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.

4 comments:

  1. I like the way the Beattie team respected the bodies of the three men. The note, and the quiet solemnity with which they reinterred the men, were quite moving.

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  2. As Beattie could testify, the soil, even in Summer on Beechey was pretty hard. Torrington died in January . But when was he buried in such a deep grave ?

    One of the men died during John Ross’ 1829-1833 expedition, but was buried in a shallow grave as the ground was so hard.

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  3. It would be an interesting thing to determine what percentage of human remains buried in the Arctic are as well preserved as those found on Beechey. Would the soil composition have anything to do with it ?

    Best regards from,
    Soloman G.

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  4. Any reason as to why certain buried Arctic bodies decompose more than others ? I am thinking of Charles Francis Hall. When Chancey Loomis exhumed Hall, not much was left of Hall .

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