the most interesting cases involving frozen remains began about one
hundred and fifty years ago with an expedition to find the Northwest
Passage, a sea route to Asia, by traveling around the northern edge of
May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin and his 134-man crew sailed from
Greenhithe, England, in two ships, the HMS Terror and the Erebus.
Franklin envisioned a lengthy and difficult trip through Arctic
waters, so the ships were specially prepared and outfitted. The ships
had steam heat (to keep the crew warm), locomotive-driven propellers (to
provide power if the ships became stuck in the ice), and iron-reinforced
bows (to help the ships cut through ice floes). They were so well
stocked with food (including more than 120,000 pounds of flour, almost
17,000 liters of alcohol, and about 8,000 tin cans of
meat, soup, and vegetables) that Franklin believed he had enough to last
five — and maybe seven — years. The ships even had room for some
luxuries, such as extensive libraries, hand organs, mahogany writing
desks, and school supplies that could be used to teach reading and
writing to crew members.
ships reached Baffin Bay in late July, however, no one heard from
Franklin or his crew again. Approximately twenty-five major search
expeditions were needed to uncover some of the facts surrounding
what became known as "the Franklin disaster."
1850 expedition seemed to promise some answers when Captain Erasmus
Ommanney came across the ruins of a stone hut, cans of food, torn
mittens — and the graves of three of Franklin's crew. Headboards
the men had died separately, from unknown causes. The first to die was
John Torrington, on January 1, 1846 — only seven months into the
expedition. The other headboards marked the graves of John Hartnell, who
died four days after Torrington, and William Braine, who died three
months later. Rather than explain anything, though, the burial site
simply added to the puzzle: why had the crew begun to die so early in
in 1857, led by Sir Francis McClintock, discovered a number of written
messages which did provide some answers. The Erebus and
Terror had become stuck in the ice in September 1846. During the
next year and a half, nine officers, including Sir John Franklin, and
fifteen sailors died. Finally, in April 1848, the surviving members of
the expedition decided to abandon the ships and walk on the ice some 120
miles to a river where they could row to a trading post. The unfinished
messages suggested that none had survived, and it is easy to see why:
the men used extremely poor judgment. Not only had they tried to drag a
1,200-pound lifeboat across the ice, they had selected an assortment of
strange items to fill the boat: silk handkerchiefs, perfumed soap, six
books, tea, and chocolate.
their importance, the messages failed to explain why the
expedition had failed. The answer to the mystery, a doctor on one of the
search trips surmised, might be found by examining the bodies of
Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine to look for clues to the cause of their
deaths. But his idea struck authorities as improper, and it was ignored.
Finally, in 1980, anthropologist Owen Beattie decided to study the
remains of the three men to "look for information on health and
diet, for indications of disease, for evidence of violence, and
information as to each individual's age and stature." Beattie was
going to solve the mystery — even if it meant examining three frozen
August 17, 1984, Beattie and his research team were ready to examine
John Torrington at the gravesite on Beechey Island. To get this far, the
team had had to dig six feet through the icy earth to Torrington's
frozen coffin. Then they had to remove the last layer of ice from the
top of the coffin. As they did, they became aware of a strong odor —
not from Torrington's body but from the blue wool cloth that covered the
coffin. Even after 138 years, the cloth reeked.
Beattie and his crew came closer to the coffin lid, he and journalist
John Geiger wrote that
wind picked up dramatically and a massive, black thunder cloud moved
over the site. The walls of the tent covering the excavation began to
snap loudly, and as the weather continued to worsen the five
researchers finally stopped their work and looked at one another. . .
. Some of the crew were visibly nervous and Beattie decided to
call a halt to work for the day. That night the wind howled
continuously, rattling the sides of Beattie's tent all night and
sometimes smacking its folds against his face, making sleep difficult.
next morning the winds had died down; Beattie was finally able to remove
the last covering of ice and gravel stuck to the top of the coffin.
the coffin top was completely open, Beattie and his team were confronted
by a block of ice that contained Torrington's body.
they had to determine how to thaw the body from the ice. They could not
use any hot air, since that might destroy the body and any artifacts.
They couldn't wait for the body to thaw on its own, because the outside
air temperature was below freezing. And they could not chip at the ice
for fear of damaging the body.
decided to pour water onto the ice, section by section. The first part
to be revealed was Torrington's shirt, then his bare white toes. A piece
of the blue fabric that had covered the coffin also covered Torrington's
face. Team member Arne Carlson worked on thawing the cloth so that it
could be moved without tearing and shredding it. He worked with warm
water and large surgical tweezers to free the fabric from the ice.
the last bit of ice fell away and the fabric lifted free. Torrington —
only twenty at the time of his death — looked peaceful. His eyes were
partially open; the skin on his nose and forehead had been darkened by the
blue cloth. The rest of his face was quite pale. His teeth were
clenched, his lips open.
thawing of the entire body continued, so that it could be autopsied.
When the ice was gone, Beattie and Carlson picked John Torrington's body
up from the coffin. Rather than the stiff body they had expected, they
found it to be limp.
the researchers undressed Torrington, they discovered how sick he had
really been. His body was so thin that each rib was clearly visible; he
weighed only about 85 pounds. Though Torrington's body would have lost
weight and shrunk due to the fact that its moisture began to evaporate
once he died, Beattie concluded he had been thin and frail at the time
of his death. His hands were callus-free; his nails were clean. Although
he was the head stoker of the Terror, Torrington obviously had
been too sick to work for a long time before his death.
autopsy process, which involved the removal of tissue and organ samples,
bone cuttings, and fingernail and hair clippings, took four hours. When
they were finished, the men had little time left before they were
scheduled to be picked up by a small plane to escape the onset of the
early Arctic winter. They quickly visited the site of a large tin can
dump used by Franklin's men during their stay on the island. Beattie
examined some cans — still there after 138 years — and removed a few
to study later. Then the team returned to civilization to analyze their
autopsy results showed that Torrington suffered from a variety of lung
problems caused by smoking or by breathing coal dust. He appeared to
have died of pneumonia. But this condition was aggravated by a
condition: a high exposure to lead. This fact was discovered by
analyzing a ten-centimeter length of Torrington's hair taken from the
back of his neck. Microscopic examination of this hair revealed that
Torrington had ingested large quantities of lead during the first eight
months of the expedition.
wanted to know where the lead had come from. He examined the tin cans
from the island and found that they were improperly soldered, which
would have allowed lead to leak into the food. Could this have been
responsible, he wondered, for the deaths of all the men?
summers later, Beattie returned with a team of ten researchers. This
time the group would be performing autopsies on Hartnell and Braine —
and taking x-rays of their bodies. If they found evidence of lead
poisoning, Beattie would be close to confirming his suspicions.
Following the same process they had used on Torrington, the team
uncovered and then thawed the two bodies.
body held a surprise for the team: it had already been autopsied, most
likely by Harry Goodsir, the doctor on board the Erebus. By
looking at the type of incision and noting the organs that had been
removed, Beattie and his team realized what Goodsir had concluded:
Hartnell had died of tuberculosis. Nonetheless, Beattie took samples of
Hartnell's tissues, hair, fingernails, bones, and organs.
team was also surprised by Braine's body. His face was covered by a
bright red handkerchief. When it was removed, Beattie and the others saw
a grinning mouth and a flattened nose. Because the coffin had not been
quite deep enough, the coffin lid had pressed into Braine's nose when it
was sealed. Although his eyeballs weren't well preserved, his
half-opened eyes and glassy eyeballs made him look as if he had just
woken from a long nap.
they found that his left arm had been amputated and placed under the
body. Examination also revealed teeth marks on his shoulders and other
parts of the body: his body had been gnawed on by rats before it was
buried. In fact, his body showed signs of decomposition, which indicated
it had not been buried immediately after death, but had been exposed to
the elements and the rats for a while. That might explain the evidence
of his hasty burial (and the removal of his left arm).
the autopsy was completed and the two men reburied, Beattie and his team
left the island. All of the samples that they took were sent away for
analysis, and Beattie anxiously waited for the results.
labs confirmed what Beattie expected: high lead levels in all three men.
Unquestionably, their exposure to lead had come from the tinned food
that had made up so much of the crew's nourishment. Then, as now,
government contracts were awarded to the lowest bidder. The company that
had supplied the canned goods had a reputation for producing inferior
goods. And although the three men had not died of lead poisoning itself,
their exposure to such high amounts of lead weakened them to the point
that other diseases could take hold and eventually kill them. As for the
remaining crew, their reasoning powers had been damaged — fatally, one
might say — by their exposure to lead. The 120-mile march across the
ice with the heavy lifeboat and irrelevant goods was proof of
problems of lead poisoning were not well known in 1845, and it wasn't
until 1890 that soldering the inside of food cans was banned in England
— forty-five years after the Franklin expedition. Nonetheless, the
mystery of the disastrous expedition was explained quite clearly by the
mummies of three of its crew members.