Monday, September 12, 2016

The Discovery of HMS Terror

This is just a quick, celebratory post in honor of the Terror and her tremendously gallant crew. How fortuitous that the ship's resting place was ascertained a mere two years after the discovery of HMS Erebus in Queen Maud Gulf! How, as Franklin aficionados, can we possibly contain our excitement and emotions over this colossal historical find? Our waiting and wondering is finally over; our speculations can finally be allayed. Now, a new chapter begins, one in which we might finally obtain some concrete answers regarding the fates of our Victorian heroes. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Case of Two Immortals: The Artist and the Seaman

The pursuit of immortality has captivated humanity for millennia. That need to preserve one's own personal legacy, and the desire to live on beyond the void of the grave, has resulted in stunning monuments, works of art, literary masterpieces, and even the practice of mummification. Of course, many people have been less self-serving in their creativity and have painted, penned, and produced simply for the enjoyment of it.

One tremendously prolific (and by some accounts, rather modest) artist who has secured a permanent place in the collective human memory is Duncan Grant, a member of the colorful Bloomsbury Group of authors, artists, bohemians, and nonconformist geniuses that also included Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes. Grant's works range from serene to salacious, but it was a series of photographs of the man himself that piqued my interest, for they became the inspiration for my own portrait of another soul who has lived on far beyond his final mortal hour.

Duncan Grant as a young man

Sometimes, immortality occurs involuntarily, without the subject's intent. Far from where I sit writing this blog post is a desolate, freezing, and starkly beautiful little spot called Beechey Island. Beechey is home to four graves, the occupants of which are all victims of the Franklin Expedition and the futile search for it. Petty Officer John Torrington, Able Seaman John Hartnell, Royal Marine Private William Braine, and Able Seaman Thomas Morgan are all interred in the arctic permafrost. This unique little cemetery has had the effect of preserving its occupants' remains to an astounding (some might say terrifying) extent. Despite being deceased for nearly 200 years, Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine, upon their exhumations, looked as if they had only been dead a few days.

Over the years, I have wondered what those men had looked like in life. After seeing the stunning reconstructions made by Kristina Gehrmann (see my previous post for the link to her work), I was compelled to try my hand at one. I chose John Hartnell, largely because he has suffered some indignities over the years, e.g. the hasty Sutherland autopsy and the two Beattie exhumations. For my little project, the face of one immortal became the inspiration for the face of another: I based my sketch on the above photo of Duncan Grant and a posthumous photo of Hartnell taken by his descendant Brian Spenceley. The whole process took me about two hours. I will let the reader decide if I have done my subject due justice:

Able Seaman John Hartnell, HMS Erebus, age 25, as drawn by Jaeschylus

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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Owen Beattie Makes Everyone Green

Green with envy, that is! At least, that's the theme of a Forward Prize-winning poem by UK poet and novelist Sheenagh Pugh. The poem appears in her anthology Stonelight, an eclectic collection that encompasses themes ranging from Arctic exploration to a tutor's urgings. "Envying Owen Beattie" is perhaps the least conventional in its message; as the title implies, Pugh yearns to be a part of the exhumations that unearthed Petty Officer John Torrington.

While I do not want to quote Pugh's poem directly (I did not request her permission to do that), I can tell readers of this blog that the piece is unabashedly honest. Pugh walks the reader through the emotional steps of the exhumation process via a series of tercets. The last four become very personal as Pugh contemplates bestowing a kiss upon the well-preserved body in an attempt to reawaken the young man who does not appear to be entirely deceased. Poetry on the Franklin Expedition abounds, but I know of no other poem that expresses such sentiments for a crewman.

Yet, just who was John Torrington? We know him as the chief stoker on board H.M.S. Terror. From what I've read, I know that he was new to the Royal Navy, a first entry. He was from Manchester, and his mother died in childbirth. By today's standards, he possessed very short stature. This is a frustrating paucity of information on a man who has oddly (and unwittingly) become the face of the Franklin Expedition.

Stonelight also contains poems about the geography and other explorers of the Arctic, including a rousing one about Elisha Kent Kane. Copies occasionally appear on eBay, and they are usually inexpensive.

January 1st will mark the 167th anniversary of John Shaw Torrington's passing. Let us take a moment to remember him and his comrades through poetry, prayer, or a few reverent thoughts. Doing so just might bring old John back to life....

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sir John and the Prince of Mountaineers

On the subject of mountaineering, I would like to mention another brave soul with a far more relevant connection to the Franklin Expedition: Edward Whymper. Dubbed "the Prince of Mountaineers" for his incredibly ambitious ascents (many of them firsts) of Alpine peaks, Whymper fared much better on the icy slopes than Maurice Wilson. He was also a man of great accomplishments, some of which may have been inspired by "Franklin and his gallant crew."

As a young man growing up in the 1850s, Whymper was immersed in the news of the futile searches for Franklin's lost Arctic expedition. His diary from his youth, edited by Ian Smith and published as The Apprenticeship of a Mountaineer: Edward Whymper's London Diary, is surprisingly laconic for a man of great aspirations, but he devoted at least a few sentences to his interest in the fate of Franklin. His family owned a successful wood engraving business, and young Edward made at least one Franklin-related image. Ian Smith, who is himself a mountaineer, recently authored an authoritative biography of Whymper, Shadow of the Matterhorn, that features an image of his print of a foundering HMS Terror on page 123. Whymper was undeniably a talented artist.

Smith, who is admirably thorough, mentions a few Whymper-Franklin connections, including Edward's association with Clements Markham, formerly a lieutenant on HMS Assistance, and his ownership of one of McClintock's sledges. Perhaps not too surprisingly, Whymper made plans to explore the Arctic himself, with the intent of penetrating remote regions of Greenland. He mentioned reading Elisha Kent Kane's account of the second Grinnell expedition in one of his London diary entries. Dr. Kane's words left such a lasting impression on Whymper that he decided to venture into those frozen wastes over a decade later.

I thoroughly recommend that readers of this blog get a read of both of Smith's books. Whymper is just one of probably many noteworthy figures who were inspired by the Franklin Expedition. In Whymper's case, the inspiration took him to great heights and secured his position as a formidable mountaineer and man of science.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Curious Parallel

It is worth mentioning that some Franklin Expedition fanatics are also interested in the history of mountaineering. This is not too surprising; the perils and stark beauty of the polar regions are quite comparable to the frigid and breathtaking heights of the world's loftiest peaks. Both are witnesses to exhilarating feats of survival as well as horrendous tragedies. The eccentric (some might say "insane") women and men who brave the high latitudes also sometimes have a lot in common with their counterparts who tackle the high altitudes. I would like to address one similarity, perhaps just a coincidence, that is simply too strange to ignore.

David Woodman has very effectively captured the suffering that can transpire in extreme regions of the globe. His careful analyses of the Inuit testimony in Unravelling the Franklin Expedition reveal the horrors Franklin's officers and men had to endure. This literal trial by ice was not only physical, but mental. I can't help but think (and I'm not alone) that the combined effects of illness, lead poisoning, vicious weather, and starvation resulted in madness in at least some of those poor men. One curious particular might help to reinforce this sentiment: the well-preserved body found by Ogzeuckjeuwock and his mother Tooktoocheer, perhaps at Nuvertaro. The body of this Kabloona was "positively festooned with jewelry" (page 147). Woodman infers that this man might have been the last of his group to die. When Ogzeuckjeuwock "pulled the chain [hanging about the waist] it pulled the head up by the ears"--a macabre and puzzling detail. These two stood firm on their testimony, refusing to be told that they were perhaps mistaken. One wonders just what was going on inside that poor man's head that compelled him to embellish himself in such a fashion.

So, what does this have to do with mountaineering? Well, while reading the book Mountain Men: A History of the Remarkable Climbers and Determined Eccentrics Who First Scaled the World's Most Famous Peaks by Mick Conefrey and Tim Jordan, I came across a curious detail about the body of eccentric Maurice Wilson. Anyone familiar with Mt. Everest has probably heard of Wilson; those who have not will find a succinct article about him HERE. When Wilson's body was found on Everest's North Col, it was purportedly "festooned in women's handkerchiefs" (page 159). Conefrey and Jordan even used the same verb ("festooned")! Wilson was odd to begin with, but did the extreme conditions drive him to madness? Was it just a rumor generated by mistaken witnesses? Any conclusion is elusive.

The Arctic and the Himalayas are breathtaking places, but quite a few poor souls have taken their last breaths amid the cruel beauty. We will never know the full stories behind the cryptic behaviors of Maurice Wilson and the man found by Ogzeuckjeuwock and Tooktoocheer. All we can do is hope that they are at peace now, liberated from the torments of ostensible insanity.