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.