January 28, 2011

Ice Mummies: Finding John Franklin's Fate

Ice Mummies Uncovering John Franklins Fate
Engraving from an 1850's U.S. newspaper describing another failed search-and-rescue attempt.

Franklin's lost expedition was a doomed British voyage of Arctic exploration led by Capt. John Franklin. Of his 129 strong expedition (24 officers and 105 men), each man was claimed by disease, inexplicable violence, creeping madness or to succumb to the terrible arctic cold in a strange part of the ceiling of the world were temperatures regularly reach -40 degrees below zero.

This doomed expedition sailed from Greenhithe, just outside of London, England in 1845 with orders to discover a Northwest Passage across the far northern coast of Canada. A Royal Navy officer and experienced explorer, John Franklin had served on three previous Arctic expeditions, the latter two as commanding officer. His fourth and last, undertaken when he was 59, was meant to traverse the last un-navigated section of the Northwest Passage.

After enduring sea-faring fatalities on Franklin's ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, both became hopelessly icebound. The boats found themselves frozen in thick ice banks of the Victoria Strait near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. After many failed attempts to free the vessels, the entire expedition complement, including Franklin and 128 men, began to suspect that they would be lost in the ice and snow 4,000 miles from anything resembling home.

Members of Franklin's expedition are found on King William's Island.
A few skeletons of Franklin's doomed expedition are found on King William's Island in the 19th century.

In 1857, nearly 12 years after Franklin sailed from England, an expedition led by Sir Francis McClintock, discovered a number of written messages indicating that the Erebus and Terror had become stuck in the ice in September 1846. According to the sailor's own accounts, during the next year and a half, nine officers, including Sir John Franklin, and fifteen sailors died. Finally, in April of 1848, the surviving members of the expedition decided to abandon the ships and walk on the ice some 120 miles to a river where they could row to a trading post.

English expeditions sent to recover Franklin and his men discovered only the empty frozen hulks of his ships and desperate messages not crew men. It was beginning to look like that no one had survived. As more abandoned equipment and messages were found it became easy to see why the survivors didn't make it back to civilization: the men used extremely poor judgment. Not only had they tried to drag a 1,200-pound lifeboat across the ice, they had selected an assortment of strange items to fill the boat: silk handkerchiefs, perfumed soap, six books, tea, silverware and chocolate - possibly to trade with. But the fact remained that they did not survive the bitterly cold trek across the ice barrens to trade with anyone.

In 1859, another international search-and-rescue efforts discovered a typed note written in 6 languages (English, French, Spanish, Finnish, German and Dutch) with the date of May 1847 scrawled in the lower right corner. This message, giving the latitude and longitude of the ice-bound ships was found on King William Island. This note was completely without any details about the expedition's true fate. More searches continued through much of the 19th century.

In 1981, Owen Beverly Beattie and a modern group of explorers, this one also armed with the latest technology and gadgetry of the age set out to find the lost men of Franklin's doomed voyage in the islands surround Victoria Strait. A handful of the doomed crew of the Erebus and Terror, lost for nearly 150 years in the icy tundra began to be recovered at island grave sites.

Due to global warming uncovering vast amounts of permafrost in the Arctic, Beattie's team had a better time of it than Sir McClintock - to be sure. And what Beattie's team found found for lack of a better word were ice mummies. These men's bodies were well-preserved, undisturbed for many long decades. In fact, their faces still betrayed the cruel, icy manner of their deaths - forever frozen in time.

Petty Officer John Torrington
Petty Officer John Torrington at his final resting place where he died sometime between 1846-1850.

In 1984 and 1986, Beattie found and exhumed the frozen bodies of Petty Officer John Torrington, Able-bodied Seaman John Hartnell and Royal Marine William Braine, on Beechy Island. Beattie noticed highly elevated levels of lead in the sailor's tissues. He was able to trace the source to the expedition's cheaply tinned food supply.

Lead poisoning is known to cause insanity including delirium, cognitive deficits, tremors, hallucinations, and convulsions. Coupled with the brutal cold and the extreme isolation of being trapped at sea with no hope of rescue: it is highly probably that many of these men went mad. Evidence of cannibalism exists in the form of gnaws and cut marks found on human bones discovered on the islands surrounding the original wrecks of the Erebus and Terror. To date, both ships remain lost, entombed somewhere in the thick Canadian Arctic ice.

In the end, Beattie's team discovered ignominious death for these legendary men. Bold men who were set upon by unending ice and blinding snow then slowly driven to utter madness at the edge of the known world. God rest their souls.

References:
Wikipedia, King William's Island
Wikipedia, The Note
Amazon, The Terror by Dan Simmons New York : Little, Brown and Co., 2007.
Amazon, Frozen in time: The fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie & John Geiger, Vancouver : Greystone Books, c1998.
YouTube, Ice Mummies
World News, Franklin Expedition

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