Monday, December 9, 2013

The Boat

It's probably the best-known symbol of the failure of the Franklin expedition -- the whaleboat, loaded with all manner of material that added to its weight, drawn upon an enormous sledge with iron runners -- which some party of survivors dragged to their doom. McClintock described this "melancholy relic" in great detail:
"A large boat, measuring 28 ft. in extreme length, 7ft. 3 in. in breadth, 2 ft. 4 in. in depth. The markings on her stem were —" XXI. W. Con. N61., Apr. 184." It appears that the fore part of the stem has been cut away, probably to reduce weight, and part of the letters and figures removed. An oak sledge under the boat, 23 ft. 4 in. long, and 2 ft. wide; 6 paddles, about 60 fathoms of deep-sea lead line, ammunition, 4 cakes of navy chocolate, shoemaker's box with implements complete, small quantities of tobacco, a small pair of very stout shooting boots, a pair of very heavy iron-shod knee boots, carpet boots, sea boots and shoes—in all seven or eight pairs; two rolls of sheet lead, elm tingles for repairing the boat, nails of various sizes for boat, and sledge irons, three small axes, a broken saw, leather cover of a sextant case, a chaincable punch, silk handkerchiefs (black, white, and coloured), towels, sponge, tooth-brush, hair comb, a macintosh, gun cover (marked in paint "A.12"), twine, files, knives; a small worsted-work slipper, lined with calfskin, bound with red riband; a great quantity of clothing, and a wolfskin robe; part of a boat's sail of No. 8 canvas, whale-line rope with yellow mark, and white line with red mark; 24 iron stanchions, 9 inches high, for supporting a weather cloth round the boat; a stanchion for supporting a ridge pole at a height of 3 ft. 9 inches above the gunwale."
But that was far from all. Most poignant, perhaps, were the books -- those chosen from the shipboard library as worthy of hauling onwards -- and the silver plate, originally that of the officers, which had apparently been distributed to the sailors:
Five or six small books were found, all of them scriptural or devotional works, except the Vicar of Wakefield. One little book, Christian Melodies, bore an inscription upon the title-page from the donor to G. G. (Graham Gore). A small Bible contained numerous marginal notes, and whole passages underlined. Besides these books, the covers of a New Testament and Prayer-book were also found.
And, scattered amidst the rest, a flood of miscellaneous items:
"Amongst an amazing quantity of clothing there were seven or eight pairs of boots of various kinds—cloth winter boots, sea boots, heavy ankle boots, and strong shoes. I noted that there were silk handkerchiefs—black, white, and figured—towels, soap, sponge, tooth-brush, and hair-combs; Mackintosh gun-cover, marked outside with paint A 12, and lined with black cloth. Besides these articles we found twine, nails, saws, files, bristles, waxends, sail-makers' palms, powder, bullets, shot, cartridges, wads, leather cartridge-case, knives—clasp and dinner ones, needle and thread cases, slowmatch, several bayonet scabbards, cut down into knife sheaths, two rolls of sheet-lead, and, in short, a quantity of articles of one description and another truly astonishing in variety, and such as, for the most part, modern sledge travellers in these regions would consider a mere accumulation of dead weight, of little use, and very likely to break down the strength of the sledge crews. The only provisions we could find were tea and chocolate; of the former very little remained, but there were nearly 40 lbs. of the latter. These articles alone could never support life in such a climate, and we found neither biscuit nor meat of any kind. A portion of tobacco, and an empty pemmican tin, capable of containing 22 lbs. weight, were discovered. The tin was marked with an E; it had probably belonged to the 'Erebus.'" (italics mine)
The sheer quantity of material spoke of men, who, in their last necessity, had been unwilling to part with personal items or material that would be of little practical use on land. And then, as McClintock wrote,
"All these were after observations; there was that in the boat which transfixed us with awe. It was portions of two human skeletons. One was that of a slight young person, the other of a large, strongly-made middle-aged man. The former was found in the bow of the boat, but in too much disturbed a state to allow Hobson (McClintok's lieutenant, who'd found the boat first) to judge whether the sufferer had died there; large and powerful animals, probably wolves, had destroyed much of the skeleton, which may have been that of an officer ... the other skeleton was in a somewhat more perfect state, and was enveloped with clothes and furs; it lay across the boat, under the after-thwart."
In a footnote, McClintock notes that -- contrary to period engravings such as the one above -- "No part of the skull of either skeleton was found, with the exception of the lower jaw of each."

Today, the enigma of this boat -- why it was pointed back toward the ships and not to the Fish River, why it was so overloaded with useless materials, and who its last defenders had been -- is one of the most fascinating puzzles of the larger Franklin mystery. One can, though, thanks to the National Maritime Museum, search one's self and find nearly all of the relics described above.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Franklin Cards

I've written before about the marvelous creations of graphic artist Ron Toelke -- his miniature can of Goldner's Ox-Cheek soup, and the portrait series "Sorrower on the Sea of Doubt," based on Richard Beard's haunting portraits made on the eve of Sir John Franklin's departure for the Arctic in May of 1845. Toelke has a gift for combining graphical elements taken from period books and newspapers with shapes and forms that give these images a figurative -- and sometimes literal -- third dimension of sorts. They are as delightful to the hand as they are to the eye, and this has never been more so than with his latest undertaking, the "Playing Cards of Conjecture and Speculation" featuring texts and images from Franklin's expedition.

The cards come in a box, as shown above, which includes a small side-compartment featuring Arrowsmith's charts of the area of the central Arctic into which Franklin was sailing; Franklin's directions from the Lords of the Admiralty are also included on a folded paper. The cards themselves are  drawn from several sources; the court cards depict Franklin and his men, based on Beard's Daguerreotypes; the number cards contain excerpts from an 1852 book entitled "Sir John Franklin and the Arctic Regions: With Detailed Notices of the Expeditions in Search of the Missing Vessels Under Sir John Franklin, by P.L. Simmonds, Many Years' Editor of the Colonial Magazine, etc. etc. To Which is Added and account of the American Expedition Under the Patronage of Henry Grinnell, Esq." This volume, the work of one Peter Lund Simmonds, a prolific author whose works included
The Curiosities of Food, Hops, their Cultivation and Use, and Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances, was an ambitious digest of the Franklin search to date, published to coincide with the news brought back by the first Grinnell expedition. The section of the book from which Mr. Toelke took his texts is aptly entitled "Opinions and Suggestions." Speculation about Franklin's fate was rampant then -- and indeed, it is rampant still; the title of this set evokes the card game known as "Speculation," which was popular in Jane Austen's day. One could, if one chose, aptly play that game with these cards, with the added feature that every card discloses another detail or conjecture about the disposition of Franklin's men.

N.B. Although Simmond's 1852 book doesn't appear to be available online, a revised and updated version, published to coincide with the British Arctic expedition of George Strong Nares, is available at

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


There's been plenty of speculation -- and disagreement -- over the possible role of internecine conflict among Inuit bands in the fate of the Franklin expedition. There certainly does seem to be evidence that, by the early 1860's if not somewhat earlier, a particular band of Netsilingmiut were acting aggressively toward neighboring bands, scaring away many members of (for instance) the Utjulingmiut, and raising such fear that Hall's guide Ebierbing at first refused to conduct him further into the more westerly areas. This hostility may well have originated, I suspect, with the conflict over the enormous wealth that even a single Franklin vessel would have represented to the Inuit, in terms of metal, wood, and other useful items.

But there is another possibility: conflict between Inuit and the more southerly sub-Arctic tribes that they called the "Itqilit" (a word Hall mis-transcribed many ways, most often as "Et-ker-lin"). The animosity between Inuit and their southerly sub-Arctic neighbors was of great age and well-known -- Hearne witnessed an example of it firsthand at the Bloody Falls -- and pervasive. It's also possible the these sub-Arctic tribes had conflicts with some of Franklin's men who wandered into their hunting areas; indeed, there are a several stories in Nourse's edition of Hall's second expedition narrative in which Inuit described an attack on Franklin's men by "Et-ker-lin." In one story, "Aglooka" is said to have gotten a cut on his face during such an attack. These stories are somewhat vague, and are tied up with the problematic second-hand evidence offered via "the cousin" (Too-shoo-art-thariu) so I'm not sure how much faith can be put in them -- but still, they are suggestive. There's even an account, written by Hall at the end of his second expedition, which suggests that he believed that the last two survivors -- "Aglooka" and one other man -- may have been murdered while trekking down the western shores of Hudson's bay by Et-ker-lin. Could Franklin survivors have been mistaken for Inuit by hostile neighbors? David Woodman has shown that it's quite possible that small  groups of Franklin's men were mistaken for Itqilit by Inuit; certainly the reverse is possible.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How to search for Franklin

In the wake of the disappointing results of this year's Park's Canada search for traces of Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition, it seems timely to reflect on how this effort has been directed over the past several years, whether it's worth continuing, and how it might be done better. None of this is meant to reflect badly on Parks Canada, whose team, led on Ryan Harris, did exemplary work scanning the sea-bed and covered a larger area than in any previous year. The land search, alas, co-ordinated by Doug Stenton and the Nunavut government, was far less effectual; this time, we didn't even find a toothbrush, only a couple of scraps of cloth and an Inuit cache of metal pieces; instead of searching significant, known sites that haven't been examined before, they looked again at Erebus Bay, probably the most combed-over area on King William Island.

Some have argued that all this searching is just a colossal waste of public funds, a search for quite possibly long-destroyed shipwrecks that takes resources away from where the Inuit and other people in Canada's north most need them -- for housing, healthcare, drug treatment, education, and other areas. Others have argued that, though worthwhile, the search would be far better conducted by private parties rather than by the government. The internal kickbacks between Parks Canada and the CBC certainly didn't help matters.

So I thought I'd outline a few ways that next year's search -- if there is one -- could be made more likely to succeed, performed at a lower cost, and take fewer resources from either Federal Canadian agencies or the budget of the Government of Nunavut.

1) The search for the ships, if continued, can and should be conducted by private parties working in co-ordination with Parks Canada. There have been a number of outfits who have proposed their own side-scan sonar searches in the past, many of whom have had their permits denied. The search for the ships is a matter of covering a larger area; more scans mean more area covered and more chances of success. It would not be difficult to co-ordinate searches, and having just one additional private support vessel, and boats to tow the sonar, would immediately double the area that could be covered in a season.

2) The land search should be concentrated on yet-unsearched areas known to contain human and other remains. The graves near the Todd Islets have been known about for decades, and Gjoa Haven resident Louie Kamookak has taken numerous parties to see them. They are likely the remains of the very last survivors of one party of Franklin's men, and may contain other kinds of artifacts  that would give us clues as to the expedition's final fate. This is a land site easily suppoted by skidoo or ATV from Gjoa Haven, and one very likely to produce valuable finds.

3) Satellite telemetry should be explored as an avenue for narrowing the search area. There are satellites today which can map underwater features, and with ice in retreat, even a high-resolution visual spectrum scan could reveal valuable clues. The cost of obtaining this data would be far less that simply methodically tracking back-and-forth over the whole search area; it could identify potential targets or help eliminate some area.

4) Involve not just archaeologists, not just government staff, but other experts on Franklin's expedition in the search. Dave Woodman should be invited to participate, and there should be Inuit elders and historians from the area as well. I can't think of a better outcome than that of a significant find being made by a team that included Inuit and qallunaat searchers.

5) Instead of spending vast sums of government money, use the limited resources available to speed up and assist with the permitting process. Right now, Doug Stenton routinely turns down requests for private searches based solely on their lack of having accredited archaeological staff on the team; why not instead help arrange for such archaeologists to join the team? Offer ground support and other services through local Inuit hamlets? Welcome rather than reject private searchers? All could be required to report any findings and secure significant discoveries for a government team to examine further.

I don't know if any of these suggestions will be pursued -- experience suggests that they won't -- but if they aren't, the search for Franklin's fate is in all probability going to take longer. And if it stretches on for too many more years, the public support and interest are almost sure to wane.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Wax Figure of Dr. Kane

Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, the intrepid American Arctic explorer, enjoyed tremendous fame in his day; he was celebrated in moving panoramas, depicted in medallions, and his accounts of his expeditions were runaway best-sellers. This wax relief is one of the more unusual -- and seldom-seen -- portraits of Dr. Kane; preserved in the archives of the United States Naval Academy, it resembles and may have been based on the popular CDV image by Matthew Brady (although if so, it's reversed). It's possible that it was made for use in a medallion or plaque (it's just 8 3/4 by 6 3/4 inches in size).

On his death in 1857 in Havana, Cuba -- where he had gone in a futile attempt to recover his health -- his remains were returned by steam-ship, and his  funeral train journey was the longest in American history to date (exceeded only by Lincoln's in 1865). His body was returned to Philadelphia and given an elaborate processional funeral, and he was laid to rest in the family fault at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Erebus Bay Sites

With the news that this year's Parks Canada archaeological work will include both water and land searches, and that the land search will be concentrated around Erebus Bay, I thought I'd share this page from the 1995 report on NgLj-2, the site from which numerous skeletal remains and hundreds of physical artifacts were removed for study. Personally, I feel this area is already fairly-well scoured; last year's highlight -- a toothbrush -- may have shed some light on 19th-century dental hygiene, but not much on the fate of Franklin's men. A far more promising site would be the Todd Islets, where we know that the very last members of one group of Franklin survivors stopped and went no further/

Still, I understand the logistics of such a search -- having the support of research vessels and so forth in accessing remote sites is certainly important! -- so I have a few suggestions.  First off, how about NgLj-3? Two skulls, a knee-brace, and a human femur visible on the surface indicate graves which, as the report notes, may well be of Franklin's men.  The skulls were missing much of their facial portions, so positive identification of them as Caucasoid wasn't possible -- but today, using other techniques it may be possible to say more. That these bodies were at least given something of a burial suggests that they may have died before the final extremities, and the graves may contain other useful materials laid to rest with the men.

NgLj-4 might also be worth a look -- two pieces of copper found there are promising indicators of the presence of men, and perhaps ships, nearby.

I wish the Parks Canada archaeologists all the best -- we all hope they will find things of significance! --  and the land, like the water, may yet have some secrets to disclose.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Repost: The Engines of "Erebus" and Terror"

As is well-known, HMSS "Erebus" and "Terror" were both outfitted with ex-railway engines connected to screw propellors. And yet behind that general fact lies a host of detail, including slight variations between the two engines which would, without doubt, enable any searchers to distinguish the wreck of one ship from the other.

With deepest thanks to the fruits of a long-ago correspondence with British railway expert Michael R. Bailey, I thought I'd set out the basic facts, should anyone -- Parks Canada or others -- actually have the chance to recover either engine. As it happens, both were of the "Planet" type originally developed by Robert Stephenson & Co. As Michael describes it, "HMS 'Terror' had a four-coupled (0-4-0) version (strictly a 'Samson' type) built by Robert Stephenson & Co., which was used on the London & Birmingham Railway as a contractor's engine from about 1835 until sold to the Royal Navy in 1845." HMS "Erebus," on the other hand, was fitted with a 2-2-0 "Planet" (see illustration above), but not one built by Stephenson; it was rather a copy produced by the firm of Marshalls of Wednesbury for the London & Greenwich Railway in 1836. Both engines had seen about a decade of service, and were in a sense being "retired" in order to reduce older rolling stock. While they were of closely similar types, the array of the axles, as well as (Michael's note) "the variation in the height of the axleboxes" would enable them to be readily distinguished.

But what sort of shape would these engines be in after more than 160 years? Michael, whose experience is founded upon his work with "Operation Iron Horse," which involved recovering engines from an 1857 shipwreck off the coast of the Hebrides, is confident:
"The components on the 'Terror' and 'Erebus' should all be in good condition in the absence of oxygen. Wrought iron lasts well, unlike steel. The non-ferrous components should be largely unaffected. Their timber outer frames were clad on both sides by wrought iron plates. The plates should still be ok, but the timber may have gone. The condition of the ships' and locomotives will, of course, be quite dependent upon the prevailing sea conditions...... You will know well I'm sure, that iron-work etc. attracts marine life which attaches itself and builds up over the years and can distort the appearance. The main difficulty with the 'Iron Horse' expedition has been that all components have been 'buried' in a large lump of concretion (concreted crustations) and would be quite un-recognisable toa sonar scanner. The divers have had to chip away the concretion with pick to release each component, which is why it has all taken so long. However, it is likely that the crustations have been present because Scotland is on t he receiving end of the 'Gulf-stream' and is thus 'warm-water', and hence very different from King William Island."
So far, the engines have eluded all attempts at finding them. David Woodman spent a great deal of time and energy hauling a magnetometer over the seasonal ice in areas where Inuit testimony indicated one of the ships had been anchored, in hopes that either engine would produce a notable magnetic "signature" -- but all of the the targets he identified turned out to be large rocks and other natural phenomena. I don't know whether Parks Canada has or will employ similar techniques this season, but I do hope that, if they do find something, they're able to call upon the expertise of someone like Michael Bailey.

NB: Since this post, more detailed and accurate information has been developed by Peter Carney, and is given in some detail at the Building Terror blog.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Comfort Cove

The writer of the so-called "Peglar Papers" -- a cache of personal documents and letters found with the remains of one of the ships' stewards -- spoke of "the grave at Comfort Cove" (well, actually, as he preferred to write backwards, he spoke of "eht evarg ta Trofmoc Evoc"). A person of great importance was buried there, possibly Franklin or Crozier or one of the other officers. The name was borrowed, with what seems to us some irony, from the "Comfort Cove"on Ascension Island, which featured a graveyard adjacent to an isolated quarantine camp -- a site since re-dubbed more accurately as "Comfortless Cove." You can see images of it online, and they suggest not so much a place of refuge as one of (final) rest.

But where could this place be? No maps survive among the scraps of paper remaining to us, so it's impossible to know what names Franklin's men assigned to various land or water features. Still, if Franklin himself was buried there, then it must have been established by 11 June 1847. It must have been close enough to the ships that several parties -- those who were to dig the grave, and those who were to preside at and attend the funeral ceremony -- could reach the site. With "Erebus" and "Terror" still some distance NW of King William, this suggests a site nearer to Cape Felix than to Victory Point. I've been discussing this puzzle with Glenn M. Stein and others, and it seems to me one of those things that might best be solved by more heads than two. So let's have at it -- you can get a variety of free maps and satellite images from GeoGratis or (better yet) zoom in on Rupert Thomas Gould's invaluable Franklin search map of KWI from 1927; you can also look at the maps and reports prepared by David C. Woodman on his many search expeditions. What says the wisdom of the crowds?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Weird and Tragic Grave

As some have pointed out, there is of course one other unquestionably authentic photograph of Charles Francis Hall -- the one taken at his exhumation by my late friend Chauncey Loomis. I suppose it's possible that the information in this image could be used to help sort out the photos -- but in any case, what's striking here is how much less well-preserved Hall's body appears to be than those of John Torrington and his companions -- why? A map of the average annual precipitation in Greenland offers one hint: "Thank God Harbor" turns out to be one of the driest places in Greenland. What I think we see with Hall's body here is that it was essentially mummified -- the water in the coffin is what was left over from hot water used to thaw the ice. In all probability, this and the colder temperatures mean that Hall's remains were better preserved than those of Torrington -- if you look at Torrington's autopsy report, you'll see that although he looked lively on the outside, most of his internal tissues had more or less dissolved due to cell autolysis.

But this remains a haunting image, and one not available outside of a first edition of Loomis's book (and then only in black-and-white). If you look closely, you can see that something of his beard remains. It's also surprising that he was buried in an American flag -- this would definitely not be the right naval or military protocol, but then again "Captain" Hall and his crew were none of them members of any organized navy.

The other question that invariably comes up with Hall's grave is whether he was poisoned, and by whom. I believe that a very strong circumstantial case exists that he was deliberately poisoned with large doses of arsenic, probably by the ship's surgeon Dr. Emil Bessels. Loomis removed tissue samples from Hall's body, and they tested positive for arsenic, but Chauncey was always reluctant to state the case too strongly. Bessels, one of the more notorious scoundrels in the annals of Arctic exploration, had many bad qualities even if one presumes him innocent of murder -- among other things, he seems to have stolen the ships' log and Hall's own diary; neither were accounted for at the time of the inquest into the death of Hall, and yet some small sections of them were published, in German, after Bessels's return to Germany (he was evicted from his office at the Smithsonian to make way for a toilet -- a definite improvement!). Perhaps someday these documents will re-surface, and we'll know more; until then, Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores remains the best account we have, and one of the finest books ever written about Arctic exploration. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Second photo of Charles Francis Hall?

Among his other peculiar qualities, the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall has always been "monophotographic"-- that is, a man of whom only one photograph exists. This photograph was the basis for all the engraved portraits of Hall in the books and newspapers of the day, one of which is reproduced as the right-hand image above. But who is the man in the image on the left? The resemblance is striking, although his eyes seem to protrude a bit more, his beard is a tad shorter, and his nose somewhat more elongated. Still the resemblance is close enough that the Library of Congress has suggested that the Daguerreotype of which this photo is a crop may possibly be Charles Francis Hall.

If it is Hall, then perhaps there's some dimension of his life we know little about -- as the man in the Dag is wearing quite a theatrical costume, prompting the archival description "Unidentified man, three-quarter length portrait, three-quarters to the right, seated, with arm over back of chair, hand to cheek, with full beard, wearing jacket with elaborate trimming." Perhaps he joined in some amateur theatricals while in New York lobbying for backing for his expeditions? Or might this be from back in Cincinnati? The Daguerreotypes process had long faded from popularity by the 1860's when Hall rose to fame; it would be unusual to see it used for a formal portrait at or after that time. The image is attributed to Matthew Brady, but by the time of Hall's emergence on the national stage, Brady had switched to using Ambrotypes, as with this one of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane. More research is clearly required before we can say for sure, but I'm a bit doubtful.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The "Other" Franklin Record

The original Franklin record left near "Victory Point" on King William Island in 1848 is quite well-known, and has been discussed at length here and elsewhere. Far less common is any mention at all of the other official Admiralty form, very similar in every respect (save the fateful addendum in the margins) to its brother. Both records were filled out by James Fitzjames aboard HMS Erebus, and both repeated the same mistakes (the longitude given for Beechey Island is too far to the east by several miles, and the year of the ships' wintering there is misstated as 1846-47 rather than 1845-46). The other record was recovered at what became known as "Gore Point," the tip of the peninsula that forms the western side of Collinson Inlet. The location is consistent with the idea of Gore and Des Voeux having commanded a party sent out to survey the western coast of King William Island, with the presumed goal of reaching Simpson's cairn on the shores of Washington Bay; such a party would have skirted the coast, taking advantage of the still land-fast new ice for smooth travel. On the Gore Point record, the only significant difference is that the phrase "All Well" was not underlined.

So, at first glance, this second record adds little to our understanding. And yet, having been deposited just 8 miles -- possibly one day's march -- south of the VP record, it strongly suggests that Gore had been instructed to leave a record frequently, perhaps daily, on his southward trek. One might reasonably expect, then, several other such records were left along the coast, and might yet be recovered. The most important of these, of course, would have been at Simpson's cairn, but since by the time McClintock reached it, it had been opened, this record will probably never be recovered (the attractive part of it, from the Inuit point of view, would have been the metal cylinder, which could be re-purposed for all manner of useful things). But would certainly be worth looking for the others -- a surviving record would be far more significant than, say, a toothbrush.

It is tantalizing to think of Gore's possible achievement of the long-sought dream of linking the eastern and western surveys of the Northwest Passage -- it seems hard to imagine he would have missed his goal. We know that he returned alive to the ships, as his promotion to Commander must surely have taken place on the death of Franklin, at which time Fitzjames would have been acting Captain of the Erebus, and Gore presumably promoted to acting Commander. The idea that he would have been promoted for finding Simpson's cairn, however, has less to recommend it; such field promotions were exceedingly rare in the Navy outside of battle situations.  And, alas, since Firzjames refers to him in the VP record as the "late" Commander Gore, he must have died at some point between his return to the ships and the depositing of the 1848 record.

So was a Passage then undiscovered? Not necessarily, since as they passed along their weary and ultimately fatal retreat, Franklin's men encountered the Inuit at Washington Bay, and the presence of human remains further along the southward-tending and southern coast indicates that they must all have reached and passed the location of Simpson's cairn. In so doing, they indeed 'forged the last link with their lives.'

[With thanks to Garth Walpole for tracking down Cyriax's article on the KWI records]

Monday, May 27, 2013

Arctic Message Balloons

Inspired by a recent post on Andés Paredes Salvador's blog on the strange tale of a balloon found in an English Garden, I've been doing a bit more research on the question of these balloons, their use, and the effect they had on the imagination of ordinary people back home in Britain.

Hydrogen and hot-air balloons had been around since the eighteenth century, and had been employed for all manner of purposes: humans went up in them, mail was first delivered using them in 1789, and inventors sought, by attaching sails and wings, to control their direction and speed. But the idea of using an unmanned balloon to carry a message seems to have originated in the Franklin search era; the ships of Austin's squadron were equipped with specially-made ones manufactured by George Shepherd (see package above), along with printing presses and strips of silk for making the messages colorful and light. The design even included a fuse which, as it burned, would release a message periodically to drift down to the ice below.

Back home in England, though, news of these balloons clearly sparked the public's imagination. For instance, among the many non-credible but nevertheless amusing letters sent to Lady Jane Franklin, there was this curious missive from February of 1850:
My lady, I have took the liberty of thus a-Dressing you with a Line through whose hands I hope will forwar to you this remarkable dream which I have often found too true . . . I saw in my dream 2 air Bloons a great distance off rising just liek the moon -- I said in my dreams to myself There's Sir. J. Franklend ...
The Gloucester balloon, "found" in a garden in October of 1851, at least had concrete form: there was a balloon, that much could not be doubted. Still, it was an odd discovery: the balloon did not show signs of having travelled thousands of miles; the "gas" in it was said to have a "foul odor" (neither hydrogen nor coal-gas has an odor, though other chemicals are added to the latter to make its detection easier); the balloon itself seemed to be of Shepherd's design, which would suggest that if Franklin's men had sent it, they must have found and re-inflated one of those sent from Austin's ships. Or, if a hoax, it must have been one retained by Shepherd, or one of the four he presented to others: one to the president of the Civil Engineers' Society, one to the Royal Society, and two to Lady Franklin. Could her Ladyship have had an interest in the hoax? It certainly seems unlikely.

What is less well-known is that Sir John Franklin's expedition came very close to being supplied with similar balloons. According to his son, Robert Baden-Powell, Professor Baden Powell of Oxford had recommended that hydrogen balloons be taken by Franklin; there is apparently a letter in which the Professor expressed his regret that this plan was not adopted.

As to the message in the balloon found in the garden -- "Erebus, 112 W, Long, 71 deg. N. Lat. September, 3, 1851. Blocked in" -- it at least makes it clear that the whole thing was a hoax, since the co-ordinates are in the midst of Victoria Land at a site with no connection to the sea, and HMS "Erebus" could not possibly have been stranded there. However, as W. Gillies Ross points out in his definitive essay on this balloon in the Polar Record, the location -- though vague -- is within the area that Dr. Rae had suggested "Erebus" and "Terror" would most likely be found, and so conceivably was chosen by someone hoping to direct searchers to this area.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Brains for Dinner

Those who have, over the years, expressed strong skepticism over the possibility of members of the Franklin expedition indulging in cannibalism take note: here is evidence, once more, of the fact that in the most desperate mad horrific of times, English people would east English people. It's a testimony to the ability of forensic science to re-construct and understand the acts of people who, on the edge of their own annihilation, reached for the "last resource" -- the bodies of their own dead. One should emphasize that, in both the case of Franklin's men and the Jamestown settlers, we have no indication that anyone actively sought to kill anyone else for the purpose of eating them. But, once dead, it's clear that human remains, and the promise of survival, however slender, that they offered, were irresistible to their comrades in the depths of despair and hunger.

Cut marks are again the key clue. In the skull of the teenage, upper-class 14-15-year-old dubbed "Jane" by those who studied the remains, the evidence is grisly. Clearly, whoever was seeking nutriment from this skull did not know how to go about doing so; there were three axe-blows on the side of the head, and three more severe ones at the back on the cranium, before the skull was actually split; this was followed by the use of a crowbar to break the shattered skull open. There are also a number of lighter cut-marks, probably produced by a knife rather than an axe, which indicate prior or further attempts to deflesh the skull; it is these cut-marks which are most similar to those seen on Franklin remains. Collectively, they tell of the attempts of a person unacquainted with butchery to butcher a fellow human being.

Brains of other animals were eaten by English folk of the Jamestown era -- indeed, their overall diet back home would have had its share of organ meats, intestines, and other animal parts far less commonly eaten by humans today. So their desperation had, in a sense, a goal perhaps less grotesque to the Jamestown settlers than to us today.

There are a number of resources and news stories online today about this finding -- the Smithsonian's site has the best, including an article in Smithsonian Magazine, as well as this video with the lead investigators, which also shows the reconstructed head of "Jane." From the content of her teeth, she seems to have enjoyed a higher-protein diet, which makes it more likely that she was one of the upper classes and not a servant.

No one likes to imagine cannibalism.  But no one should think that, in the worst of circumstances, people of any culture or nationality are immune to it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Arctic Visions in New Bedford

This Friday, April 26th, at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, a new exhibition of Arctic art and imagery unlike any other has its opening day. Entitled Arctic Visions: Away Then Floats the Ice-Island, it documents not only the views of Arctic scenes painted by William Bradford, but the magnificent photographs taken by the photographers George P. Critcherson and John Dunmore, who accompanied Bradford on his Arctic voyages, most importantly that aboard the "Panther" in 1869, from which the view shown above was taken. Working in challenging circumstances taking wet-plate photographs on glass and using a shipboard darkroom, these two photographers worked visual miracles. On their return, their negatives were used for a number of purposes: first, as part of a series of magic lantern lectures, narrated by Bradford and others, second, as the basis for many of Bradford's paintings and a viewbook for possible new commissions (Queen Victoria chose one that way), and finally as albumen prints, most notably used as illustrations for the magisterial, "imperial folio" volume The Arctic Regions, arguably the first, finest -- and rarest -- volumes about the Arctic ever to be illustrated with photographs.

This new exhibit offers many different ways to see all three of these uses of these pioneering photographs. An original copy of The Arctic Regions will be on display, along with touch-screen version that museum-goers can page through. Working with Boston fine-art publisher David R. Godine, the museum has republished this remarkable volume; although the format is smaller (relatively speaking!) most of the photographs are reproduced at larger than their original size. Copies of this book, for which I've written a new introduction, will be available at the Museum.

Nearby, one can view some of the original glass plate negatives, as well as albumen prints, along with several Bradford canvasses based on these same views, alongside his magisterial "Sealers Crushed by Icebergs." The lantern shows -- which eventually evolved into a series known as "The Bradford Recitals," have been be re-created with their original narration. And, to set these images in their context, there will be a rich array of polar artifacts, Inuit clothing and boat models, and even a desk -- the companion of that in the Oval Office -- made from the timbers of the Arctic search ship HMS "Resolute," and given by Queen Victoria to Henry Grinnell, sponsor of two key Arctic expeditions in the 1850's.

The concurrent exhibition "Following the Panther: Arctic Photographs of Rena Bass-Forman," showcases the work of contemporary artist Rena Bass-Forman who, inspired by Bradford's voyage, retraced Bradford's footsteps in the land of ice and stone, photographing many of these same sites as the now appear.

If you can, try to make it to the grand opening this Friday at 5 p.m. -- to mark the occasion, there will be an Arctic lantern lecture by the incomparable Terry Borton of the American Magic Lantern Theater -- and of course there will be the exhibit itself, one not to be missed!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Franklin and Scurvy

When I went up to Nunavut to participate in the ITN/NOVA program "Arctic Passage," the only other specialist the producers brought was a physician who was an expert in scurvy. And this of course made perfect sense -- after all, wasn't scurvy one of the unholy trinity (the others being lead-poisoning and cannibalism) that everyone assumed played at least some role in the demise of Franklin's men?

Well, now comes a team of osteoarchaeologists with a paper that takes a skeptical look at this assumption. The bones examined included the Greenwich skeleton (previously thought to be that of Le Vesconte) along with small numbers of bones found at Erebus Bay and Booth Point by Owen Beattie. The largest set of bones studied in modern times, those brought back from Ng-Lj-2 by Anne Keenleyside, have since been re-interred and were thus not available for direct study; here, they just examined images and data from the previous study.

I'm no specialist, but the basic gist of what they were looking for is fairly straightforward: The presence  of damage or lesions on the bone suggestive either of haemorrhage or of bone that healed imperfectly or not at all after injury. Since scurvy inhibits bone growth and repair, either one would be evidence of its presence, while the absence of such damage, or the presence of bone that had properly healed, would be evidence of the absence of the disease.

Their overall conclusion? They found  "little evidence of bony lesions consistent with evidence of the disease" and therefore suggest that "factors other than scurvy may have been the main causes of morbidity and mortality." And yet, although I have learned from friends such as William Battersby that there's a great deal to be learned by questioning the received wisdom and assumptions of past histories, I believe that this particular paper is significantly flawed, and casts very little reliable light on the question it sets out to answer.

The problems are twofold: 1) The authors rely on a variety of very uneven secondary sources as to problems with scurvy on other Arctic voyages, cherry-picking even from among these, and thus paint a deceptively optimistic picture of the success of the usual Naval regime of lemon juice; and 2) The authors do not account for the extremely small size of their sample, nor for the very limited range of sites from which the bones were recovered.

As to the first, they completely mangle the Arctic experience of Sir John Ross, mistakenly claiming that he spent four winters in the Arctic on his 1818 voyage, and treating his 1829 voyage as though it were a second one of equal duration. They are also do not mention, or are unaware, that Ross on his multi-year sojourn of 1829 received large quantities fish and fresh meat for two of those winters from his Netsilingmiut neighbors, which is almost certainly the reason for the low incidence of scurvy. They also do not look closely at multi-year expeditions, mentioning McClure and mentioning as if in passing the deaths of three of his men; casualties from other Franklin search expeditions are not mentioned at all.

Secondly, as to the sample size: they looked only at 409 bones in all. There were 129 men on the Franklin expedition, with 206 bones each -- thus 26,574 bones among them. -- so 409 bones is only 1.5% of the total. Only 105 of these bones were physically examined, less that four-tenths of one percent. All of these also come from a couple of sites on the southern coast of King William Island.

The final flaw, it seems to me, is that the writers acknowledge that it is possible that an individual could indeed be suffering from scurvy's ravages, but not show evidence of it in his bones. This makes it really impossible to extrapolate from this tiny sample anything about the prevalence of scurvy among Franklin's men. The matter surely could be further studied, but I believe that the preponderance of evidence from actual Arctic voyages of this period is that, at least in all expeditions lasting more than one winter -- with the exception of those where fresh meat was available in large quantities (Ross 1829) -- scurvy was a widespread and persisent cause of debility and death.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Franklin Fictions

From the first moment his ships were missed, the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin has fired the imagination of poets, dramatists, and (especially) novelists. At last count there were no fewer than twenty-four novels, ranging from Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras in 1864 to Dominique Fortier's On the Proper Use of Stars, which just appeared in English translation last month. Essays by writers as diverse as George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Margaret Atwood, have tackled the Franklin fascination, and a full collection of all the historical studies, monographs, and illustrated books on the expedition would easily fill a room (my own collection, which is very far from complete, already fills one). There have also been at least five full-length documentary films, although not yet a feature film of a purely dramatic sort (although I know of at least three screenplays for proposed films). For this entry, I’ll focus on the fictions – and the differing ways they draw upon the basic outlines of the Franklin story.

Franklin himself has fared rather unevenly in this body of work; he has been portrayed, variously, a sort of saint of “slowness” (Nadolny), a neckless nabob fleeing from a domineering wife (Flanagan), a dim-witted leader known to the Indians as “Thick English,” a snowbound abbot of a shipload of polar monks (MacEwen), and the first victim of a bloodthirsty Wendigo (Simmons). To some, he was a hero – but to some (to paraphrase Johnny Cash) his score was ‘zero’ (or perhaps one should say, sub-zero).

So what is it about Franklin that appeals to such a wide array of authors? Was it his strange and tragic loss, along with two great ships and 128 men? Was it the abundant confidence and hubris his officers expressed as they sailed to their doom? Or was it the surreal setting of the endless fields of ice and snow, hundreds of miles from the nearest outposts of so-called civilization, that struck a chord in the imagination. All of the above, I would say.

The first Franklin “fiction” – if the term applies here – was a fantastical narrative which appeared in 1851 under the capacious title, The extraordinary and all-absorbing journal of Wm. N. Seldon one of a party of three men who belonged to the exploring expedition of Sir John Franklin, and who left the ship Terror, frozen up in ice, in the Arctic ocean, on the 10th day of June, 1850 ... together with an account of the discovery of new and beautiful country, inhabited by a strange race of people ... As had Edgar Allan Poe with his Arthur Gordon Pym, Seldon deliberately evoked all the language and apparatus of an actual sea-story, while retaining a wry and winking eye to the gullibility of his audience; the book was prefaced with a “Life of Sir John Franklin,” and sprinkled with lurid illustrations of men wrestling with ice, polar bears, and each other. Ultimately, alas, it was a fairly conventional piece of frozen melodrama, written to cash in quickly on the current fascination with Franklin’s fate – and of this species, it would not be the last.

Our next candidate is a work by that master of the fantastic, Jules Verne. Those familiar with his other “extraordinary voyages” – Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – may be forgiven if they’ve never heard of this work, which appeared under various titles including The Field of Ice, The English at the Pole, and The Voyages of Captain Hatteras. The book had been out of print until a new translation by William Butcher was published by Oxford University Press in 2005. And yet despite its lengthy hiatus, the book reads as well as Verne’s better-known classics, and includes many of the same elements – a half-crazed captain, a mad quest to some unobtainable goal, and a mixture of known and imaginary technological wonders – as do they. The “Captain Hatteras” of the title does not himself encounter Franklin or his men, but he retraces their steps with reverence, making the same pilgrimages to King William Island and Beechey Island that, a few decades later, Roald Amundsen would make in fact. Verne’s conclusion, however, owes little to Franklin or to any other history, save for the old chimera of the “Open Polar Sea.” Verne’s sea is open because it has at its center an active volcano – one can imagine the rest.

From Verne’s novel – which first appeared in English in 1865 – to the next is a gap of nearly a hundred years. And yet it is not entirely without surprise that a descendent of James Fenimore Cooper – he whose books Mark Twain derided as the “broken twig series” – who brought this subject to the fore. With Island of the Lost (1961), Paul Fenimore Cooper laid out the basic elements which would feature in many subsequent fictions: the desolate island, the last march of the starving men, and color commentary on the faded glory and misplaced confidence of the men who sailed so bravely into an icy wilderness. The book has been out of print for some years, although a used copy may be found with an ease that suggests it sold reasonably well.

Four years later, the Australian novelist Nancy Cato entered the field with her book North-West by South. The particular importance of Franklin to Australians is hardly coincidental; as a crewmember on Matthew Filnders’ first circumnavigation of the continent, as well as one of the early governors of Tasmania, Franklin looms nearly as large in the history of Australia as he does in that of Britain or Canada. A prominent member of the “Jindyworobak” movement which sought to promote Australia’s indigenous cultures and histories, Cato deliberately chose subjects for her fictions which evoked the southern continent’s complex histories. Her portrait of Franklin is neither heroic nor anti-heroic, but rather iconic; he ends up representing all the crooked histories of his several pasts, even as his crew inters him in an immense tomb of translucent ice in the midst of the Victoria Straits.

Cato’s was the last word on Franklin in fiction for nearly a decade, until Caroline Tapley’s 1974 young adult novel John Came Down the Backstay. Just as would John Wilson’s YA novel Across Frozen Seas twenty years later, Tapley focused on one of the cabin “boys” aboard the Erebus and Terror, and the natural fears such a lad would have on embarking on such a perilous voyage. The perspective of a young person makes for compelling storytelling, and yet is not quite consistent with the facts, since all four of the “boys” entered into the muster rolls for Franklin’s ships were at least twenty-one years of age upon sailing.

Perhaps the most daring, resonant, and influential of all Franklin fictions, Sten Nadolny’s Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit, appeared in German in 1983. Under the title “The Discovery of Slowness,” a brilliant English translation by Ralph Freedman appeared in 1987, and for the first time British and American readers could experience a book which, among other things, launched a televsion series, an opera, and a business philosophy whose seminars dominated the executive suites of German corporations throughout the 1980’s. The key concept here was “langsamkeit” – slowness – a word whose previous associations had been with mental retardation. Nadolny imagines Franklin as a “slow” child, but sees this not as an impairment but a brilliant gift. The same boy who stood by the schoolhouse wall, unable to catch a thrown ball because he always reached for it after he arrived, found his perfect career in the ice, in a region of the world where being “slow” was just what was called for. Nadolny's novel is notable for the way it combines the carefully-researched actual life of Franklin with the strange conceit of Franklin's "slowness" in such a way that, fanciful though it is, one at times feels as though one is reading his true life story -- or even a truer one.

A lively sense of humor and historical irony were melded in the next Franklin-flavored yarn, Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s sprawling and inventive Solomon Gursky Was Here(1990). In Richler’s playful animadversion on all that has come before, one of the frozen bodies of Franklin’s men excavated by archaeologists turns out to have been given an Orthodox Jewish burial. In the ensuing ruckus, the arrival by sledge of a mysterious man named “Toolooah” (a westernized spelling of the name given Franklin by the Inuit) in the outlands of northern Ontario passes almost without notice – until someone realizes who he might actually be. Although both characters eventually are absorbed within the crazy quilt of the Gursky family, the Franklin connection brings a distinctively Canadian twist to the tale; Richler admitted having been inspired in part by the exhumations of the graves on Beechey Island by Owen Beattie.

The year 1994 saw two ambitious new Franklin fictions: Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers, a provocative historical novel based on Franklin’s first land expedition of 1819-21, and William T. Vollmann’s postmodern pastiche, The Rifles. Wiebe’s book takes a new tactic in having almost the entire tale told from the view of the indigenous peoples and animals of northern Canada; his portrayals of Keshkerrah and Greenstockings are particularly poignant. Wiebe did extensive research on the Tetsot’ine people of the Dene confederation, a group with which his own ancestors, early Mennonite settlers in the area, had enjoyed friendly relations. He was criticized in some quarters for romanticizing his First Nation narrators, and demeaning Franklin, who is known by his Dene nickname “Thick English” throughout the novel. And the same time, the less-famous members of Franklin’s party, particularly midshipman Hood and ordinary seaman Robert Hepburn are sympathetically recalled, and Hepburn takes a turn as the novel’s central narrator.

Vollmann’s The Rifles, published as the sixth of his “Seven Dreams” novels which cover different historical aspects of the colonization of the Americas, is perhaps the most unromantic of all Franklin fictions. The book’s main narrator, like all of Vollmann’s antiheroes loosely based on himself, is a northern vagabond with an Inuk girlfriend, Reepah. The novel hints that they are the reincarnations of Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin, though if true, this must mean that there must have been a considerable karmic debt to be paid off, as these new lives are fraught with poverty, bad teeth, and a profound aimlessness of purpose. Woven in are small sections which halfheartedly re-create the events of the Franklin expedition, as well as a somewhat narcissistic postscript describing Vollmann’s self-arranged sojourn at an abandoned military base on Ellesmere Island. The overall effect is, for me, far from satisfactory, though sprinkled throughout are the usual Vollmann moments of scattershot genius.

The last few years of the twentieth century witnessed several new fictions with elements of the Franklin disaster at or near their center, among them Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal, Brian Hopkins’s Cold at Heart, and John Wilson’s North With Franklin: The Journals of James Fitzjames. For my purposes, Wilson’s is the most intriguing of these, since it attempts something hitherto untried – the extension of an existing historical document. Fitzjames’s last letters home to his sister, posted from Greenland in 1845, were published in part in the 1850’s, and Wilson tracked down the originals. Together, the form a sort of diary, and Wilson imagines in rich and evocative detail how that diary might have been continued, in letters Fitzjames never lived to post. A beautifully written and produced book, it is still well-known in Canada, though less so here in the US; it’s a volume worth tracking down.

The next great moment in Franklin-related fiction is drawn from the lives of those who searched for him in vain. In his 2006 novel Afterlands, Steven Heighton, with what Kenn Harper has called “powerful descriptive talent,” re-imagines the experience of the crew of C.F. Hall’s ship the “Polaris” after Hall’s death and the stranding of much of her crew on a southward-drifting icefloe. Drawing from the recollections of George Tyson, the party’s nominal leader, and adding in elements from the lives of Hall’s Inuit companions Tookoolito, Ebierbing, and their daughter Panik, Hieghton manages to be both lyrical and clear-headed in his paean to human folly and human endurance, and does so in a historical novel whose factual backgrounds he meticulously researched.

From Heighton’s heights, we descend quickly into the world of Dan Simmons, known for writing historical potboilers in which everything – not excluding kitchen sinks, officers gone mad, and cannibalistic Wendigos scratching at the door – is tossed in for maximum dramatic effect. His Terror (2007) may be both the biggest and the best-selling of Franklin-inspired fiction, and has clearly brought a great deal of pleasure to his devoted fans, despite historical inaccuracies and the heaping of the impossible on top of the improbable. The Wendigo – a legendary spirit of the Canadian north whose bite confers an appetite for human flesh – is of course perfectly fitted to the Franklin expedition, evoking the Inuit testimony given to John Rae and the cut-marks found on the bones of his men, so although it’s highly fantastical, it’s not entirely without historical antecedent.

Last year, with Wanting, Richard Flanagan returned to a chapter in Franklin’s life largely ignored in fiction – his time as the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. Flanagan, a Tasmanian writer with a long resumé, is particularly interested in Mathinna, an aboriginal girl adopted by Sir John and Lady Jane. For a time, this young girl was lavished with attention, given a room in Government House and sent to a private school. On the Franklins’ departure, however, she was essentially abandoned, and returned to the poverty and outcast status which were the natives’ allotment in those times. Flanagan interweaves the Tasmanian story with that of Charles Dickens, always a fervent follower of Franklin and Arctic exploration. In one of those historical coincidences which, on examination, seems anything but accidental, Dickens has at the same time just lost his daughter and become estranged from his wife. In an endeavor to dramatize the Franklin tragedy, and raise funds for the newly-widowed wife of his old friend Douglas Jerrold, Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote and staged The Frozen Deep, a play about lost love and lost explorers which was the toast of London. In assembling a cast for a Manchester performance, Dickens cast Ellen Ternan, a young professional actress who would soon become his – possibly platonic, possibly not – companion for the rest of his life.

Like Wiebe and Heighton, Flanagan’s story is marked by lyrical nuances and judicious interweaving of historical research, both of which are also hallmarks of the newest Franklin fiction, Dominque Fortier's novel, On the Proper Use of Stars. Fortier juxtaposes a wide variety of sources -- ship-board plays, historical documents, recipes, and even an excerpt from Eleanor Porden's poetry -- with a series of finely wrought epiphanies in which, like ghosts in an icy mirror, we see flashes of Crozier, Fitzjames, Lady Franklin, and Sophia Cracroft. It's an impressive tour de force, and in many ways the most all-encompassing of Franklin fictions -- but it will surely not be the last.

[Editor's note: this is a revised and updated version of an earlier post on this blog]

Monday, January 21, 2013

Early Arctic Films Lecture Jan. 25

If you're in the greater Boston area this Friday, why not join the members of the New England branch of the Explorer's Club and come to my talk about early (pre-1922) Arctic films? It's open to the public, and the cost is only $10 -- and the weather outside will be providing a perfect scenic accompaniment, with temperatures in the single digits and plenty of snow.

Everyone has seen -- or at least knows of, Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North. It's often thought that this film came, as it were, out of the blue, and that nothing before it had come close to portraying  "life in the actual Arctic" (this was Nanook's tagline). But in fact a great variety of films, both factual and fictional, catered to public interest in the regions of eternal frost -- with more than 20 documentaries and expedition films, as well as hundreds of dramatic ones.  In fact, up through 1920, there were as many films set in the frozen North as in the wild West, and if things had worked out a little differently, we might still be watching "Northerns" today instead of "Westerns." The ingredients, of course, were very similar: replace the black-hatted bad guy with a cheating claim-jumping womanizer, replace the town sheriff with a chisel-chinned mountie, and replace horseback chases with dog-team ones, and you've got the basic idea. Many great directors, among them Rollin Sturgeon and Cecil B. DeMille, made "Northerns" back in the day, and though only a few survive today, we have some film stills, scripts, posters, and other ephemera that enable us to know a great deal about them. There were even some very sensitive ethnographic and native films, including 1910's "The Way of the Eskimo" from Selig Polyscope -- the first Inuit-written film to include an all-Inuit cast, nearly a century before Atanarjuat.

My talk, "Heroes and Villains of the Frozen North," will take place on Friday, January 25th, at 8 p.m. (preceded by a social hour that starts at 7) at the Doubletree Guest Suites Hotel, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston.  I'll be presenting some hitherto-unseen theatrical stills, along with brief clips from several of the surviving films.

Hope to see you there!