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Cannibalism, Poison, and Lost Ships: The True, Gruesome Tale of the Failed Franklin Expedition

14 December 18 words: Ash Carter
illustrations: Natalie Owen

In May 1845, Robert Hopcroft, a 38-year-old Royal Marine from Nottingham, bid a final farewell to his loved ones before boarding the HMS Erebus at Greenhithe, Kent. Alongside the HMS Terror, his ship was part of the Franklin Expedition, tasked with circumnavigating one of the final blank spaces on the world map: the Northwest Arctic Passage...

No European had ever managed to find a route through the frozen wilderness of the Northwest Arctic Passage, but Hopcroft and his 133 crewmates felt confident as they watched England disappear over the horizon. They sailed upon two of the most technologically advanced ships of their day, led by arctic veteran Sir John Franklin, with enough supplies to last five years. Almost a month later, as they rounded the Eastern entrance to the passage, the ships were spotted by the crews of two European whaling ships. Those men would be the last Europeans to see the Franklin Expedition alive, as both ships and every soul on board disappeared without a peep.

It’d been three decades since Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo, and England found herself in the unfamiliar position of being without an enemy to face. Maritime attention turned to exploration, as unsubstantiated rumours swirled around that a sea route existed through the Arctic. This route, if it could be found, would provide a lucrative shortcut for British trading ships travelling to Asia, with the man responsible for its discovery promised wealth and glory.

Sir John Franklin was an unspectacular choice to lead. A member of the Royal Navy since the age of fourteen, he was part of an expedition that circumnavigated Australia in 1802, as well as serving under Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Already part of three failed attempts to navigate the Arctic region, Franklin was almost sixty years old and desperately out of shape by the time he was given his own command in 1845. Desperate for one final attempt to validate his faltering naval career, Franklin lobbied hard and was eventually given command.

Other than the fact he was born in Nottingham, little is known of Robert Hopcroft. At the age of 38, it’s suspected that he’d only managed to attain the rank of private. He was also the oldest of the twelve marines that accompanied the expedition, even the four sergeants and corporals were several years his junior.

After three years without word from the expedition, rumours spread around London as to the fate of the two ships. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, and her friend Charles Dickens began to ferociously lobby parliament to send a rescue party in order to determine what had become of her husband. The subject pushed the public into a fever pitch of unanswered questions. Seamen volunteered in droves, as more than thirty expeditions searched for clues over the following two decades, desperate to determine the fate of the men.

In 1850, an expedition discovered three graves on Beechy Island, the first palpable evidence of Franklin’s potential route. Two years later, another expedition, led by John Rae, met with an Inuit group living a few hundred miles east of where Franklin was expected to have travelled. Rae was told of forty sailors dragging a small boat, as well as thirty bodies scattered around a nearby area. The Inuit also divulged that some of those men had been seen eating the flesh of one of their dead comrades. Knowing that people back home would need evidence, he was able to purchase several artifacts from the Inuit, including a silver plate engraved “Sir John Franklin, K.C.H.”

Back in England, the public reacted with incredulity. Clinging to the hope that the expedition had miraculously survived, their shock turned to vitriol when Charles Dickens publicly blamed the Inuit group for the disastrous expedition. Without sufficient evidence, the fate of the Franklin Expedition remained a mystery, but as years passed, dreams of the Terror and Erebus returning went from slim to impossible.

Subsequent examination of bones discovered on King William Island revealed cut marks consistent with those achieved by stripping flesh from bone by knifepoint.

An 1859 expedition discovered a trail of evidence along the southwestern coast of King William Island. Along with a boat, two skeletons and a pile of supplies, Lieutenant William Hobson located two messages. The first, dated 28 May 1847, simply said “Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well.” The second was far more ominous. Dated 25 April 1848, it reported that the Erebus and the Terror had been trapped in ice for a year and a half, and that the crew had abandoned ship three days earlier. 24 men had died, including Franklin on 11 June 1847, just two weeks after the date of the first note. Francis Crozier, Franklin’s second, was now commanding the expedition and the 105 survivors planned to start out on foot.

What had happened in the interim between the two notes? And what caused the Franklin Expedition to end up in such a disastrous circumstance? It’s doubtless that the ships being trapped in ice for over eighteen months would have caused significant health problems for the crew; scurvy was known to decimate maritime crew. Crippled with ailments, starving and desperately fatigued, the remaining men were challenged to survive on King William Island, one of the most desolate places in the world.

Lady Franklin passed away in 1875 still not knowing why her husband’s ill-fated expedition had gone so catastrophically wrong. It would remain one of Britain’s biggest mysteries for almost 150 years, until an expedition lead by Owen Beattie in 1981 shed some light on the fate of those that survived long enough to abandon ship in 1847. After exhuming the three remarkably well-preserved bodies found buried on Beechy Island, tests revealed startling levels of lead, possibly a result of the tinned provisions kept on board. Stephen Goldner, the provisioner awarded the expedition’s contract, had just seven weeks to prepare 8,000 tins of food. This rapid production speed resulted in a severe lack of quality control, meaning that large amounts of the lead used to solder the cans would drip into the food. The resulting neurological impairment could have contributed to the premature deaths of older men like Franklin, and left those that survived with extreme pain, violent mood disorders and possibly madness.

Subsequent examination of bones discovered on King William Island revealed cut marks consistent with those achieved by stripping flesh from bone by knifepoint. The Inuit stories from a century before had been proven true; those who had made it that far had resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. Further studies also revealed evidence of pot polishing, which usually occurs in the final stages of cannibalism, when the end of bones are heated in boiling water and rubbed against a hard surface in order to extract marrow. It was clear that these men died slowly and in the most horrific circumstances imaginable.

Ironically, Franklin’s failure launched the golden era of Arctic exploration. Those that followed in search of clues regarding his fate ended up mapping vast areas of the region, and discovering the completed route through the Northwest Passage in the process. The fate of the two ships remained unknown until the sunken wreck of the HMS Erebus was found after 166 years of searching in September 2014, with the HMS Terror discovered in pristine condition at the bottom of an Arctic bay two years later.

The hastily scribbled notes remain the only written evidence of the expedition, as Franklin’s ship’s log was never recovered. Without it, much of the expedition will forever remain a mystery, as will the fate of Nottingham’s Robert Hopcroft. The mystery of whether he succumbed to exposure to the Arctic conditions, suffered the agonising death of scurvy, was driven mad by lead poisoning, or survived long enough to live through the unimaginable hell of cannibalism, died with him on those godforsaken white plains.

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