The Quest for the North Pole Bonus Episode: The Arctic’s Biggest Mystery
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The midnight sun rises over the vast expanse of ice as a group of Royal Navy sailors load supplies onto a sledge. Food, tents, and fuel for eight men are lashed down, while the men receive last-minute instructions for their journey. They’re preparing to leave their ships, the Erebus and Terror, beset in solid ice off King William Island. They’ve been trapped there since the previous September, preventing the crews from continuing their search for the Northwest Passage.
The expedition, under leader Sir John Franklin, now bids farewell to the party consisting of Commander Graham Gore, Lieutenant Charles Frederick Des Voeux, and six additional men. They are to scout the coast to the south. If the Admiralty’s predictions are correct, the last missing link in the passage should be a couple hundred miles to the southwest. Historian Richard Cyriax believed Gore and the men aimed to find out—and claim the long-sought prize for their country.
Before setting off, Gore is handed a metal cylinder containing an Admiralty form and instructed to leave it on shore as a record of the expedition.
They travel toward land over high hummocks of broken ice. They likely go some distance to the south along the windswept coast, hoping to confirm that Victoria Strait to the west of King William Island connected to Simpson Strait to the southwest, and proving the existence of the Northwest Passage.
On May 28, the men gather stones from the beach into a tall cairn. Before placing the metal cylinder and note in it, Gore records the Erebus and Terror’s progress thus far and adds, “Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well.”
Two weeks later, Franklin is dead. The sea refuses to release the ships that summer. By April 1848, the Terror’s captain, Francis Crozier, makes the fatal decision to abandon the ships.
The demise of the Franklin Expedition remains the most compelling puzzle in Arctic exploration. What catastrophe had befallen Britain’s best-prepared polar expedition? And what clues are still being uncovered?
From Mental Floss and iHeart Radio, you’re listening to The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, science editor at Mental Floss, and this bonus episode is "The Arctic’s Biggest Mystery."
In a few episodes of The Quest for the North Pole, we looked at the life and career of Sir John Franklin, the most famous of 19th-century polar explorers. We mentioned how Franklin captained one of two British ships sent toward the North Pole to navigate a shortcut to Asia, through the alleged Open Polar Sea, in 1818. He didn’t get very far—the ships ran into storms and had to turn back.
But that was just the beginning of his polar career. The following year, the Admiralty put Franklin in charge of a grueling overland expedition in northern Canada. They mapped much of the region, but ran out of food. They survived by eating lichen and their own leather boots. Multiple people were murdered, and there were suspicions of cannibalism. Only nine of the 20 members returned alive.
You’d think Franklin would have been exiled after such a catastrophe. Instead, he became a hero.
The public celebrated him as the tough and resourceful "Man Who Ate His Boots." His account of the three-year expedition was an instant best-seller, and his bosses at the Admiralty actually sent him back to northern Canada for another, more successful trip.
By 1845, almost all of the purported Northwest Passage had been charted. All that remained unknown was a relatively short stretch west of Cape Walker, where Lancaster Sound turned into Barrow Strait.
Sir John Barrow, the outgoing second secretary of the Admiralty, and polar veterans like William Edward Parry and James Clark Ross, believed it was only a matter of time until the mystery of the passage would be solved. All they had to do was navigate this blank space and link the known areas to the west with those to the east. Then the Northwest Passage could finally be claimed.
Barrow devised a plan that would allow Britain to close the book on its Arctic quest. Two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were fixed up for another round of polar service. Three year’s worth of provisions were ordered, including more than 36,000 pounds of ship’s biscuit, 32,000 pounds of beef, and 9300 pounds of scurvy-averting lemon juice. For the crew’s comfort, there were custom-made wolfskin blankets, a full library for each ship, religious volumes donated by various Bible societies, and a hand-organ that played 50 different songs. And Sir John Franklin, Arctic hero, would lead them toward victory.
According to historian Richard Cyriax, “The expedition was the best equipped that the Admiralty had ever sent to the polar regions.”
Let’s take a break here. We’ll be right back.
Franklin was to sail south and west from Cape Walker and chart a navigable route toward Bering Strait. If he found himself blocked by permanent ice or land, he was to sail northwest through Wellington Channel, around Cornwallis Island, and toward Alaska.
Barrow expected Franklin’s expedition to emerge triumphantly at Bering Strait in a year—maybe even less. “There can be no ... apprehension of the loss of ships or men,” Barrow wrote confidently to the Admiralty lords. “I confess [this expedition] is an object I have long had at heart … and the present time of bringing it forward, appeared to be a suitable one—a time of profound peace, and the finances of the country in a flourishing state. The Admiralty having done so much, it would be most mortifying and not very creditable to let another naval power complete what we had begun.”
On May 19, 1845, the Erebus and Terror left Greenhithe, Kent, and sailed towards Baffin Bay. Before entering Lancaster Sound, the eastern end of the supposed Northwest Passage, Franklin’s ships met two whaling vessels.
Then, as far as the Admiralty and their loved ones knew, the Franklin expedition vanished.
The Erebus and Terror failed to show up in Bering Strait. By early 1847, Franklin’s old friend John Ross began arguing for a rescue mission. But the Admiralty wasn’t worried. They had sent the expedition off with at least three years of provisions and everything they’d need for success. Ross’s nephew, James Clark Ross, said there was no cause for concern because he and his uncle had once spent four years in the Arctic and survived.
But by November, with no further chance of receiving news that year, Franklin’s wife Lady Jane Franklin began pushing for a search party. Three squadrons of rescuers approached the missing piece of the passage from the east, south, and west, sanguine that they would locate the Erebus and Terror. All three returned within two years, having found no trace of Franklin’s men.
Lady Jane Franklin didn’t give up. She wrote letters and asked the advice of polar experts and whalers, including William Scoresby, Jr. She buttonholed Members of Parliament and her correspondence soliciting donations was published in newspapers. She got Charles Dickens to lend his support.
She even enlisted supernatural help. Lady Jane met with a shipbuilder from Northern Ireland who claimed that the ghost of his 3-year-old daughter Louisa had spoken from beyond the grave to indicate Franklin’s location. Little Weesy, as she was called, supposedly drew, among other things, the initials “P.RI” and “BS” on the wall of her sister’s bedroom. The logical message was that Franklin was lost somewhere around Prince Regent Inlet and Barrow’s Strait.
And finally, Lady Jane was not above publicly shaming the Admiralty lords into action.
According to historian Pierre Berton, between 1848 and 1859, more than 50 expeditions set out to search for Franklin. They attacked the icy maze of islands and channels from every navigable direction, dispatching dozens of sledge teams to search every hole and hummock. Some of the ships sank or were abandoned; men died of scurvy and exhaustion. Many times, the rescuers had to be rescued themselves.
But slowly, they began to unearth clues.
In 1850, searchers discovered Franklin’s camp on Beechey Island, a tiny speck on the north side of Barrow Strait. Among the remains of buildings and empty food cans, they found the graves of three young crew members who had died in January and April 1846, placing Franklin’s expedition on the island during their first winter. But there were no notes to reveal where they’d gone.
The next big break came in 1851, when Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor John Rae found pieces of a ship on the west coast of Victoria Strait. The possible area of Franklin’s fate narrowed again in 1854, when Rae met Inuit carrying silver spoons and other relics from the Erebus and Terror. One of them told Rae that about 40 white men had died on King William Island four years earlier. Rae relayed this information to the Admiralty, writing, “From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread resource—cannibalism—as a means of prolonging existence.”
The Admiralty leaked his letter to the press, shocking Lady Jane, Charles Dickens, and the rest of Victorian England. Dickens even suggested, without a hint of evidence, that the Inuit had murdered the men. The findings seemed to prove that Franklin and all of his men had perished in the Arctic, but it didn’t explain what caused the disaster.
Lady Jane was bent on finding out. She bought a steam yacht called the Fox. She hired naval Captain Leopold McClintock, a sledging champ and veteran of three earlier Franklin search expeditions, and Lieutenant William Hobson as his second in command. They left Britain in July 1857 with orders to inspect the last parcel of land that hadn’t been thoroughly searched by the dozens of earlier efforts: the shores of King William Island.
By September 1858, sledge parties fanned out from the ship, anchored on the Boothia Peninsula. McClintock and Hobson headed south to King William Island, then split up, with Hobson covering the north and west side and McClintock’s team continuing to the east and south.
It wasn’t long before Hobson stumbled upon the truth. At Victory Point, he found the metal cylinder left by Gore’s party back in May 1847, with the crew “all well.” But a second note, dated April 25, 1848, had been written around the first, and told a much darker story.
“Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, five leagues north-northwest of this, having been beset since 12 September 1846,” the Erebus’s captain, James Fitzjames, wrote. John Franklin had died on June 11, 1847, just two weeks after Gore left the original note. In total, nine officers and 15 men had died, and the remaining 105 crew, under Captain Crozier’s command, were headed to the mouth of Back’s Fish River on the mainland.
Finally, the voices of the lost expedition had been heard. Then Hobson discovered skeletons, boats, and previous camps. McClintock came upon other remains, identifiable by their uniforms and the papers they carried, near Back’s Fish River, confirming the expedition’s route described in Fitzjames’s note. Both officers returned home in September 1859 with concrete evidence of the expedition’s fate.
But the mystery didn’t end there.
In the 1870s, American explorers like Charles Francis Hall, Elisha Kent Kane, and Frederick Schwatka, with the Inuit guides Taqulittuq, Ipirvik, and many others, combed the last known routes of the Franklin expedition. They found numerous relics and recorded testimony from Inuit who knew of the expedition’s demise from their oral histories.
Following Schwatka’s findings, explorers lost interest in mounting long and arduous expeditions to find further clues to an old disaster. Instead, they turned their attention to the international race for the North Pole.
We’ll be right back.
The next glimpses into the Franklin story were gathered by Danish explorers Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen in the 1920s. They traveled from their base camp at the Thule Trading Post in Greenland, just across Baffin Bay from Lancaster Sound, to the Inuit communities in Arctic Canada. Though his purpose was ethnographic research, Rasmussen’s expedition did collect further Inuit accounts of Franklin.
By the 1980s, modern science met up with the Franklin expedition. Canadian physical anthropologist Owen Beattie and a team from the University of Alberta applied forensic investigative techniques to the mystery. Beattie’s team traveled to King William Island in 1981 and discovered numerous skeletal fragments likely belonging to Franklin’s crew. They showed pitting and scaling, indicating scurvy, as well as parallel knife marks—suggesting cannibalism. Lab tests revealed that they also contained extremely high levels of lead.
Beattie believed the preserved food supplied to the expedition may have absorbed lead from things like the cans, fatally poisoning the crew. But to really confirm his theory, he’d need to analyze soft tissue. In 1984, his team began exhuming the three frozen bodies of Franklin crew members John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine buried on Beechey Island. Autopsy results showed super high lead levels, supporting Beattie’s theory.
However, recent molecular research has thrown the lead-can story into question.
A 2016 analysis of John Hartnell’s nails found that, for much of the expedition, his lead levels were within a normal range. But he had a severe zinc deficiency, which might have come from poor preservation of the food the crew was eating. The high lead levels may have emerged as Hartnell was dying. His body may have released lead he had absorbed throughout his life, making it seem as though he’d been exposed to massive amounts of the element.
Two of the biggest Franklin expedition relics were still missing when Beattie was doing his work. No one knew exactly where Franklin’s ships, the Erebus and Terror, had sunk, or if they’d been crushed to pieces by ice. Beginning in the early 2000s, the government agency Parks Canada and Inuit organizations and knowledge holders renewed efforts to locate the ships. To guide their search, they used Inuit testimony collected by Hall and Schwatka in the 19th century, plus oral histories gathered by Inuit historian Louie Kamookak and others.
On-the-ground investigations were limited to a few weeks each summer when the sea was clear of ice. For several years, the team combed underwater areas with side-scan sonar and surveyed the coast, but came up empty. Like the Franklin search parties of the 1850s, they succeeded in discovering where the ships weren’t—which narrowed their target to an area south of King William Island. An Inuk had told Charles Francis Hall that a ship had sunk there. In early September 2014, a chance discovery of some parts from a British naval ship on shore allowed the team to zero in on an area about 80 miles south of King William Island, where side-scan sonar revealed the final resting place of the HMS Erebus, largely intact and preserved by the icy environment.
And just two years later, a local hunter named Sammy Kogvik led the archaeologists to another site in a sheltered bay where he’d seen wood sticking through the sea ice. When they dropped an ROV into the water, it sent back the first full images of the HMS Terror the world had seen in more than 150 years.
Since then, Parks Canada and Inuit partners have made detailed surveys of the shipwrecks and retrieved hundreds of naval and personal artifacts, from the Erebus’s bell to a hairbrush with hairs still in it. For now, the wrecks raise more questions than they answer about the Franklin mystery. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled this summer’s dive season, but more research is expected next year.
One of the most exciting scientific discoveries happened this past May: For the first time, skeletal remains excavated from King William Island were identified through DNA and genealogical analyses. Since 2013, archaeologist Douglas Stenton and his team have been creating DNA profiles of bones excavated from King William Island and asking anyone who might be related to a Franklin crew member for a DNA sample. They announced the first match in May, identifying a set of bones as belonging to John Gregory, an engineer on the Erebus, confirmed through his direct descendant Jonathan Gregory’s DNA. The researchers are hopeful that this is only the beginning.
The biggest mystery in Arctic exploration continues, 176 years after the Erebus and Terror left England. While professional archaeologists and Inuit guardians investigate the physical evidence, amateur archivists are poring over manuscripts in library collections, literally piecing together clues. Franklin is long gone, buried at sea or resting in an unmarked grave. But his legacy lives on.
The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.
This episode was researched and written by me, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan.
For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit mentalfloss.com/podcast.
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