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“An extraordinary real-life adventure of men battling the elements and themselves, told with ice-cold precision.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review) In the dark years following the Civil War, America’s foremost Arctic explorer, Charles Francis Hall, became a figure of national pride when he embarked on a harrowing, landmark expedition. With financial backing from Congress and the personal support of President Grant, Captain Hall and his crew boarded the Polaris, a steam schooner carefully refitted for its rigorous journey, andbegan their quest to be the first men to reach the North Pole. Neither the ship nor its captain would ever return.
What transpired was a tragic death and whispers of murder, as well as a horrifying ordeal through the heart of an Arctic winter, when men fought starvation, madness, and each other upon the ever-shifting ice. Trial by Ice is an incredible adventure that pits men against the natural elements and their own fragile human nature. In this powerful true story of death and survival, courage and intrigue aboard a doomed ship, Richard Parry chronicles one of the most astonishing, little known tragedies at sea in American history.
“ABSORBING . . . Suspense builds as Parry describes the events leading up to Hall’s ‘murder,’ then climaxes in horrifying detail.” –Publishers Weekly
Buy, download and read Trial by Ice (eBook) by Richard Parry today!
A Grand Beginning
Under a general appropriations act "for the year ending the thirteenth of June, eighteen hundred and seventy-one," we find the Congressional authority for the outfit of the "United States North Polar Expedition."
Be it enacted, That the President of the United States be authorized to organize and send out one or more expeditions toward the North Pole, and to appoint such person or persons as he may deem most fitted to the command thereof; to detail any officer of the public service to take part in the same, and to use any public vessel that may be suitable for the purpose; the scientific operations of the expeditions to be prescribed in accordance with the advice of the National Academy of Sciences.
--Congress, July 9, 1870
Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., July 20, 1870
Captain C. F. Hall:
Dear Sir: You are hereby appointed to command the expedition toward the North Pole, to be organized and sent pursuant to an Act of Congress approved July 12, 1870, and will report to the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Interior for detailed instructions.
Sixteen months before, things were quite different.
By 1870 the United States was ready for something new. To be the first to reach the North Pole fit the bill. Doing so would meld national pride with hard-nosed business. Such an expedition transcended politics and touched Southern and Northern hearts alike. Here was something to raise the spirits of everyone: an American expedition. With eyes fixed northward, those on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line could forget the slaughter of five years before, the carpetbaggers plundering their property, and the legions of shattered bodies that had littered their hometowns. Grasping the unknown land to their bosom once more gave Rebel and Yankee a noble ideal, a worthy one that fit them both.
Here was an especially worthwhile endeavor, especially since the British had failed so miserably at attaining the same goal. There was little love for England in either Dixie or the North at this time. After all, John Bull had failed to enter the war on the side of the South yet had managed to extract an embarrassing apology from President Abraham Lincoln over the Trent affair. If the Americans were to succeed where England had failed, it was only just.
Besides, there was money to be made. Whaling was a million-dollar industry. Before the advent of petroleum mining, whale oil lit the lamps of the world. Baleen supplied the stays for ladies' corsets, and precious ambergris and spermaceti from the sperm whales made perfumes and cosmetics. And north was where the whales were.
Driven by this lucrative trade, whaling ships from New Bedford already braved the Davis Strait in the east and the Bering Sea in the west. A Northwest Passage would eliminate the need to sail round Cape Horn and cut months off the trip. Trade with the Far East would also benefit. Glory was all well and good, but a profit was even better.
The United States was going north to plant the Stars and Stripes at the North Pole. No matter that Danes, Britons, French, and Norwegians had tried and failed; the United States of America, fresh from a divisive civil war, was flexing its muscle. With Yankee ingenuity and American resolve, the first American polar expedition would succeed. No question about it.
America was ready.
And with typical Yankee stinginess, the Navy Department selected an unused steam tug named the Periwinkle for the honors. Why spend extra money to lay a fresh keel when this scow lay gathering barnacles? Weighing 387 tons, the screw-propeller Periwinkle had never been farther north than Gloucester. But to her went the honors of being the one to carry the flag farther north than anyone had previously gone. Planting the flag at the top of the world was the ultimate goal. Nothing less would do.
But a complete refitting was needed. In her present condition, the Periwinkle would not make Greenland, let alone the North Pole. Money being tight, a bill, called the Arctic Resolution, introduced in the Senate requested $100,000 to fund the expedition. Immediately the bloc of southern senators protested. Spending money to find the North Pole that could better go toward Reconstruction galled them.
Attached to a general appropriations bill, the resolution barely passed the Senate. Only the vote of Vice President Schuyler Colfax broke the tie. The bill was passed on to the House, where the Appropriations Committee, with its own share of southerners, compromised and promptly whittled the sum in half. Fifty thousand dollars might see the Periwinkle properly refitted, but nothing would be left over for supplies, equipment, and wages. The expedition appeared doomed.
Then behind-the-scenes jawboning by Sen. John Sherman from Ohio, the powerful brother of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, brought a reprieve. Having a hero of the Civil War as your brother and commander in chief of the army as well carried some weight. In the House Representative Stevenson (also from Ohio) lobbied heavily for the extra money the committee had cut. Each man had introduced the bill in his respective chamber. And President Grant added his cigar smoke to the smoke-filled rooms. Sullenly and discreetly the Committee on Appropriations guaranteed an additional fifty thousand dollars for refitting the ship alone.
It was no coincidence Sherman and Stevenson had pushed so hard for full funding. To them and most other Americans, only one man had the necessary credentials to reach the North Pole, Charles Francis Hall, a fellow Ohioan.
While the country had just fought a war to preserve the Union, states rights and regionalism were by no means dead. Ohio would bask in the reflected glory of one of her sons planting the Stars and Stripes at the top of the world. Besides, both President Grant and the congressmen relished the idea of a western man leading a scientific exploration. It tweaked the noses of those in the East who thought all learned knowledge stopped short of the Allegheny Mountains.
It made no difference that Hall had actually been born in New Hampshire in 1821. As a young man, he had the good sense to move west to Cincinnati. That made him a western man to his supporters. Filled with the spirit of adventure, the young Hall headed for what he thought was the frontier. But the frontier was rapidly moving west, far faster than Hall had imagined.
Working as a blacksmith before drifting into journalism, Hall craved more adventure than the rapidly civilizing Cincinnati could provide. The mild success of patenting "Hall's Improved Percussion Press" for making seals, owning an engraving business, and opening a newspaper did little for him. Soon he was languishing in the same dull existence he had sought to escape. Marriage and children failed to provide him what he craved--adventure. With little formal schooling, Hall still had a voracious appetite for knowledge. Night after night he expanded his grasp of mathematics, science, astronomy, and geography, devouring book after book on the subjects. In time he became expert in those areas. Yet he lacked the scrap of paper that would certify his breadth of knowledge. That missing diploma would haunt him.
Then on July 26, 1845, something happened that would direct Hall's focus to the Arctic and change his life forever. The aging Sir John Franklin, commanding an expedition to discover the fabled Northwest Passage across the frozen Arctic Sea to the Orient, vanished from the sight of civilized man. One hundred and twenty-nine men aboard the Royal Navy ships Erebus and Terror waved farewell to the Prince of Wales, a nearby whaling ship, slipped their moorings from an iceberg in Baffin Bay, and simply disappeared into the Arctic fog.
The world was shocked. The sixty-year-old Franklin, arguably too old for Arctic exploration, still had considerable experience in the region. As a young midshipman, Franklin had fought with Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar before going on to complete a distinguished career exploring the far North. Many believed him the best qualified in the entire world to lead such a quest. William Edward Parry, Franklin's peer among the British Arctic explorers, endorsed him enthusiastically to the British Admiralty. "He is a fitter man to go than anyone I know." Then, with typical bonhomie, Parry added, "And if you don't let him go, the man will die of disappointment." And Franklin's crew loved him. A common seaman wrote, "Sir John is such a good old fellow--we all have perfect confidence in him!"
None of that mattered. The silent, waiting Arctic swallowed up the best-prepared expedition that any nation had ever mounted. Two naval vessels carrying 136,656 pounds of flour, 64,224 pounds of salted pork and beef, 7,088 pounds of tobacco, 3,600 pounds of soap, two musical organs, and one hundred Bibles evaporated into the cold, thin Arctic air. The North apparently cared little for cleanliness or godliness.
Like the ill-fated Scott expedition to the Antarctic in the next century, Franklin's party carried fatal but hidden flaws that the region would exploit. South or north, the extremes of the globe are extreme in all things. There is never room for mistakes. The slightest error can be fatal.
British naval tradition required Sir John's men to wear woolen uniforms and leather boots rather than adopt the sealskin parkas and mukluks the Inuit had refined through centuries of trial and error. Arctic wind penetrates canvas and wool, where it will not pass sealskin. Sealskin boots, oiled with blubber and soled in the thick hide of oogrik, the walrus, repel water and grip ice better than any leather or India rubber boot can.
Wet feet in the Arctic meant frozen feet, with frostbite and gangrene the end result. Unlike the dog, whose legs will not develop frostbite unless a tourniquet is tightened enough to cut off the blood supply, man's extremities succumb to freezing fairly easily. In an attempt to preserve the body's core temperature, blood is shunted away from the fingers and toes whenever necessary. Only recently has modern medicine discovered the exact mechanism of damage due to frostbite. The cause is both simple and devastat- ing: ice crystals.
Over a certain span of temperature during the freezing process, ice crystals form inside the body's cells as the water inside each one freezes. The needle-sharp ice crystals cause all the damage. Like a thousand tiny knives, these crystals puncture and spear the membranes of the important organelles inside the cell. If the solidly frozen part is slowly rewarmed, the crystals will reform and do their worst while the body's temperature rises through that critical period. Freezing, slowly rewarming, and then refreezing and thawing are the worst of all possible scenarios--almost guaranteeing gangrene and the resulting amputation of the affected part.
A solidly frozen limb is best left frozen until proper treatment can be initiated. Then rapid rewarming affords the best hope of saving the part. Of course, the early explorers of the Arctic knew nothing of this.
A subtler but equally deadly factor played another part. At Beechey Island, a windswept piece of hardscrabble rising from the water near the junctions of Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, and Wellington Channel, lies Franklin's first winter camp. Here rest the rectangular rock outlines and piled embankments of workshops, a house, and three untended graves. Preserved in the permafrost and perpetual cold are the bodies of three men from the Erebus and Terror who lie as mute signposts to the Franklin disaster. Scattered about the campsite are empty meat tins.
Recent studies of these tinned cans used to preserve the party's food reveal a startling finding. Since 1810 storing food in tinned cans had enabled far-flung voyages. Lead-based solder was used to seal the cans. But the toxicity of lead was not discovered until the 1880s. Unknown to Franklin and his followers, the lead solder was turning their food poisonous. A modern autopsy of two of the men who died early on in the expedition revealed toxic levels of lead. Franklin and his men may have fallen victim to lead poisoning.
But with two to three years of provisions, the Franklin expedition was labeled "lost." No one could imagine them all dead, merely lost. Surely the men were trapped somewhere in that vast white expanse, gamely waiting to be saved. Rescue hysteria engulfed Great Britain. The government, prodded by the press, offered twenty thousand pounds' reward to the first intrepid adventurer to find and relieve the "Lost Franklin Expedition."
Adding to this fervor was Lady Jane Franklin herself. Aided by her considerable wealth and the help of clairvoyants and astrologers, she funded ships and relief parties on her own. Not to be outdone by a grieving wife, the government mounted three relief parties. The first searched the Bering Sea in hopes Franklin had successfully completed the passage from east to west and was waiting for them. They found nothing. The second party, starting in the middle of northern Canada, descended the Mackenzie River to its braided terminal of twisted channels into the Beaufort Sea. Expert trackers and fur traders on loan from the Hudson Bay Company could discover no clues of Franklin or his men. A third search, led by Sir John Ross, breached the ice-choked Lancaster Sound with two ships, the Enterprise and the Investigator, to search the maze of frozen inlets and bays of Somerset Island. Overland parties fanned out in all directions. Again not a trace of the missing men was found.
Brokenhearted, Ross returned to Lady Franklin the worn let- ter she had asked him to deliver to her missing husband. "May it be the will of God if you are not restored to us earlier that you should open this letter & that it may give you comfort in all your trials . . . ," it read.
Failure of the search parties only fanned the flames of speculation and sold more papers. Books, lectures, and pamphlets extolled the mysteries and dangers of the uncharted North. To a world choked in industrial smoke and blinded by the drab monotony of factory towns, the pristine Arctic, deadly yet enthralling, offered escape.
Far away in Cincinnati, Charles Francis Hall read every word published about the lost Franklin expedition. While running his newspaper, the Daily Press, he filled its pages with facts about Franklin and the missing men. Secretly he dreamed of finding them. Here was a cause that fired his imagination. Finding them would fulfill all his dreams in a single stroke. Wealth, fame, and recognition would be his. He set out to learn everything he could about the Arctic. Nothing else mattered now. His family moved to the background; his business withered. Finding Sir John Franklin and exploring the Arctic became his raison d'etre.
By 1859 Hall's fascination with Franklin and the Arctic spilled over onto his editorial page. Editorials headed does sir john franklin still live? and lady franklin appeared in his paper. In an editorial he volunteered to join an expedition led by Dr. Isaac Hayes that planned to reach the North Pole.
Hayes never responded. But at thirty-eight Hall cast his die, and the roll changed his life. Two weeks after printing his article, he sold his newspaper. He would form his own expedition and rescue the Franklin survivors. Despite having a wife, a young daughter, and a son on the way, Hall abandoned everything and directed all his energies toward reaching the Arctic.
Without money to outfit an expedition, Hall's dream languished while he planned and stuffed his mind with facts about the far North. He wrote, petitioned, and visited every influential per- son he could in Ohio, impressing Gov. Salmon P. Chase and Sen. George Pugh. While Hall was traveling to the East Coast, fortune linked him to Henry Grinnell, founder and first president of the American Geographical Society. A millionaire shipping and whaling magnate, Grinnell had retired to pursue his humanitarian interests, of which polar exploration ranked highest. Grinnell had privately funded a rescue expedition to find Franklin in 1849 after the United States refused to spend the money. In 1852 Grinnell funded a second exploration under Dr. Elisha Kent Kane.
When Capt. Francis McClintock of HMS Fox returned with evidence that Sir John Franklin had died and the Erebus and Terror had been lost, official enthusiasm for a rescue attempt ended. But Hall was undeterred. Many unanswered questions remained. Later he would write: "I felt convinced that survivors might yet be found."
However, securing passage to the Arctic did not go smoothly for the would-be explorer. While Hall negotiated with Capt. John Quayle for a ride, his nemesis, Dr. Isaac Hayes, stole his captain. With funding to expand on Dr. Kane's discoveries, Hayes no doubt hoped to find Franklin as well. Hall fumed for days over Hayes's action. "I spurn his TRICKERY--his DEVILTRY!!" he scratched venomously in his diary.
Finally, after fits and starts, opportunity struck. Hall wrangled a berth on the George Henry, a whaling bark heading north from New London, Connecticut. Using funds raised by his friends in Cincinnati, New York, and New London, Hall paid his passage and outfitted a small sailboat to explore the region in search of Franklin's lost men on a modest budget of $980. Grinnell donated $343, but most of the others gave only a few dollars. Pitifully, even Hall's wife donated $27 from her pinched household budget. The "New Franklin Research Expedition," an exalted name for Hall's one-man show, was on its way to the Arctic.
While little prospect existed that the Franklin party remained intact, persistent rumors still fanned hopes that survivors were living among the Eskimos. A fierce gale on the twenty-seventh of September 1860 changed Hall's plans. Whipping through the region, it sank and scattered the fleet with which Hall traveled. His own small craft wrecked, Hall was now on his own. Undaunted he commandeered a dogsled and headed inland.
Two and one half years later, he reappeared. Now a seasoned Arctic traveler, he had proved himself capable of surviving in the far North. His bundle of sketches, charts, and detailed notes also confirmed him as a capable explorer. The self-taught cartographer and explorer showed he had learned his skills well. Exploiting leads gleaned from the Inuit, he returned with solid evidence that he had found Sir Martin Frobisher's lost colony on Kodlunarn Island in Countess of Warwick Sound. Mining activity there proved to be the site of Frobisher's gold scraped from the frozen earth some 285 years before. Maps that Hall made during his travels proved highly accurate--so exact, in fact, that the world would have to wait until aerial photography to improve upon them.
Most important, Hall had made valuable contacts among the Inuit. Living among them, he adopted their methods with notable success, something other white men had failed to do. In turn, he had gained the trust and respect of several Inuit. Two gems in the rough returned with him, Ebierbing and Tookoolito. Called Joe and Hannah by white men, whose tongues stumbled over their Inuit names, the husband-and-wife team had already proved invaluable. Both spoke English, the result of a voyage to England in 1853. Tookoolito spoke fluently and could read some, making her useful as an interpreter. Ebierbing was a skilled pilot, well versed in the treacherous ways of the Arctic pack ice. Additionally both had "acquired many of the habits of civilization," Hall acknowledged. In fact, the two were celebrities in their own right. Both husband and wife had taken tea with Queen Victoria, and Tookoolito often wore European-style dresses.
Now incurably infected with the Arctic bug, Hall raised more money and lectured throughout the winter. Now that he was a proven success, funds and support flowed to him wherever he went. Come spring he raced back to the Arctic to take up where he had left off. While the country plunged into its bloody civil war, Hall fought his own battles with the cold, the darkness, and the isolation of the Arctic. In the following years both the United States and Hall emerged changed, hardened and focused by their trials yet resolved to move on.
On his second trip Hall found artifacts from the lost expedition. With the help of his Inuit friends, he gathered cups, spoons, and boxes abandoned by the doomed men. The engraved arrow of the Royal Navy on the items left no doubt about their ownership. On King William Island, he stumbled upon a skeleton partially hidden in the blowing snow. One of the teeth remaining in the bleached skull contained a curious metal plug. After some hand-wringing, Hall gathered up the bones and brought them back with him. Study of that dental work in England identified the remains as belonging to Lt. H. T. D. Le Vesconte of the Erebus.
That convinced Hall that all the men of the Franklin expedi- tion were dead. He could no longer help them. But now a fresh pas- sion drove him. Wandering among the desolate peaks, he saw his new destiny. He would be first to plant the American flag at the North Pole.
He now called himself an explorer.
Craftily Hall wrote the Senate of a gigantic whale struck in the Arctic Ocean by Captain Winslow of the whaling bark Tamerlane that yielded 310 barrels of oil. The profit from that whale alone reached twenty thousand dollars. Seven such whales would more than pay for the five years of exploration. Knowledge gained from an expedition led by him, he implied, could only improve America's whaling profits.
Lobbying, lecturing, pressing the flesh, Charles Francis Hall moved about the country preaching his quest for the Arctic grail. Wealth, fame, adventure, scientific exploration--he offered it all to anyone who would listen. He prowled the halls of Congress to advance his cause. Hall sought the ear of anyone with influence. Many listened carefully.
His burning desire and single-mindedness of purpose poured forth in all his speeches, moving his listeners. Hall was on a mission, and his passion to claim the North Pole for the United States rang with the same zeal as that of the long-dead abolitionist John Brown. In everything he did, Charles Francis Hall left no doubt in the minds of his listeners that reaching the North Pole meant more to him than his life.
Though not everyone was willing to pay such a price, the shimmering, shifting cap of ice covering the very top of the world has captured explorers' attentions from the first moment they realized the world was round. Between 1496 and 1857 no less than 134 voyages and expeditions probed the Arctic. During that time 257 volumes were published dealing with Arctic research. But that implacable white expanse would swallow many lives and fortunes before relinquishing its secrets.
After the philosophers' stone of the Middle Ages failed to materialize, the quest for the fabled Northwest Passage began. If it wasn't possible to transmute lead into gold, a shorter path to the precious metal was the next best option. Finding the quickest trade route from Europe to China and India promised untold riches to the lucky explorer who unlocked that door. For this reason incursions north, probing along the coast of North America, found ready backers. Merchants were always willing to risk their money rather than their lives for greater profit. Since Spain and Portugal regulated the southern routes to the East, occupying strategic stopping places and discouraging ships of other nations with a vengeance, many thought to venture north, presumably unfettered. If the Orient could be reached going south, surely a way through northern waters also existed.
Henry VIII gave letters of patent ordering John and Sebastian Cabot "to discover and conquer unknown lands" on their way sailing north to Cathay. Sir Hugh Willoughby, under the papers of the Muscovy Company of London, closely followed. While mistaking Newfoundland for the mainland of China, John Cabot sailed as far north as the Arctic Circle. The treacherous ice pack, however, seized Sir Hugh's ship and carried it southwest with the ocean's current. Eventually the vessel, its entire ship's company frozen to death, fetched up off the coast of Lapland.
From 1576 to 1578 Martin Frobisher explored for Henry's daughter, Elizabeth. He returned to England with piles of black ore, termed "witches' gold," that he found while exploring along the coast. Speculation that the material would yield gold ran rampant in the court, and Elizabeth herself funded Frobisher's other trips.
In 1610 Henry Hudson sailed into the expanse of water that now bears his name. Tricked by the sheer size of Hudson Bay, he believed it to be the Pacific Ocean and sailed south in search of China. The rapid onset of winter forced the expedition to lie near Southampton Island until spring. Nearly starving, his men mutinied. Henry Hudson, his son, one loyal ship's carpenter named John King, and a handful of scurvy-struck seamen were set adrift in an open boat. Perhaps the greatest navigator of his time then vanished forever in the gray waters. Those of his mutinous crew whom the Indians did not kill returned home. To save their necks from the hangman's rope, they diverted attention to their discovery of the "true route" to the Orient.
A flurry of activity followed. William Baffin sailed north in 1616 through the ice of Davis Strait to discover Baffin Bay. Turn- ing west along the bay, he encountered Lancaster Sound. Rising in the distance, the mass of Somerset Island convinced him that the sound was merely another of the endless bays that befuddled him. Sailing away, Baffin never realized he had found the true opening to the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Two hundred years later, Sir James Ross would make the same mistake. Enthusiasm for a Northwest Passage to Asia waned as each explorer returned empty-handed.
But a new treasure emerged--one unrelated to the Far East. Furs--the soft gold of lynx, seal, and sea otter hides--commanded lofty prices as fashions changed. In fact, at that time the Asians started buying. Yet only the bitterest winters cultivated the finest furs. That meant going north. In Alaska the Russian Trading Company decimated the sea otter population, along with the Aleut nation, in its ruthless quest for the animals buttery skins. In the Northwest the Hudson Bay Trading Company chose the more humane method of trade to amass its piles of furs. Wool blankets, metal knives, and cooking pots exchanged well for furs, and the natives remained friendly. British trading methods proved far more cost-effective than Russian subjugation. With peaceful commerce, much less money had to be spent on forts and soldiers, thus ensuring greater profit.
What took the most prodigious bite out of the profits was the arduous voyage around the tip of South America. Notorious for its stormy passage, the Horn claimed countless ships and thousands of tons of cargo. Sailing around Cape Horn was possible only during certain times of the year. A winter voyage was suicidal.
Once again pressure rose for a shorter route to bring the goods to market. A passage across the top of Canada would be ideal. In 1743 Parliament offered twenty thousand pounds as an incentive. The race resumed. But Captain George Vancouver's meticulous surveying along the northwest coast proved conclusively that no major waterway led from the Pacific side of the continent. If any way could be found to traverse the top of Canada to approach the West Coast, the Atlantic side held the key. Even if a ship could sail close enough to the Pacific to link with overland or river routes, it would be a great improvement. Thousands of sea miles would be eliminated.
Despite the cost of fighting the rebellious American colonies, the British Admiralty still could find money in its purse to offer prizes for Arctic exploration. Besides the reward for discovery of the passage, an additional twenty thousand pounds would go to the first to reach the North Pole and five thousand pounds to anyone who came within one degree of the magnetic pole. What once was a matter of commercial interest now evolved into one of national pride, involving the honor of the Royal Navy.
Enter one William Scoresby. While an enterprising and imaginative sailor, Scoresby did not have the privilege of naval rank. He made his living hunting whales. In the summer of 1806, he found himself facing a strange occurrence. The preceding winter had been unusually dry and warm. So had the spring. As a result the Greenland ice pack, which stands like a silent guardian, impeding all northern progress and preventing passage up both sides of Greenland, receded north instead of advancing across the open waters as it usually did.
Suddenly Scoresby found himself facing open water. Instead of lying to to await the southern migration of their less