Frost Bite: When Sub-Zero Temperatures Shattered an Antarctic Explorer's Teeth

The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Thanks to a polar vortex, blisteringly cold temperatures are sweeping across the United States this week, with some areas of the Midwest clocking temperatures colder than Antarctica. (Lake Michigan has even frozen over.) But that fact can be somewhat misleading: It’s summer in Antarctica right now. In the winter (when there is 24-hour darkness for weeks), temperatures there can plunge to an average of -76°C (nearly -105°F), a fact that 20th century explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard learned firsthand in 1911, when, during a scientific mission on the continent, his teeth shattered from the chill.

“A New and Bold Venture”

Cherry-Garrard was the assistant zoologist of the Terra Nova Expedition, which journeyed to Antarctica in 1910 and was led by Robert Falcon Scott. Among the expedition’s goals were to reach the South Pole (an aim Scott would perish trying to achieve) and to retrieve Emperor penguin eggs, which some scientists believed would prove the theory of recapitulation—that an embryo of a creature will take the form of its ancestors as it developed. Terra Nova’s zoologist, Edward Wilson, was hoping to use the eggs to find proof of a link between birds and dinosaurs.

To get the evidence would require a more than 62-mile journey, from the expedition’s camp on Cape Evans to the penguin nesting ground on Cape Crozier, in the punishing Antarctic winter with nothing but the Moon to light their way. A trip of its kind had never before been undertaken.

“This winter travel is a new and bold venture," Scott wrote, "but the right men have gone to attempt it.”

Cherry-Garrard would later dub it “the worst journey in the world.”

“Any One Would Be A Fool Who Went Again”

iStock.com/vladsilver

Emperor penguins nest in the winter, allowing their chicks to hatch in the spring to give them the most time to develop the feathers they needed to survive Antarctica’s chill. As Cherry-Garrard noted later, “The Emperor penguin is compelled to undertake all kinds of hardships because his children insist on developing so slowly.”

Wilson and Cherry-Garrard, with fellow explorer Henry "Birdie" Bowers, set off for Cape Crozier on June 27, 1911. It took 19 days to reach the cape. “The horror of the 19 days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated,” Cherry-Garrard later wrote, “and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. … I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain.”

They got perhaps four hours of sleep a night; as they trudged through snow and storms and lugged their sledges out of crevasses, they breathed and sweated, which then froze on their clothes or their sleeping bags. The temperatures were so cold that at the beginning of their days their clothes would freeze into position after leaving the comparatively warm tent: “Once outside, I raised my head to look round and found I could not move it back,” Cherry-Garrard recalled. “My clothing had frozen hard as I stood—perhaps 15 seconds. For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in.”

The explorers retrieved five eggs from the colony—two of which cracked on the way back to the camp on the aptly titled Mount Terror—and wasted no time in turning back around. Cherry-Garrard would later write that “The horrors of that return journey are blurred to my memory and I know they were blurred to my body at the time.” He recounted lying in sleeping bags “shaking with cold until our backs would almost break.”

During a pause in one mid-day march, he recalled, “We stood panting with our backs against the mountainous mass of frozen gear which was our load. There was no wind, at any rate no more than light airs: our breath crackled as it froze. There was no unnecessary conversation: I don't know why our tongues never got frozen, but all my teeth, the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces.”

“The Worst Journey in the World”

Cherry-Garrard and his companions finally made it back to Cape Evans five weeks after they had initially departed. Scott wrote that "They looked more weather-worn than anyone I have yet seen ... Cherry-Garrard is slightly puffy in the face and still looks worn. It is evident that he has suffered most severely—but Wilson tells me that his spirit never wavered for a moment."

They had managed to bring back three eggs, each encased in alcohol with a little window cut into the shell to reveal the embryo inside. The eggs are now in the collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring.

Bowers and Wilson would later go on a summer journey to the South Pole with Scott, Edgar Evans, and Lawrence Oates. When they reached the Pole, they discovered that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beat them to it. All five men would die trying to get back to Cape Evans.

Cherry-Garrard would ultimately survive his trip to Antarctica, though it left its mark—both physical and mental—on him. He would go on to write an account of the expedition titled The Worst Journey in the World, after the winter journey.

“Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised,” he wrote in its introduction. “It is the only form of adventure in which you put on your clothes at Michaelmas and keep them on until Christmas, and, save for a layer of the natural grease of the body, find them as clean as though they were new. It is more lonely than London, more secluded than any monastery, and the post comes but once a year. ... Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on Earth has a worse time than an Emperor penguin.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, even though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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