Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The backstory of John Gregory's Skull

The news came this week that one of the skulls found at the site of the Schwatka reburial at Erebus Bay on King William Island has been identified using DNA as that of John Gregory, who served aboard HMS Erebus as an engineer; the story has reverberated around the world, and rightly so. His are the very first human remains to be identified using DNA by a team led by Dr. Doug Stenton, which has been able to extract DNA from dozens of bones in their work over the past decade, but had never found a match -- until now.

And yet one thing that hasn't been widely reported is that this skull, catalogued as "cranium #80," was actually not discovered recently -- indeed, though its wasn't brought back from stony shores of Erebus Bay until 2013,  it had first been spotted by Barry Ranford twenty years earlier. It's the same skull that he showed to the CBC's Carol Off when she was there for a short television documentary in 1995 (you can watch her original story here)

How can I be so sure? Well, Andrew Gregg, who was the cameraman on that occasion, also took a number of still photos, including this one:

Photograph © 1994 Andrew Gregg

As one can see, this skull -- when rotated to an upright position as I've done in the first image above, is an exact match for Keenleyside, Stenton, and Park's "cranium #80," the same now known to be Gregory's. The indentations associated with the missing teeth are identical, and so is the shape of the distinctive injury to the right maxilla. You can even see the small circular dot or indentation just above where the nasal bones meet the frontal bone.

The other skull, the one atop the reburial, had grown quite mossy, as can be seen in another of Gregg's photos, quite a different situation from its bleach-white brother:

© 1994 Andrew Gregg

In 1997, the two crania on the surface, along with a nearby femur, were placed in a metal box for protection and cached on the site in a new cairn, by Ranford's friend John Harrington. Ranford himself had committed suicide the previous autumn, but Harrington was to return on at least six more occasions, continuing the search for Franklin remains that his late colleague had begun. A few years ago, John and I attended a lecture by Diana Trepkov, who did facial reconstructions of this and the other skulls found nearby. "Let's go have a look at an old friend," I'd suggested to him.

Back in 1993, when Ranford first came upon the skull, he was nearing the end of a long trek down the western coast of King William Island. His travelling companion had become so sick that he'd had to haul him along in the wheeled garden cart they'd brought for supplies, and time was growing short. At first, he'd thought it was a plastic bleach bottle, it was so white, but on coming closer he realized his error. It was to be a fateful discovery.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

John Torrington, Intriguing Person

I'd heard about it for years, how John Torrington -- the unfortunate leading stoke on HMS "Erebus" -- had found himself in the pages of People® Magazine. What I hadn't realized what that he'd been chosen -- along with Bill Murray, Michael Jackson, and Vanessa Williams as one of the "Most Intriguing People of 1984." With a little bit of rummaging around on eBay, it wasn't too hard to get a copy of the original magazine, and have a look at Torrington's pop-cultural debut

The accompanying article, written by Jack Friedman, gives us a fascinating snapshot in time -- not just at Torrington, but at Owen Beattie's perspective on his work. It's not often recalled, but in the 1984 field season, permits came so late that Beattie only had time to exhume one of the three Franklin expedition members buried on Beechey Island, and -- perhaps because his was nearest the shore -- he picked Torrington. So his remarks, as quoted by Friedman, predate the exhumation of Hartnell and Braine, and the later book written in collaboration with John Geiger. 

Interestingly, Beattie characterizes the Franklin expedition as "successful in an unsuccessful way," saying that he believed that they had achieved their goal of the Northwest Passage (this must be based, I'd assume, on the presence of expedition remains near Cape Herschel, a point previously surveyed from the west by Dease and Simpson). Beattie calls his team "simply and extension" of the earlier searches, from the late 1840's to the present day. In response to what must have been a question about how respectful it was to dig up such a long-frozen man, Beattie declared "I work with the bones of dead people all the time. I'm sensitive to the fact that they were people. None of us felt we were violating a privacy."

The condition of Torrington's lungs had already led them to the conclusion that his most proximate cause of death was pneumonia. And yet, according to Beattie, they were still waiting for full lab results: "In the coming months," Beattie said, "we'll be analyzing hair and nail samples to see if other health problems can be identified." Lead, however, had apparently already been detected, and the hypothesis that it came from the food tins is mentioned. The article says that "this may help explain some of the seemingly irrational decisions made by Franklin and his men."

There's one other fascinating detail: 

"Before the coffin was re-sealed, the scientists at the grave site placed a note in it that was written by a woman on Beattie's team, Geraldine Ruszala, and signed by all of them. 'We had some serious thoughts,' says Beattie. 'I don't want to get too schmaltzy about it. It's simply a private note about our feelings as human beings.'"

Torrington's grave has been undisturbed since, but his presence -- as conveyed by Beattie's work and the photographs taken at the time -- lingers on. He's been the inspiration for a number of songs, most notably James Taylor's "The Frozen Man," along with Iron Maiden's "Stranger in a Strange Land," not to mention a range of poems and novels, including Mordecai Richler's wry Solomon Gursky Was Here. His was, as James Dzieszynski has remarked, an "unintentional journal to immortality" -- no one would be more surprised than he to know how long his story has persisted.

NB: You can download a .pdf of the entire article here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

"The Terror" comes to the BBC

Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier
Back in March of 2018, when viewers in North America turned on their televisions to see what "The Terror" was all about, there was a lot of explaining to do. Not so much in Canada, where Sir John Franklin has remained a cultural touchstone, but certainly in the United States, where "Franklin" usually means "Benjamin." And now, three years later, Franklin and his officers and crew are, as it were, returning home thanks to the BBC. Franklin may need a little dusting off even there, though the ground has been admirably prepared by Michael Palin's wonderful book Erebus: The Story of a Ship, but in chatting with Paul Franks on BBC radio's West Midlands service yesterday, I still needed to go over the basics -- what was the Northwest Passage, why was it do damned important, and who was this Franklin chap anyway?

As they say, it's a long story. But the basics are simple: the Northwest Passage, originally envisioned as the "sea route to the Orient," was by the mid-nineteenth century a more abstract prize: numerous expeditions had been launched and failed, enough for Arctic veteran Sir John Ross to declare to a Parliamentary Committee that, even if found, the Passage would be "utterly useless" for commercial ships. Still, for a maritime nation, the lack of having managed it was a perceptible failing, one which Franklin's expedition was widely expected to resolve. Under the command of Franklin -- who had mapped much of the mid-section of the Passage already --  with two ice-strengthened ships, the "Erebus" and "Terror," fresh from a successful Antarctic voyage, the expedition seemed destined to succeed. Until it disappeared with scarcely a trace, defeating every effort to find more than a skeleton or a scrap of paper for decades, even as disturbing accounts, collected from the native Inuit people, told of starvation, cannibalism, and exhausted men who "fell down as they walked."

Like the novel by Dan Simmons on which it's based, the show builds a tissue of horrific fiction around this armature of historical fact. For those of us who already find the factual story endlessly fascinating, a certain additional suspension of disbelief will be required. We'll have to let go of our idealized version, for instance, of Franklin, and let Hinds's masterful performance of Sir John as an ambitious commander who throws caution to the winds, take its place; our Fitzjames will, as Menzies portrays him, be less whimsical than the lively young fellow evident in his letters home; our Crozier, above all, will be darker: feeling that his sense of the perils of the ice is not being taken seriously, he turns to drink and grim warnings: "Our situation is more dire than you may understand." Jared Harris's performance is the highlight of the series for me; no other actor I know so perfectly combines -- and balances -- darkness and light. All these new characters, though drawn differently from the way we've seen them before, serve this show's narrative as faithfully as the original officers served their nation's Navy.

I won't be giving any spoilers here -- though the curious can read the episode-by-episode recap and commentary I wrote for Canadian Geographic on their website -- but I will say that, despite the fact that its horror is of a different and more fantastical kind, the show captures the bleak realism of Franklin's ill-fortune with remarkable clarity. Part of this is thanks to an excellent production crew and visual effects team, who worked magic with the look and feel of the ice, as well as having the expert advice of ship-modeler extraordinaire Matthew Betts which has made the structure and shape of both ships remarkably accurate, far more so than your usual "Master and Commander" fare. And these three actors, along with a brilliant supporting cast, well portray the essential human drama at the core of it all -- it's not "man vs. ice" but "man vs. man vs. himself vs. ice" -- a far more psychologically vexed formula, even before we meet the horror that awaits.