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.

6 comments:

  1. "If it is the Lord's will may we be spared to meet on earth. If not God grant we may all meet around His throne to praise Him to all eternity."

    -- Sarah Hartnell, letter to her son John, 23 December 1847.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very evocative words from their mother. How fortunate that Donald Bray was still in possession of that letter! I have often wondered about the contents of the letter written to John and Thomas by their brother Charles. I believe these priceless epistles are now in the possession of Lesley Pehl, Bray's niece.

      Delete
  2. This is a nice thought, Jaeschylous. Unfortunately the men buried on the Beechey Island will be remembered for ever for those frozen and deformed expressions. However, thanks for descriptions like the yours, paintings like that of Kristina, and all the books which describe the agony of those men and their last and infructuous attempt to reach their safety, all those souls with their human resemblance will be alive in our minds for ever. Those deteriorated faces, the horrid trail left by the men on their path, skulls, bones, etc. remember us that we are mortals and that the right to be alive sometimes implies a hard fight which not always is won.

    Russell, that, could be a perfect epitaph for John and also valid for the rest of the men of the Franklin expedition. Sadly, by the time it was writen it result not only a bad omen of what was about to happen in King William Island the next year but it was addressed to an already dead John. Why the mother wrote a letter only for her son John and not for Thomas as well? Is this another mistery of the neverending mysteries of the Franklin expedition?.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well said, Andres. You are ALWAYS an insightful commentator! The Franklin Expedition is a monument to human mortality, but also to immortality, as the tragic story has gained new dimensions in the collective memory of the living. People like us are helping to perpetuate that well-deserved sense of timelessness. John Hartnell is, after all, forever 25.

      Delete
  3. I particularly enjoyed the last paragraph, since it's important for readers to stretch their imaginations, and be inspired by Franklin and his people to seek and never yield - especially to our own fears.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Glenn! I am always honored when you visit my blog! You are so right--we must not let our own irrational fears hinder us in any aspect of life. Reading about the expedition, and coming to terms with those piteous images of bones and frozen bodies, has helped me conquer my own necrophobia.

      Delete