Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Arctic Circle Shall Be Your Headstone: Thoughts on AB John Hartnell

Respected scholar Sarah Moss called him "a palimpsest, a book by many hands." During the slow, laborious task of uncovering his face, archeology student Walt Kowal declared, "This guy is spooky, the quintessential pirate. This guy is frightening." Exhumed no less than three times from an abysmal grave that he has occupied for nearly 168 years on Beechey Island, his posthumous appearance has fascinated thousands and positively terrified even more. He is Able Seaman John Hartnell, RN, and this post will introduce the young man behind the "shimmering face of death."

Some of the best sources of information on any rating in the Royal Navy can be found at the National Archives in Kew. For those of us who cannot afford a trip across the Atlantic, several articles, authored by British librarian Ralph Lloyd-Jones and available through the Polar Record, are sufficient for satisfying the curiosities of those who wish to know a little more about Sir John Franklin's ill-fated men. Lloyd-Jones devoted an entire section to the Hartnell brothers of HMS Erebus, John and Thomas, in "The Men who Sailed with Franklin". His findings are illuminating; more importantly, they provide a poignantly human portrait of a youth who has, by no fault of his own, morphed into the epitome of a Gothic horror novel. With his towering height, raven-black hair and hazel eyes, John Hartnell was probably one who stood out from the Victorian crowd. That shock of black hair, parted on his left side, was largely intact when Dr. Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta exhumed him from the permafrost. Beattie was not, however, the first person to pluck Hartnell from his cradle of ice.

Credit for the first Hartnell exhumation goes to Dr. Peter Sutherland, who accompanied Admiral Edward Inglefield on his Arctic expedition in search of Franklin. It was a hasty operation, egregiously failing to preserve the integrity of the grave and the fallen body within. In what strikes me as a rather callous act, Inglefield removed the coffin plaque; Beattie and his team were unable to determine its whereabouts. This disruption in his Arctic repose allowed the process of decay to briefly take hold and alter the appearance of one eye. After 132 years of relative peace, Beattie and team would unearth Hartnell twice, filming the second exhumation and subsequent autopsy. Interestingly, the autopsy was photographed by Hartnell's great-great nephew, Brian Spenceley. The video of the proceedings, which aired in the US on PBS's NOVA series, shows a brief shot of Spenceley as his ancestor is finally revealed; not surprisingly, his face is full of overwhelming emotion.

The photos of John Hartnell, featured prominently in Frozen in Time, are portraits of something more than an icy cadaver. They convey intense pangs of suffering, illness, dashed hopes, and untimely death. The lips and eyelids, curled back due to the post-mortem dehydration of the body, contribute to an appearance that is at once irate and bewildered, as if wondering, "Has Inglefield returned?!" Those who have seen any photos of the so-called Beechey Island Icemen do not soon forget them. They all encompass and evoke a whole range of emotions, but Hartnell is the young man whose grave was so defiled; he is the older brother who died too soon, leaving his younger sibling Thomas to brood over his loss on King William Island.

Many have wondered what John Hartnell might have looked like before nature ravaged his appearance. Accomplished artist Kristina Gehrmann has done an admirable job of reconstructing all three Icemen. Readers can marvel at her work HERE. I have also attempted my own reconstruction, which I will share in a future post. By placing my paper directly on my computer screen, I was able to trace the outline of the face in a three-quarter view photo. Oddly, the placement of the paper upon the screen seemed to have the effect of reconstituting the the bad eye. It was a peculiar moment that made "a dead eye shine again with life", to quote an Egyptology book I adored as a child.

Let us remember that John Hartnell and his fellow expedition members are heroes, not horrors. They remind us of our own transience and mortality, but also encourage us to strive to greater latitudes. They warn us of our fragility, yet compel us to seek out that distant horizon. For the sake of their eternal memory, we should picture them in warmth and health, not in the frigid death that so swiftly struck them in the prime of their lives.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Your Fitter Grave

Your own proud land's heroic soil
Shall be your fitter grave;
She claims from war his richest spoil--
The ashes of her brave.
These stirring lines form the second half of the ninth octet of Theodore O'Hara's venerated poem "Bivouac of the Dead." Those of you who have taken a stroll through Arlington or Gettysburg national cemeteries have probably seen excerpts from this poem on plaques throughout the placid grounds. O'Hara penned the poem in 1847 (two years into the Franklin Expedition, interestingly enough) in memory of Kentucky troops killed in the Mexican-American War. The men of Franklin's lost expedition were not the victims of bayonets and artillery; rather, they succumbed to a different type of warfare--one that pitted them against nature's onslaught of cold, wind, and ice. Most of their remains are scattered across King William Island's desolate battlefield, largely impossible to discern from the mottled ground. Yet, almost miraculously, one nearly complete skeleton was plucked from KWI's grip by an intractable man with a real sense of purpose: Charles Francis Hall. Thanks to Hall, these remains eventually made their way back to England's welcoming shores, but there is a slight possibility that events could have transpired differently.
According to Richard J. Cyriax's Sir John Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition, widely regarded as the standard source of information on the tragedy, the Inuit told Captain Hall about two Kabloona graves and traces of an encampment near the Piffer (or Pfeffer) River on the southern coast of King William Island. In May 1869, Hall's party reached this site and uncovered the remarkably complete skeletal remains of a European. Hall sent the remains to one of his patrons who, in turn, sent them to Rear Admiral Inglefield, RN. Inglefield then brought the bones back to England, where they were examined by the redoubtable anatomist Thomas Huxley. With the help of relatives, a neat little gold tooth plug, and the distinctive features of the skull, Huxley identified the remains (with considerable certainty) as those of Lt. Henry T. D. Le Vesconte of the Erebus. With that being settled, the good lieutenant was reverently interred in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.
It would seem that the return and fairly accurate identification of these remains would lay the matter to rest, so to speak, but there exists the slightest possibility that the skeleton, upon being identified as Le Vesconte's, could have been sent back across the Atlantic to southern Canada! A singularly excellent article by polar scholar Huw Lewis-Jones, "'Nelsons of Discovery': Notes on the Franklin Monument in Greenwich", contains a great deal of meticulously researched information on the Franklin monument in the Painted Hall and the Le Vesconte skeleton, including some invaluable family history.* Lt. Le Vesconte's father Henry was also a naval officer of some distinction and, after his retirement, the family relocated to what is now southern Ontario. Henry Sr. died in 1850 and quite probably outlived his son who had ventured into the Arctic five years before. Presumably, the Le Vesconte family has a burial plot in Belleville, Ontario. If that is indeed the case, the Le Vesconte remains could have been sent back to those family members to be interred alongside the father. Stranger yet, if Hall had somehow been able to make a positive identification while still on King William Island, the remains might not have even been sent to England! Henry T. D. Le Vesconte's mortal remains would be in a quiet family plot in Ontario instead of entombed in a legendary location. To add to the intrigue, recent investigations suggest that the skeleton belonged not to Le Vesconte, but to Harry D. S. Goodsir, acting assistant surgeon of the Erebus. That, however, is another tale.
Regardless of who owned those well-travelled bones, the Franklin monument in Greenwich is a most fitting place for their eternal repose. Let us part with the final octet of O'Hara's poem, which says it best:
Your marble minstrel's voiceless stone
In deathless song shall tell,
When many a vanquished ago has flown,
The story how ye fell;
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winter's blight,
Nor time's remorseless doom,
Can dim one ray of glory's light
That guilds your deathless tomb.
*Further Le Vesconte family history can be found in my posts "Adventure Runs in the Family" and "The Viscount from the Beautiful Island", with links to the Wills family website. Also see this excellent website