On May 19, 1845, the 59-year-old explorer Sir John Franklin set off to search for the supposed Northwest Passage around the top of Canada, which was seen as an alternative route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His two ships Erebus and Terror were well provisioned with five years’ supply of food for the 129 officers and crew, whose quarters were equipped with central heating. In August the ships were seen in Baffin Bay, in north Canada, but then they disappeared. By 1848, when nothing had been heard of the expedition, other ships were sent to look for them but they returned without finding any trace, and it was not until 1850 that the graves of three crew members were discovered on Beechey Island. The bodies were those of John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Brain who died in 1846. The ships had clearly spent some time on the island because they had discarded more than 700 empty cans.
The provisions for Terror are still on record and included thousands of cans of meat, soup, vegetables, and potatoes. Most of the food they took consisted of flour (30 tonnes), salted meat (14 tonnes), biscuits (7.5 tonnes), sugar (5 tonnes), spirits (2300 gallons), chocolate (2 tonnes), and lemon juice (2 tonnes), and these were regarded as sufficient to supply this ship of 67 men for three years.
In 1988, Dr. Owen Beattie and researchers at the University of Alberta, Canada, were allowed to exhume and analyze the perfectly preserved remains of the three men and they found such high levels of lead that it seems almost certain that the men died of lead poisoning, probably exacerbated by scurvy, despite the lemon juice that had been taken on the expedition to prevent this condition developing. The researchers were able to prove that the lead in the bodies came from the solder of the canned food that they ate, by analyzing empty cans found nearby. The ratio of lead isotopes in the victims was the same as that of the lead solder, and quite different from the ratio of lead isotopes in local Inuit people. The body of Petty officer John Torrington, which was extremely well preserved, revealed levels of 600 ppm in his hair, proving that exposure to lead was high during the months preceding his death. The other bodies had slightly lower lead levels of 300 ppm but even these indicate a dangerous level of exposure.
(The far more interesting exhumation photos are included as a gallery below!)
Were these seamen really victims of the canned foods they had eaten? It is quite possible. These were the early days of this kind of food preservation and the process and technology of canning was poorly developed. The first commercial food cannery was that of Messrs Donkin & Hall of Bermondsey, London, and it began to supply the Royal Navy with canned meats, vegetables, and soups from 1812 onwards. Indeed Donkin & Hall’s ‘Preserved Meat’ and “Vegetable Soup’ were part of the provisions of the 1814 expedition to explore Baffin Bay. By 1818 the Admiralty was ordering more than 20,000 cans a year, mainly of beef, mutton, veal, various soups, and vegetables.
The cans were filled through a small hole at the top, which was then sealed by having a disc soldered over the hole. They were then heated for an hour or so in boiling water but sometimes the cans were not heated long enough to kill off all the bacteria within them, and then they were found to be putrid when they were opened. The cans preserved their contents by remaining airtight but they slowly leached lead from the solder into the food they contained. In 1824 an expedition, captained by W.E. Parry, had earlier been sent to search for the Northwest Passage and he took several thousand cans; in 1936, 112 years later, two unopened ones were found and returned to England for analysis. These were a four-pound can of roast veal and a two-pound can of carrots. They were opened and their contents found to be in good condition, although they had a metallic taste. They were then fed to rats without these rodents showing any adverse affect.
Nothing more was found of the Franklin expedition until 1859 when a cairn of stones was discovered on King William Island. In it was a bottle and a note to the effect that the ships had become icebound on September 12, 1846 and that they were unable to free themselves the following summer, 1847, and were still locked in the ice at the end of the following winter, 1848. Franklin had died on June 11, 1847, and by the spring of 1848 another 20 men had also died.
At this point the remaining crew decided to abandon the ships and walk the 150 km across King William Island, pulling a boat with them in which they would then row to mainland Canada to the nearest fur-trading fort. According to the note found in the cairn they set off on April 22, 1848. When the lifeboat was eventually found it contained two skeletons and an assortment of articles that defy explanation: button polish, silk handkerchiefs, curtain rods, and a portable writing desk. Were the member of the expedition just behaving irrationally, maybe thinking these were things they could trade with the natives? Possibly. Or were they simply mad and no longer even able to think straight?
The local Inuit told stories of thin and gaunt-looking white men they had met, who, they reported had been reduced to cannibalism, and indeed some of the bones from the skeletons that were discovered bore knife marks suggesting that flesh was cut from them. Of around 400 bones that have been found, almost a quarter of them have multiple cut-marks. A less gruesome explanation is that the marks were from wounds caused by Inuit who attacked them. Beattie analyzed the bones for lead and measured levels of more than 200 ppm although this could only indicate a lifetime exposure to this metal.
Lead may not have caused the deaths of the members of the expedition but it must have seriously weakened them and there is evidence that they also suffered from scurvy. The lemon juice that they took to prevent this would retain its vitamin C for only a certain period, and after a year would be virtually useless as a means of preventing the disease. Whatever happened, the members of that ill-fated expedition certainly suffered from lead poisoning.
Culled from: The Elements of Murder
I must mention that in recent years there has been a great deal of skepticism regarding the lead poisoning theory for the deaths and it is now believed that malnutrition, starvation, and exposure are a far more likely explanation.
Aghast! The Franklin Expedition Mummies!
Have I ever mentioned that my greatest sadness about global warming is that all the fantastic frozen mummies around the world will start to rot? Okay, maybe that’s not my GREATEST sadness, but dammit! Just take a look at how fantastic the permafrost has preserved the remains of these guys!
John Torrington died on January 1, 1846 at the approximate age of 20. Here’s an interesting snippet from Wikipedia about his post-mortem fame:
After ensuring that Torrington’s descendants were aware of the plan, Beattie and his team began their work on 17 August 1984. Torrington’s coffin was 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) deep in the permafrost, which the team had to dig through. When the coffin was opened they saw how well preserved the outer parts of Torrington’s body were, apparently not much different from the day he was buried. In order to thaw the body, the team poured water on the ice, to slowly melt it away and therefore not cause any damage to the body. Once thawed, they undressed the body to examine it. They found that Torrington had been very sick at the time of his death—he was so thin all his ribs were visible, and he only weighed about 38.5 kilograms (85 lb). After conducting a thorough autopsy and taking some tissue samples, the team left to analyse what they had discovered.
Tissue samples revealed that Torrington’s body had probably been stored on board ship while his grave was being dug; in almost all areas, significant cell autolysis had occurred, and cell definition was very poor. His brain was almost completely gone, leaving only a “yellow granular liquid”. The lungs showed scarring from earlier bouts with tuberculosis as well as signs of more recent pneumonia. After toxicology analysis showed heightened levels of lead in Torrington’s hair and fingernails, the team concluded Torrington had died from pneumonia, after suffering from various lung problems, which were aggravated by the lead poisoning. Beattie believed that the canned food was the most likely source of the lead. More tests revealed a high amount of lead in all three bodies, and some feel that this was chief cause of the expedition’s failure. Photographs of Torrington, in a remarkable state of outward preservation, were published widely, including in People magazine which named him one of the world’s most interesting personalities in 1984, and the widely-reprinted photograph inspired James Taylor to write a song, “The Frozen Man”, and Iron Maiden to write “Stranger in a Strange Land”. British poet Sheenagh Pugh wrote an award-winning poem, “Envying Owen Beattie”, about the Torrington exhumation. Authors Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler were also inspired by the photograph, and the account of the research provided by Beattie and John G. Geiger in their book, Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. Atwood wrote a short story, “The Age of Lead”, and Richler included references to the research and the Franklin expedition itself in his novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here.
The second John to be exhumed was Hartnell, who died on January 4, 1846 at the age of 25. Here’s what Wikipedia says about Hartnell’s exhumation:
What they found was very surprising. Not only was Dr. Beattie stunned to see Hartnell’s incredibly well-preserved (and mummified) remains through the melting ice, he was even more surprised to see that Hartnell’s body had already been autopsied. Beattie and his team also noticed that John Hartnell’s right eye seemed damaged (an issue beyond the sinking-into-the-sockets impact that would have occurred from prior thawing). Setting aside who did what to the mummy – before Owen Beattie’s examination – when Beattie and his team removed Hartnell’s cap, they saw a great deal of hair. They were able to use Hartnell’s hair to conclude that his body contained large amounts of lead at the time of his death.
An additional tidbit from MacLean’s:
Hartnell had been buried without pants, but was wearing a shirt embroidered with the letters “T.H.”—his brother’s initials. (Thomas’s body has never been found.) He was evidently respected enough among the crew that they had sewn him a pillow stuffed with wood chips from the coffin. “There was a little frill around the edge filled with these shavings,” says Spenceley. “It was a touching element.”
At a worldly 32 years old, William was not only the oldest but also the last of the trio to die, on April 3, 1846. I couldn’t find any detailed info on William, poor guy. I guess it’s true that the young ones get the most attention.