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.

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