S1 E10. ICE PART I – The Franklin Expedition


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What happened to the Franklin Expedition? This episode, we’re headed up to the Arctic circle to investigate one of the greatest mysteries of the Victorian era.


Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis.

Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.

Logo by Riley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.

Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.



Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?

Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.

A: I’m Alix.

C: I’m Carmella.

A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…

[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]

C: Welcome to Episode Ten, where we’re moving onto the ice to look at the lost Franklin Expedition.

[Intro music continues]

C: Alix, would you like to hear about the Franklin Expedition?

A: Please tell me more.

C: So, when we discussed the Essex, we-

A: Ahh, the Essex.

C: Yeah, we talked about how that’s sort of your thing. And, yeah, I’d say Franklin’s my gateway cannibal to the interest in this area.

A: That’s fair, that’s fair.

C: I just think it’s a really- It’s a really great story. I like the mystery of it.

A: I don’t think it’s so great for them. I think they probably had quite a rough time.

C: Well… Well, don’t spoil the ending for our listeners!

A: Sorry, what’s our podcast called again?

C: You don’t know how this is gonna go. Let’s set the scene. On the morning of the 19th of May 1845, we’ve got the two bomb vessels HMS Erebus and Terror. They’re setting sail from the village of Greenhithe in Kent. What happens next is soon gonna become one of the coolest mysteries of the Victorian era.

A: Get out.

C: I won’t make that joke again – I had to get it out my system. And it’s gonna take over 170 years to solve. If it can even be called solved today… So, let’s-

A: Ooooh.

C: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the start. So, we’re in the mid-Victorian era. We’re super excited about science.

A: We love a bit of science. Royal Society’s going strong.

C: Yep. Exploring the globe…

A: Colonising places.

C: That’s the next one on my list. Proving that we’re better than other Europeans and everyone in general.

A: Being both racist and xenophobic at the same time.

C: Yeah, yeah so-

A: A high quality of British explorers.

C: Yeah, so this is, this is sort of our ‘deal’, and as part of that, Arctic and Antarctic exploration is really in vogue.

A: They really wanna show those penguins and polar bears what for.

C: And prove that we’re the best at navigation and exploration by getting to those remote places first. So, one of the races is who will be the first to discover the Northwest Passage?

A: I just have the song in my head now.

C: Oh, it’s such a good song. I’ve been listening to it all week, just on loop.

A: The song we’re talking about is ‘Northwest Passage’ by Stan Rogers. Have ‘Northwest Passage’ on in the background as you’re listening to this podcast, I think it will really give you that sense of tragedy, despair, but also a fun, folksy, catchy song.

C: Yeah, yeah. So for those who don’t know, the Northwest Passage is a sea route via the Arctic from Britain and mainland Europe, through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and ending up in East Asia. So basically, mid-Victorian era, if you wanna get to the far east of Asia, you’ve gotta go all the way over Europe and Russia. So they’re looking for a shorter way round.

A: Also you can go under.

C: Yeah, you can go under as well. But that takes a while.

A: Yeah, that’s why they want to go over.

C: They think if they go over Canada, it will be quicker. It’s still a hypothetical in the Victorian era. So they want to use it as a shipping route. The Victorians aren’t the first people to look for it – I think there’s records of it being searched for since, like, the 16th Century.

A: Martin Frobisher. I think it’s something like 1572.

C: Oh okay.

A: I’m now just derailing here. Fun connection between Frobisher’s Arctic exploration and another possibly non-cannibalism mystery: because, if you look up Martin Frobisher, he had an artist with him, a man called John White. John White is the man who will later lead the lost colony of Roanoke.

C: Oh!

A: Yeah!

C: Oh, that’s really fun.

A: So. No evidence there was cannibalism at Roanoke, but also no evidence of anything at Roanoke, because it’s another mystery. And with that beautiful segue: back to the Franklin mystery. Thank you, I’m very proud of myself.

C: That’s very well-remembered. So the Victorians have been – for the first half of the century – they have been trying to find it. Mostly because the Second Secretary of the Admiralty Sir John Barrow, he’s just really big- big into it. It’s like his baby. He wants to find that Northwest Passage, and in fact the decision to send out the Franklin mission is made the day before Barrow retires, so it’s like a little- little leaving present for him.

A: We’ve got you a watch, and we’ve got you hundreds of men to go look for a little bit of ice.

C: Yay!

A: Little party popper.

C: So, for the mission, let’s go through our main guys.

A: See, now I’m afraid I’m just trying to work out who from our dramatic personae is going to feature in our next Bills and Boon novel.

C: [Laughs.] Look, here’s the thing with the Bills and Boon, it’s- Thanks to the AMC series The Terror, which is very loosely based on a novel which is very loosely based on this mystery, we’ve already got all- all of the, um, the romance fiction and fanart that we could ever desire of the men of this mission. So we don’t have to request it – it’s, it’s out there, guys.

I know that we’ve maybe insulted some of the crew choices of our former nautical missions, and implied that they were foolishly chosen, but I think that actually the Franklin Expedition, at least on paper, sounds like a Polar dream team. We’ve got Sir John Franklin: he’s an Arctic heavyweight. He undertook a North Pole attempt in 1818, which was unsuccessful because of the ice.

A: Well…

C: Gets in the way. And also famously commanded an overland expedition in north Canada. It ended poorly, with food running out and reports that at least one man resorted to cannibalism before being shot. So when I was mentioning this to my girlfriend, she was like, ‘Oh, and they chose to send him on another mission after he’d already had one cannibal mission?’ But I feel like… I mean, it comes with the territory of Arctic exploration, and you’re probably better off with someone who’s experienced that and can survive it? I think it’s not a bad choice to send him, ‘cause he knows the dangers.

A: Well, he has helped to map 3,000 miles of coastline, it’s not like they’re just sending him in blind.

C: Yeah, exactly. His published journal of that adventure was a bestseller in England and he’s a popular hero. He’s known as ‘the man who ate his boots’ – which is better than being ‘the man who ate his friends’, I guess!

A: So you’ve got Sir John. Johnny boy.

C: Johnny boy. Yeah, he’s been out of the loop for a while, ‘cause he’s been Governor of Tasmania – or it was Van Diemen’s Land at the time – and then lost that post because… I think the people just didn’t like him. I couldn’t really find a- an accurate explanation of why he lost it. I think they just didn’t like him.

A: I mean it doesn’t bode great.

C: No, and he is quite – at the age of 59, he’s getting on a bit.

A: Rude.

C: Well…

A: He’s prime of life. He could still be around today if it wasn’t for that pesky ice.

C: Well the first choice for the mission, Ross, he said that he was too old to do it. And Ross was younger than Franklin, so… The Admiralty chose him, and possibly just because they know that he wants a win, and they feel a bit sorry for him. They’re like, ‘you deserve this after a long- a long history of failure’.

A: See, you said that this meant that he was a great person to lead the expedition. I’m not seeing it.

C: Yeah, I’ve maybe talked myself out of it, but-

[Alix laughs]

C: I still think that he’s- He’s a good candidate.

A: Okay.

C: Nevertheless. And the fact is that, obviously, first choice Ross didn’t want to do it, so… Franklin wants to do it! That is definitely something that qualifies you for going to the Arctic, I think! You know the dangers and you’re still gonna go. The ships, as well, I’m going to consider characters in this story: the Terror and the Erebus; ‘cause they’re a- a very strong choice. They’ve just completed a groundbreaking Antarctic mission, so they’re kitted out for icebreaking, they’ve got state-of-the-art steam propulsion to help them through pack ice.

A: Choo choo.

C: [Laughs.] And they work well together.

A: They’re friends!

C: They are friends. They’re sisters; that’s what they’re referred to as: sister ships.

A: Aw.

C: Which is nice. Second in command, we’ve got Commander James Fitzjames. So he’s in charge of the Erebus. If his name sounds made up, that’s because it might be. Very little’s known about his background, and some theories say he might be the bastard son of an English Baron, and that his name- They were like ‘well…’ They sort of did a Jean Valjean kind of thing. James Fitzjames, like, yeah…

A: It sounds like a name a human child might have.

C: He could have been John Fitzjohn or William Fitzwilliam.

A: William… William Fitzwilliam sounds quite good.

C: That’s a good name. Oh! Here’s another- Here’s another fun bit about Fitzjames. It’s been suggested that the reason Sir John Barrow’s chosen him is because he owes him one, as Fitzjames may have helped John Barrow’s son out of a sticky situation when they were stationed together in Asia. The details are vague, but one of his biographers suggests it may even be a ‘homosexual incident’. He’s a great ally, is Fitzjames. So just some fun trivia. He’s also a popular man and he’s got some good sailing experience under the belt.

And then in charge of the Terror is Captain Francis Crozier. He is uniquely qualified as he was also Captain of the Terror during the Antarctic voyage. The situation is a little awks though, because Crozier has a bit of a crush on Franklin’s niece Sophia Cracroft, who doesn’t return his affections. So that makes it all a bit strained and awkward, ‘cause I think they all sort of know that and just don’t talk about it.

A: I can’t imagine that being a very harmonious time aboard ship.

C: No… Niece and ward, I should say. She lives with Franklin so, you know, is similar to a daughter, in terms of…

A: Oh it’s all very Jane Eyre, isn’t it?

C: Yeah. The fun thing about this is that they actually took some early daguerreotypes of most of the officers on the crew, so we have photographs of all these guys. Which is just- just nice to put the faces to the names.

A: Honestly, these millennials taking their selfies, and just, oh, frivolous.

C: Honestly.

A: Go and get an oil painting commissioned like a civilised gentleman of society.

C: [Laughs.] So when they depart, they have 24 officers, 110 men, a dog called Neptune (or ‘Old Nep’), a cat, and a monkey called Jacko.

A: What’s the cat called?

C: I don’t know, I can’t find its name!

A: That is a crime.

C: The cat is not gonna come up again. We don’t know what happens to the cat, so-

A: I can make a very educated guess.

C: Yeah… Yeah. So when they depart they’ve got two escort ships and a transport ship that’s gonna carry extra supplies for them as far as Greenland. So they’re not on their own at the moment. They stop off at the Orkneys. The escort vessels turn back. They have to take one of the seamen back with them, because he’s got TB already.

A: That’s good. I mean, also good to get rid of him.

C: But yeah don’t- Don’t you worry, there will be much more consumption – in all senses of the word – going on.

A: Well done. [Claps.] Well done. Round of applause.

C: It’s pretty smooth sailing as the three ships continue. At Disko Bay on the Greenland coast, supplies are moved onto Erebus and Terror, so then the transport ship can head home. It takes with it some last letters for friends and family, and four more crew members who are too ill to continue.

A: I think later those five will look back and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m glad I had TB’. Bit of a shame but, erm, all in all, had a better time of it.

C: I dunno whether they survive the TB or not. I have to say I can’t remember. Oh, I think one of them survived quite well actually, if I remember.

A: I mean he probably was quite smug.

C: Yeah. Or sad that all of his friends died.

A: But also probably quite smug.

C: So Erebus and Terror are well-provisioned, ‘cause they’ve had all that extra stuff from the supply ship. They’ve got enough food and drink for three years on normal rations, or much longer if they reduce rations, and they’re so full in fact that they can’t even fit everything in from the transport ship and some of it has to go back home.

A: [Sighs.] That’ll end well.

C: But they’re well-stocked. For three years. They’re prepared. They think they’re prepared. So over the next few weeks, various vessels run into the two ships and report their progress back to Britain. Everything appears to be going to plan. They’re spotted heading for Baffin Bay, and have a conversation with a whaler called the Enterprise, and claim they’re confident that, despite the ice, they will reach the entrance to Lancaster Sound by mid-August, as they’ve been ordered to do. So everything seems to be going well. On the 26th of July, men aboard a whaler called the Prince of Wales-

A: Eyy!

C: It’s- it’s a great name for a whaler. The Prince of Wales speak with officers from the Erebus, and this is the last confirmed recorded sighting of the ships by westerners until literally this decade we’re living in right now. Not to spoil the end of the story. So that’s the mystery: where do the ships go? What happens to them? Let’s find out… It was always expected that the ships would be out of contact with Britain for years, and of course they’ve got provisions for three.

A: And they’re heading up into the ice, and there’s no way for them to actually… Yeah, that makes sense; just send them out, go explore, come home when it’s teatime.

C: Yeah, so people aren’t really worried when they don’t hear from them for years on end, ‘cause that’s what was gonna happen anyway. So we get the first trickles of alarm in 1847, because that will be the third winter on the ice. That’s starting to get towards the end of their rations.

A: If they’re on full rations.

C: It they’re on full rations. Three relief expeditions are sent out that winter to see if they can locate Franklin. And his wife, Jane Franklin, is one of the main drivers behind this; she puts pressure on several old friends in the Admiralty to join in. She’s- she’s very… Proactive.

A: See I was going to say something less polite. I was going to say ‘she’s a bit of a battleaxe’.

C: That too, that too. But I guess, like, she’s worried for her husband.

A: Tenacious.

C: Tenacious.

A: She does a very good job as a woman in Victorian England to get shit done.

C: Yeah.

A: Do we swear on this podcast? I can’t remember.

C: I think we do.

A: We do.

C: I think there’s been swearing. So none of those three missions find any traces of Franklin, which increases the sense in Britain that something’s gone wrong.

A: But also… The Arctic is really big.

C: It is. And there’s a lot of ice in the way.

A: Famous. Arctic: famous for its ice.

C: Got a lot of that ice! So, over the following years, many more missions are sent out, and with an increased emphasis on finding bodies or wreckage rather than survivors as time goes on. In 1850, a missions led by Erasmus Ommanney-

A: Now, that’s a Bills and Boon name.

C: Yeah, Erasmus Ommanney. He finds the first traces of the Franklin Expedition at Cape Riley on Devon Island, and they also find a cairn on Beechey Island nearby. If you don’t know your Arctic geography, we’ll put a map in the show notes for you to have a look at, because, I think, describing it would be boring.

A: What, ‘a bit of ice next to another bit of ice near an island in the sea with some ice’? It’s all a bit same-y after a while.

C: Yeah. Then a ship, very appropriately named the Lady Franklin, discovers three graves on Beechey Island.

A: Lady Franklin will come up in a later episode. Dot dot dot.

C: As we start to discover, the Arctic and Antarctic naval exploration is all- It’s a very small world, I think-

A: It’s a bit incestuous.

C: Yeah, there’s a lot of-

A: Not literally. Probably. What does Lady Franklin find?

C: The ship the Lady Franklin discovers three graves. They’re dated from January to April 1846, so that’s only the first year after setting out, and the markers identify the bodies as members of Franklin’s party. Some bits of wreckage are then discovered further south by the Victoria Strait, and it was concluded that they must have floated down from the north, because this is very far off the planned route. As it will later turn out, that’s because the Erebus and Terror did not stick to the planned route, because of the impenetrable pack ice, and they had to try and find another way round. But the Victorians assumed that Franklin had definitely followed orders. He also had orders, if he deviated from the route, to leave behind notes in a cairn to show which way he’d gone, which didn’t seem to happen.

A: Ooh.

C: Or a-

A: See, that’s more unexpected. You would think Franklin, as an expert of things going wrong in the Arctic, would leave a little- leave a little clue as to what had happened.

C: Yeah, I mean, it may be that he did and they were just never found, and that, you know, the cairns got attacked by animals. That did happen! That’s not, like, something that I’ve pulled out of the ether. There are cairns that were found without anything in them that had been broken open, so maybe there were notes at some point.

A: Polar bears can read. They’re interested. Polar bears answered the Franklin Expedition first.

C: That’s how they followed them on the ice. In January 1854, the Admiralty finally declare that, without any fresh evidence, they would not continue to fund relief parties, and the lost men of the expedition are declared officially dead.

A: 1850s… Yeah-

C: Nine years.

A: I can’t- Yeah, I can’t see them doing that well.

C: No… Lady Franklin doesn’t accept it. She refuses her widow’s pension and doesn’t wear black. She believes John still could come back to her.

A: Eh…

C: Yeah, it’s hard to know whether that’s sweet, or is it just, like, belligerence?

A: It might be both.

C: Bit of both.

A: I mean, she’s quite symbolically working at embarassing the Admiralty into actually answering the question.

C: Yeah.

A: Or at least trying to.

C: Yeah. Now, I specified earlier that the Prince of Wales men were the last westerners to see the Erebus and the Terror for a reason. In 1854, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee named John Rae was surveying the Arctic coast on foot. In the course of trading with an Inuit man named Innookpoozhejook, Rae thought to ask if he had seen any other foreigners about. And Innookpoozhejook reported that he’d heard tell of a large group of white men who died somewhere to the west. He sold Rae an officer’s gold cap band, and later a silver spoon and fork embossed with Crozier’s initials, a medal belonging to Franklin, more silverware, and an undervest marked with the initials of one of the other Erebus officers.

So from piecing together testimony from several different conversations that Rae had with Inuit visitors, a story began to emerge, which is that 40 men were seen travelling south towards King William Island in 1850, dragging sledges and one boat. Communicating through sign language, they indicated that their ships had been crushed in the ice, and they were now walking south to find food. The men were thin and weak, and the description of their leader seemed to match up with Crozier.

A: Okay.

C: He’s sort of ‘tall’… ‘Tall’ and ‘white’.

[Alix laughs]

C: So, could really be any of them. But apparently that really matches up with Crozier. He purchased some seal meat from the Inuit traders and then moved on.

A: 1850?

C: Yeah.

A: That’s not bad. That’s not a bad innings.

C: Made it five years. Later in the season, the Inuit discovered the bodies of 30 men on the mainland and five on a nearby island, all close to the mouth of the Great Fish River.

A: So, that’s mainland Canada?

C: Yes.

A: So they make the walk.

C: They do! So, albeit on foot, they have technically made the Northwest Passage, you are very right.

A: Have they? Have they?

C: They have crossed the Arctic from England.

A: That’s a very technical way of saying they’ve crossed the Northwest Passage. A technical circumnavigation of the world is sailing in a circle in the Atlantic, because you’ve circumnavigated your own passage.

C: They kind of did it.

A: They didn’t!

C: Okay, they didn’t do it.

A: They- I think the managing to walk to Canada is impressive enough with the situation. They did not do it.

C: Well, what- Whatever your thought on the last days of these poor men.

A: I just said they did a good job. I’m just not going to give them credit for something that they didn’t do.

C: Yeah… That’s fair. So it didn’t end well for them – I mean, obviously, because they’re dead. Also, some of the bodies were mutilated and human parts were found in cooking kettles. So, Rae is, of course, forced to conclude that the men of the Franklin expedition not only died, but also that: “our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life”. Rae naively reports this all back to the Admiralty, thinking that they’re gonna be really pleased with him.

A: Give him a little bit of money.

C: Yeah, it-

A: Because there are rewards on offer, it’s not me just discrediting Rae there.

C: Yeah, they’re offering a reward. It gets out to the press, and the revelation is deemed so shocking that it just can’t be true. No Englishman would ever turn to such nasty extremes. Among the naysayers is one guy that you may have heard of? Charles Dickens?

A: Boo!

C: Oh, so you have heard of him then?

A: I’ve watched Oliver Twist; he puts together a pretty nice musical. I realise that is an immediate opposite of my reaction of going ‘boo’.

C: Sort of, national treasure, created an amazing body of work, also just a really nasty guy basically, mostly.

A: Yeah…

C: Yeah. So, Charles Dickens is a big fan of Franklin’s and a friend of his wife’s. He published a series of articles in his weekly journal Household Words, just really laying it into Rae for spreading such horrible slanders against Franklin. So, for example, he writes- Shall I do a Dickens voice?

A: Do a Dickens voice.

C: What’s a Dickens voice? Quite [makes disgruntled posh noises].

A: [Disgruntled posh voice:] “My name is Charles Dickens.”

C: [In same voice:] “I know more than you”… “It is the highest degree improbable that such men would, or could, in any extremity of hunger, alleviate the pains of starvation by this horrible means.” Then he also writes: “No Franklin can come back, to write the honest story of their woes (…) they lie scattered on those wastes of snow, and are as defenceless against the remembrance of coming generations, as against the elements into which they are resolving (…) Therefore, teach no one to shudder without reason, at the history of their end.”

A: Well, I mean, we are shuddering, but the reason is because the cannibalism happened. Well, not us; we’re into it. But…

C: We’re supportive of that lifestyle.

A: For survival purposes. Not just as a hobby.

C: Rae is roundly attacked for being fool enough to believe Inuit testimony, and in fact it was suggested by Dickens and others that the men that Rae had spoken to were actually the true cannibals, and had killed and eaten Franklin and his men themselves – because of course they would, they’re evil!

A: Charles Dickens; famous racist.

C: Despite discovering both the facts and the location of the expedition’s fate, Rae received no official recognition for that work.

A: Well, technically he only found the fate of 40 of them.

C: He found where they ended up.

A: He found where some of them ended up.

C: Yeah. And the reward money, £10,000, was- Lady Franklin did her best to block it. It was eventually paid to Rae, but, oh, under duress.

A: I know a fact here. Because Rae went to Lady Franklin and he basically said, ‘If I get the reward money, I will use it to go north to try and find out the rest of what happened’. And still she’s like, ‘No’.

C: Wow!

A: Yeah.

C: She just really does not want to believe that cannibalism.

A: I mean, yeah. Not everyone’s us.

C: Whatever’s said about the Inuit making up stories, they continued to share consistent accounts over the years with other explorers. So the American explorer Charles Francis Hall encounters the same guy, Innookpoozhejook, in 1869, who tells him that he found “cooked human flesh – that is human flesh that had been boiled.”

A: Are we a recipe podcast now?

C: We’re going back to the John Smith of ‘what’s the best way to cook a body?’ Hall also recorded the account of Eveeshuk, who described finding bodies: “a great many had their flesh cut off as if some one or other had cut it off to eat.” Then in 1879, the account of Ogzeuckjeuwock claims he “saw bones from legs and arms that appeared to have been sawed off (…) The appearance of the bones led the Inuits to the opinion that the white men had been eating each other (…) His reason for thinking that they had been eating each other was because the bones were cut with a knife or saw”.

A: Yeah, that’ll do it.

C: So that’s multiple sources at multiple points in time, recorded by multiple people – it’s looking pretty consistent.

A: Looking pretty cannibalism-y.

C: It is. But back to 1857: Lady Franklin and Dickens continue to raise funds for another mission, and a steam-driven yacht called the Fox is sent out in 1857. And the men on the Fox are told by Inuit traders that a three-masted ship had been seen to sink off the west coast of King William Island, and another had been forced ashore by ice further south, aboard which they discovered a man’s body. So again, this is consistent with the idea that the ships were far further south than they were meant to be at that time.

A: But of course, Franklin would never have deviated from his path.

C: No… A cairn was then found on King William Island, containing a blank piece of paper – perhaps a pencil message was on it and it got erased by the damp?

A: Those polar bears just want to do art.

C: Aw.

A: The polar bears want to go to college – leave them alone.

C: ‘I don’t want to do law, I want to do art!’ There were also the remains of an encampment large enough for about twelve men. And after more searching, another cairn is found – and this time there is a note in it.

A: Dun dun dun!

C: So, now called the ‘Victory Point note’, it’s the sole documentation of what happened to the mission in the years it was lost. The main portion of handwriting is identified as belonging to James Fitzjames.

A: William Fitzwilliam.

C: John Fitzjohn. Whatever he’s called. It’s an inconsistent and much-amended document, as it’s been returned to and changed at various points. But to summarise: Fitzjames, writing on the 28th of May 1847 – so that’s two years after leaving England.

A: So this is in the high old time when everything’s going swell.

C: Everything is going swell. He writes: “Erebus and Terror Wintered in the Ice in Lat. 70°5’N”- Is that how?

A: Yes, you can read numbers, I trust you.

C: And “Long. 98°23’W Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island”. So they actually wintered at Beechey Island in ’45-’46, so who knows why Fitzjames wrote ’46-’47.

A: Yeah, he’s just talking nonsense.

C: Yeah, I mean sometimes, you know, you’re writing quickly and you do just write whatever. I get the date wrong so much.

A: I know I’ve signed official things off still saying it’s 2016. And then I’ve looked at it and I’m like ‘No!’.

C: We’ve all done it. Normally we don’t sign a date ahead of the current date, but I guess you could.

A: Yeah, it could happen. And it’s very confusing up in the Arctic, because you have all of that sun for months and then you have all of that darkness for months.

C: You’d think that would mean you could keep track of the seasons quite easily.

A: Eh, it’s confusing.

C: It’s confusing.

A: When you have a day that lasts five months and a night that lasts five months…

C: It’s true.

A: And you don’t even know what your own name is… It’s gonna be tough.

C: That is true! There are some more notes about their route that they took, and then the comments: “Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well.”

A: “All well.”

C: “All well.”

A: All will not remain well.

C: A party consisting of two officers and six men left the ships on Monday the 24th of May 1847 for undocumented reasons – possibly hunting or scouting. Something like that.

A: Just bored?

C: Just bored. Then another note is added on the 25th of April 1848 by Crozier, who writes: “HMShips Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April 5 leagues NNW of this having been beset since 12th Sept 1848. [Error: Carmella meant to say 1846!] The officers and crews consisting of 105 souls under the command of Captain Crozier landed here (…) Sir John Franklin died on the 11th of June 1847.” Yes, just a couple of weeks after the first note declared that all was well! And then the note continues to say that “the total loss by deaths in the Expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men”.

A: That’s not good!

C: That’s not good. It’s also… It is hazardous terrain.

A: It is- Even if literally everyone else makes it back alive, this expedition has lost more lives than any other British Arctic expedition.

C: Yeah, and importantly they have lost Franklin. Franklin’s gone.

A: It’s, um, not going well.

C: No… Finally, a last note is added by Fitzjames, presumably the same sort of time, saying-

A: Who knows? Fitzjames might think it’s 1850 by this point.

C: From the context where he says, “And start on tomorrow 26th for Back’s Fish River”, I assume he’s writing the same day as Crozier – but maybe it’s a year later. I don’t know.

A: I don’t know. I’m- You can’t blame me for Fitzjames’ nonsense.

C: Back’s Fish River is another name for the Great Fish River, which John Rae’s Inuit informants identified as the destination of the overland party they met. So it all lines up.

A: So we’re all heading south.

C: Yeah.

A: To safety.

C: Away from all the ice.

A: Away from the ice.

C: On the 24th of May 1859, a large boat was discovered on a nearby beach, equipped for overland hauling. It contained two men’s bodies, one of them possibly an officer. Interestingly, its prow was pointed north, suggesting that it was being hauled back to the ships rather than away.

A: Ooh.

C: Ooh. So maybe they changed their mind? Further Inuit oral testimony from later in the century suggests that there were men seen living aboard one of the beset ships as late as 1848, suggesting that at least some of the men maybe did make it back and remain aboard for a while. And perhaps they abandoned the boat because it was too heavy to haul.

A: And they had dead people in it.

C: Yeah, well… Were they dead at the time of abandoning? Later, on King William Island, they find the skeleton of a steward, Thomas Armitage. He’s carrying a wallet of papers belonging to seaman Henry Peglar, who’s believed to have been his friend. Or – according to Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror, and Leanne Shapton writing for the New York Times – perhaps his lover, based on the tenderness and familiar address in the phrase “all my art Tom”, which suggests the letters had been addressed to Armitage.

A: Aww.

C: Aww. Romance. The papers are filled with indecipherable notes and drawings, sentences written backwards, and enigmatic fragments of poetry.

A: One of them’s written in a circle.

C: Oh, that’s really nice.

A: Those polar bears are very talented.

C: So, yeah, maybe they belong to Peglar, maybe it’s the polar bear writing. Maybe the polar bear’s called Peglar?

A: Peglar the polar bear.

C: Peglar the polar bear. Here’s a sample: “O death wheare is thy sting / the grave at comfort cove”. Comfort Cove is possibly a reference to the burial location of Franklin, suggesting that maybe it’s part of a eulogy. Although why a regular seaman would be composing a eulogy is unknown.

A: I mean, it could have been personal.

C: It could have been. There’s a transcription of the papers. I will put a link to that in the show notes. I would recommend reading them, they’re very- It’s very fragmented poetry. Quite Sappho fragments-esque?

A: Yeah, I was about to say Sappho.

C: Right up my alley. But all in all, just another- Another of the mysteries of the Franklin Expedition.

A: We have the Victory Point note, we have the Peglar papers, and we have no other written testimony. It is a mystery.

C: Yeah, so if 50 percent of your papers are backwards-written nonsense, then it’s not looking great for documentation. Unlike Jon Rae, because the Fox expedition smartly don’t accuse anyone of cannibalism, its leaders are publically rewarded, and the leaders’ published account becomes a bestseller. It was seen as a tale of man’s hubris, and inspired the famous landscape by Landseer of polar bears chewing up bloody remains, titled ‘Man proposes, God disposes’.

A: I love this painting so much. We will link it. It’s amazing. But I do think we are- Well, we- I do think they’re rather unfairly accusing the polar bears here.

C: [Laughs.] Justice for the polar bears!

A: Justice for polar bears. We know exactly who was doing the eating. But it’s- Oh it’s just such a good painting, and the polar bears are, like, chewing on ribs, and there’s the destroyed evidence of boats, and there’s a flag and some binoculars. And, oh, it’s just haunting, some would say.

C: I do want to point out – we’ll get onto bone evidence later – but there are bones with teeth marks that aren’t human teeth marks. So the polar bears probably did do some of the eating.

A: They’re hungry!

C: They are. And if you find a dead body, or just an alive body, maybe, you know.

A: What you gonna do?

C: They’re polar bears.

A: I was thinking more about the people, but hey! It’s on display at Royal Holloway and it’s in the room where the students have their final exams, and it’s said to be haunted. And there’s an urban myth that in the 1920s or ’30s, one of the students stabbed a pencil into their own eye, saying “the polar bears made me do it”. And now they cover up the painting when the students are having their exams.

C: That’s- It’s a pretty bleak thing to have in an exam hall. Like, ‘look, do what you will, but God will punish you for your hubris’.

A: Even the college’s curator explained the myth, saying that if you sit directly in front of it in an exam, you will fail. Unless it’s covered up. They cover it up with a Union Jack. Patriotic even to the last.

C: Who’d have thought? My next subtitle on this document is ‘So what happened?’ The overall story of the last days of the expedition can be patched together to look like this: April 1848, ten months after Franklin’s death, Crozier and Fitzjames abandon ship and lead their men with sledges across the ice to Victory Point. An officer is sent to fetch the ‘all well’ note from a nearby cairn and make some amendments. Then they make it about 50 miles down the coast before abandoning the boat that was later discovered containing the two men’s bodies. The party splits. Some, probably led by Crozier, head for the Great Fish River. Some remain in a camp, and some return to the ships – maybe. Further skeletons mark Crozier’s route south, with some survivors making it as far as a camp a few miles off the Great Fish River, nicknamed Starvation Cove.

A: I wonder what happens there?

C: Hmm… I wonder, I wonder. By the end of 1850, all of the Franklin Expedition were pretty certainly dead.

A: And if not, very cold.

C: Very near death. So that means that only the very earliest rescue parties would have even had half a chance in hell of finding them alive.

A: If they’d even been looking in the right place.

C: Which they weren’t. Just to, just to add some- A little, a little bittersweet note on the end: the first successful full sea navigation of the Northwest Passage was completed in 1903-’06, by Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, who will be mentioned in later episodes…

A: There’s so many tie-ins when it comes to Polar exploration, it’s great. You have to keep listening.

C: Mmhmm. So, yeah, Franklin wasn’t even close in time. Franklin didn’t manage it.

A: Franklin failed.

C: But why did he fail?

A: Ice. I’m gonna shut this discussion down now.

C: There are some other ideas. It’s tempting to agree with Landseer that hubris played a role, because it makes for a good ‘foolish colonists go unprepared into inhospitable environment and surprisingly die’ narrative – but there are factors beyond their control. So-

A: Ice.

C: Ice. The years they were trapped there were uncharacteristically cold and even the local Inuit referred to them as the ‘years without summers’. So lots of ice. There’s also the hotly-debated topic of whether their provisions were at fault.

A: All of those lovely provisions, some of them they even had to throw overboard. Not literally. Probably.

C: A lot of the food was tinned. Which is a very exciting-

A: New technology!

C: Yeah. And there’ve been suggestions that maybe this was part of the expedition’s downfall. An established supplier was passed over in favour of a cheaper bid from a Hungarian named Goldner, who delivered the tins in record-fast time. Which is a lesson in why you should stick to your procurement contracts. Really, if you’ve got a contractual agreement-

A: Don’t put things out for tender just to go for the cheapest. Otherwise there will be cannibalism.

C: Exactly! And as they were short on time to leave, the tins weren’t even tested before departure. So there have been various allegations against the quality of the food. One suggestion is that Goldner’s formula of using bigger tins and working quickly means the food wasn’t properly heated all the way through, and so would have putrefied over time.

A: Yum.

C: Mmhmm. Another theory is based on samples taken from exhumed remains, which are found to contain higher than average lead. And also some tuberculosis, but we already knew about that.

A: Just a bit- It’s Victorian England, everyone’s got a bit of TB.

C: Yeah.

A: I say that. Technically you are not allowed on a ship if you have TB. If you have TB, you’re out. Thus matey-boy earlier who was sent away.

C: Yeah. And also everyone’s got a bit of lead. But perhaps the sealant on the tins could have had more lead than normal and poisoned the food? That’s the theory that the AMC series The Terror takes up.

A: Or from the water? Because they’ve got fresh supplies of water.

C: I’m about to get onto that! Yes, it could also be the water, correct.

A: Yay!

C: The hot water system. And, to be fair, Victorian Britain was pretty rife with the stuff. So it- They could have just already had that much lead in them to begin with.

A: Yeah, they were keen on lead. It’s very useful.

C: Yeah.

A: Line pipes with it.

C: Yeah.

A: Just-

C: Drink from it.

A: Inject it directly into your veins.

C: [Makes a syringe noise.] Yum. But whatever the cause, the estimated blood levels (based on the remains) “would have had serious physiological and neurological effects,” according to an article in Arctic journal. So… They are gonna be hallucinating and having a bad time.

A: And writing in circles.

C: Yeah. Yeah, he could have just been very heavily lead-poisoned.

A: I think the best thing to do with lead poisoning is drop people in the middle of the Arctic, you know?

C: Absolutely.

A: Give them a challenge.

C: There’s another fun thing about the bones, which you- Which you turned me on to, Alix, actually. Some of the profiled DNA appeared to contain no Y chromosomes. Is it possible that there were women serving on board in disguise, or perhaps transgender men? There is a recorded history of this occurring in the Royal Navy. But also DNA degrades over time and so maybe when the DNA was amplified for testing, the Y chromosome just wasn’t sufficiently amplified. But… It would be fun if there were ladies there, wouldn’t it?

A: We’re equal opportunities cannibalism here. They did rule out that those remains could have been from Inuit women. So if there was evidence of there being women with the Franklin Expedition, they would have had to have been part of the expedition.

C: Yeah. And finally, there’s also the scurvy question. So, the food may have been fully edible and free of lead, but even so it wouldn’t have contained very much Vitamin C at all. Maybe we can’t blame the tinning process as much as we can blame the idea of relying on tinned food.

A: I mean, we can blame the fact that the Admiralty had sent people north before, and could have just given them proper food.

C: They did have Vitamin C with them, I think, you know, lemon juice or lime juice, but it degrades over time. I’d say overall, it’s probably a combination of all these different malnutritions, and also the fact that-

A: Ice.

C: Ice. The fact that their ships got-

A: Stuck.

C: Or sunk. And also, maybe The Terror is right and there was a big polar bear demon following them on the ice, but-

A: Justice for polar bears.

C: Well, it’s not a polar bear, it’s like a god-demon thing, isn’t it? The Tuunbaq.

A: Tuunbaq.

C: I quite enjoyed- It was… It’s not a great show, but I did enjoy it.

A: I had opinions about the cannibalism.

C: Yeah… Many.

A: You can imagine what our conversations are like when we’re not recording.

C: Pretty much the same as what they are when we are recording.

A: Just worse.

C: Various attempts at solving the puzzle of what happened, where, and when, have been made over the ensuing years.

A: I know where.

C: Was it the North Pole?

A: The ice!

C: One thing we can say for certain is that cannibalism definitely took place, because skeletal remains from end-stage sites of the Franklin Expedition show knife marks consistent with dismemberment and defleshing, and some even exhibit breakage and pot polish, which suggests that not only was flesh eaten, but the bones were intensively processed to extract marrow – which is normally only seen in very desperate, you know, last attempts of survival cannibalism.

A: Like this one.

C: Like this one. So, turns out the Inuit testimony was reliable all along, both about location and about what happened.

A: Who’d have thought? Endemic of British society at the time, being unwilling to listen to local testimony.

C: Mmhmm, mmhmm. I want to finish our story in recent times. In September 2014, work by Parks Canada located the wreck of Erebus west of the coast of the Adelaide Peninsula, and in 2015, the Terror was found a little to the north in a cove off King William Island. Which proves that they were way further south than they were meant to be. And it’s just pretty cool, I think, that- I know I said I wouldn’t use that pun again; that wasn’t intentional. It’s pretty cool that we have film footage of the ships under sea. Like, it’s cool!

A: It is cool. Well, HMS Terror was in fact found in Terror Bay.

C: Hmm.

A: I wonder where the Inuit came up with that name from?

C: Yeah, it’s a strange coincidence, isn’t it, that it happened to sink there, huh? Weird…

A: Almost like fate.

C: Yeah. The final thought I want to leave us with is that the Northwest Passage at that time was a brutal, inhospitable, ice-bound route, and it would have been literally impossible for the Franklin Expedition to achieve it entirely by sea at that time. But our good friend Global Warming has helped us with that, because cargo ships can now make it through – even without the accompaniment of icebreakers. And several nations have plans to use it as a shipping route going forwards.

A: So Franklin’s legacy is secure.

C: Yeah. And take that, Arctic! No more ice for you!

A: Leave the polar bears alone!

C: If you too would like you journey for the Northwest Passage, please help with the global warming crisis, because otherwise there won’t be any ice for you to journey through.

A: That really confused me, I was like, ‘are you pro global warming?’

C: No! Stop the global warming! Stop the global warming otherwise it will just be too easy to make the Northwest Passage, and where’s- It’s just not sexy if you’re not gonna die on the ice. We can probably just cut that a bit earlier.

[Both laugh]

A: No, I think that should stay.

C: Okay, well. That’s the ending.

[Alix laughs]

[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]

A: Thank you for listening to our take on the Franklin Expedition. If you want to hear more about this fascinating story, you can head over to our Morbid Audio network companion, Grave History Podcast, and hear their take on this famous story.

C: Join us next time for the story of Adolphus Greely, the most fascinating survival cannibalism case you’ve never heard of.

[Outro music continues]

A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.

C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.

A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Riley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.

[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]

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