What AMC's The Terror Got Right (And Wrong) About the Franklin Expedition
By Kat Long
WARNING: This post contains spoilers for The Terror. If you haven't finished the show, don't read further!
We know the outcome of Captain Crozier's battle with Tuunbaq in the AMC series The Terror, and that he chose (as some rumors have suggested) to live with the Inuit rather than return to London when he has the chance. Now, it's time for a post-mortem (sorry) of the show's historical highlights. While Dan Simmons, author of the book on which the show is based, created Lady Silence and her supernatural evil spirit—Tuunbaq definitely wasn't stalking the men of the Erebus and Terror back in 1847—much of the show is faithful to the actual events of the Franklin expedition, one of the most enduring mysteries in polar exploration. Here's a rundown of what The Terror got right, and where the show slipped up.
RIGHT: THE TERROR’S ARCTIC ATMOSPHERE
Right off the bat, The Terror envelops viewers in an icy world that increasingly mirrors the crews’ isolation and desperation. In the first tragic scene, a sailor falls overboard into a sea of accurately rendered pancake ice. In another scene, Captain Francis Crozier sees a sun dog—a solar phenomenon caused by sunlight refracting through clouds of ice crystals, often witnessed by polar explorers. The officers' uniforms and caps are also recreated with authentic details. As the hopelessness of their predicament dawns on the officers and men, summer’s 24-hour daylight vanishes, replaced by the 24-hour darkness of winter. The imprisoned ships tilt with the pressure of the pack ice.
There were a few hiccups noticed by sharp-eyed viewers in the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group, however. Caulker's mate Cornelius Hickey has a fondness for cigarettes, but most sailors probably smoked pipes at the time, and definitely not inside the ship. (Good thing they had that fire hole bored into the ice!) And assistant surgeon Harry Goodsir’s technique with the Daguerrotype camera in the blind would have produced a terrible photo. His 20th-century stopwatch wouldn’t have helped.
WRONG: FRANKLIN’S BACK-UP PLAN
In a flashback in Episode 3, Sir John Franklin’s good friend Sir John Ross asks the soon-to-depart commander if the Admiralty had any plans for his rescue. When Franklin says one won’t be needed—since the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are the best-provisioned ships ever sent to the Arctic—Ross warns him that he’s being naïve. In real life, this conversation was much different, and it didn’t take place at the Admiralty.
Franklin and Ross knew firsthand how a well-provisioned expedition can become a fight for survival. (In Episode 6, Captain James Fitzjames hears the story of Ross’s disastrous Victory expedition from the Erebus's ice master Thomas Blanky, who was really there in 1829-1833.) Ross instead offered to rescue Franklin himself, and captained (at age 72!) a privately funded schooner in search of his lost friend in 1850. And because Ross and the Admiralty had had a major falling out decades before, Ross wouldn’t have been chatting with Franklin at the Admiralty's HQ in Episode 3, and he definitely wouldn’t have been there to hear Lady Jane Franklin’s plea for a search party in Episode 4.
Sir John Ross was the uncle of Sir James Clark Ross, whom we see in the first scene of Episode 1 and its replay, from a different point of view, at the end of Episode 10. In real life, Sir James was one of Crozier's closest friends.
WRONG (MAYBE): KILLER CANS
In a foreboding sign of things to come, Franklin removes a tiny blob of lead from his mouth while eating dinner with Fitzjames in the first episode. By Episode 4, the ships’ cooks are complaining that much of the canned meat is spoiled, and able seaman John Morfin shows up in Goodsir’s infirmary with a blackish line along his gums, an ominous sign of lead poisoning. To test that hypothesis, Goodsir feeds the monkey Jacko some of the canned meat, and then reveals his theory to the surgeon Stephen Stanley: The meat is contaminated with lead and the men have been eating it for more than two years.
The storyline is built upon a famous theory that is now in doubt. In the mid-1980s, forensic anthropologists found high levels of lead in Franklin crewmembers' remains. They suggested the source was poorly sealed food cans, and that lead poisoning led to the men’s deaths. But recent research has pointed to the Erebus’s and Terror’s unique water systems [PDF], which used lead pipes, as the primary source of contamination. And, a 2015 study compared lead content among seven crewmembers’ remains and found wide variation, suggesting some men may not have been debilitated.
RIGHT: SERIOUS SCURVY
David Young, the first fatality of The Terror, doesn’t show any signs of scurvy in Goodsir’s autopsy. But by the summer of 1848, the remaining crew camped on King William Island hasn’t eaten fresh meat in three years, and the Navy-issued lemon juice rations have either run out or lost potency. Signs of severe Vitamin C deficiency appear: Fitzjames’s old bullet wounds, which he boasted about at the officers' table in the first episode, begin to open up, and a rough-looking Lieutenant George Henry Hodgson loses a tooth as he chews the leather from his boot (a nod to Franklin’s awful 1819-1822 Arctic expedition) in Episode 9. The scenes match what most, though not all, historians and researchers now believe: that a grim combination of scurvy, starvation, exposure, and underlying illnesses spelled the end for Franklin’s men.
(VERY LIKELY) WRONG: FRANKLIN’S CAUSE OF DEATH
The terrifying scene in Episode 3 in which Tuunbaq mauls Franklin to death and shoves him down the fire hole is most likely not the way it actually happened. Historically speaking, just after the men abandon ship in April 1848, Crozier and Fitzjames updated the note left in the cairn the previous spring. They reported that “Sir John Franklin died on 11th June 1847”—just 19 days after Lieutenant Graham Gore and mate Charles Des Voeux had left the same paper behind on May 24, 1847 and reported the crews “all well.” Unfortunately, it’s the only record ever found about the expedition’s progress, and no one knows for sure how Franklin died or what happened to his body. Inuit oral histories collected by Franklin scholar Louie Kamookak suggest Franklin was buried under a flat stone somewhere on King William Island, but to date, no trace has been found.
RIGHT: THAT CRAZY CARNIVAL
The wild masquerade party in the middle of the bleak and frozen Arctic, which Fitzjames orders as a morale-booster for the men in Episode 6, may seem like a total anachronism. In real life, it was a time-honored tradition. (We don't know for sure if the Erebus and Terror had a carnival because no logbooks from the expedition have been found, but it's likely that they did.) In 1819-1820, Sir Edward Parry led the first polar expedition to purposefully overwinter in the Arctic. He worried about how the men would fare psychologically during the months of darkness and teeth-cracking cold, so he brought along trunks of theatrical costumes and launched the Royal Arctic Theatre, a fortnightly diversion for the officers and men to perform silly plays and musicals. It kept the men busy writing shows, practicing their parts, and building sets, which Parry thought was the key to staying sane. The scheme was such a success that subsequent expeditions kept the tradition going. But unlike in The Terror, the frivolities didn’t end in fiery conflagrations and mass casualties.
(POSSIBLY) WRONG: HICKEY’S MURDEROUS MUTINY
In Episode 7, Hickey plans a mutiny and convinces enough of the desperate men to follow him, splitting the remaining officers and men into two groups and, in Episode 9, taking Crozier captive. Hickey also kidnaps Goodsir because, as the expedition’s sole remaining surgeon, he is the only one who knows how to wield a bone saw. We don’t know, though, if there was an actual mutiny among the Franklin survivors. The remains of some of Franklin's men were found in different locations, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a breakdown of order. Smaller groups may have split off from the main group because they simply couldn’t march any farther or had decided to return to the ships. Despite the harsh conditions of service in the Royal Navy, mutinies were quite rare.
Hickey’s followers, starving and desperate, dine on morsels of steward William Gibson in one of Episode 9’s most wrenching scenes with historical precedent. Hudson’s Bay Company trader John Rae discovered the truth about the Franklin expedition from interviews with Inuit in 1854, including testimony that the men resorted to cannibalism to survive. In his infamous letter to the Admiralty, he wrote, “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.” Victorian England refused to believe it—but Inuit testimony and forensic research [PDF] supported Rae’s account, finally revealing the expedition’s fate.