Manage episode 259813497 series 2659594
This episode, we’re heading south for a story of Antarctic disaster. Did Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1911 expedition end in survival cannibalism? Carmella unravels the cold case in a tale of overland hauling, extreme rationing, and all the unpleasant things that can happen to sled dogs.
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.
- Chalmers, S. (2007). ‘The icecap cannibal’, Daily Mail, 27 Oct. Available at: https://www.pressreader.com/uk/daily-mail/20071027/282235186299099
- Day, D. (2013). Flaws in the Ice. London: Scribe.
- Hurley, F. (c.1914-16). Tom Crean.jpg. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tom_Crean.jpg
- Leane, E. and H. Tiffin. (2011). ‘Dogs, meat and Douglas Mawson’, Australian Humanities Review, 51. Available at: http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/2011/11/01/dogs-meat-and-douglas-mawson/
- PM. (2009). ABC Radio, 20 May. Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2008/s2576375.htm
- Shearman, D.J.C. (1978). ‘Vitamin A and Sir Douglas Mawson’, British Medical Journal, 1(6108), pp. 283-285. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1602734/
- Taylor, G. (1959). ‘Obituary: Sir Douglas Mawson, O.B.E., F.R.S.’, Australian Geographer, 7(4), pp. 164-165. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/00049185908702341
- Yusoff, K. (2005). Arresting visions: a geographical theory of Antarctic light. PhD Thesis. Lancaster University. Available at: https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/49392/
- Yusoff, K. (2007). ‘Antarctic exposure: archives of the feeling body’, Cultural Geographies, 14(2), pp. 211-233. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1474474007075355
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 Twelve, where we’re going to be covering the case of Douglas Mawson.
[Intro music continues]
C: Alix, would you like to hear about Douglas Mawson?
A: I would love to hear about Douglas Mawson.
C: So now, this one you genuinely don’t know much about, right?
A: I genuinely know a paragraph’s worth of information about Douglas Mawson. And most of that is just the fact that, for the first time, we’re heading south.
C: Yeah, so this is a bit different to our normal fare. So, for starters, it’s our first Australian cannibals.
A: Can we have an Australian accent please, Carmella?
C: Well, I know that I’ve set a precedent of doing some fantastic accents, but I’m not sure about doing an Australian one. And I don’t want people to think it’s because I’ve developed a sense of taste or a moral compass.
A: Do you not like Australians, Carmella? You’re going to alienate our fanbase.
C: I’m just not very good at Australian accents. I know that my- my voices have been so transportative, so it’s hard to believe that I have a weak spot.
A: I believe in you.
C: [In what is barely regonisable as an Australian accent:] ‘G’day, stick a man on the barbie!’
A: Stick a what?
C: A man! See? I can’t- I- So I’m gonna have to leave it.
A: Luckily for you, I also know Mawson is actually from Yorkshire.
C: Also can’t really do a Yorkshire accent. So yes, I say that our first Australian cannibal… He is actually Yorkshire-born, Australian-raised. But, um, Australian nationality – that’s how he identifies. So. It’s also our first case, I think, of cannibalism that hasn’t been verified either by testimony or by scientific evidence. It is, essentially, a complete rumour, but we’re still gonna cover it.
A: It’s a… conspiracy-based episode.
C: Yeah, conspiracy is quite a good word for it, I think. Gossip, perhaps, is another one.
A: Rumour mongers.
C: And, you-
A: Sorry, is this fake news that we’re spreading using modern media?
C: [Pause] Yes. But I think the fact that I’m admitting upfront that this might be fake news, makes it less fake news and more reporting upon the fake news of yesteryear.
A: It’s a historic theory that is worth exploring using the medium of a cannibalism-based podcast.
C: There’s no proof of cannibalism; there is also no proof of not cannibalism. Let’s put it like that.
A: We can say that about an awful lot of things.
C: That’s true…
A: “There’s no proof that they didn’t eat people.”
C: That is how I look at everything in life. So, anyway, Douglas Mawson. It’s the early 20th Century and this is the ‘Heroic Age’ of Polar exploration – that’s how it’s known. It’s a race for the South Pole at the moment, that’s everyone’s key focus.
A: People are bored of the Arctic. Too much ice.
C: I- There’s also a little bit of ice at the South Pole. Not to spoil things for you Alix, but-
C: I think people are just bored in general, actually, because there’s not that much going on internationally. It’s just before World War I, so I think we’ve got the time, the resources, people haven’t got much to do, and the only way they can really flex on other nations is by reaching the South Pole first.
A: There’s no podcasts to listen to.
C: No. In 1911, a British-Australian mission goes out, headed by Douglas Mawson. This is actually a really busy year for the Antarctic, because there’s already a handful of other missions in the area. We’ve got the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who we may remember his name from the Franklin episode, but he’s the first man to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage. He’s also gonna be the first to the South Pole – spoilers.
C: Then we’ve also got the British Robert F. Scott, who famously isn’t the first to the South Pole.
A: No cannibalism, though.
C: No, interestingly, I don’t think there ever is any even rumour of it.
A: Well, I suppose most of them were found, weren’t they?
C: Yeah. There’s also the Japanese Lieutenant Nobu Shirase. He’s not aiming for the Pole, but is surveying the area.
A: Finally, someone doing some actual work!
C: Yeah. And we also have German Lieutenant Wilhelm Filchner, whose main thing is figuring out if Antarctica is one continent, or just two islands stacked up in a trenchcoat.
A: I really wanted that to be ‘find out if Antarctica exists’, and it basically was.
C: Yeah, this is actually a really big question at the time – they’re not sure, is Antarctica one massive land mass, or is it, like the North Pole, there’s just a lot of ice so you can’t really tell the bits apart?
A: Yeah, that’s a solid question.
C: Solid question.
A: Because, I think- And it’s a solid island.
C: It is.
A: Should have just listened to this podcast. Would have saved them a lot of time.
C: God. God. Like Filchner and Shirase, Mawson’s mission isn’t aimed at the Pole. It’s got an emphasis on a scientific survey of geology, geography, weather, etc. – basically everything that he can measure, he’s going to measure. They will try for the Pole, because they’re in the area, so you might as well, but-
A: Two birds, one stone.
C: Yeah. They don’t really care about it that much.
A: I bet they do. I bet deep down they’re like, ‘We’re not here for that, we’re gonna be professionals. But it’d be really cool if we did.’
C: Yeah. They’re actually- they’re a bit snobby about the whole thing, because they- they sort of, from the tone, they make out like they’re better than Scott, ‘cause Scott’s just doing, like, this flashy Polar dash. And they’re like [in an academic voice:] ‘Oh we’re doing proper science actually. We’re professionals and Scott’s showing off.’ So our protagonist Douglas Mawson… As I said, born in Yorkshire. He’s an Antarctic explorer already and, in 1911, when our story starts, he’s 30 years old, so quite young. For a leader, as well.
C: He’s lived in Australia for most of his life. He’s qualified as a geologist.
C: Rocks. Yeah. So his big thing is he wants to find out what rocks are in Antarctica. That sounds stupid but that would- that’s genuinely useful scientific information. I think.
A: I mean, most likely. Good to know if any of them were worth anything, or could make things.
A: Or were good at throwing. You could skip them. I’m not sure this was quite what he was going for.
C: I don’t know much about geology, if I’m honest. So if you’ve heard of the famous Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, Mawson was part of his South Pole expedition aboard the Nimrod in 1907 to ‘09. They didn’t achieve the South Pole, but they did achieve the furthest recorded south.
A: Everyone does like these records. Well, I mean, there’s not much of the Earth to go.
C: So Mawson has made a bit of a name for himself. He’s been further south than any human ever, and he made it through a long trek hauling sledges, running low on food. He’s a qualified guy to lead this mission.
A: He’s done it and he’s come back before. Yeah, yeah that’s good.
C: We have our two other main characters for this story: we’ve got Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, and Xavier Mertz.
A: Sorry, can I have those names again?
C: Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis.
C: Xavier Mertz.
A: I think you need to have a decent name to be an explorer.
C: That’s probably part of it. Ninnis is a 24-year-old English soldier. He was recommended for the team by Scott, of all people, so… I guess it’s a small community, they all know each other. His father served in a British Arctic expedition in the 1870s and received an Arctic medal, so it seems like Ninnis is maybe drawn to the Antarctic as a way to impress old dad? He’s taken on by Mawson as a cartographer. Really, he wanted to be employed by Mawson as a pilot, despite never having flown a plane, so I think Mawson made the right call by saying ‘stick to the maps, darling.’
C: Just before they leave, he writes a letter to a friend voicing a fear that he might end his “blighted career down a crevasse”, but he’s so excited that he will often “lie awake hugging myself for joy”. So he’s scared but excited.
A: I think that’s an unfortunate turn of phrase.
C: I don’t assume it was a euphemism. ‘So excited, I just-!’
C: As for our third guy Mertz, he’s a 29-year-old Swiss mountaineer and ski champion.
A: That’s good.
C: Yeah! He’s meant to be taking over his father’s factory in Switzerland, but quite frankly he’s not interested in that, so he’s running away to join an Antarctic expedition.
A: This feels like the plot of a Broadway musical.
A: Kinky Boots. Kinky Sleds.
C: Kinky Skis.
C: It’s an odd choice for him to be a Swiss man, considering the rest of the team are Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders, but skiing is a useful skill to bring to the table. And, according to a letter that Mawson will later send to Mertz’ mother, he “had no one depending upon him”, which is in your favour if you’re off on a dangerous mission far from civilisation for years on end.
A: Yes, also a bit harsh to then send to his mother.
C: I don’t want to give too many spoilers about what happens to Mertz, but…
A: You can guess by the fact that he had to send a letter to his mother.
C: Yeah. I think it’s Mawson trying to justify what happened in the end.
A: I’m gonna say it again: to his mother.
C: Yeah, a bit harsh. So despite the official roles of the expedition – so Ninnis as a cartographer and Mertz as the ski advisor… ski specialist?
A: Ski man?
C: Ski man. They’re also both chosen to look after the dogs. And the dogs are another sort of unofficial fourth character, as a group, for this story. There are 49 of them to begin with-
A: Good boys!
C: Purchased from Greenland for sledge-hauling and, if it comes to it, eating.
A: Yeah. It’s- It happens.
C: It happens. These are the days before animal rights, really. People started getting a bit more-
A: Less keen on eating dogs.
C: Yeah, later on.
A: On expeditions.
C: Well actually it’s more about the treatment of the dogs on the expedition – forcing them to haul sledges and-
A: And also, well, you sort of have to wait ‘til technology evens up. When literally the only way you can travel is by sledge-hauling, less people are going to be animal rights.
A: Once you have engines and Ski-Doos, suddenly it looks just – and is – a bit more unjustifiable-
A: Making dogs work themselves to death.
A: Not that it is justifiable, but-
C: I get what you’re saying.
A: It’s the Golden Age of exploration; everyone’s focused on the exploring. No one’s focused on the dogs.
C: So the number of dogs, 49, that’s- That’s a difficult number because the dogs have this- this habit of breeding, having puppies, but also dying a lot, so, like, that number’s going up and down all the time. That’s the rough ballpark figure we’re starting with.
A: There are around 50.
A: And they do dog-like things.
A: Oh, have you seen the photographs of puppies on expeditions?
A: They are- There’s a wonderful photo from Ernest Shackleton’s expedition of Tom Crean – he’s this fierce Irishman – and he just has arms full of puppies.
A: We will link it, it’s beautiful. Let me just find this picture to show Carmella and you can hear her reaction live to being shown these puppies.
C: Show me the puppies!
A: Tom Crean, the Irish giant, holding sled-dog puppies…
C: Oh! My God, they’re so chubby! Look at them! [Laughs] That’s beautiful!
A: It’s wonderful.
C: Yeah, we’ll put the link to that in the show notes. It’s a good photo, guys.
A: I mean, it’s not this expedition.
C: It shows you what Antarctic puppies would look like.
A: It’s a picture of some dogs.
A: You need some sweetness after what comes next.
C: Yeah, I’m gonna be honest, if you like dogs… This episode may not be the episode for you.
A: We both love dogs.
C: Yeah… It’s gonna get difficult for us, Alix, I’m afraid.
A: And there’s not even any cannibalism, really, to sustain us. Only a rumour! A scurrilous myth.
C: There’s no human cannibalism. Right, another interesting addition to the mission is a light aircraft. Mawson hopes it’s gonna be useful for short dashes, as well as bringing in the public attention. It’s-
A: Uh, I- I can see the benefit of it. I also can see the issues with it.
C: Yeah, and the thing is, though, it’s all about setting records, and it would be the first flight in Antarctica.
A: Sorry, sorry, I thought Mawson wasn’t all about setting records? I thought he was all about just doing science for science’s sake?
C: Mawson is heavily in debt over this mission, as he has fronted a lot of it for himself, and – whilst he’s about doing science for science’s sake – he’s also about bringing in public attention and raising money. ‘Cause he’s so in debt, you can’t even imagine. I don’t have the figure. It’s massive. He’s raised all the funds for this mission himself, or paid them himself.
A: That’s a lot of funds.
A: Question here is why.
C: And why buy an aircraft with them? He did get a good discount on it.
A: Oh, that’s fine, then.
C: Didn’t get any discount on his sledges, though.
A: Or the dogs.
C: Or the dogs.
A: They’re their own discount: they keep making more.
C: They do. Unfortunately-
A: The aircraft doesn’t make more aircraft.
C: Well, yes, it also- The idea of the aircraft bringing in public attention… They decide to have a pre-expedition public fundraiser event in Australia before they set out, which involves a display of the aircraft being flown.
A: Oh this isn’t gonna end well, is it?
C: It ends in the hungover pilot crash-landing it so badly that the wings fall off.
A: Oh God.
C: And Mawson’s so in debt he can’t afford to buy new wings.
A: Oh God! Well maybe they should have let Ninnis fly the plane!
C: Yeah! I mean, he’s never flown one before, but he wasn’t drunk.
A: He’s not crashed a plane.
C: Yeah, he’s never crashed a plane before. But they decide that they will take the carcass with them, just in case.
C: The idea-
A: That’s- That’s a terrible idea.
C: The idea is that the engine still runs, so it could be used for sort of sledge-hauling.
A: But they have to haul it.
C: Their plan is that they’re gonna take a ship, set up a base – so they can leave the aircraft at base and then maybe use it to haul sledges. It’s, yeah, I agree.
A: That’s- That’s utter nonsense.
C: They’re trying to kit themselves out with all the modcons, and some of them-
A: Half an aeroplane.
C: It’s more aeroplane than has ever been to the Antarctic. Other modcons they have: they’ve got a wireless set, so unlike Scott and Amundsen, they won’t be cut off from the world. Great, ‘cause they can get news from home, but they can also send real-time updates back to keep the public interested, and in case of emergency. Pretty cool.
C: Good idea.
A: It is sensible at this time.
C: Yeah. And finally, they’ve got cameras, including a film camera. So, other people have taken cameras to take photographs, but they’re gonna get footage.
C: And of course, Mawson’s idea is that after the expedition he’s gonna do a lecture series and sell all these photographs so that he can try and crawl out of debt and not go to prison.
A: Oh, imagine. You get back from your Antarctic venture; you’ve got your bags full of rocks; and then just the debt collectors come. And like, ‘These rocks are worthless. Give us half your engine.’
C: [Laughs] But it’s neat. We have a lot of photographic documentation of the expedition because of this. I showed you earlier, Alix, there’s a very fun photo of these two guys posing with an Adélie penguin just ‘cause it’s- It’s really goofy-looking.
A: ‘Take a picture of the weird thing!’
C: Yeah – ‘Look at that stupid penguin! Take a photo! I’m gonna be in the background!’
A: People used to think that penguins were related to dinosaurs. I mean, they’re birds, so they kind of are, but they were looked at as this sort of missing link. Because they stood up and they were weird and they waddled and their strange clawy feet. So that was basically the equivalent of going to the Natural History Museum and taking a picture with the T-Rex.
C: Yeah, aw. If I can find a version of the photo online, I’ll put a link in the show notes for you guys. And as for food, we have a wide variety of tins and packaged goods, as well as fresh food, provisions designed specifically for sledge-hauling missions. These sledge-hauling provisions are: mainly pemmican, which is a delicious combination of powdered beef and 60 percent fat-
A: Yum. It lasts a very, very, very long time.
C: Low in weight, high in calories.
A: It just sounds delicious.
C: There’s also plasmon, which is dried milk powder formed into a biscuit-type thing.
A: Technical thing.
C: Then chocolate, tea, sugar, raisins – honestly, apart from the pemmican, this sounds like my regular diet.
A: I was just about to say, this is, you know, early 20th Century. They got any cocaine with them? Because First World War, they were sending care packages out with the hardcore drugs. I’d imagine they might have a little bit of sustenance to keep them going.
C: It wasn’t mentioned actually, but I’m sure they must have had a medical kit. Which was- Which would essentially just be cocaine at that point.
A: That’s probably why they enjoyed the penguins so much.
C: So the sledge-hauling provisions obviously focus on light weight, high calories. None of them very good against scurvy though, regrettably.
A: Oh yeah.
C: Yeah, that’s gonna be an issue.
A: Surely they know this by now?
C: Not really. They know that scurvy’s bad. They know that fresh food stops it. They don’t quite know the Vitamin C thing. They haven’t quite got there.
A: Sorry, sorry: Age of Sail, people know lime juice. People know lemons. People might not know exactly what does what, but they know enough how to deal with maybe not getting scurvy for a while. You’ve got no excuse. You’ve got half an aeroplane: you’re meant to be more technologically competent than that.
C: Back at base, they have got fresh food. They’ve got pineapples. They’re taking fresh fruit with them, but they’re just not planning to take it on a sledge-hauling mission. And I guess in general they’re not expecting sledge-hauling missions to be too long.
A: Okay, okay. I’ll tone back my vitriol slightly.
C: And also, Mawson, when he was on the Shackleton expedition, had a similar experience with long-distance sledge-hauling, running out of food – they supplemented their diet by killing local wildlife. The penguins. There’s quite a low of nutrition in a penguin’s fat. They don’t get scurvy because there’s enough vitamins in that to prevent scurvy, apparently.
A: Oh, so they’re technically planning on using penguins as a ration as well. Subconsciously.
C: That’s what he’s done before, so you’d think it’s what he’s planning to do again.
A: You’d hope.
C: You’d hope. We’ll see where that goes later in the story.
A: I wonder what penguin tastes like.
C: Hmm… I think it’s meant to be quite- quite fishy, isn’t it?
A: I’d imagine so.
C: I heard.
A: You are what you eat.
C: So the expedition leaves Australia in December 1911. They’re aboard the Aurora, which is a steam yacht, originally intended as a whaler. Fun fact: it formed part of the Greely rescue attempts in the previous century.
C: Yeah, so it’s- It’s done some ice time. They head for Macquarie Island, which is about halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, where they set up a wireless telegraph station to help with the relaying messages. ‘Cause obviously they’re quite a way away from everywhere else and they’ve got their radio with them. During that time, although Mawson has no way of knowing this, Amundsen has already made the South Pole, so-
A: But it’s okay, ‘cause Mawson isn’t trying for the South Pole; he’s here for science’s sake.
C: Exactly, exactly. It does mean that any attempts to achieve a furthest south later on are gonna be, you know, pointless.
A: Unless… The Earth is flat.
C: Unless the Earth is flat, you are quite right.
A: That would be quite a scientific achievement. I don’t know why I’m going on about flat Earth.
C: I- I think it’s ‘cause I said ‘conspiracy theory’ earlier, and I think that’s-
A: Yeah, I think-
C: Your brain’s on that now.
A: Aliens did it. Mawson was an alien.
C: Mawson does look kind of weird. If you look at photos of him, he looks- He doesn’t look an alien, but he looks- he looks a bit douchey.
A: We- We are objective in this podcast. We’ve already said he probably didn’t eat people. We’re just gonna talk about it for the next hour.
C: It’s pretty smooth sailing. The Aurora continues on. She has to steam through some coastal ice. On the 8th of January 1912, she reaches Adélie Land.
A: Where the penguins are?
C: Where the penguins are. Which is also on the Australia side of Antarctica, if you’re trying to do a little mental map of it. Half the men disembark at Commonwealth Bay to set up a main base of semi-permanent constructions, headed by Mawson.
A: Is this where the pineapples are?
C: This is where the pineapples are.
A: Most important part of the whole story.
C: Yeah. Then the remaining men continue westward in the Aurora to set up a second base further afield. So Mawson’s guys at Commonwealth Bay don’t have a ship or a boat with them any more. But they make an arrangement – the other people on the Aurora are gonna come back in a year to check on them.
A: I’m getting flashbacks to the Greely expedition.
C: To be fair, they do have a wireless set to call for help if they need it.
A: To be fair, changing technologies.
C: Yeah, yeah.
A: But still… I am seeing similarities.
C: Yeah, there’s an issue.
A: They’re stuck.
C: Yeah. The other guys on the Aurora, I’m gonna leave them for the time being. They’re not important to the story. There’s a lot of places in the Mawson story where people branch off, but we’re following Mawson, Ninnis, and Mertz; they’re our main dudes.
A: With their dogs.
C: With their dogs. I have some of the dogs’ names. I haven’t written them down, so, off the top of my head, the ones I can remember are Ginger Bitch, Pavlova, Gadget-
A: I know that in the Shackleton expedition, there were notes made about naming the dogs, because-
C: Oh, there’s one called George!
A: George! What a good boy.
C: Please continue.
A: Because the men were allowed to name the puppies, so I think Shackleton himself possibly notes that there is such a weird variety of names. I know, off the top of my head, that there was a Shakespeare, a Bob, a Hackenschmidt, and a Sailor. And it’s just, like- These are peak dog names!
C: I love that, oh! So good. But giving the dogs names makes it even sadder later on. For me, personally. For Carmella. The fact the dogs have names – that makes me sad.
A: We all know what’s coming next with the dogs. I’m sorry, but we do.
C: So, life at base: Mertz and Ninnis make good friends with each other, and also with a couple of other men. And they set up a little posse who call themselves the Hyde Park Corner, ‘cause they all live in one corner of the cabin together.
A: They’re a squad.
C: Yeah, it’s quite sweet.
A: They have a little secret handshake.
C: I think they had little secret meetings, and they do- They read to each other as well, I think.
A: This is nice. Can they do some work?
C: Not really. Um, Mawson- Mawson is not popular with the men. He has a rocky relationship with some of them, especially this guy called Madigan, who is another one in the Hyde Park Corner posse. So there’s a lot of arguments going on.
A: Do they actually call themself a posse?
C: No, that’s me.
C: They just call themselves the Hyde Park Corner. So for the first half a year, the weather is quite poor, and actually they don’t really do much. They take their measurements, and they do a bit of surveying and sampling and collecting. But overall they have not got much to show for their time. So in October, 100 days left to go until the western party is due to return with the boat, and summer’s returning, so Mawson prepares to send out four parties in different directions to do various different tasks. And actually get some work done. A southern party is gonna head for the south magnetic pole – they don’t realise yet that that’s kind of a done thing.
A: But they’re- They’re doing it for science.
C: They are, they are. They’re taking the air tractor, if it will run. It- It won’t.
A: Did they even check? Did they check before- Oh my God.
C: I think they tried a little bit. Then there’s a western party, a far eastern party, and an eastern coastal party. And they’re all taking various surveys via sledge. So, as I said, we’re gonna ignore some of the ones branching off, and our main focus is the far eastern party, led by Mawson and including Ninnis and Mertz. Our other main dudes.
A: Makes sense.
C: They’ve got three sledges and 17 dogs. Two of the dogs are heavily pregnant and have to be carried on the sledges at first, which is the opposite of what they’re meant to do.
A: [Laughs.] I’d have picked different dogs.
C: I- They’ve had to divvy the dogs up between the different parties. All the dogs are being taken out of camp.
A: Is there no one being left at camp? To look after the camp?
C: Yeah, there’s- There’s some guys left at camp. There should be enough food for the entire planned journey, and enough for the dogs – although the intention is to gradually killed them off and feed them to one another until there are just two left for the last leg of the return journey. Because obviously the sledges are gonna decrease in weight as the supplies get eaten.
A: This also happens in Greely. I just didn’t mention it.
C: Yeah, it’s not nice. Mawson’s goal is to travel towards where Scott’s mission recently discovered a coastline west of Cape Adare. So that’s to say that if Mawson can get far enough to meet up with where Scott came round, then that would prove that the Antarctic is one single continent. So that’s, like, a big deal.
A: That makes sense.
C: Yeah, he would answer a very important question. And all in all, that should be about 350 miles of travel.
A: I mean, not unreasonable.
A: People have done more.
C: In 100 days.
C: Yeah. And he’s done- I think he was a close distance to that in the Shackleton expedition, so he’s done it before.
A: He knows it’s achievable.
C: Yeah. They leave the main base on the 10th of November 1912, travelling with two of the other parties for a while, and then they separate on the 17th to head southeast. After just a few days, Mawson does begin to fear a bit for the condition of the dogs. They just seem a lot hungrier and more exhausted since switching them from a diet of fresh seal to a diet of biscuits. Yeah, Mawson, he’s not a nutritionist.
A: No, he’s not.
C: No. When one of the dogs gives birth, her pups are immediately consumed by the others. Which is, like, okay, these dogs are very hungry.
A: So not intentionally?
C: I think the pups were gonna be got rid of regardless, but it’s like the dogs just, like, swarmed on them-
C: And ate them. Including the pups’ own mother.
A: Survival cannibalism: it’s not just for people.
C: Exactly! And two adult dogs are also shot and fed to the others. So, we have got some verified cannibalism in the story. This is valid for inclusion in our podcast.
A: There are alleged discussions of cannibalism-
A: On the Mawson expedition.
C: There will be some human cannibalism implied later.
A: There we go.
C: Another worry is that the terrain is far rougher than they’d hoped, so they’re making slow progress, ‘cause they often have to stop to ascend or descend a sharp slope. After a bit, they come to a glacier. Which will later be named the Mertz Glacier. See if you can guess why!
A: I think I may know.
A: That’s not nice.
C: No. The problem with glaciers is that they often have crevasses hidden by bridges of snow, which you can walk over as a person, but with the weight of a sledge going over them, they’ll collapse. So you have to go slowly, only travel in good lighting, and test the ground as you go along. Several times, dogs fall into crevasses and have to be hauled out, and… There are no big disasters with crevasses yet. It doesn’t make for useful travel.
A: It’s coming, it’s coming.
C: Yeah. On the 21st of November, they stop for lunch, and only when they make to leave and find the ground collapsing under them, do they realise they’d been on a snow bridge all along. So it is really difficult to spot these. They were literally sitting on one for a good half hour or so.
A: Just having a bit- Spot of lunch-
A: Bit of seal. Couple of biscuits. Chewing on a rock. I mean, I don’t know!
C: You’re just- You’re sold on this rocks thing. Like, “he’s a geologist, it’s all he cares about!”
A: Yeah. Rocks and science: they sustain Mawson.
C: Ninnis almost falls to his death, but thankfully manages to scramble out. The loaded sledges also have some near misses and have to be unloaded before they can be dragged back out of the crevasses, it’s-
C: It’s a big deal.
A: Yeah, that would be- I can’t tell if it would be worse to lose a person – well, obviously worse to lose a person – or worse to lose all the supplies? But if you’re lost, you’re just gone. If all the supplies are lost… I don’t like the look on your face.
C: Yeah, I’m very interested that you’re saying this, ‘cause I think it’s gonna segue beautifully into a later part of this story. But I don’t wanna spoil it for you and tell you which one it is, so I’m gonna keep going.
A: Oh, okay. I mean-
C: But just keep that in mind.
A: I guess- I’ve guessed slightly, with the name of the glacier.
C: [Laughs.] Oh, you- Oh, oh okay, we’ll see, we’ll see. On the 23rd of November, they make it across that glacier, having travelled only 100 miles total from the hut, though the distance is only a guess because the sledge meter is playing up, and they’re estimating every day how far they’ve gone.
A: So they’re not entirely sure where they are?
C: They know which direction they’re going in, they don’t know how far they’ve gone. Yeah.
A: Cool. Best thing to do when you’re alone in the Antarctic, is not know where in the Antarctic.
C: To be fair, all of this part of the Antarctic hasn’t been mapped yet either. So… No one knows where they are.
A: Even better!
C: Two more dogs are shot. One runs away. Another eats 2.5 pounds of butter off the sledge.
C: So, I’m just saying, they’ve got the two dog experts with them, and these guys just cannot control the animals.
A: My old dog once ate an entire cheesecake.
C: So did my- My aunt’s dog. It was not good for him. He had to- He had to go to the vet’s and be put on a doggy IV, ‘cause it had that fake sugar that’s really poisonous to dogs and it was chocolate.
A: Aww. I’ll put a photo of my dog in the show notes. This is a very dog-heavy episode.
C: It is. And it’s not gonna go well for them. In late November, they reach another glacier, with much the same hazards.
A: What do they call this one?
C: [Pause.] This is gonna be the Ninnis Glacier.
A: Oh, God’s sake!
C: [Laughs.] Yeah! It’s- It’s not good. And the valley is the Mertz-Ninnis Valley, or the Ninnis-Mertz Valley? Something like that, ‘cause it’s got the two glaciers in it. I think you can guess which of our three men survives!
A: I can make an… educated assumption.
C: Mmhmm. So although they’re having difficulties with the terrain and the dogs, food provisions are still fine. In fact, they’re better than expected, because Mawson has been really careful with rationing. He’s learnt, after the Shackleton mission, that you’ve gotta be careful.
A: Food is important, guys.
C: Yeah. The three men are actually on starvation rations, despite having enough food to eat.
A: That is sensible.
C: Yeah, yeah, it-
A: Okay, maybe a-
C: It’s a bit extreme, but-
A: Bit extreme.
A: But we’ve covered so many stories where people just eat and eat and eat, and it’s like, no guys, you are in rather dangerous waters. At least he’s taking account of the situation.
C: Yeah. In early December, there’s some poor weather that keeps them trapped in their tent, and he again does the sensible thing of reducing rations whilst they’re not doing anything, so that- And then having more rations on days when they’re hauling.
A: I have more respect for Mawson than I thought I would after your description of him looking like a douche.
C: [Laughs.] Yeah. They start up again on the 9th of December. By now, they’re suffering from some physical afflictions.
A: Because they’re on starvation rations.
C: Yeah, and also they’ve just been hauling a lot, and it’s quite-
C: Quite bad for them. Yeah, that too. Ninnis has a whitlow on the finger and Mawson has a swollen lip. Now, David Day, the biographer whose account I’m mostly using here, says that these symptoms suggest the men both have herpes, and then says nothing more on the matter. Wh- What are you implying, Day?
C: I don’t know whether Day is implying… I- I don’t know. But there you go. So, I mean…
A: Someone thinks they might have had herpes.
C: Yeah. Just a fun- It’s just a fun tidbit to add to this adventure. One of the three sledges is now abandoned because the food supplies have depleted enough, and there’s no point hauling an empty sledge.
C: Yeah. Yeah. It’s not like there’s… much going on in the Antarctic.
A: Oh, that’s fine then!
C: No, okay, well- The famished dogs are allowed to eat the hide straps from it before they leave it.
A: That’s fair.
C: Like as a little treat. ‘Have some- Have some hide.’
A: Sorry, I’m assuming that the dogs are still on biscuits? ‘Cause they’re going to be doing much worse than the people.
C: Yeah, the dogs are doing really badly.
C: They are not healthy at all. They’re just hungry all the time. They’re eating hide straps.
C: Happily. They’re also eating each other. So-
C: They’re eating biscuit and dog. That’s their diet. Different to dog biscuits.
A: Have they not come across any penguins?
C: It doesn’t seem like they have. They’re not coastal.
A: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
C: They’re going over-
A: They’re coming in, aren’t they?
C: Yeah, so they actually don’t have that much wildlife around them. Which is another difference between that and the Shackleton mission that Mawson was on before. So even if he does want to kill that fresh food-
A: And supplement-
A: The Vitamin C with penguin anti-scurvy stuff.
C: Yeah, he can’t on this occasion.
A: The technical term for fat.
C: The remaining supplies are divided between the two other sledges. So, on one of them, you’ve got fuel, equipment, and a bit of human food. And that’s driven by Mawson with the weaker dogs.
A: Sorry… Human food?
C: Food for humans.
A: Human food.
C: Human food. And then the second, heavier sledge, has all of the dog food, most of the human food, and that’s driven by Ninnis with the stronger dogs.
A: I’ve just worked out what you were saying earlier. Oh dear.
C: [Laughs.] You see where this is going?
C: So- And then Mertz is leading on skis to test the route for crevasses.
A: Which is sensible. He’s the ski man.
C: Yep, he is the ski man. And he’s zipping along, he’s really- He’d be- He’d be fine without those sledges. He’d be [whooshing noise]. He’d be there. So, why split it up like that? Mawson’s theory is that the first sledge with the weaker dogs and equipment will go first, so that if there is an unexpected crevasse that Mertz doesn’t detect, that sledge will be lost and it will matter less, ‘cause they’ll still have all the food and the stronger dogs on the other one.
A: On the other side of the crevasse.
C: Yeah, but they could go round. As the biographer Day so politely puts it: “As a matter of fact, it was a stupid decision, dictated by following [the Shackleton mission’s] practice without thinking it through, and perhaps also born of complacency.”
A: I’m getting the impression that Day’s not overly a fan of Mawson?
C: Yeah, a lot of the reviews of this biography say that Day is, like, so harsh on Mawson. And this is not the first or the last time that he describes Mawson as stupid. It makes you wonder a little bit – why have you chosen this subject if you despise him so much? But it makes for really fun reading, ‘cause no punches are pulled. Yeah, it’s very biased but very enjoyable.
A: We are aware of the level of research that we’re conducting.
C: I’ve read some other sources around as well!
C: This is just the main one that I’ve read. On the 13th of December, they’re halfway through their allotted time before they have to get back to base to greet the Aurora. So basically they need to turn around about now. But they’ve reached fewer than 300 miles so far – nowhere near their goal of 350. And-
A: Well, they’re quite near their goal of 350.
C: Well… 300 is the figure that Mawson will later give. Remember, they’re guessing.
A: Okay, fair.
C: So there might be some exaggeration there. I think-
A: They can actually still see the camp.
C: [Laughs.] I think Mertz’ diaries have the figure somewhere more like 260.
C: But anyway, they’re definitely not- They’re not getting the 350.
A: They’ve not done it.
C: No. And the reason that he wants to reach 350 is because that means he’ll have gone further than he did in the Shackleton expedition.
A: But it’s not about achieving firsts-
A: It’s about science.
C: Of course. So Mawson decides to press on a bit longer.
A: No. You’ve been doing very well, Mawson, at making the sensible decision. This is not the sensible decision.
C: Yeah, but he reckons ‘cause the sledges are gonna be a bit lighter on the way back… Eh, yeah, no, I agree. So the next day, Mawson notices a crevasse as he crosses it on his sledge. It holds his weight, but he turns back to yell a warning to Ninnis, like “watch out for this crevasse I’ve just come over”. And he sees Ninnis adjust his own sledge so he can cross it at a right angle, which is the safer way to distribute weight and is how you go over a snow bridge on a sledge.
A: Don’t say we never teach you anything.
C: Yeah. So, turn it at a right angle. So… Continues on, thinking “cool cool cool, all good”. About a quarter of a mile later, he notices that Mertz ahead of him on the skis has stopped and is looking back. So Mawson also takes a look and… Ninnis is gone. When they go back and look, it looks like the snow bridge gave way, and the entire second sledge, all the dogs, and Ninnis fell into the crevasse so quickly that they couldn’t even cry out for help.
A: And all the food.
C: Yeah. The fall is so deep that Ninnis can’t even be seen. The dogs are gone. There’s one- There’s one dying dog on a ledge nearby that they can see about 50 feet down.
C: It’s- Yeah, it’s not good. So they try and devise a plan to rescue Ninnis – or at least to try and get some provisions out of the crevasse – that involves balancing the sledge over the crevasse and lowering a rope, but then they realise it’s not gonna work.
A: Yeah, they can’t even see him.
C: Yeah. So they decide not to try it. They do spend several hours calling out to Ninnis to see if he is still alive, but eventually they’re forced to conclude that, even if he didn’t die instantly, he’s gonna be dead from exposure by now.
A: And there’s nothing they can do about it anyway.
C: No. So, yeah, not only is Ninnis gone, but also all the dog food and nearly all the human food. They’ve also lost their tent and poles, and some of Mertz’ outer garments that he’d taken off, ‘cause he was getting quite warm skiing.
A: Okay, that does happen.
A: But it also seems very ironic.
C: Yeah. I mean, it is summer time. I think the temperature’s about 18 degrees-
C: In the middle of the day, which is, you know, that’s- That’s actually not so bad, that’s- That’s quite warm.
A: You sort of forget when you’re thinking Arctic and Antarctic.
A: That just because it can be really cold, doesn’t mean that it isn’t also a reasonable temperature as well.
C: Yeah. They have got no choice at this point but to turn back. As they should have done earlier, really.
A: Yeah, Mawson.
C: Yeah… Rather than heading back the way they came, or heading for the coast – which would have flatter ground and more opportunities for hunting, but they’d also have to go down some really crevasse-y steep slopes to get there – they decide that they’re gonna take a theoretically safer inland route, which is longer but hopefully will be faster. Also, no one’s been on that route before, and it will look impressive if he maps out some more of the land. That’s cynicism; that’s what Day’s theory is.
A: This is a bit Donner Party-esque.
A: “We’ll take this route that’s definitely legit. Not checked, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
A: So they’ve left Ninnis glacier?
A: And they’re heading sort of back their original route, but then they’re-?
C: Yeah, they’re sort of gonna curve round.
A: Wiggling off it.
C: Yep. They estimate it will take about 35 days. They have food for 10.
A: They’ve got some dogs.
A: The weaker, sicker, thinner dogs.
C: Six of them, to be exact.
A: They’ve done so badly keeping their dogs.
C: Yeah, well they have- They were intending all along to shoot them as they go; this is the plan.
A: Oh yes, but they’ve still done badly-
C: They have.
A: ‘Cause they’ve still got half of their time to go.
A: And less than half of their dogs.
C: Yeah. And these dogs are in ragged condition. They’re on starvation rations. They’ve been hauling. They’ve been eating other dogs. So they’re not exactly gonna be nutritious meat. Mawson and Mertz now have to strike a careful balance between moving as quickly as possible and conserving enough energy to make their rations last – and also they’ve gotta get back in time for the Aurora. So it’s all a bit of a headache of maths to figure out how to get there.
A: And they don’t know exactly where they are.
C: That too. They make good distance for the first few days, killing dogs as they go, but the navigation’s very difficult and their equipment’s playing up, and Mawson’s suffering from snow-blindness.
A: You do sort of make it sound like they were just killing dogs for fun.
C: Killing dogs as the dogs collapse.
A: I know that, but it’s- “Just killing dogs as they go.”
C: Just, oh, kill a dog here, kill a dog there.
A: They’re gonna run out of dogs.
C: They are.
A: The dogs are the true heroes of Antarctic exploration.
C: Yeah. It’s also – as I said – summertime, so the sun’s making the snow surface very sludgy.
C: Difficult for the sledges.
C: And the dogs.
A: And the skis, I’d imagine, as well.
C: Yeah, so they have to a lot of the travel by night, which makes it much more riskier with the crevasses, because they can’t really see where they’re going.
C: By the 21st of December, they’re down to just two dogs, and these are so exhausted they can’t haul the sledge any longer – they are carried on top.
C: And that’s-
A: I know I’m aww-ing; I know what’s gonna happen next.
C: I know, I know. The reason that they’re being carried rather than killed straight away is because, as I said, it’s actually quite warm, and if you kill them now then the meat’s gonna go off. So it’s- It’s more just a case of making the meat last.
A: We’ve covered this in other stories.
C: The method of eating a dog, by the way, is to consume the edible organs immediately after butchering, and then to cook the meat on subsequent days, inside the tent to keep the wind off the stove. The problem with that is that it causes condensation inside the tent, so the sleeping bags are permanently damp, and of course Mertz doesn’t have his waterproof trousers any more, ‘cause those were on the sledge that went with Ninnis.
A: This is just going from problem to problem.
C: Yeah. So the food they have are the scant supplies of pemmican that weren’t on the lost sledge, along with some chocolate and raisins – quite nice – but Mawson decides to save these, as they’ll last longer, and just start on the dog meat.
A: That is again sensible. He’s had his brief moment of folly.
A: And he’s now back to thinking.
C: Well… We’re gonna play a fun game now, Alix.
A: Ooh, I love games.
C: It’s called ‘What dietary deficit will kill them first?’ Here are your options: number one, scurvy. ‘Cause there’s no Vitamin C in that diet.
C: Number two, Vitamin A poisoning from eating the dog livers.
A: Oh, yeah, that’s a point!
C: Yeah! Luckily, the dogs are starving, so their livers are a lot smaller and therefore contain less Vitamin A than standard.
C: Option three, protein poisoning. This is a rare one. Maybe if you’re on the Atkins diet, then you might get it? But it’s basically when you’re eating no carbs and no fat, and just protein. It poisons you. And there’s pretty much no fat on these dogs. Because it’s all been worn off. So they are living off pure protein. And option four is simple starvation… Keep listening to find out!
A: So, I’m gonna place my bets… Okay, I’m gonna confer with myself.
A: For a moment. I think, logically, the answer is most likely to be five: all of the above. But, while too much protein would be a major problem, they are not actually going to have a lot of dog meat, so I don’t feel like that could necessarily kill them before they started on the smaller other rations. So I’m gonna put that on quite low down the list. I think out-and-out starvation is up there.
A: I had forgotten about Vitamin A poisoning. Also very common: never eat a polar bear’s liver.
A: That does bad stuff to you. But I had forgotten about that. I’m seeing certain options with that. Scurvy is a classic. But I’m- If I had to pick one of your four options, I do wanna go with straight-out starvation.
C: Okay, well let’s find out, shall we?
A: What do I win?
C: [Laughs.] You win this dog… carcass.
A: Oh, I got- My face when I got told ‘dog’, and then… ‘carcass’.
C: Maybe that game was in bad taste. That wasn’t very respectful of me, but I’ll continue with that. I think tonally it fits our podcast. As December progresses, the men abandon various non-essentials as they go to lighten the weight, but even so the exertion and the diet is taking a severe toll.
A: What non-essentials do they dispense of? Because they don’t have much.
C: No. They’ve got some bits of tent and- They’ve got a little bit here and there.
C: The camera. They’ve still got their camera; they leave that.
A: Oh, is this found? Is the camera ever found?
C: No, I don’t think we have any photos from Mawson’s trek.
A: That means somewhere, there’s a camera. I mean, ‘somewhere’: it’s in the Antarctic.
A: It’s really cool when they discover-
C: Maybe, maybe that’s one to watch out for, then. By Christmas Day, they’re crossing another glacier. So they stop for Christmas dinner: they have two bits of biscuit between them and some dog stew. Just 75 miles to the north, one of the other sledge parties are enjoying a festive feast of fried emperor penguin breast and improvised plum pudding in whisky. Aw. This is the one led by Madigan, the other Hyde Party Corner bloke who hates Mawson. It’s all- It’s all very sad, really.
A: So close, and yet-
A: So far.
C: Mawson estimate that they have 158 miles to go as the crow flies, which is closer to 200 miles in actual travel, ‘cause they’re not crows. And also ‘cause they don’t know where they are. Christmas Day, he sits down to do the calculations of whether or not they can survive on the remaining food, and – more to the point – whether both of them can survive on the remaining food.
C: And he decides to reduce the rations further.
A: Logical. But also… I’m assuming they’re out of dogs by now, as well?
C: No! They’ve got one left. We’re about to get to that.
A: Alive? Oh, okay. I wasn’t expecting that.
C: Mawson has been rationing so severely, they left the sledge with, I think, two bags of human food and two dogs, and so far they’ve eaten one of the dogs and half of one of the bags of human food. It’s completely so strictly rationed: he is doing quite well on that front. On the 28th of December, their final dog, Ginger, can go no further and is shot and cooked. Poor Ginger.
A: She’s not really got much choice whether she’s going further or not.
C: No. No. I think they wait until she collapses, basically.
A: Oh, how noble.
C: So they can then return to the other supplies, because they have literally been living almost exclusively off dog meat up until now. So now they go back to small amounts of butter, biscuit, pemmican, and chocolate for their daily fare, which does bring up the fat content a bit, so that’s taking away from the protein poisoning slightly.
A: See this was my logic. This was my logic.
C: Yeah. Just going by Mawson’s diaries, either by coincidence or by design, his portions tend to include more fat. For example, he’s more willing to eat liver and brain than Mertz is, and the dogs are starving, so all their fat is being redistributed to the vital organs like the liver and brain. So, I know liver, Vitamin A, but also more fat to counteract the protein poisoning. It’s difficult.
Obviously Mawson’s in control of the rations, so that’s his choice, but also there’s this- this idea that Mertz, firstly he’s the one that’s been in charge of the dogs. And secondly, there’s this rumour that he was a vegetarian. Now, I think both of those are hazy reasons to suggest that he was less willing to eat the weirder bits of meat, but, that’s one of the rumours that’s been floated about. I personally think if you’re starving, you’ll eat some brain if it’s offered to you, but-
A: Well, we’ve covered this in previous episodes.
C: Yeah, we’ve covered this.
A: The obvious thing to say here is we surely only have one record?
C: At this point, Mertz was still keeping his own diary.
A: Does he explicitly state that he was less willing to eat dog meat?
C: It doesn’t really say either way, no.
A: So we only really have one record.
C: I think so.
A: By ‘dog meat’ I obviously mean the other bits. Or even, if he was a vegetarian, dog meat in general.
C: Yeah, so that might explain, though, why – although both men are suffering – Mertz is doing worse out of the two. It also might be because, you know, he doesn’t have his hat and over-trousers because they were on Ninnis’ sledge. So he’s also more cold and damp.
A: Not a good-
A: Situation to be in.
C: Mawson writes that they are both ‘off colour’, but isn’t specific about the symptoms. Which means that it’s hard to say which of those early issues is kicking in first. Probably a mix, you’re right. Yeah, it was a trick question. We don’t know, Alix, actually, and people are still debating it to this day.
A: And you expect me to be able to solve it?
C: [Laughs.] Yeah.
A: Put on the spot with no evidence.
C: Yeah, I just wanted to embarrass you really.
A: And yet- And yet I got it right.
C: Probably. Over the first three days of the new year, they’re trapped in a tent by snowdrift. At this point, Mertz stops writing his diary, claiming that he’s too tired. Mawson further reduces rations because they’re not expending energy – these are tent days, so lower ration days. On the 3rd, they manage five miles, before they’re forced to stop because Mertz has frostbitten fingers. He’s also losing skin off his legs, which is a symptom of Vitamin A poisoning, but also his legs have been constantly damp.
A: Oh, trench foot!
C: Yeah. So-
A: Frozen trench foot.
C: It is not pretty for him. The next day, he’s so unwell that they remain in the tent, and Mawson opens up a new bag of rations to feed him a little bit more than usual. That’s nice.
A: Yeah, that’s appreciative.
C: The next couple of days, Mertz continues to refuse to move, and even begins to refuse to eat any more meat or any food.
A: According to Mawson?
C: According to Mawson.
A: I feel like I’m being very accusatory, but I’m also wanting to, you know-
A: Point that out.
C: On the 6th of January, they manage two more miles, but then they again have to stop for Mertz, who has fever and diarrhea – which are symptoms of protein poisoning. So it’s all- It’s all coming in. Mawson writes in his diary that he could – if he needed to – reach the hut himself, “with the provisions at hand, but I cannot leave him. His heart seems to have gone.” The next day, Mertz is delirious, and when he wakes up, he asks Mawson “Am I a man or a dog?” – which I think- Ah, that really gets me.
C: That really gets me, considering what’s been happening to the dogs and- ugh.
A: Yeah, there’s definitely layers to that.
C: Yeah. And he later allegedly tries to bite off one of his own frostbitten fingers. It’s the end of the line for Mertz, basically.
C: So 2am on the 8th of January, he finally dies, raving, thrashing about so wildly Mawson has to pin him down. Remember the Mertz Glacier I mentioned earlier?
C: Yep. That’s where he’s buried in the ice by Mawson.
C: Yeah- He- Well, that’s what Mawson claims. So. First question: did Mawson plan for Mertz to die? So he was in control of the rations, as we’ve said. He appeared to eat more of the nutritious foods than Mertz. And now that Mertz is dead, Mawson’s changes of survival are drastically increased. We don’t know exactly how much food was left at this point because Mawson – despite being specific earlier – has gotten less specific as time goes on, but it’s definitely gonna last longer for one guy than two.
C: And certainly the day after Mertz dies, Mawson stays in the tent to build up strength, but increases his rations, which has been against the practice so far on the mission, where he’s had lower rations on tent days.
C: So there’s a suggestion here that maybe he has intentionally starved Mertz out, knowing that he can last longer ‘cause he’s done it before when he was on the Shackleton expedition. Possibly.
A: The idea of Mawson intentionally or unintentionally making sure that he has more food than Mertz is cannibalism by proxy.
C: Yeah, you ensure someone else dies so that you can eat it. It’s- If we go back to the issue of the Mignonette, it’s that necessity argument, isn’t it?
C: You know, if you’re both hanging onto a piece of wood at sea and you kick the other guy off to survive-
A: And if Mertz is definitely going to die – and by the time in the tent, this is pretty much the answer.
C: There’s no proof of that; that’s just one of the theories. But interesting to discuss.
A: This is now sort of theory time.
A: Every other story, we have solid evidence for.
A: Most of the time on land or ice it’s been forensic.
A: Most of the time at sea, it’s been verifiable-
C: They’ve just confessed, basically.
A: Yeah, verifiable testimony. This is our only one where it’s up to you.
C: Yeah. The argument against that theory is that if Mawson wanted Mertz to die, why not abandon him earlier? Why spend all those days in the tent nursing him? I don’t think that’s definitive proof that Mawson didn’t plan for it to happen.
A: He could have planned for Mertz to receive less food.
A: Not necessarily for Mertz to die.
C: Yeah. Mmm. So I don’t think that that theory disproves it, but it also- I guess it’s something to consider. But here’s the bit we’ve been waiting for, Alix.
A: Is it cannibalism time?
C: Uh-huh. On the 10th of January, Mawson writes in his diary that he “boiled all the rest of [the] dog meat.” Ginger died two weeks ago, and they spent three days cooking Ginger after that. The last reference to eating any dog meat was on the 6th of January. So is there really any dog meat left on the 10th? And if it’s not Ginger being cooked – who is? Can I just go back to Mertz’ question: “Am I a man or a dog?”
C: Yeah. So that is literally, like, the main part of what this case is based on, guys. That’s as much evidence as you’re gonna get.
A: What I did want to say is, when you said the day after Mertz dies, Mawson increases his rations: if he’s been so fastidious against increasing rations out of the leftover food.
A: Prior to this. What did he eat then?
A: Because that’s where my head went. And I know we’ve slightly got this on the brain, but-
C: Mmhmm, mmhmm, it’s all very- Yeah.
A: And it’s not necessarily that we’re being suspicious. We are not the first people-
A: To think this.
C: Absolutely not.
A: And even your man Day isn’t the first person to put it into writing.
C: So after- I’m gonna fast-forward a little bit through the rest of Mawson’s trip. It’s a gruelling return journey, he almost doesn’t make it. But on the 1st of February, he does reach a food cache, and then on the 8th of February he gets back to the hut. He misses the Aurora by half a day.
C: Oohh. It- It leaves that morning. But there are a couple who’ve been left behind to wait at camp because they-
C: They want to know where his expedition is.
C: And they’re forced to remain in Antarctica another year. There’s a lot of resentment, but in general, Mawson’s safe and will eventually return home a hero. The question about Ginger, though, still follows the story to this day. In 1915, the New York Evening Globe publishes an article with the headline [In an American accent:] “Companions Die, and Explorer After Two Days Decides Not to Eat One of Them”.
A: Very strange headline.
C: It is. In which it’s reported that Mawson had admitted, “I thought for two days about eating Mertz” but had decided against it, saying “It would always leave a bad taste in my mouth.”
A: Oh, come on!
A: Come. On.
C: Mawson fervently denied ever having said such a thing, up until his death in 1959. That could be journalists making it up; that could be Mawson saying something then regretting saying it, because it implies the opposite of what he’s said. But this is the other half of the cannibalism theory. So the allegations that he could have been a cannibal have resurfaced over and over since then.
A: So he fervently denied that he didn’t eat his companion?
C: He fervently denied ever mentioning even thinking about eating his companion.
A: Not technically the same thing as denying having eaten his companion.
C: No, it’s not. In 2007, the explorer Tim Jarvis starred in a Channel 4 documentary, where he made the same trek as Mawson, surviving on similar provisions and hauling a sledge of the same weight, as a way of trying to exonerate Mawson of the claims of cannibalism. Although Jarvis made it, as he told the Daily Mail – boo!
C: It’s a source; sorry guys. “At the end of the day, I haven’t done what he did. I’ve covered the same distance with the same weight, clothes and equipment but I haven’t experienced the same crevasses as he had or the same health problems like the skin peeling off from eating dog meat.” So yeah, it’s not really evidence one way or another.
A: I mean, he also didn’t experience the psychological element of losing two men.
C: No, that too.
A: And losing- And shooting the dogs. ‘Cause even with these men knowing that these dogs were there for food, you’ll have – at this point, probably seen the show notes – seen the puppy photos. People like cute dogs.
A: People on Polar voyages become very attached to their animals.
C: He also, of course, had the documentary crew with him the whole time, so although the documentary crew didn’t help him, he wasn’t in that kind of isolated situation. He couldn’t take live dogs with him – it’s a preservation area – so what he took was pre-cooked kangaroo meat, which has a similar protein consistency to dog meat. But, to healthy dog meat.
C: So it doesn’t really prove anything, but he tried.
A: And also he did want to exonerate Mawson. And I’m just gonna come out and say it: he didn’t have anyone he could eat. And he was being filmed the whole time.
A: It’s not an unbiased view.
C: No. So for now, the question of whether Mawson really did eat Mertz is left unanswered. But, um, maybe one day we’ll have something conclusive. In 2009, a French scientist identified the spot where Mertz is supposedly buried. At the centre of the glacier named after him. So it’s wasn’t- Didn’t take that much science, I guess! So assuming that the body hasn’t been destroyed by compression, and assuming that we could get to it in the middle of a glacier, maybe one day that could hold the answer to the question. I’m definitely gonna be looking out for that one. To be continued…
A: To be continued…
[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Thank you for listening to today’s episode on Douglas Mawson. A little bit of a bait and switch, as we’ve concluded that he was perhaps not actually a cannibal.
C: He was. Join us next time for our final episode. We’re gonna take to the Arctic skies in the Marten Hartwell story.
[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]