19 Facts About the Franklin Expedition, the Real-Life Inspiration for The Terror

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The last Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin began in 1845 with the hope of discovering the northwest passage, but it turned into a grim fight for survival. As seen in AMC's supernatural series The Terror, the story of the Franklin expedition still has the power to fascinate historians more than a century and a half later. (Spoiler alert: Though the expedition happened in real life, this list also mentions key scenes in The Terror—so if you haven't seen the show and plan to, read at your own risk!)

1. ITS COMMANDER WAS DESTINED FOR NAVAL SERVICE.

John Franklin was born in Spilsby, a village in the English county of Lincolnshire, in 1786. By marriage, he was a step-cousin of Royal Navy captain Matthew Flinders, who inspired Franklin to join its ranks when he was only 14. Franklin circumnavigated Australia with Flinders in 1802-1803, served in the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars, and fought in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. His brave actions caught the eye of the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, who had big plans for the young lieutenant.

2. FRANKLIN'S FIRST ARCTIC EXPEDITION WAS UNSUCCESSFUL …

From a report from whaling captain William Scoresby, Jr. relayed by Sir Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society, Barrow learned that the Arctic appeared to be relatively ice-free in the summer of 1817. The time seemed ripe for a voyage to find a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, which would give England a lucrative trade route to Asia. In spring 1818, Barrow organized an expedition of four navy ships—the Isabella and Alexander would explore the eastern Canadian Arctic, and the Dorothea and Trent would attempt to sail over the North Pole by way of eastern Greenland and Spitsbergen. Franklin commanded the Trent but both vessels were stopped by violent storms and pack ice. (The Isabella and Alexander also turned back for an entirely different reason.)

3. … AND HIS SECOND WAS MUCH, MUCH WORSE.

Despite that failure, Franklin was appointed to lead an overland expedition to explore subarctic Canada in 1819. His route would take his party—which included physician/naturalist Sir John Richardson, three naval personnel, and a crew of voyageurs—from Hudson Bay to the Coppermine River delta on the Arctic Ocean. Disaster struck quickly: The party failed to return to their base camp before cold weather set in, their canoes fell apart, and they ran out of food. A voyageur allegedly killed and ate several men. Franklin and the others survived by nibbling shoe leather. On the brink of death, they were saved by Yellowknife guides who brought food and supplies. When he returned to England after this three-year calamity, Franklin was hailed as a hero—the "man who ate his boots."

4. THE ADMIRALTY PLANNED A HISTORIC ATTEMPT AT THE PASSAGE.

By 1843, just a few blank spaces remained on the map of the North American Arctic, and the discovery of the passage seemed entirely within Britain's reach. In spring 1845, the Admiralty would send HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, freshly returned from a grueling four-year voyage in Antarctica under the command of Sir James Clark Ross, back to previously charted Lancaster Sound, which most navigators believed was the main channel leading west. From there, the men were expected to be through the Bering Strait and in Hawaii by the following year.

5. FRANKLIN WASN'T THE FIRST CHOICE TO LEAD THE EXPEDITION.

Portraits of the officers on the 1845 expedition, based on Daguerrotypes taken prior to the voyage. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By this point, Franklin was a decorated naval officer and experienced explorer—but he was also 59 years old and out of shape. So when Sir John Barrow began considering commanders for the 1845 voyage, Franklin was not at the top of the list. Veteran Arctic hands Sir William Edward Parry and Ross were Barrow's first choices, but both declined. Parry hinted that Franklin desperately needed the validation of a final, triumphant voyage to crown his naval career after his disappointing stint as the lieutenant-governor of Tasmania (where Franklin and his wife Lady Jane served from 1837 to 1843). Franklin lobbied hard and convinced the Admiralty that he was the best man for the job.

6. IT WAS THE BEST-PROVISIONED ARCTIC EXPEDITION IN HISTORY.

Franklin commanded the flagship Erebus, which was helmed by an up-and-coming captain, James Fitzjames. On the Terror, Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was the expedition's second-in-command. Both ships had been reinforced to withstand the pummeling of Arctic ice and stocked with supplies, including scientific instruments, navigational tools, one hand-organ per ship, daguerreotype cameras, and a pet monkey named Jacko (a gift from Lady Jane). A huge library was stocked with accounts of previous polar expeditions, devotional books, volumes of Punch magazine, and novels like Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield. The ships also took an immense amount of provisions to feed 134 men for three years, including 32,224 pounds of salt beef, 36,487 pounds of ship's biscuit, 3684 gallons of concentrated spirits, and around 4980 gallons of ale and porter.

7. THE VOYAGE WENT ACCORDING TO PLAN …

On May 19, 1845, Erebus and Terror left Greenhithe, England, and sailed for the west coast of Greenland. At Disko Bay, five men were discharged due to illness, bringing the total number of expedition crew to 129. On July 26, en route to Lancaster Sound, Franklin met two British whaleships [PDF], the Enterprise and the Prince of Wales—the last Europeans to see the Franklin expedition alive.

The Erebus and Terror continued west in the summer of 1845 and circumnavigated Cornwallis Island via Wellington Channel. The crew overwintered on tiny Beechey Island, where three crewmembers died and were buried in the permafrost. If Franklin followed the Admiralty's orders, in the spring and summer of 1846 the Erebus and Terror would have continued west to Cape Walker at 98-degree west longitude, then proceeded south [PDF] and west down Peel Sound.

8. … UNTIL THE SHIPS GOT STUCK IN ICE.

On September 12, 1846, the sea froze around Erebus and Terror just north of King William Island, signaling the start of winter. The following May, a party of two officers and six men led by Lieutenant Graham Gore left a note in a cairn (tall piles of stones used as information kiosks in the treeless terrain) on the northwestern coast of King William Island. After noting the date and position where the two ships were beset in the ice, Gore wrote,

"Having wintered in 1846-7 [this was an error, the true period was 1845-1846] at Beechey Island, in lat. 74° 43' 28" N., long. 91° 39' 15" W., after having ascended Wellington Channel to lat. 77°, and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island.
Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition.
All well."

Explorers knew that the sea usually froze in late August or early September, and then broke up the following spring—but in 1847, spring and summer never arrived in their corner of the Arctic. Erebus and Terror drifted slowly and helplessly with the pack ice down the west coast of King William Island.

9. SOMETHING MAY HAVE BEEN WRONG WITH THE PROVISIONS.

The Admiralty had provided Erebus and Terror with three years' worth of canned foods, including 33,289 pounds of meat, 20,463 pints of soup, and 8900 pounds of preserved vegetables.

The provider of the canned goods was Stephan (or Stephen) Goldner, who a few years later would be caught in a scandal regarding his canned foods going off rapidly—one report from 1853 said a ship needed to throw 1570 pounds of horrifically putrid canned meat overboard. Whether the Franklin expedition’s provisions suffered the same fate is debated, with one 1920s study concluding their canned meat was in perfect condition. In The Terror, assistant surgeon Henry Goodsir, who suspects there's a problem with the food, encourages poor Jacko to test the contents of one of the cans—and it doesn't end well for the monkey.

10. THEY ABANDONED SHIP.

A facsimile of the note found in the cairn published in Carl Petersen's Den sidste Franklin-Expedition med "Fox," Capt. McClintock, 1860British Library, Flickr // Public Domain

By spring 1848, the ships were still beset, the men were approaching the end of their original food supply, and they were without their captain: Franklin and several officers and crew had died of still-unknown causes. Crozier was now leading the expedition, with Fitzjames as his second-in-command. They decided to abandon Erebus and Terror in a last-ditch attempt at survival. The men hoisted two boats on sledges and packed them full of provisions and items refashioned for survival, such as a table knife with a sharpened blade inside a sheath made from a marine's bayonet scabbard [PDF].

Then they set off in search of rescue, returning to the cairn where Gore had left his note a year before. Now, Fitzjames and Crozier wrote:

April 25, 1848—H.M. ship Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69° 37' 42" N., long. 98° 41' W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men. And start to-morrow, 26th for Back's Fish River."

The 605-mile Back's Fish River (now more commonly referred to as the Back River), navigated by Sir George Back in 1834, led toward Hudson's Bay Company trading posts in the interior. But they were hundreds of miles away from King William Island.

11. THE MEN'S FATE WAS A MYSTERY FOR ALMOST 10 YEARS.

No one outside of King William Island had the faintest idea what had happened to the Franklin expedition when it didn't show up in the Bering Strait by 1846. The Admiralty resisted sending a rescue mission, since the Erebus and Terror had been provisioned for three years; some thought the food supply could be stretched to five years (to 1850). But Lady Jane Franklin launched a relentless campaign to force the Admiralty to act. Beginning in spring 1848—at exactly the same time that the 105 survivors abandoned ship—a series of massive search-and-rescue expeditions began combing the Arctic for clues. On August 27, 1850, a ship discovered the three graves on Beechey Island, the first tangible clue of Franklin's route, but found no letters or records. Despite that important find, subsequent expeditions in 1852 came up empty-handed.

12. THE TRUTH ABOUT THE EREBUS AND TERROR SHOCKED VICTORIAN ENGLAND.

In April 1854, Hudson's Bay Company surveyor John Rae met with several Inuit a few hundred miles east of King William Island. Rae asked if they'd seen white men or ships. One man said some families had encountered about 40 survivors marching south along the west coast of the island, dragging a boat on a sledge. Franklin's men, appearing thin and low on provisions, intimated that their ships had been crushed and that they were headed toward the mainland, where they hoped to find game. Rae relayed the Inuits' next observations to the Admiralty:

"At a later date the same season [1850], but previous to the disruption of the ice, the corpses of some 30 persons and some graves were discovered on the continent, and five dead bodies on an island near it, about a long day's journey to the north-west of the mouth of a large stream, which can be no other than Back's Great Fish River … Some of the bodies were in a tent or tents, others were under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and some lay scattered about in different directions. Of those seen on the island it was supposed that one was that of an officer (chief), as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders, and his double-barreled gun lay underneath him.

"From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life. A few of the unfortunate men must have survived until the arrival of the wild fowl (say until the end of May), as shots were heard and fresh bones and feathers of geese were noticed near the scene of the sad event."

To support the oral history, Rae purchased artifacts from the Inuit that were clearly tied to the expedition: silver spoons and forks, a star-shaped medal, and a silver plate engraved with "Sir John Franklin, K.C.H." In England, the public reacted with shock and disbelief when his account was published in newspapers.

13. CHARLES DICKENS BLAMED THE INUIT.

Though research in the 1990s [PDF] and in 2016 strongly supported the cannibalism account, most Victorians thought it inconceivable that Royal Navy men would resort to "the last dread alternative." Charles Dickens captured the racist sentiment of the time when he wrote in his magazine Household Words, "No man can, with any show of reason, undertake to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves … We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel." Yet physical evidence collected over the past 160 years has consistently proven the accuracy of Inuit oral histories of the expedition's final days.

14. THE EXPEDITION'S OFFICIAL RECORDS WERE NEVER FOUND.

In 1859, Lieutenant William Hobson, part of a search expedition led by Captain Francis Leopold McClintock, found a trail of bones and other evidence along the southwestern coast of King William Island. Along with a boat with two skeletons and piles of supplies, Hobson located the cairn and retrieved Fitzjames and Crozier's note, the sole piece of written evidence from the Franklin expedition. According to searchers, some Inuit families had found papers and books—possibly the expedition's log books and official charts—but they had been given to children to play with and had blown away.

15. SOMEONE ACTUALLY DISCOVERED THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE.

Back in England, Franklin was again hailed as a hero. His old friend Sir John Richardson wrote that Franklin had accomplished the mission: "They forged the last link of the Northwest Passage with their lives." Though there's no evidence of Franklin ever completing the passage, one of the rescuers, Captain Robert McClure, had a more likely claim. In 1853, his ship Investigator, approaching from the west, got stuck in ice north of Banks Island and McClure's men were forced to march to another ship that had approached from the east. They traversed the Northwest Passage in the process. But the first explorer to navigate the passage by ship, the original goal of the Franklin expedition, was Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906.

16. THE CREW MIGHT HAVE SUFFERED FROM LEAD POISONING.

A map based on a 1927 Admiralty chart showing the locations of Franklin expedition relics found by search parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuriesCanada Department of the Interior, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the early 1980s, Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie and his research team exhumed the three bodies on Beechey Island and conducted forensic testing. He found very high levels of lead in all three, as well as in bones previously collected on King William Island. In his 1987 bestseller co-written with John Geiger, Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, Beattie suggested the lead solder used to seal the expedition's canned provisions had leached into the food, resulting in neurological impairment that could have contributed to the men's deaths. More recently, historians have moved away from the lead-in-the-cans theory. Researchers now believe the men probably succumbed to a combination of exposure, starvation, scurvy, tuberculosis, Addison's disease, and even severe zinc deficiency. The Terror gives a nod to the lead-cans hypothesis when Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) bites into some meat and spits out a metal blob; later, the Inuit woman named Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) has laid out a collection of lead bits on an overturned bowl—perhaps meant as a warning to the crew.

17. AFTER 166 YEARS, ARCHAEOLOGISTS FOUND THE EREBUS AND TERROR.

Multiple search efforts and scientific research projects tied to Franklin's last voyage continued in the late-19th and 20th centuries. They collected relics and bones, located graves, and partnered with Inuit communities to conduct long-term searches for more clues to the expedition's fate. Yet two significant artifacts remained missing for more than 165 years: the ships themselves. Many researchers believed that the Erebus and Terror could hold a trove of clues to the men's final activities, but the brutal climate and brief research season on King William Island stymied progress. In 2014, with funding from the Canadian government and new sonar technology, archaeologists and Inuit historians, including Franklin scholar Louie Kamookak, finally found the HMS Erebus in Victoria Strait. Two years later, a report from an Inuit hunter, Sammy Kogvik, pointed archaeologists to Terror Bay, on the southwestern coast of King William Island, where they found HMS Terror.

18. SOME QUESTIONS MIGHT NEVER BE ANSWERED.

Without the journals from the expedition, we may never know some key facts about its fate. Historians still wonder what killed Franklin and so many of the officers and men before the Erebus and Terror were abandoned. Why did Crozier decide to march toward Back's Fish River, where possible help was hundreds of miles away, when he could have marched north to a depot of supplies and food left by an 1825 shipwreck, and where rescuers or passing whalers could have rescued them? Were the men's judgments really impaired by lead poisoning? How long did they survive? Archaeologists and Inuit oral historians continue to search for answers.

19. YOU CAN SEE THE ARTIFACTS IN PERSON.

Books, tools, boots, buttons, spoons, combs, pocket watches, food tins, Crozier and Fitzjames's note, and even a piece of canned meat from Franklin's last expedition are stored in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Artifacts retrieved from the Erebus and Terror, including the ships' bells, and other relics are part of the critically acclaimed exhibit, Death in the Ice, currently on display in the Canadian Museum of History through September 30, 2018.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

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5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

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6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

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7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

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8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

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11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

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12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

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If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

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13. SNES Classic; $275

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The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

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14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

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Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

History Vs. Bonus Episode: Fact Checking Theodore Roosevelt

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

You often hear Theodore Roosevelt described as “larger than life,” which I think we can all agree is pretty accurate. And, as with many other larger than life characters, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions surrounding TR—some of which were encouraged and perpetuated by Roosevelt himself. As Kathleen Dalton writes in Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, “He sought to keep his inner life and less attractive traits well hidden. He also encouraged his friends and authorized biographers to tell an upbeat, socially acceptable, stiff-upper-lipped version of his life. Many of his friends and biographers obliged him.” Dalton goes on to say that the guardians of his story would edit or destroy letters they deemed embarrassing, and would even hide the family’s secrets to present a better picture of Roosevelt’s life.

Austin Thompson: A lot of this fact checking stuff is to do with his legacy. They really intertwine because these myths and legends are such a part of the story.

That’s Mental Floss’s fact checker, Austin Thompson, who has been taking a magnifying glass to stories on Mental Floss’s website and to our YouTube videos for years, and he looked at every script of this podcast, too. He knows better than many how complicated unraveling the truth behind history can be, so for this final bonus episode of History Vs., I couldn’t wait to get him on the phone to debunk some TR myths and talk fact checking one of the most famous figures in history.

Thompson: I found an absolutely brilliant 1912 New York Times article about Theodore Roosevelt which was saying if you had four experts who swore that he boiled his grandmother and ate her in the 1890s, he would come back with documentary proof that she actually died in the 1880s.

Just a quick break here to say that when Austin was fact checking this script, he realized that he’d misremembered what the article said—it was actually 20 experts, not four. OK, carry on.

Thompson: If you have people who swear under oath that he had a meeting with Standard Oil at this date, he would come back with a dated photograph of him talking to a mother's congress. I think it really has to do with ... that he does come to the White House, and all his history, from a perspective of being a historian. He knows that he's great. He knows his greatness. Everyone his entire life has been clear, he is great. He can produce dated evidence for anything you might say he did. I think it's because he wanted to control his historical view in a way that other people wouldn't, but nowadays we wouldn't think is that weird.

When we were putting these episodes together, the general process went like this: I came up with the themes for each episode, then put together outlines that pulled together a ton of information around those themes. In each outline were sources, quotes, and beats that I wanted to hit, along with pieces of the interviews I conducted that I wanted to include. Then the writer—sometimes me, sometimes another Mental Floss staffer—would use that outline to write the script, which would go through an editing process where myself and members of the production team would weigh in and make tweaks. And finally, before I recorded, the script would go to Austin, and he’d dig in. And I mean really dig in. Not only did he find errors—hey, I’m not perfect—but he would also nearly always find some new piece of information or interesting story that I’d want to include.

Thompson: As I was researching Theodore Roosevelt and looking at all sorts of things, there were two things that struck me about him. One makes fact checking a lot easier, the other one made it basically impossible. He mythologizes, but you can get so much information about him from other sources that aren't him. It'll be like, you spent five minutes with him 10 years ago, you're suddenly writing a book, the time I spent with Theodore Roosevelt. The family he's staying with in Germany who's saying, "Oh he's going to be President." That all exists independent of anything he did. So … he is in control of his image to a certain extent but there's such a world that you can pretty much verify most things he's saying.

And then the other thing that makes this harder, that we've talked about, is the changing views of Theodore Roosevelt. It's like, if you read something from the 1910s, it is a different perspective than if you read something from the 1940s. It's lucky because with Theodore Roosevelt we have so many of his primary documentation, but it's still really hard to sort of sift through all of that to say, well is this person saying this about Theodore Roosevelt because this is actually how it is, or is it just because that was the prevailing view at the time?

Also, socio-culturally we like to think of history as this great monolithic thing. It happened and now we can just kind of go back and look at bits and pieces of it. We as a culture, I don't think we really like to view history as having trends. That there are differences in how history is being viewed from one day to another, one culture to another. We're not taught to think of history in that way.

Erin McCarthy: So when you're fact checking something like the podcast scripts, do you usually try to go for the primary documentation first? Or, in the case of Theodore Roosevelt when you know that he did not like to write about things that were difficult, like, for example, he didn't include his first wife in his autobiography at all, are you looking elsewhere when you're fact checking?

Thompson: Well it depends on the thing. I mean, you know he's there to tell a story. So as long as you read it knowing, read what he says knowing this is the story he wants you to hear, then I always like to go back to primary sources, cause Roosevelt just gave us so many of them. And as I said, so many of the people who even interacted with him briefly would be writing books about the events that happened.

It is when you get into more sort of obscure—especially obscure leaders or figures in history—that it does start to really become a problem of, how much weight are you willing to put on this secondary source? I'm sure if you read some of my podcast suggestions, there are times when it'll be really awkwardly suggesting saying, "This person says this," and that's because it's maybe true but these other sources, say, aren't necessarily as strong.

McCarthy: So we often go back and forth and play a little bit of like, is this OK? What do you think about this phrasing? 'Cause we don't want to mislead anybody, right? We want to make sure that we're being accurate.

Thompson: I have spent ages, like I don't even know how long, debating whether a single word is correct. 'Cause it does make a difference.

McCarthy: Do you want to get into some myths now or do you … do you have other thoughts?

Thompson: I think so. I don't think I have anything else I wanted to talk about with the process of fact checking. It's just kind of like, you go through documents and try to decide is this reasonable? Is this accurate? Does this person say what this person says? Is this person correct? Is this person citing some lost documentation that was found at the top of a monastery in Outer Uzbekistan and then the monastery burned down so you're relying entirely on them? It's hard. 

TR myths, coming up after the break.

 

In the course of making this podcast, we came across a number of TR myths and misconceptions, some of which we touched upon briefly in the regular episodes, and some we just didn’t have time to get to. So we figured we’d finish up this season by digging deeper into a few of them. And if you’re going to take on TR myths and misconceptions, you might as well start at the beginning.

Everyone knows that Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly, asthmatic kid, who, after a directive from his father, built his body to the point where he had cured himself of asthma. Right?

Well … not so fast.

Thompson: According to Theodore Roosevelt, that is what happened. But there's a really interesting paper from a couple years ago, "The Misunderstood Asthma of Theodore Roosevelt." What makes the article interesting, so it says no, the asthma went away when he was somewhere between 12 to 15. And that's about the age you'd expect the asthma to lighten itself up, even if he was doing absolutely nothing.

As the paper notes, “[This] phenomenon is well recognized by clinicians today but was unknown in TR's time. Looking back at TR's inference, it is tempting to speculate about how his misplaced sense of accomplishment may have influenced his thinking about what else he might achieve if he set his mind to solving new problems.”

In reality, his asthma didn’t fully go away and, in fact, it sometimes reared its ugly head later on in his life.

Thompson: When Edith was in labor, Alice—his daughter Alice—remarked something like "the train and my father came in wheezing as he rushed to be by her side." He had asthma attacks throughout his entire life, but they were not as bad. According to the article, at the time and for all of Theodore Roosevelt's life, asthma was thought to be psychosomatic.

The idea that they thought at the time asthma was psychosomatic, I think probably was a really big part of why Theodore Roosevelt wanted to proclaim himself as having cured his asthma. I mean, this was a guy who thinks basically everything is weaker than he is. So if he's truly feeling that his asthma is entirely in his head, it makes sense to me why he would then pretend that it wasn't. That's my opinion on the matter, but yeah.

McCarthy: OK, this is one of my favorites. So there is a photo floating around on the internet in which Theodore Roosevelt is riding a moose. So … did Theodore Roosevelt ever ride a moose?

Thompson: Well not that we know of. He spent a lot of time in Maine, so … but no. The picture is definitely fake. But it was never supposed to be viewed as real. It was from a 1912 New York Tribune. If you just take the picture by itself it's "whoa, manly, that's awesome." But the whole triptych is Taft riding an elephant, Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose, and Woodrow Wilson riding a donkey. It's for the president, and they were whatever the 1912 version of Photoshopped was onto the animal of the respective party. And then I can only imagine someone found a copy of that picture and thought "Theodore Roosevelt, manly!" and went with it.

What I think is kind of interesting about that picture, though, is since it was debunked several years ago, there’s a secondary myth that has since emerged, that the New York Tribune made up that picture as a way to help Roosevelt. When that's not true either—there's no evidence. I mean, yes in the picture, Theodore Roosevelt is bigger than the other two but there's nothing in the New York Tribune to suggest that it's being done to support Roosevelt at the expense of the other candidates. But it's just this sort of weird secondary myth that emerged after the first myth was debunked.

It says a lot about a president by what kinds of myths surround them as we go back. So George Washington, he's not telling a lie. Abraham Lincoln, he's beating 300 people in a wrestling match. It's a myth, but we still want to attach because it's truthfulness and ruggedness on the frontier.

Meanwhile, the great myth about William Howard Taft is he gets stuck in the bathtub. So I think it says a lot about Roosevelt's misconceptions, almost all of the misconceptions we're going to be going through they have to do with how manly he is. By force of will, he punks his asthma. He rode a moose. I think that says a lot not about Theodore Roosevelt, but about how our view of Theodore Roosevelt is shaped.

McCarthy: So one thing that you will often see floating around has to do when TR was sworn in after William McKinley was assassinated. So TR was on vacation in the mountains. McKinley takes a turn for the worse. He barrels down to Buffalo to try to make it to the President's side. The President dies and TR is sworn in, in some guy's house in Buffalo on not a bible. And so the myth is, or the popular conception is, that TR is the first president who was not sworn in on a bible.

Thompson: Yeah, most of those facts are fine until you get right to the end with the bible fact.

The story is that they were in such a rush they couldn't grab a bible. But the guy whose house it was, Ansley Wilcox, he commented later that there were loads of bibles around the house it just didn't occur to anyone to use the bible because that was not the tradition in the area they were in at the time. So you do have earlier that definitely didn't do a bible. John Quincy Adams says explicitly in his diary it was on a book of law. And then later it's sort of hit or miss who's on the bible because most people weren't explicit in recording that until later. What I think the interesting one is after Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, when he's inaugurated after the death of Harding, he did the exact same thing. That they had a bible at hand but it wasn't used because that wasn't the tradition of the area. So it just would not have occurred to anyone that, "Oh yeah we need to use this bible," until later. So yes Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in without a bible. No, he wasn't the first. And despite what some seem to think, no, there's absolutely zero meaning to such a thing, other than nobody thought of it at the time.

McCarthy: But then, you know, like when he was actually elected of his own accord, wasn't he sworn in on a bible at that point?

Thompson: Yes. See, he wasn't making any point. In Upstate New York, they didn't use bibles, and nobody thought anything of it until afterwards, and they're like, “oh yeah, that's how you do it in the rest of the country. Huh.”

McCarthy: OK, I have one more note here for something that ... It's just a question mark. Tattoo? Question mark?

Thompson: Oh god.

McCarthy: And I feel like we have to talk about it because we've talked about it before.

Thompson: Yes. It's like, tattoos and judicial recall. Those are the two stories I'd been hoping to avoid.

McCarthy: OK, so the rumor goes that Theodore Roosevelt had a tattoo on his chest of the Roosevelt Family crest. And it's everywhere. But, dot dot dot, and I'll let you take it from there.

Thompson: Probably not but maybe—is that enough? So I spent, I don't even want to think how long, trying to figure out, like ... did he have a tattoo? And in the end, my guess is probably not, because there are clear descriptions of him doing things bare chested when a tattoo would have been notable, but nobody commented on it. That being said, they might just not have commented on it. And there aren't many pictures of, like, a shirtless Roosevelt during the time period where he's said to have the tattoo. I was really hoping that I could find his autopsy report, but turns out that he didn't have an autopsy after he died, so ...

McCarthy: This got dark.

Thompson: That's the kind of thing you have to look at. Yeah.

McCarthy: It just goes to show the lengths that you will go to ... to figure something out.

Thompson: Yeah. And so, I then tried to trace the myth back, and I don't think I was able to get the myth before the 1970s. So there's like a 50-year gap where there's no mention of Theodore Roosevelt having a tattoo, then it just kind of appears. And I've never, despite lots and lots of looking, been able to close that gap. So ... that is not proof that he didn't have a tattoo, but I'm pretty confident he didn't because, as I said, there were times when people are describing his bare chest and a tattoo would have been noteworthy, and they didn't comment on it.

McCarthy: Yeah. So we end where we began: tattoo, question mark?

Thompson: Yeah, basically.

McCarthy: Are you sick of Theodore Roosevelt yet?

Thompson: No, I'm not sick of Theodore Roosevelt because he's just interesting. I mean, he's definitely such a good person for the first season of this podcast ‘cause I was thinking: There aren't that many people who have reinvented themselves so many times. Most people are fairly consistent in their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, he was like, never more than five, six years at any one thing in his entire career, which makes him a very interesting person to research. And you just keep learning new things about him.

I mean one of the things I find amazing about Theodore Roosevelt is that his entire life he just kind of … he just kind of overshadowed everyone around him. People at the time were saying William McKinley was essentially the next Lincoln. He was viewed as a truly great president. And now: William McKinley who?

McCarthy: Yeah.

Thompson: He makes lists of the most forgotten president and that's because Theodore Roosevelt is just this force of nature that everything around him is dimmed by his incredible Theodore Roosevelt-ness.

McCarthy:
Yeah, a very bright light.

A huge thanks to Austin Thompson for hopping on the phone to chat and for fact checking every episode of this podcast. I truly could not have done it without him.

And with that, we’re wrapping up this first season of the podcast. I have to be honest, we did not intend to stick with TR this long. We had initially planned to launch a new season in June, and then COVID-19 happened and messed up all of our best-laid plans.

But I’m happy to announce that we’ll be back in early 2021 with a brand new season of the podcast, although it’s going to be slightly different than what we did for this first season.

First, we’re going to be changing the name of this feed so that we can put all of our Mental Floss podcasts here, though we’ll only be doing one season at a time, so don’t worry, we won’t be spamming you.

Also, rather than bring you another season of History Vs., we’re going to explore a different topic with a different host—but I promise it’s incredibly compelling, and the host is someone you’ve heard on this podcast before. And there is a bit of a TR connection. So stay tuned!

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

For transcripts, photos, and even more about Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.