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.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

How did it all start?

It's one of the first questions I'm always asked -- how did you come to develop this abiding fascination with the story of the Franklin expedition? And so of course I have an answer, one that -- while it's entirely true -- has grown a bit in the telling. Literary critic Hugh Kenner had a phrase for these sorts of tales -- things that might, or perhaps might not, be true -- but that certainly ought to be true! He called them "Irish Facts."

So here's mine: many years ago -- circa 1992 or so -- I was a newly-appointed and hence very "junior" assistant professor in the wilds of central Maine, at a place called Colby College. It's a time when most people would be a little tentative, a little unsure of their steps. Fortunately, a more senior colleague took me under his wing -- then known by the name of Jim Boylan -- who's now far better-known today as the bestselling author and New York Times columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan. Boylan and I, along with an equally freshly-minted geology prof by the name of of Paul Doss -- a man who could play a mean blues harmonica as well as he could catalogue rock samples -- decided, in that most ancient of traditions, to form a band. And our name -- I can't remember who came up with it -- was one of the great band names in all history: we were known as the Diminished Faculties. Later on, when a fellow from the IT department joined up, we became "The Diminished Faculties with Staff Infection," a more clever but somehow much less epic moniker.

And it was in our quest for new material for this band that something happened -- something very small, but very consequential. Boylan had played a tune for me, "Arthur McBride," as performed by Paul Brady -- and I'd fallen in love with it. And so, the next time I had a chance, I stopped by the local record store and searched for it, finding it at last on an anthology CD named Celtic Graces. Pleased with myself for finding the tune, at some point I idly played the rest of the CD, and stumbled upon a song, "Lord Franklin," played by Micháel Ó'Domhnaill and Kevin Burke, which just captured me entirely. I found myself playing it over and over, and squinting at the finely-printed insert where, I was informed, Franklin's ships has been trapped in the ice for years, and all his men had died without being able to obtain any help. This stunned me: how could these men have been trapped in the ice for so long?

It was a tale of loss, profound loss, with a mystery following -- why had not the ships been found? What had happened to these lost souls? And oddly, as fate would have it, I was soon to undergo an experience which resonated, in a curiously profound way, with this loss: I lost my teaching position at Colby. Perhaps it wasn't a complete surprise -- the campus and its faculty were always a little clubby, and I was never much of a joiner. I also had a tendency to call out what I saw as bad leadership -- I have a brief recollection of the college's president turning beet-red at a meeting at which I spoke -- no doubt I was a very impolitic junior professor. To be sure, such a fall from a position of relative privilege bears, in one sense, no comparison at all with the sufferings Franklin's crews endured -- but somehow the common feeling cemented the bond. And it wasn't at all helpful that Colby's library contained, on its open stacks, every Franklin search narrative from Kane to McClintock to Hall to Schwatka. My office was in the library -- I'd been demoted to a former broom closet by then -- but I heaped my desk with these volumes, and let them lead me where they might.

And here, to this extraordinarily rewarding and passionate interest, is where they have led me.