Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Characters

My introduction to the Franklin Mystery was through Dan Simmons' book: The Terror. Some scoff at the book's supernatural element, but I love it. It captures the whole feeling of the Franklin Expedition. Men- 129 of them- lost in the Arctic wastes never to be seen again, cryptic messages, eerie tableaus of bones and boats and relics, strewn across a barren landscape. The supernatural element is somehow fitting. The problem with having first read about the expedition in fiction, is that I tend to hold fast to the personalities, situations, and theories put forth in the novel. For me, Hickey will always be evil, Hodgson irresolute, Goodsir brave and resourceful, Crozier cranky but knowledgable, and Des Voeux a survivor to the end. While some of these descriptions have their root in character descriptions and recovered relics, none can be proven, and in the case of Des Voeux, in all likelyhood he was dead before the ships were abandoned.

Moving on to The Man Who Ate His Boots, by Anthony Brandt...
There is a native account in this book that I'd never seen before reading his book, but gives me a chill every time I think on it. A native woman at the mouth of the Great Fish River told a story of a large, seemingly fit man (supposedly from the Franklin Expedition) who stumbled out of the wilderness and into her camp, sat down and wept for his lost companions, then expired on the spot. Exaggerated or not, I'm in the camp that subscribes to the idea that there is some truth behind most native accounts...besides, I like the story. Who was the last survivor stumbling onwards, and who gave up the ghost while weeping in sorrow? He was a large man, and Fairholme is described as very large. However, so was the body found on the ship by Inuit after the abandonment. Fairholme is also thought to be one of the officers who died before the ship's abandonment. Was it an officer, or is it more likely that it was a tough, tested, resolute able seaman?

Who went back to the ships? Simmons subscribes to Cyriax's version of events and posits that none make it back (although you are left wondering about Sinclair and Male, who head off on their own). I personally believe that they were remanned, and I also believe that a small group of men did wander the Arctic for quite some time. I wish there was some way to find out the stories of each and every single man on the doomed expedition. However, even without the Inuit having unknowningly destroyed what records were left, we would probably have never had the absolutely complete picture of the unfolding disaster.

Read the Terror, it's worth it! Even though it's fanciful, so is everything else having to do with Franklin's Last Expedition.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Two old dags

Because the Franklin Expedition has left so little behind, we Franklin followers analyze the hell out of whatever we can find. The Franklin Dags, so talked about in other blogs, have held a certain fascination for me as well. Obviously, most of the pictures held by the Matlock, SPRI and the NMM are the same, but we know that Fitzjames and Des Voeux have two different shots. For me, however, the fascination lies mostly in the Des Voeux dag, but also in the the Collins dag.

The NMM has an overexposed version of Henry Foster Collins in which one can barely make out the man's features. The SPRI holds a beautiful dag of Collins, clear as day! I am not well informed about early photography, although I do find it fascinating. Could someone have fixed this picture of Collins? Was the overexposed shot created from the clear shot? I have so many questions I wish I had answers to!

While both pictures of clearly that of Charles F. Des Voeux, the one held by NMM shows a sober, handsome young officer, with regular, clearly defined features and a serious expression on his face. The one held by the SPRI looks like the same young man after a night of drunken carousing or at the onstart of a bad head cold. His eyes are puffy, with dark rings around them, his double chin hangs sloppily over his uniform, and he leers off into the distance. Never mind the fact that he puts on a hat for one, how could a man look so different from what is almost the exact same angle?

I'm not certain which camp I'm in when it comes to the debate over whether or not the Terror's officers (besides Crozier) were also photographed, but I do not have much hope that we will find them if we haven't by now. It seems more possible that we will be able to see the rumored third photograph of Goodsir, taken of a group while at Edinburgh. His first dag, taken in 1842 is badly developed, and his Erebus dag leaves alot of his facial features to the imagination.

Keep up the great research, Franklin followers!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why the fascination?

So how did 129 men disappear from the what was supposedly the most well equipped naval expedition born of Victorian England? It obviously took a combination of factors: Lead poisoning (proven by Beattie), Scurvy (bone samples and fact of lemon juice's deterioration), Ice conditions (as seen by early searchers and witnessed by local natives), misplaced faith in their primitive steam engines, food supply, refitted and overloaded ships, and just plain and simple (or complicated?) bad luck.

What makes this mystery so fascinating, in a sense, is the utter totality of the disaster. All the men- gone. The ships- gone. The records- almost non-existant. The tantalizing tales of the locals are right out of a gothic novel- groups of starving men, their appearances grotesque, wind-battered tents full of frozen corpses, cannibalism, etc. We don't know what happened, but we know it was terrible. To sound cliche... it's like a train wreck, you're horrified, but you can't look away.

Another reason for continuing fascination with the Franklin Expedition is good, old-fashioned hubris. Just like the Titanic- the "unsinkable" ship, many of those taking part in this particular search for the Northwest Passage believed that their mission could not fail. Some would call it flying in the face of God. The less religious or more cynical may simply call it irony. When people ask, (espcially with arrogance) what could possibly go wrong, they are usually answered, and answered quite firmly at that.

So there it is, my attempt at an explanation for why I'm so fascinated with Franklin's lost men. Yet I've barely scratched the surface of why I'm so interested in this particular historical mystery. I'm not really a researcher, just an avid follower of other people's research. From Cyriax to Beattie to Woodman to Potter and Battersby and countless others, I am grateful for those who do their own original research.