The fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Expedition gives a valuable lesson in types of evidence.
by Brian Dunning
September 1, 2015
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1845 saw the departure of Sir John Franklin's fourth voyage to the Canadian Arctic, this time in pursuit of the British Admiralty's goal of completing a Northwest Passage across the top of Canada. When he left England with his two steam-powered three-masted ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, it was to be the last time any member of the expedition would see home. Two months later they encountered whaleships in Baffin Bay, and then no European ever again saw Franklin and his 128 companions alive. Whatever followed has been a mystery ever since, clarified by only the scarecest specks of occasional evidence, and clouded by scuttlebutt and speculation and tall tales and the darkest rumor of all: cannibalism. What can we know about the real fate of Franklin's lost expedition?
Two years after Franklin's departure, the Admiralty decided he was lost. Over the next decade, no fewer than thirty expeditions were launched in search of Franklin; only a few found anything at all. What eventually became clear was that all members of the expedition had perished, but the circumstances remained a mystery. This opened the door for all sorts of rumors and crazy claims.
In 1928, British naval officer and historian Rupert Gould wrote Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts in which he reported that several ships plying the Atlantic in 1851 spotted two ships embedded in an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland. According to the details that were visible, the ships were tentatively identified as the Terror and the Erebus. Could this have been the expedition's end? Or were starvation and cannibalism their ultimate fate?
There's still another hypothesis. Like all popular mysteries, the story of Franklin's lost expedition has been gilded with its very own conspiracy theory. Some say that Franklin was sent on the voyage to investigate a mysterious phenomenon, perhaps something like that which is believed by adherents to one of the Hollow Earth theories, that an alien race lives inside the Earth and comes and goes via great big holes at the North and South poles. When Franklin failed to return from his journey to investigate these giant holes, the British Admiralty decided to cover it up, and the expeditions sent to search for Franklin failed intentionally.
What evidence is there for this?
Well, none. None whatsoever. In fact, it is so comprehensively unevidenced that nobody even suggested it until author Jeffrey Blair Latta dreamed it up out of whole cloth for his 2001 book The Franklin Conspiracy: An Astonishing Solution to the Lost Arctic Expedition.
Speculation can only take us so far. Let's look instead at the evidence that does exist, scant though it may be, and see what we can learn. An early discovery in 1850 was an abandoned winter camp on Beechey Island with the graves of three Franklin crewmembers. Several search parties visited, but nothing there gave any hint of what became of the rest of the expedition. But over the ensuing years, more evidence was to be forthcoming, from much farther south.
Follow the Northwest Passage south from Beechey Island a few hundred kilometers and you will come to King William Island. It's a vast sheet of flat rock, scraped smooth by glacial action, 12,500 square kilometers of barren tundra dappled with uncountable melt ponds. Its western coast is waterfront property on the Northwest Passage. All along the island's western and southern coasts, at least 20 sites have given up artifacts from Franklin's party. Importantly, these artifacts included two notes placed inside a stone cairn by Franklin's party, a year apart. The first note revealed that they'd spent the winter of 1845-1846 at the Beechey Island camp, during which the three men in the graves died of tuberculosis.
That spring they continued their voyage south toward King William Island, until their ships became stuck in the ice at the end of 1846 off its coast. They spent the winter ashore, and left the first note in May of 1847, saying that all was well. But things would not stay well. Franklin himself died shortly thereafter, and the ice clung to the ships throughout the summer of 1847 and into the winter of 1848. At this point, the survivors decided to abandon them. They left the second note, saying that 24 men had died so far, and that they would take the small boats south along the coast of King William Island and head for the mouth of the Back River, the principal waterway into the safety of the Canadian mainland. This would be a journey of some 500 kilometers. And from that point on, from the date of that note in April of 1848, we have no documentary evidence of what became of the men, or whether they ever resorted to cannibalism, or what ultimately killed them.
So this brings us to what we learned from the search parties, from the 1850s and over the subsequent 150 years. In 1854, an expedition led by John Rae, chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, collected silverware and other various artifacts that had belonged to the crew, proving that they had indeed made it all the way around King William Island and had started down the Adelaide Peninsula toward the Back River. In 1859, a sledge party under Sir Francis McClintock found the cairn with the notes, skeletons at some of the coastal camps, as well as one small boat containing two skeletons and loaded with supplies abandoned at the western tip of King William Island. Many other expeditions found the camps and graves, as well as skeletal remains, but none past a certain point down the Adelaide Peninsula.
Modern forensics has also contributed to the picture. Beginning in the 1980s, Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie spent many years at the Franklin sites. His analysis of the corpses at Beechey Island showed high levels of lead poisoning, almost certainly from the lead solder used in their food tins, and the plumbing on board the HMS Terror and Erebus. Beattie and others have concluded that the lead levels were dangerous and likely weakened the men, perhaps making them more susceptible to tuberculosis and pneumonia, but was probably not sufficiently debilitating to have been the ultimate cause of death. No evidence ever suggested the men were affected by late-stage symptoms like dementia, for example.
Beattie's studies did find significant evidence of cannibalism, as have subsequent studies. Bones had tell-tale knife marks and some had also been boiled. Sadly this type of evidence was found at multiple sites, not just at one or two. It seemed that this darkest of rumors surrounding the Franklin expedition was all too true. But although evidence led us this far, it still didn't give a detailed history of the men's final months, or of exactly how far how many of them had made it.
But historians looking to reconstruct the fate of the Franklin expedition have one ace in their hand that investigators of other mysteries do not: eyewitnesses. When Franklin's party was in the Arctic, they were not alone. Inuit natives lived there, and interacted with the expedition on many occasions. While the Inuit did not have written histories in which they could have made records of use today, they did have oral histories. Clearly, oral histories are imperfect, as they are subject to many sources of distortion; but they are still useful as anecdotal evidence. The value of anecdotal evidence is often to suggest directions for additional research, and it turns out that that is precisely the role it has played in the search for Franklin.
Perhaps the best book on this exact subject is Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony by David Woodman. Rae, McClintock, and many other searches had all collected large amounts of testimony from Inuit on their expeditions. The Inuit histories provided many details, although often with somewhat ambiguous times and locations. An Intuit party had even boarded one of the two abandoned ships while it was still stuck fast out in the ice. Taken as a whole, the Inuit stories supported the tale told by the archaeological and documentary evidence. As men died along the route, and splinter parties broke off here and there, a core group of 35 to 40 men made it as far as a spot on the Adelaide Peninsula now called Starvation Cove. Here the last of the men died, using the flesh of their deceased comrades in a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save themselves.
Woodman's emphasis on Inuit oral histories has not been without criticism, which was the case with John Rae as well back in the 1850s. Rae, who lived among the Inuit, had learned to place a great deal of trust in their oral histories. One reviewer of Woodman's book wrote:
One bias, however, [Woodman] does stand by: in oral cultures, stories of fact (as distinct from myths), however old and told at however many removes, possess kernels of truth. They may be imbricated by cultural biases... Aspects of some individuals' stories must be dismissed as unreliable.
There's one quote given by Woodman in his book that I think bears a special mention, and it's this, in reference to his reconstructed timeline of the Franklin party:
Analysis of the wreck, and the artifacts within, will certainly disclose other errors in the reconstruction presented here, and force major revisions. I welcome this. No one is more aware than I that the current fragmentary state of evidence makes it possible to construct competing narratives of equal probability, and that the one presented in this book is simply my best, imperfect effort. New evidence of any kind will reduce the number of possibilities and hopefully lead to a fuller understanding.
Woodman's attitude is the very heart of science-based investigation. Just because we don't know something doesn't mean that it's unknowable, nor does it mean that we don't have a pretty good idea. And when we do have a pretty good idea, we must always welcome improvement and correction. By this process we can be assured that our current theories are as good as we're able to make them, and will almost certainly get even better.
In 2014, the wreck of the Erebus was found on the seafloor near where the crew abandoned it in the ice. It was the biggest and most solid piece of evidence yet supporting the currently accepted timeline. But like all the evidence in this case, it doesn't tell us much by itself. We need a combination of physical, documentary, and even anecdotal evidence to get even a nearly-complete picture. Franklin's lost expedition provides an elegant example of the value of all types of evidence.
Update: In September 2016, the wreck of the HMS Terror was also found. Like that of the Erebus, it was near enough to where it would have been expected to be if the accepted timeline were true. - BD
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Franklin's Cannibals." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
1 Sep 2015. Web.
3 Dec 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4482>
References & Further Reading
Beattie, O., Geiger, J. Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. New York: MJF Books/Fine Communications, 2007.
Kylie, A. "It's Erebus!" 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition. Canadian Geographic, 4 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Aug. 2015. <http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/franklin-expedition/pm-reveals-identify-of-found-franklin-ship-article.asp>
Millar, K., Bowman, A., Battersby, W. "A re-analysis of the supposed role of lead poisoning in Sir John Franklin's last expedition." Polar Record. 1 May 2015, Volume 51, Issue 03: 224-238.
NOVA. "The Note in the Cairn." Arctic Passage. Public Broadcasting Service, 1 Feb. 2006. Web. 28 Aug. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/arctic/note-transcript.html>
Owen, D., Potter, R. "Review: The Franklin Conspiracy." The Fate of Franklin. Rhode Island College, 5 Jul. 2010. Web. 24 Aug. 2015. <http://www.ric.edu/faculty/rpotter/owen_latta.html>
Woodman, D. Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.
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