ICE BLINK: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition.
By Scott Cookman.
New York: John Wiley & Sons., $24.95
Reviewed by Russell A. Potter
Sir John Franklin's disappearance in the Arctic -- along with two ships and 128 officers and crew -- was a celebrated mystery in the nineteenth century, attracting enormous public attention both in Great Britain and the United States. Some forty expeditions were launched in search of his party, funded both by governments and public subscriptions. In a way, Franklin's expedition was the Apollo 13 of his times -- only, in his times, without radio or modern communications, such potential martyrdom came with painful slowness. It was three years, and possibly longer, before the last of his crews, scurvy-ridden and likely starving, resorted to cannibalism, having abandoned their ships and dropped their possessions in the snow as they marched wearily towards nowhere. The debate over the ultimate cause of this disaster has been going on for well over a century, and in recent years the old conventional wisdoms have been widely challenged. The lead poisoning hypothesis, suggested by the sloppily-applied beads of lead solder on cans left behind by the expedition, was supported by Owen Beattie's exhumation of three Franklin crewmen in the 1980's, and corroborated by dry-bone analyses conducted by Anne Keenleyside in the 1990's. Cannibalism, so long denied by Franklin worshippers, has similarly gained strong scientific support, as Dr. Keenleyside's microscopic studies of the bones of a group of Franklin's men showed clear cut-marks made by metal-edged weapons at likely sites for de-fleshing. Scurvy, of course, was known about and considered a factor from the start. With so much evidence of the collapse and ill-health of its last survivors, it hardly seems that a new culprit is needed, but this hasn't stopped Scott Cookman from trying. Cookman., a journalist who writes for outdoor magazines, hit upon the idea that it might have been botulism -- again the fault of the badly lead-soldered cans supplied to the expedition by Stephen Goldner -- which was the chief cause of the high rate of mortality of Franklin's men, and the major cause of the failure of his expedition.
Cookman has certainly done some worthwhile new research; his study of Goldner and his patent canning factory is well-documented and full of suggestive -- though far from definitive -- evidence. The chief trouble is, I think, that Cookman overstates his case; like many who succumb to the monomania of a single, unified, explain-it-all theory, he wants botulism to solve every mystery. Thus, he argues that the low number of deaths early on was due to the fact that the tinned meat & soup was well-cooked, and that therefore botulism toxins were eliminated, whereas later when fuel ran low, or on sledge trips where food was not heated thoroughly, the toxin ran rampant. The proportion of officer deaths to that of seamen is accounted for by two sledge parties which, we are to assume, were more or less wiped out by tainted food (yet would not sledge crews take pemmican, biscuit, and salt pork instead of the heavy and bulky canned food, and the equally cumbersome stoves required to heat it?). Yet these sledge trips -- as Cookman fails to make clear -- are entirely conjectural; we know only that one party, led by Gore, deposited records in cairns in May of 1847, and we know that Gore died between then and the record left in April of 1848. But to conclude, on this basis, that Gore and his men, as well as a second, hypothetical sledge crew, suffered a 100% mortality rate, is, at best, highly speculative.
In further pursuit of his hypothesis, Cookman invents scores of other similar "facts." He assumes that Lieutenant Irving, whose presumed grave was found not far from Victory Point by Schwatka decades later, must have died on the spot within days of the May 1847 record, which indicated he was alive and carrying out his duties. He further assumes that somehow, the correlation between eating tinned supplies and sudden death went unnoticed for a considerable time. Perhaps lead poisoning could be brought in to explain this extraordinary lapse of judgment, but Cookman doesn't even bother to address the issue. Most disturbingly, Cookman omits any evidence about Goldner's meats that might undermine his case. In January of 1852, as part of an investigation that is the key to Cookman's entire argument, inspectors at the Royal Navy's Clarence Victualling-yard went through eighteen cases' worth of Goldner's meats, finding that an extraordinary portion of the cans -- 85% -- contained putrid or inedible meat. You'd think that Cookman would tout this statistic, but he hardly mentions it. The inspectors' report, however, contains an observation that strongly contradicts Cookman's hypothesis:
If it is true, as Cookman alleges, that Goldner hired unskilled workers instead of tinsmiths or plumbers (professional solderers) to seal up his cans, workers who used only one sloppily applied bead of solder (instead of the two, internal and external beads called for), would not the problem with spoilage more likely be due to the cans being poorly sealed? Cookman never addresses this gap in his argument, relying on hyperbole to plaster over his omission. Yet if botulism were a widespread problem with Goldner's foods, one would expect very high mortality indeed -- as Cookman himself often notes, the botulin toxin is so powerful even a single milligram could kill a whole ships' crew. One would expect 40 or 50 casualties in the first year instead of three! His claim that the cooks heated the cans and thus eliminated the toxin is a tenuous one -- it takes at least 10 minutes at a full boil to do this, and with fuel (as Cookman notes) strictly budgeted, what cook would boil food so long? The food may well have not been boiled at all, excepting the soups, merely heated and served. That coal later ran quite short is likely -- but it was known all along that it was very limited, and no reason to imagine it was at first squandered through endless boiling of soup only later to be rationed to the point where food would hardly be cooked at all. More likely coal was rationed from the start, and when available alternate fuel (barrel staves, crate slats, etc.) would have been used, none of which supports the notion that shipboard cooks would have wasted it on a ten-minute boiling regimen.
Goldner himself is vilified to such a degree that he begins to take on an almost cartoonish degree of evil; like Lex Luthor, if there is any ill wind blowing, it's Goldner who operates the bellows. Cookman's purple prose, which abounds in fanciful scene-setting and fictive filler, doesn't help matters. Still, the carelessness and greed of Goldner, and the inadequate inspection of the Admiralty, certainly come through dramatically, and the hazards of early canning techniques have rarely been so thoroughly analyzed or so vividly described. As with other disasters in the history of exploration, it is often the very newest technology, whose presence reassures both explorers and the public that everything is the 'latest,' which proves to be the weak link in the chain. Alas, Victorian medicine understood neither lead poisoning nor botulism, and failed to follow up on what little it knew about scurvy. Competitive bidding, which meant that an inexperienced cut-corner supplier such as Goldner could underbid those who had safely supplied previous Arctic expeditions, and lack of meaningful inspection, laid the groundwork for disaster. Owen Beattie and others have made a clear, laboratory- corroborated case for lead-poisoning from Goldner's cans being a significant factor in the Franklin disaster, but Cookman's arguments, like Goldner's meats, are both half-cooked and packed with filler. The unfortunate thing is that the reading public will likely consume them without so much as a stomach-ache.