sorts of other things -- deer bones, bear paws, buffalo robes, "iceland moss," and of course shoe leather -- but of the 25 appearances of the word "boil" in the text, only three refer to tripe de roche! In their last extremity, they were too weak to leave the "fort," or even drag out the bodies of their dead companions -- and so of course the boiling of anything was quite impossible. If only they had known, they might have saved themselves a tremendous amount of discomfort, and perhaps even poor Hood might have been in better health, and able to prevent his apparent murder by Michel Terrehaute, which seems to have been a crime of opportunity, by all accounts. I'm glad that, from now on, I can speak from experience as to the perfectly healthful -- if not especially tasty -- experience of eating it.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Death of Cudlargo

Memorial to Cudlargo (and others) in Groton
Not a great deal is known about the Inuk known as "Cudlargo," whose brief moment on the stage of history has left such a resonant mark. As Kenn Harper has noted, his actual named was probably Kallarjuk, but to western ears this was rendered as as "Cudlargo"; Charles Francis Hall, who met him aboard ship while sailing north for the first time with whaling captain Sidney O. Budington. recorded his name as "Kudlago." Kallarjuk had come south with Budington in 1859, and was on his way home when he fell deathly ill. From what would turn out to be his deathbed, he repeatedly called out "Taku siku?" -- whaler pidgin/Inuktitut for "Do you see ice?"  -- but sadly, died before he reached home; his question has since become the title of Karen Routledge's excellent book on Inuit and whalers, Do You See Ice?

Hall, who had never before seen an Inuk, had decided that "Kudlago" would be the first recruit to his Franklin Search Expedition and appointed him as his interpreter; he described him as a "remarkably modest and unassuming man," one who as "quick to learn" and never seemed to express surprise at anything. His sudden illness and death, which Hall attributed to the cold fogs off the coast of Newfoundland, made a deep impression on the would-be explorer:
As he expressed a desire to be on deck, a tent was erected there, that he might enjoy the sunshine and the air. But nothing availed to save him. The following day he was again taken below, and never again left his berth alive. He died about half past four on Sunday morning. His last words were, " Teik-ko se-ko? teik-ko se-ko?" — Do you see ice? do you see ice? His prayer was that he might arrive home, and once more look upon his native land — its mountains, its snows, its ice — and upon his wife and his little ones; he would then ask no more of earth. We had sighted the Labrador coast on our way, and after that we sailed several days without seeing ice. Kudlago kept incessantly asking if we saw the ice, thinking, if so, we must be near to his home; but, poor fellow, he was still far away when his final moments came. He died in lat. 63° N., when near the coast of Greenland, and about 300 miles from his native place.  
Suitable preparations were soon made for his burial in the sea, and as I had always thought a " burial at sea" must be a scene of great interest, the one I now witnessed for the first time most strongly impressed itself upon me. Never did I participate more devoutly in what then seemed to me the most solemn scene of my life. There before us was the "sheeted dead," lying amidships on the gangway board, all in readiness for burial. The whole ship's company, save a solitary man at the wheel, had assembled in sorrowful silence around our departed friend, to pay the last respect we could to him. By the request of Captain Budington, who was bound by strong ties of friendship to Kudlago, I had consented to take an active part in the services. During these services the breezes of heaven were wafting us on — silently, yet speedily to the north. At a given signal from the captain, who was standing on my right, the man at the helm luffed the ship into the wind and deadened her headway. William Sterry and Robert Smith now stepped to the gangway, and holding firmly the plank on which was the shrouded dead — a short pause, and down sank the mortal part of Kudlago, the noble Esquimaux, into the deep grave — the abyss of the ocean! 
Image courtesy the New Bedford Whaling Museum
Just a few short days ago, Kenn Harper and a group of us from the Franklin symposium at the Mystic Seaport Museum stood in the Starr Burying Ground at Groton, and there beheld the memorial stone erected by Budington to his friend. Later that day, while enjoying a tour of the archives and collections at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, we had a chance to look at the log of the George Henry, the ship on which the sad drama had taken place, and were astonished to find, amidst numerous brief entries on the wind and weather, a strongly-lettered entry for July 1st 1860, edged all about with black ink:
He who had endeared himself to us all, "Cudlargo," the Esquimaux, died at 4:30 A.M.. After appropriate services in which the ship's company participated with deep interest, we buried him in the Sea. Requiescat in pace.
I do not believe this entry has been published before, but it discovering and reading it had a profound effect on all present.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Franklin Lost and Found

At the grave of Hannah ("Tookoolito")
It was truly a memorable gathering; for a day, the geographical center of gravity of the Franklin expedition and everyone whose work has contributed to our understanding of it, was fixed at 41.36° N, 71.96° W -- at the Mystic Seaport Museum. The next day, many of us went to visit the grave of Hannah, where two of her children are also buried; from left to right: Frank Michael Schuster, Russell Potter, Kenn Harper, Peter Carney, Regina Koellner, Steve and Mary Williamson, and Dave Woodman. We all felt especially honored to have Mary with as, as she's Sir John Franklin's great-great grand niece; her uncle, Roderic Owen, was the author of 1978's The Fate of Franklin. Also at the daylong event were Jonathan Moore, John Geiger, Keith Millar, Lawrence Millman, Leanne Shapton, Fred Calabretta, and -- by way of Skype -- Doug Stenton.

The event was videotaped, and in the near future the Museum plans to make video available -- when it does, I'll add a link here on this blog. But in the meantime, some highlights of the day:

• Dave Woodman, in his keynote address, gave the history of his work, both in the archives and in the field.

• Kenn Harper gave an excellent analysis of the history and merits of the many translators of Inuktitut who played a role in recording early testimony about Franklin.

• Fred Calabretta noted the key role that New London whalers played in early interactions with Inuit, and advising Charles Francis Hall before his first trip north.

• Lawrence Millman shared some of his experiences in collecting Inuit oral traditions from elders.

• John Geiger reflected on the impact of the forensic work at Beechey Island as detailed in his and Owen Beattie's Frozen in Time.

• Peter Carney and Keith Millar discussed their research on the question of lead poisoning and other health issues affecting Franklin's crews.

• We had a full and robust report on ground archaeology, directly from Doug Stenton, followed by a detailed account of the current underwater work from Parks Canada's Jonathan Moore.

• Leanne Shapton and I reflected on the place of Franklin in pop culture, from Staffordshire china figures and illustrated newspapers to graphic novels and AMC's series The Terror -- we were especially fortunate that several fans of that series, who've brought its characters to life via cosplay, were in the audience and at the Q&A.

The questions asked at the general session were fantastic, and showed that the audience was as keen on the story as any of us on the panels, and very much steeped in Franklin lore. We concluded with some sea-chanteys and a rousing sing-along of Stan Rogers' "Northwest Passage," and then a big collective book-signing in the foyer of the main exhibition building. All of us felt very grateful to the Museum for bringing us together; in all my time working on these histories, this was surely the largest and most complete assembly of "Franklinites" that I have known.

So watch this space for further stories that have sprung out of this gathering -- and see your host try a healthy bite of tripe de roche (it's not bad, actually!).

Friday, March 1, 2019

Franklin Symposium at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Keynote speaker David C. Woodman
In what will be the most significant gathering in many years of those who have searched for, researched, and written about the Franklin mystery, Mystic Seaport Museum will be hosting a symposium on April 5th, 2019. The keynote speaker will be David C. Woodman, who is in many ways the man most responsible for gathering and analyzing the historical Inuit testimony that eventually led Parks Canada's underwater archaeology team to the wreck of HMS "Erebus" in 2014. Woodman's two books -- Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, and Strangers Among Us, form the core of the modern understanding of this large and complex body of oral tradition; Woodman also followed up on his books by leading a number of expeditions on his own in the years before Parks became involved.

Joining him will be a number of other key figures in the modern history of the search for Franklin: from the Parks Canada team, Jonathan Moore will give us the latest on the dive team's work and plans; representing ground-based archaeology will be Doug Stenton, who has been a part of the most numerous and extensive excavations on King William Island since the search began. We'll also be joined by John Geiger, the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, whose 1988 book, Frozen in Time, described the exhumation and study by Dr. Owen Beattie of the three sailors buried at Beechey Island -- a groundbreaking book in every sense of the word. Others who have taken up this angle of research, including Peter Carney, who has extensively studied the ships' engines, heating apparatus, and water systems, and Keith Millar, a co-author on a number of key studies in recent years that have re-examined and built upon Dr. Beattie's work, will join the discussion.

Two other sessions will be no less vital -- I'll be on a panel alongside Leanne Shapton, whose feature article in the New York Times Magazine on the Franklin relics brought this fascinating history back before American eyes; we'll be looking at the broader history of Franklin in popular culture. Last but very far from least, esteemed historian and author Kenn Harper will host a session on the nature of Inuit oral tradition, as well as the role of individual Inuit in the Franklin search; he'll be joined by curator Fred Calabretta, along with veteran Arctic author Lawrence Millman. Millman, who is also a well-known mycologist, has promised to bring along some tripe de roche -- the lichen that Franklin and his men subsisted on in the last days of their first Arctic land expedition.  After the sessions, there will be a book-signing event with all the authors present, and rumor has it that sea-chanteys will be sung!

Tickets for the day's events are now available; for more information you can contact the Mystic Seaport Museum here.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Emil Bessels, serial poisoner?

Some time ago on this blog, I gave the evidence that Emil Bessels had a deeper potential motive to poison the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall -- he and Hall had both fallen for the charms of the young artist Vinnie Ream. A letter from Bessels declaring that he was "thinking of her all the time," along with a letter from Hall sent from aboard the "Polaris" to thank her for the gifts she'd sent and describing them on display in his cabin, seemed to seal the deal. It was still conjectural of course -- but it was the first motive specific to Bessels -- as opposed to the other German scientific staff, many of whom resented Hall's leadership style -- that was supported by evidence from the time.

And now, with thanks to the researches of a reader of this blog by the name of Jesper Zwiers, we have evidence that Bessels may have killed again. It's an old truism of crime that a criminal, once emboldened by a successful but undetected murder, is likely to repeat his crime -- and here again the method appears to have been arsenic poisoning. The victim, however, is a bit of a surprise -- it was Bertha Ravene, a German-American opera singer who was engaged to be married to Bessels! The wedding date had been postponed twice before, and her untimely death occurred on the third date she and Bessels had planned to wed. The sequence seems  suggest that, as with Hall, the course of the poisoning began some time before her death, and was accelerated -- perhaps while Bessels was "treating" his fiancée -- before the final fatal dose.

Something -- it's not entirely clear precisely what -- attracted the suspicion of people who knew the couple. It may have been that many still felt that Bessels was living under a cloud after the death of Hall; in some newspapers it's also said that he was acting "strangely" and that it was this behavior that raised questions. Madame Ravene's son apparently sided with Bessels, and one wonders whether he had some stake in his mother's life -- or death. If indeed Bessels hoped to profit by the death himself, it seems odd that he would have acted before rather than after the planned wedding. Numerous articles mention calls for Madame Ravene's body to be exhumed, and some even seem to assert that this was definitely going to happen -- but it appears from the lack of further news that it did not; one article states that "there will probably be no investigation" since "it is not generally believed that there was foul play." One factor that may be imagined to be in Dr. Bessels' favor is that, on the second planned date of their marriage, the couple did indeed arrive at the church, only to find the minister absent due to some confusion over the date. There's also the fact that Madame Ravene was, according to the physician who signed her death certificate, taking arsenic for malaria (!) but "only a quarter of a grain a day" (this would have been about 8 milligrams, far from a toxic dose). You can read more about these circumstances in this more detailed account of the events by a reporter who visited and interviewed Dr. Bessels. A note to those who want to dig a little further: Madame Ravene's name apparently posed a problem for newspaper and wire services of the day -- it appears both as "Ravena" and "Ravenna" -- so you'll need to do searches on each version to see all the available articles.

Sadly, no photograph of Bertha Ravene seems to have survived. Nevertheless, her image lives on, as -- around 1871, at the peak of her career, a new hybrid flower -- a camellia to be precise -- was named after her.