Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.

7 Ghost-Hunting Tools Recommended by Paranormal Investigators

Etekcity / Olympus / Amazon
Etekcity / Olympus / Amazon

My former apartment was haunted. The ghost, who seemed to be friendly, delighted in knocking container lids off the kitchen counter when no one was in the room. Sadly, I never documented the evidence because I didn’t have a night-vision camera handy.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Whether you're a full-fledged believer in the spiritual realm or a hardcore skeptic looking for some spooky fun, you can conduct your own paranormal investigations with just a few essential tools. “You don’t want to get lost in the gear,” says Jason Stroming, founder and lead investigator of the New York Paranormal Society. “Some people bring so much stuff to investigations that it looks like they’re about to launch the Space Shuttle.”

Here are seven expert-recommended devices to get you started.

1. Olympus Digital Voice Recorder; $32

Olympus/Amazon

On any ghost-hunting TV series—A Haunting, The Haunted, Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Asylum, or Ghost Adventures—the investigators will whip out a digital voice recorder to conduct an EVP session. That stands for “electronic voice phenomena,” but can encompass any mysterious sounds or voices from spirits in the vicinity. These handheld, battery-operated devices are an essential tool for any ghost enthusiast, Stroming says.

He recalls an EVP session at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden in Staten Island, New York: Just before midnight, during an otherwise uneventful investigation, Stroming and his crew heard the distinct creak of footsteps on the old wood floors. “We went to see if the security guard had come back in, but you can’t really get in to the front door without it making a lot of noise. We would have heard that,” he tells Mental Floss. At Snug Harbor a few months later, the crew had his digital recorder running when “the same thing happened—the footsteps. That to us was exciting, because it was the same time and the same activity,” Stroming says. “We all heard it.”

If you’re ready to capture your own EVPs, the Olympus VN-541PC recorder offers 4 gigabytes of storage and a one-touch record button.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Canon PowerShot; $249

Canon / Amazon

Stroming approaches the paranormal from a more skeptical point of view. “We try to debunk things first and look for rational explanations,” he says, so a digital camera with a night vision function is a must-have. They’re essential for capturing everything from unexplained light anomalies and shadow figures to mysterious creaks, thuds, and footsteps. The pocket-sized Canon PowerShot SX620 digital camera takes still photos and 1080p HD video in low light. Basic camcorders will record movement and sound (and not disrupt electromagnetic fields like a smartphone can). Those adapted for ghost hunting, like the Cleveland Paranormal Supply Co.’s model ($189 on Amazon), record in night vision and let you switch easily from infrared (also known as thermal imaging) mode to full spectrum mode.

“We try to take a lot of photos,” Stroming adds. “You just never know what’s going to show up.”

Buy it: Amazon

3. K-II ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELD (EMF) DETECTOR; $60

Electricians use inexpensive EMF meters to locate sources of electromagnetic radiation from homes and offices (common culprits are older appliances and cell phones). Ghosts are also thought to emit EM radiation or disturb the existing magnetic fields in a room. Stroming’s team uses EMF meters primarily to debunk spectral sources of EM radiation. “We’ve had cases where people are sleeping right next to an old alarm clock, or they don’t realize that their fuse box is right below them and could be giving off huge electromagnetic fields. That can cause hallucinations or the feeling of being watched,” Stroming says. “We say, ‘Move the alarm clock for a week, call us back and let us know.’ They always say it stops.”

On the other hand, an anomalous EM field in the middle of a room with no obvious source merits further investigation. While Stroming prefers the basic K-II EMF Meter, the ghost-hunting supplier GhostStop suggests its Rook EMF Meter. This fancier version can block man-made frequencies and indicate EMF disturbances with light and sound alerts, says paranormal investigator Graham Ober, GhostStop’s customer service tech.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Etekcity Lasergrip INFRARED THERMOMETER; $16

Etekcity/Amazon

A regular thermometer can measure the ambient temperature in a given environment. An infrared thermometer, commonly used by electricians and HVAC technicians, can take the temp of specific object with a laser. They’re handy for detecting cold spots in a potentially haunted area, which ghost investigators say can be signs of otherwise invisible entities.

Stroming uses an infrared thermometer to identify drafts around windows or air conditioning vents before an investigation begins, as well as for measuring thermal radiation during the session. When held about 14 inches in front of the object to be measured, the Etekcity Lasergrip 774 infrared thermometer can detect temps from a frigid -58°F to a broiling 716°F, although most paranormal entities seem to shift the room temp just a shade in either direction (3 degrees is the threshold for possible spectral activity, Ober tells Mental Floss).

Buy it: Amazon

5. Portable Home Security; $71

Any serious paranormal investigator will use motion sensors or vibration detectors to pick up movement in empty rooms. A basic portable home security system, with a couple of sensors and a receiver, is an inexpensive option. Just place the sensor on a table or shelf in an unoccupied room and carry the receiver with you. The receiver will emit an alarm or chime when motion is detected in the empty location, and you can then send in the unluckiest member of your ghost-hunting crew to check it out.

Vibration sensors (sometimes called geophones) work in a similar way. They can be set on the floor to detect phantom footsteps or other unexplained movement, and will light up when anomalies are sensed.

Buy it: Amazon

6. BINARY RESPONSE DEVICE

Binary response devices, or “yes/no boxes,” are another important tool. Investigators can ask suspected spirits simple questions and allegedly receive answers through the device—the theory being that spirits can harness the energy in the machine and use it to respond. Different replies are indicated with lights on either side of the gadget. GhostStop’s Flux Response Device features green and red lights to facilitate yes/no questions (green for yes, red for no) and to obtain answers to slightly more complex inquiries, such as “which corner of the room are you in?” (red for left, green for right). The steampunk-style Gyroscope Digital Talking Board from Paranologies has a yes/no/maybe function along with a full alphabet for longer words, much like a 21st-century Ouija Board ($17 on Amazon).

7. P-SB11 GHOST BOX; $130

NUATE / Amazon

A ghost box is a catch-all term for a device used to verbally communicate with spirits. Many of these gadgets continually scan radio frequencies, creating a din of white noise. “The idea is the spirit can use that white noise to communicate in some way, either verbally or through EVP sessions,” Ober says. Users can simply listen for disembodied voices, or yell questions into the void and hope for an answer from beyond.

There are numerous models on the market, from the popular P-SB7 Spirit Box (and the more advanced P-SB11) designed by Gary Galka of DAS to GhostStop’s Sbox, a similar device with added recording capability. “A lot of people are interested in recording the audio from the SB7,” Ober notes. “We’ve taken that technology a step forward, so you’re able to record that audio without having to have a second device present.”

One of Ghost Adventures’s fave devices is the Ovilus, designed by Bill Chappell of Digital Dowsing. Instead of scanning radio frequencies, the various Ovilus models generate words in response to environmental fluctuations or EMF anomalies, supposedly translating the spirit’s communications into English terms. Not everyone is sold on the device (“It’s like a high-tech Magic 8 Ball,” Stroming says), but Zak Bagans, lead investigator of the Ghost Adventures crew, is very fond of shouting rude questions at local spooks through it.

Buy it: Amazon

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New Online Art Exhibition Needs the Public’s Help to Track Down Lost Masterpieces by Van Gogh, Monet, and More

Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you wanted to compare both versions of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet in person, you couldn’t. While the second one currently hangs in Paris’s Musée d'Orsay, the public hasn’t seen the original painting since 1990. In fact, nobody’s really sure where it is—after its owner Ryoei Saito died in 1996, the precious item passed from private collector to private collector, but the identity of its current owner is shrouded in mystery.

As Smithsonian Magazine reports, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) is one of a dozen paintings in “Missing Masterpieces,” a digital exhibit of some of the world’s most famous lost artworks. It’s not the only Van Gogh in the collection. His 1884 painting The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring was snatched from the Netherlands’ Singer Laren museum earlier this year; and his 1888 painting The Painter on His Way to Work has been missing since World War II. Other works include View of Auvers-sur-Oise by Paul Cézanne, William Blake’s Last Judgement, and two bridge paintings by Claude Monet.

Paul Cézanne's View of Auvers-sur-Oise was stolen from the University of Oxford's art museum on New Year's Eve in 1999.Ashmolean Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The new online exhibit is a collaboration between Samsung and art crime expert Noah Charney, who founded The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art. It isn’t just a page where art enthusiasts can explore the stories behind the missing works—it’s also a way to encourage people to come forward with information that could lead to the recovery of the works themselves.

“From contradictory media reports to speculation in Reddit feeds—the clues are out there, but the volume of information can be overwhelming,” Charney said in a press release. “This is where technology and social media can help by bringing people together to assist the search. It’s not unheard of for an innocuous tip posted online to be the key that unlocks a case.”

The exhibition will be online through February 10, 2021, and citizen sleuths can email their tips to missingmasterpieces@artcrimeresearch.org.

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]