When I was in elementary school, I stumbled across a book in the North Falmouth Elementary School library on Sir John Franklin’s Lost 1845 Arctic Expedition called “Buried in Ice” by John G. Geiger, Owen Beattie, and Shelley Tanaka. I remember I returned the book to the library several weeks late, partially because I had spent so much time pouring over its contents, and partially because by the time I was finished I no longer wanted to hold or even look at it. I’d spooked my young mind into a week of nightmares focused on nonfiction of a mysterious ilk.
Franklin and his men were early explorers looking for the Northwest Passage which runs through arctic waters high above Canada. They’d disappeared without a trace into the white of a frozen sea. We know something of what happened mostly from reports and scribbled messages left behind by the commanding officers. It was standard practice for reports to be stashed in sealed tins under rock cairns. However, it was clear from multiple reports written years apart on the same piece of paper, that something had gone wrong. The two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, had become trapped in pack ice off King William Island for three years. Even in the summer, the report indicates that the ice did not melt. At some point, those who had not died of illness, or exposure, or hunger, made a desperate bid to walk south. Not one made it, and their ghosts wandered into Inuit legends which told of rabid men, sickly and starving, lost in the endless white.
When the British Navy finally sent searchers after Franklin when word from the expedition was long overdue, the first tangible sign of Franklin and his men was found in the form of a ruined camp on Beechy island. This would have been the expedition’s first stop, as the island lays far above Canada right at the mouth of the Northwest Passage. Franklin and his men had not been there for at least two years when the British Navy arrived, but there still remained many signs and symptoms of Franklin’s venture and their beginning hardships. There were piles of empty food tins and even a failed attempt to start a small garden on the hill above the beach. There were also three gravestones set high up on the island in a row, looking back eastward over the water. For years, these three mysterious graves were the only complete remains of anyone who had set off into the arctic in 1845. The rest were scattered bones and overturned lifeboats used as sleds found by the British Navy in the following years.
The legend of Franklin and his men continued to haunt the imagination of many historians and seamen who now traveled the narrow arctic passage Franklin had set out to find centuries earlier. In 1994, the Canadian government gave permission for the graves on Beechy Island to be exhumed and autopsies performed. It was photographs of this scientific mission that I stumbled across in that library book in the North Falmouth Elementary School Library. The names of the dead, were John Torrington, William Braine, and John Hartnell. I know them. Photographs of their faces were printed in that book. I stared into their eyes as a child, and it terrified me then. I remember being kept awake at night in my childhood bedroom in the dark, imagining the banging of the heating pipes on winter nights was the creaking of encroaching ice against a ship’s hull. I stared into those same frozen eyes again writing this essay, now as a young man attempting to trace the path of my previous self like windswept footprints in the snow. In my research, a familiar shiver came over me at once. It faded after a moment, but the chill never went away, and remained dull until I turned my attention away from that memory.
I remembered how the skin of the bodies had turned a sickly shade of yellow, and how it was blotched black with frostbite and unhealed sores. Their lips were peeled back in a grotesque brandishing of teeth that made the face into a waterlogged smirk. Cold beds of permafrost and soiled ice water for brittle, able-bodied seamen. John Hartnell in particular was so well preserved that the clothes he had been buried in were still intact. Anyone could wear them today just as he had worn them over a century ago. On his shirt was embroidered the initials: T.H. According to records of the ship’s charter, these are most likely the initials of his brother Thomas, who had sailed with him on the expedition. Thomas’ body, like those of the one hundred and twenty-six other men who carried on from Beechy, was never found.
The story of Sir John Franklin and his crew is a footnote of arctic exploration, but it is not forgotten. Folk singers like the Canadian Stan Rogers, have drafted ballads in his name, and the British search party who originally discovered the graves on Beechy would journey farther into the passage than Franklin had done, leading to the eventual completion of the journey through the ice to the other side and proving the existence of the Northwest Passage. In 2015, the wrecks of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were found under seventy-nine feet of water off King William island, which is about half way through the Northwest Passage. The masts of the ships were still standing, and the glass windows of their aft cabins were largely intact. Identifying features, like the exhaust pipe where a locomotive engine had been installed as a secondary source of propulsion and heating, were still perfectly visible. Looking at these underwater photographs, it was as if I had stepped onto the docks of Greenhithe England from where they had departed and saw the two ships there together resting at anchor.
Franklin’s legend then too is preserved in my childhood visions of the struggling men walking south, and of the heavy hearts of those in command leaving behind a trail of cairns with worsening reports and dwindling numbers. Dreams of the lives of others, wool clad and frostbitten, are a dull chill deep in my core like the cold of my childhood bedroom on a winter night. The sailors on Franklin’s expedition, who mostly came from the North of England, cannot have been so different than me. I grew up by the water, sailing with my grandfather and my younger brother when I was a child. I’ve always loved the winter in the Northeast. When storms came in off the Atlantic, I would watch snow fall onto the Coast Guard ships quiet in the harbor of our former whaling town on Cape Cod. I used to photograph the shape of their hulls surrounded by ice, snow piled on the decks before the crew had cleared it away. The grey quiet of snow and the shutter of waves in the storm call out in dreams of February. The threat of the frozen North Atlantic, and the allure of its challenge. I think I understand it well enough, even though I am not sea-weathered, nor hardened by cold and frost. I can recognize something common between us in Hartnell’s eyes, and in the token gift that his brother left on his body. I remember the same look in my younger brother’s eye when we used to sail together. The story of Franklin found me when I was young and has stayed with me since, just as it has so for many musicians and writers and historians in the years since the echoes of the legend were first heard. It is a call and a response, like the foghorns of ships on a misty night.
2 thoughts on “Spirit Reports Chapter 3: John”
The story of Franklin and his men does tend to stay with some of us, no matter how we stumbled upon it in the first place. For me I think it has something to do with the silence that surrounded the expedition’s disappearance, the fact that they sailed into what was (at that time) a void on the map, as if they’d tipped right over the edge of the world. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this mystery so movingly.
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Thanks so much for reading. That’s wonderfully said and I couldn’t agree more. While I worked at an outdoor retailer in Dublin, Ireland, I actually had the good fortune of meeting a member of an Irish expedition to locate Franklin’s remains. Their search came up empty in the end, but I had a lovely chat with them regarding how the story has continued to inspire us in strange but compelling ways.