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 ...]


  1. Fantastic Russell, not every day we're treated to a Franklin trilogy... Surely that tooth indicated a man on means, but if that wasn't the smoking gun...

    1. Correction... Not a trilogy. We'll see how many segments this goes!