Monday, March 23, 2020

Charles Francis Hall and Lady Franklin

As the pre-eminent Franklin searcher of his day, it would have been surprising if Charles Francis Hall had not met with Lady Jane Franklin, given the opportunity. And yet, curiously, there's no mention of any meeting in Chauncey Loomis's usually-authoritative Weird and Tragic Shores, and the only modern biographies of Jane -- those of Alison Alexander and Ken McGoogan -- while mentioning such a meeting, offer few details. Both seem to have used as their source Francis J. Woodward's Portrait of Jane: A Life of Lady Franklin, which was published in 1951. Woodward mentions two meetings, one in Cincinnati in July of 1870 and one in New York in August. McGoogan also alludes to a letter in the Hall papers at the Smithsonian, which had me intrigued; he gives it as his source that the two met in Cincinnati on August 13, 1870.

It turns out everyone was a little off -- as so often is the case, primary sources tell a slightly different, and more complicated tale than secondary ones. Thanks once more to the diligent research of Lelia Garcia, whom I'd asked to search through all of Hall's correspondence on his return from his second expedition, we now have a much clearer sense of exactly when these two figures met, what they discussed, and how Hall himself altered his plans on her behalf.

On Hall's return in 1869, one of his first concerns was to disseminate -- publicly, through lectures and meetings, and privately, through correspondence -- his main findings about Franklin's men. He had earlier promised Lady Franklin to send along a full account of his findings, and he did his best to do so, initially in letters and eventually through a small bound journal written expressly for her eyes. Hall's energies, however, soon turned to his new idea that -- using the techniques he'd practiced over nearly a decade in the Arctic -- he was the man best suited to be the first American at the North Pole. This, unlike his previous shoe-string operations, was to be funded by the American government, and to obtain that funding, he had to lobby the Congress and persuade influential friends to endorse his cause. This was a task made the harder when Isaac Israel Hayes -- who had been north with Dr. Kane and on a second expedition of his own -- entered the scene as a rival to these endorsements. Lady Franklin, for her part, wrote to Hall to try to persuade him to abandon his polar plans, and return to King William Island for a further search, this time focused on finding paper records of her husband's expedition.

Hall, overwhelmed by these competing calls and a bit over his head when it came to lobbying Congress, appears to have suffered a period of nervous collapse. So it was that the special account of his travels remained only partly complete, and he felt obliged to decline Lady Franklin's invitations to him to come to London. Jane was not one to take no for an answer, however -- she and Sophia Cracroft shortly embarked on another vernturesome voyage, to San Francisco and eventually north to Sitka, Alaska, with the hope of meeting Hall on their way back to England. Oddly, though we have extensive letters and journal entries from them on the first leg of their trip, there's nothing about that hoped-for meeting. All we know we know in retrospect, as Hall -- having recovered his spirits and thrown himself into the Polar effort with renewed vigor -- wrote to Lady Franklin early in January of 1871 -- mentioning their meeting, and (somewhat long-windedly) declaring that he would, on the return leg of what he assumed would be a triumphant conquest of the Pole, return to the central Arctic and take up his previous mission.

The letter is singular in many ways -- firstly because Hall, whose cramped scribble was often quite hard to read -- hired a professional scribe, who penned this missive in a glorious copperplate hand. All the same, the fancy script doesn't disguise Hall's signature blend of hubris and piety, which veers from an elaborate apology for his not having written sooner to a flourishing promise to make good his lapse. The first paragraph of the letter solves one mystery; it's dated January 9th, 1871:
Lady Franklin: Little did I think when I saw you last August 13th, 1870 at Mr. Grinnell's, that so many, many long months would pass away before sending you what I so readily promised. What use for me to make what the world calls apologies -- apologies for my shortcomings in making good the performance of my duties to my honoured friends since my return to the land of thunder and perpetual excitement?
That August, Hall was living in Grinnell's house, which corresponds with him meeting Jane there; somehow this date was transposed in McGoogan's book to a meeting in Cincinnati. We know, though, that Hall was in Cincinnati the previous month, thanks to a press account in the Cincinnati Enquirer in late July of 1870, which notes "the visit of Lady Franklin to Captain Hall, and her hearty welcome in Ohio, on her arrival from Alaska via California. This venerable lady, whose devotion to the memory of her lamented husband will fill one of the most pathetic pages in the annals of modern times, is expected to arrive today in New York, where her romantic and tragic story must command equal sympathy." So we can say now that they met in both places, but somehow the August date became erroneously associated with the Cincinnati encounter.

William Bradford, The Polaris in Thank God Harbor
The rest of the letter is hardly less interesting; after a lengthy list of his failed obligations, he declares that, although he no longer believes than any of Franklin's men are still alive, he now plans two expeditions: "one for the the discovery of the regions about the Pole, and the other to obtain the records of Sir John's Expedition and to obtain other information than what I already possess relating to it." He informs her that the North Pole expedition should return within 30 months, and enthusiastically details his preparations for it. One surprising detail, for me, is that he claims to have secured the services of William Morton, who'd served in the 1850's under Dr. Kane, and had claimed to have seen the chimerical "Open Polar Sea" -- in the end, Morton did not join the expedition, and Hall found that he had very little power to appoint to it anyone of his choice. Within the year, Hall would be dead and buried at his "Thank God Harbor," unable to fulfill the floridly-phased promises of this letter.

NB You can download the entire manuscript in .pdf format here.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Tale of the Bones, Part IV

Reproduced with permission
A lot can happen in a hundred and thirty years or so. Forensic science has certainly advanced, though access to the needed evidence remains an issue. It wasn't until the 2009 relocation of Westmacott's memorial that the bones interred within were open to examination, and so of course there was the keenest interest in doing so.

When the coffin was opened, it was full of touching surprises. A pasteboard cross with dried flowers was among them, as was a paper packet of teeth and note from George Henry Richards. The bones themselves were wrapped in an enormous paper chart of Papua New Guinea, though an Arctic chart was also present. The scientific effort to examine it all had to be accomplished in the relatively brief interval between taking apart the monument (then located in a stairwell behind the sacristy, out of public view) and its re-installation in the vestibule.

The team, led by Dr. Simon Mays and including my friend the late William Battersby, had their work cut out for them ---it was almost a sort of archaeological triage. A cast of the skull was made, with an eye to reconstructing the face, and the teeth were brought to the laboratory for analysis. Teeth, as it turns out, can be remarkably useful in tracing the life of their possessor; as their inner layers are laid down in youth, so is the signature of local minerals in the air and water that is remarkable in its precision. Even Ötzi, the "Ice Man," who lived 5,000 years ago, has been traced to his home town of Feldthurns in northern Italy by these means. Using similar measures -- isotopes of strontium and calcium -- the teeth of our Arctic skeleton were matched to the eastern coasts of Scotland. This, then, was certainly not the skeleton of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, who spent his childhood in Devon within sniffing range of its chalky cliffs -- it was that of someone who'd grown up amidst the granite and gravel of Scotland.

Just twelve of Franklin's crew were from parts of Scotland; among the officers, we have the ice-master James Reid (Aberdeen), assistant surgeons Alexander Macdonald (Laurencekirk) and Harry Goodsir (Anstruther), who were fellow medical students in Edinburgh, and James S. Peddie, another Edinburgh graduate, from West Lothian. That gives roughly us sixteen potential candidates based on the tooth isotopes alone.

It would seem to be a difficult field to narrow, but one tooth had a second tale to tell:  a gold filling. It's not so much the costliness (which led earlier examiners to take it as proof the man was an officer) but the scarcity of such fillings that turned out to be the key. Gold fillings were rather uncommon at the time; the practice, in fact, had been introduced relatively recently by the Scottish dental surgeon Robert Nasmyth. And, as it happens, there's a direct connection between Nasmyth and Goodsir, as Goodsir's father was one of the dentist's closest friends, and Harry's brother John actually worked as Nasmyth's assistant! It's quite good circumstantial evidence that this skeleton might more likely be Goodsir's.

One final technique was available, that of "facial reconstruction" based on the skull. As we've seen a version of this had already been attempted in the 1870's, with inaccurate results. How could such a mistake have been made? Once more, it seems to have come down to the teeth; the sketch artist failed to take account of how the teeth of the mandible, in place, would have fitted with those of the skull. It turns out that this person had a fairly severe malocclusion (or "bad bite"), such that (to quote Mays et. al.) "the lips do not naturally meet at rest and the individual may well be a mouth breather." With the mandible correctly aligned, a new facial reconstruction was made, and -- when overlain upon the Daguerreotype of Harry Goodsir -- shows a remarkable match.

One can, indeed, see Goodsir's lower lip hanging a bit open in the photograph, precisely as would be the case if he had the malocclusion found in the skull. James Fitzjames, Franklin's second aboard HMS Erebus, even noted this odd feature in a line which was censored -- perhaps because it seemed unkind -- from the published version of Fitzjames's journal: "his upper lip projects beyond his lower and his lower beyond his chin producing a gradation thus: [see image at left] but a choker comes down beyond the chin so you imagine there is more of it."

All of this adds up to a fairly high degree of likelihood that these were the bones of Harry Goodsir, the expedition's naturalist and primary scientific investigator. The ideal final piece would be a DNA match, but here we meet an obstacle -- although Harry came from a distinguished family of doctors, scientists, and churchmen, none of his brothers had any children. Thus, Harry's closest relations are along collateral lines -- descendants of his aunts, great-aunts, or great-uncles. It's still possible that some suitable DNA may be found -- the final piece of the puzzle will have to wait until then.

With thanks to Dr. Simon Mays, Mike Tracy, Regina Koellner, and Peter Carney for their assistance in preparing this post. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Tale of the Bones, Part III

Bones of contention
Huxley's identification did not go unchallenged -- indeed, one of the foremost men involved in the Franklin search, Dr. John Rae, doubted that it was a Franklin skeleton at all. The value of Rae's opinion, however, was limited by the fact that he did not have access to Hall's field notebooks or journals, and since Nourse's edition of Hall's narrative wasn't published until 1879, he had no idea of Hall's success; he simply expressed his doubt that Hall could have persuaded any Inuit to take him so far as King William Island. But there was another problem: for some reason, in the same box as the bones, there was a metal blade, perhaps the head of a spear, stamped with the words "THE SHIP." Rae gave it as his opinion that it could not possibly have been used by Franklin's men, as they had plenty of guns and ammunition, though he admitted that he had seen "pieces of gun barrels hammered with all sorts of forms" by the Inuit. This artifact, as it turned out, was completely unrelated to the skeleton and may well have ended up in the box simply because Hall obtained it around the same time.

As recounted in Nourse (p. 400), it was just a few days earlier that he had, while searching unsuccessfully for the bodies reported to be on the Todd Islets, that he encountered an Inuk by the name of "Koo-nik," who gave him a number of items taken from the wrecked at "Ook-joo-lik"(which we now know to be HMS Erebus); he gave Hall
"a silver spoon ... and a second smaller mahogany box, with another spoon and many other articles, including pieces of copper with two stamps of a broad arrow, and a steel spear-head on which was  stamped " THE SHIP." All these had been brought from one of Franklin's ships and from the shore on the south side of Ook-joo-lik (O'Reilly Island). Knives, needles, thimbles, beads, and rings were
given in return."
Detail of Edmond Le Feuvre's letter
The spear-head seems to have caused confusion to Inglefield and Huxley as well, and influenced Dr. Rae's negative opinion about the bones. But there was not merely skepticism on these fronts only, but even -- once they were made aware of Huxley's view -- on the part of Le Vesconte's own family as to whether the bones were in fact his. We know this thanks to a surviving letter from Edmond Philip Le Feuvre, who was not only the executor of Le Vesconte's estate, but his cousin. Here is an excerpt from his letter to Le Vesconte's sister Rose Henrietta in May of 1873:
I quite agree with you that the fact of there being a little spec of gold in one tooth is no evidence that the remains are those of an officer, and I quite think the right thing has been done in them being deposited at Greenwich. I confess I wish they had been deposited in consecrated ground but they will be preserved quite sacredly when they are in front of the monument erected to the memory of the Expedition, and I suspect our church laws would not have permitted a burial service to have been performed in the absence of all proof of identity.
Edmond also mentions that he had called upon Sophia Cracroft, Lady Franklin's niece and companion, and that she apparently was convinced by Huxley's account, and by "the photograph of the pencil drawing" -- this must mean that a photographic copy of the sketch made in New York had been provided to her! -- but then muddles things by saying "this could not in any way be relied on being simply a copy of the daguerreotype likeness." Here, Edmond is in error -- having seen the sketch we know it's based on the skull -- but this gives us the wonderful vision of Sophy sitting at home, comparing the photograph of the sketch with her own copy of the Daguerreotype of Le Vesconte!

And, although in some ways for wrong reasons such as this, the skeptics were to be proven right -- although not for more than a century and a half. The proof will be the subject of the next (and for now final) chapter of this story.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Tale of the Bones, Part II

Image courtesy Imperial College, London
The bones arrived in a carefully-packed crate, apparently the same one originally used by Hall. They were delivered by Vice-Admiral Inglefield to George Henry Richards, then the Hydrographer of the Navy, and with them a dilemma -- if they could not, as Inglefield hoped, be "certainly identified," it wouldn't be possible for them to be properly buried -- what to do? Richards felt he had to do something, and so contacted Thomas Henry Huxley, the foremost comparative anatomist of his day -- surely the great man would be able to solve this riddle. In a letter dated 22 June 1872 he wrote:
My dear Professor Huxley ,
Admiral Inglefield who has just returned from New York has brought with him a Complete Skeleton of one of Franklin’s officers which was found by Hall, the American traveller, on King William’s Land. It lies on my table at present in the box it was brought home in. The features are so remarkably distinctive added to which one of the teeth is stuffed with gold. I think there will be little difficulty in identifying the individual. I have thought perhaps you might feel sufficiently interested in the matter to put him together with a view to his identification and if so I will send him - any where you direct. 
Two days later, apparently having heard back in the affirmative, Richards sent him the bones along with an accompanying note:
I send the box containing the skeleton as you desired. It is packed in Shavings. I have not disturbed any thing but the head - and put that back again in its place. Admiral Inglefield tells me all the Bones are in the box. Some of the teeth are shaken out and will be found among the Shavings if they are carefully reserved. I did not like to disturb anything. When you have found the age - the distinctive features appear to me to be so well marked that I have no doubt we shall identify the man. The names are all in McClintock’s- last Cheap Edition of the Fox Voyage what I have here if you require it. I send also a fancy portrait which was done by the New York professor to whom Hall gave the skeleton but I understand from Inglefield that nothing but the head has ever been out of the box since it was found on King William’s Land there are some remnants of clothing about the bones and in the Box.
The "fancy portrait" apparently referred to the sketch shown above, which is still among Huxley's papers -- if one looks closely at it, one can see that the facial features are carefully traced over a precise profile of the skull. Despite all efforts, I've been unable to identify the "New York Professor," but it must have been someone engaged by Brevoort, in whose care Hall had left the bones.

It took some time for Huxley to reply -- Richards had almost given up on him -- and when he did, he took the view that there was little doubt that the "skellington" was that of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, a lieutenant on Franklin's expedition. He commented mainly on the skull and teeth:
The skull is very well formed & shows that its person had a prominent nose & chin, & a square cut and powerful lower jaw. There is a socket for only one cutting tooth on the left side in the upper jaw, main, having been extracted  in youth ... The most important point  in regard to the teeth however is that the first premolar, a bicuspid tooth, on the right side has been stuffed with gold ... which leads to the conclusion that its possessor may have been an officer.
Detail of the portrait
Based on these observations, and with the age of the individual estimated at 30-35 years, Huxley apparently felt that Le Vesconte was the best match. Nevertheless, his identification was apparently considered insufficient by the Naval authorities; when the bones were interred -- initially under the floor of the Painted Hall of the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich -- they were identified simply as those of "one of Sir John Franklin's companions." The bones were later moved to the Chapel, and re-interred in the base of an impressive marble monument designed by William Westmacott. When, in 2009, the memorial was moved to a more prominent position near the chapel's entrance, a formal memorial service of remembrance and rededication was held, and Huxley's identification was used as its basis.

H.T.D. Le Vesconte
The ceremony opened with Beethoven's Funeral March, after which the Reverend Jeremy Frost, Chaplain to the Greenwich Foundation, ascended to the pulpit and intoned:
We gather on this solemn occasion to give renewed thanks for the life of Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, and to re-inter his mortal remains in the vestibule of this Chapel In this the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary year of the discovery of Sir John Franklin's death, we pray that peoples from across the world who visit this holy and historic place may hereafter pause, and remember all those who lost their lives alongside Franklin ..
There was only one problem, as it turned out: the bones were not those of Le Vesconte. In our next installment, we'll find out why -- and how indeed, even at the time, some members of Le Vesconte's family felt Huxley was mistaken -- and how his mistake was finally corrected.

[to be continued ...]

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Tale of the Bones, Part 1

Peffer River, photo by Doug Stenton, courtesy the Government of Nunavut
It was a desolate place, the site of two of the last of Franklin’s men accorded what searcher  Charles Francis Hall deemed a “Christian burial.” A little over two miles to the east of  the estuary of the Peffer river on King William Island, Hall had at last reached the place described by Nee-wik-tee-too, a Netsilik Inuk who had since died. As Hall recalled his testimony, “The bodies buried by placing stones around and over them;  the remains facing upward, and the hands had been folded in a very precise manner across the breasts of both ; clothes all on ; flesh all on the bones. On the back of each a suspended knife found. The bodies perfect when found, but the Innuits having left the remains unburied, after unearthing them, the foxes have eaten meat and sinews all off the bones. A tenting-place of the whites close by where these two men were buried. Many needles and one nail found by the Innuits at this tenting-place."

It was early in the season, and snow covered the ground. Hall's guides In-nook-poo-zhee-jook and Zuk dug about for some time, and at last were able to locate one of these graves, the skeleton nearly complete:
At length Zuck and In-nook-pou-zhe-jook (the former had been seeking too, having the snow shovel) cried to me + motioned with upraised arms. I knew by this sign [that he] had something there so I hastend to the spot which is the one on which I was writing these notes + they had discovered the grave of one – that is they had taken off the pure unspotted mantles of the heavens + laid bare the skeleton remains of one those gallant sons of Franklin Expedition that so triumphiantly + gloriously accomplished the North West Passage.
As was his practice, Hall ordered a volley shot over the grave, and raised "the Stars and Stripes" over the bones. And then -- though he made no immediate note of it -- he pondered a decision: should he bring the bones with him, back to America, eventually perhaps to England? Or should he let them rest where they lay? At last, he decided to bring them with him. We don't have any record of his inner deliberations, although J.E. Nourse, who edited Hall's narrative, said that Hall had had "much hesitancy as though he might have done wrong."

Hall papers, Smithsonian Museum
On his return to the United States in 1869, Hall was a busy man -- in addition to sorting out his notes and preparing the full account of his search asked for by Lady Franklin, he was in the early stages of raising money and attention for what became his third and final expedition, in search of the North Pole aboard the USS "Polaris." He at last decided to delay the ultimate decision of what to do with the remains by placing them in the care of his patron J. Carson Brevoort (whom Hall, mindful of all who had helped him in the past, addressed as "Friend Brevoort"). On November 3rd, he drafted a letter to Brevoort, reporting that "I wish to confide to your special care, for the present, a case that contains the remains of one of the immortal heroes of Sir John Franklin’s Expedition that discovered the North West Passage." Hall did not add any further instructions, and it seems that the skeleton remained in Brevoort's care for several years, until 1872 at least. By then, Hall was dead, murdered with arsenic by his own ship's doctor, and Brevoort no doubt felt free to exercise his own judgment. He contacted the British Embassy in Washington D.C., where -- by happy coincidence -- the Arctic veteran Edward Augustus Inglefield was serving as Naval attaché. Inglefield apparently agreed that the bones should be brought home, and made the necessary arrangements. And here the plot thickens .... but that's a matter for my next post.

NB: Before going any further, I want to express my gratitude to Lelia Garcia, who -- at short notice -- spent two afternoons with the Hall papers at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and who managed to locate the letter shown above. My thanks also to Russ Taichman for sending along his images from Hall's field notebooks. It's through efforts such as these that the Franklin story is advanced, inch by inch, and the larger understanding of it enhanced, mile by mile.