Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of The Greely Expedition

by Leonard F. Guttridge. Putnam, $27.95


In July 1881, 25 men sailed out on an American expedition to create an Arctic scientific base in the Lady Franklin Bay region. There were only six men still alive three years later. Their diet just before rescue was human flesh and shoe leather.

The Greely Expedition, so named for its commander, Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, was to have been a glorious triumph for America. On paper, it was. A three-hundred year old record (held by British polar expeditions) was broken for achieving the farthest point north toward the North Pole. But the cost in human suffering, as with so many early polar explorations, was a terrible one.

Guttridge spent seven years researching this sad tale of bureaucratic largess, government negligence, and expedition infighting. He was aided by a common habit of the era, journal keeping. Many of the men kept diaries, not knowing their words would survive them when they did not. Their families passed the journals down the generations. Some were carefully stored, some quite carelessly (one was stored in a silver vegetable dish). These journal entries are a welcome addition to an already fascinating and carefully-researched narrative. They provide missing details of the expedition's three-year history and shed light upon the psychological limitations of the human spirit under extreme conditions.

This book does not give us that traditional British reserve and stiff upper lip charm we have come to associate with polar exploration. This is a group of Americans mostly ill-prepared for the ordeal ahead of them. This is an American government eager to put themselves on the international map, but unwilling to meet the most basic requirements to keep the expedition from certain disaster. Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the slain president, comes off in a justifiably bad light.

The expedition was commanded by First Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely. Second Lieutenant Frederick Kislingbury and Physician and naturalist Octave Pavy form the antagonistic triad that becomes the crux of the book. These men were at cross-purposes just at the crucial time they needed to be working together to survive. No one can know if more men might have survived with a commander less rigid and more tolerant of the human psyche than Greeley. No one can know if more men might have survived had they fought less among themselves and been more compliant with their responsibilities and orders.

The expedition's success relied upon the arrival of yearly supply ships from America. When the crucial amounts of food and supplies failed to arrive, the Greely Expedition was doomed. Two years after their arrival at Fort Conger, they were forced to abandon the base and all research gathered in a desperate race to survive. This small group of men had to cooperate to the utmost ability of the human spirit merely to survive.

But Greely was barely on speaking terms by then with both Pavy and Kislingbury. The latter, once second in command, had actually been relieved of his duties and was in a strange state of limbo from which he could not escape. Despite his tragic fate, it appears Kislingbury continued to provide assistance in a bad situation, although Greely refused to reinstate him or even thank him for his efforts to assist in the men's survival.

The other expedition members had already spent two years under Greely's command and found it lacking in the extreme conditions of the Arctic. One member, David Brainard wrote in his journal, "This man (I cannot call him a gentleman) comes among us like a serpent in Eden and creates eternal hatred toward himself."

The expedition set out in five boats with 40 days of rations. Before them lay hundreds of miles of water and icy Arctic lands that had to be crossed to survive. No sooner were they underway than Greely's indecision and inexperience in the Arctic, and Pavy's mutinous plots began to turn the hands of fate faster toward a terrible doom.

At last, they became trapped on Cape Sabine, unable to travel farther south. The men awaited rescue for eight months. The inevitable food stealing and cannibalism took place. One by one, the men began to die. Their rescuers found Greely and six others alive...and eating their shoes. Pavy, Kislingbury, and 16 others were dead.

This previously little known chapter in Arctic history was meticulously researched by Guttridge and is fascinating reading, especially for those unaware of America's attempt to put itself at the forefront of international exploration. The reader is advised to stock up the larder, and settle in with a cup of warm tea and a fuzzy blanket before attempting to read the icy travails of the Greely Expedition.


Lorrie Beaver Levesque