One of the most interesting cases involving frozen remains began about one hundred and seventy years ago with an expedition to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route to Asia, by traveling around the northern edge of North America.
On May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin and his 134-man crew sailed from Greenhithe, England, in two ships, the HMS Terror and the Erebus. Franklin envisioned a lengthy and difficult trip through Arctic waters, so the ships were specially prepared and outfitted. The ships had steam heat (to keep the crew warm), locomotive-driven propellers (to provide power if the ships became stuck in the ice), and iron-reinforced bows (to help the ships cut through ice floes). They were so well stocked with food (including more than 120,000 pounds of flour, almost 17,000 liters of alcohol, and about 8,000 tin cans of meat, soup, and vegetables) that Franklin believed he had enough to last five — and maybe seven — years. The ships even had room for some luxuries, such as extensive libraries, hand organs, mahogany writing desks, and school supplies that could be used to teach reading and writing to crew members.
Once the ships reached Baffin Bay in late July, however, no one heard from Franklin or his crew again. Approximately twenty-five major search expeditions were needed to uncover some of the facts surrounding what became known as "the Franklin disaster."
An 1850 expedition seemed to promise some answers when Captain Erasmus Ommanney came across the ruins of a stone hut, cans of food, torn mittens — and the graves of three of Franklin's crew. Headboards indicated that the men had died separately, from unknown causes. The first to die was John Torrington, on January 1, 1846 — only seven months into the expedition. The other headboards marked the graves of John Hartnell, who died four days after Torrington, and William Braine, who died three months later. Rather than explain anything, though, the burial site simply added to the puzzle: why had the crew begun to die so early in the expedition?
Another expedition in 1857, led by Sir Francis McClintock, discovered a number of written messages which did provide some answers. The Erebus and Terror had become stuck in the ice in September 1846. During the next year and a half, nine officers, including Sir John Franklin, and fifteen sailors died. Finally, in April 1848, the surviving members of the expedition decided to abandon the ships and walk on the ice some 120 miles to a river where they could row to a trading post. The unfinished messages suggested that none had survived, and it is easy to see why: the men used extremely poor judgment. Not only had they tried to drag a 1,200-pound lifeboat across the ice, they had selected an assortment of strange items to fill the boat: silk handkerchiefs, perfumed soap, six books, tea, and chocolate.
Despite their importance, the messages failed to explain why the expedition had failed. The answer to the mystery, a doctor on one of the search trips surmised, might be found by examining the bodies of Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine to look for clues to the cause of their deaths. But his idea struck authorities as improper, and it was ignored. Finally, in 1980, anthropologist Owen Beattie decided to study the remains of the three men to "look for information on health and diet, for indications of disease, for evidence of violence, and information as to each individual's age and stature." Beattie was going to solve the mystery — even if it meant examining three frozen mummies.
On August 17, 1984, Beattie and his research team were ready to examine John Torrington at the gravesite on Beechey Island. To get this far, the team had had to dig six feet through the icy earth to Torrington's frozen coffin. Then they had to remove the last layer of ice from the top of the coffin. As they did, they became aware of a strong odor — not from Torrington's body but from the blue wool cloth that covered the coffin. Even after 138 years, the cloth reeked.
As Beattie and his crew came closer to the coffin lid, he and journalist John Geiger wrote that
the wind picked up dramatically and a massive, black thunder cloud moved over the site. The walls of the tent covering the excavation began to snap loudly, and as the weather continued to worsen the five researchers finally stopped their work and looked at one another. . . . Some of the crew were visibly nervous and Beattie decided to call a halt to work for the day. That night the wind howled continuously, rattling the sides of Beattie's tent all night and sometimes smacking its folds against his face, making sleep difficult.
The next morning the winds had died down; Beattie was finally able to remove the last covering of ice and gravel stuck to the top of the coffin. When the coffin top was completely open, Beattie and his team were confronted by a block of ice that contained Torrington's body.
Now they had to determine how to thaw the body from the ice. They could not use any hot air, since that might destroy the body and any artifacts. They couldn't wait for the body to thaw on its own, because the outside air temperature was below freezing. And they could not chip at the ice for fear of damaging the body.
They decided to pour water onto the ice, section by section. The first part to be revealed was Torrington's shirt, then his bare white toes. A piece of the blue fabric that had covered the coffin also covered Torrington's face. Team member Arne Carlson worked on thawing the cloth so that it could be moved without tearing and shredding it. He worked with warm water and large surgical tweezers to free the fabric from the ice.
Suddenly the last bit of ice fell away and the fabric lifted free. Torrington — only twenty at the time of his death — looked peaceful. His eyes were partially open; the skin on his nose and forehead had been darkened by the blue cloth. The rest of his face was quite pale. His teeth were clenched, his lips open.
The thawing of the entire body continued, so that it could be autopsied. When the ice was gone, Beattie and Carlson picked John Torrington's body up from the coffin. Rather than the stiff body they had expected, they found it to be limp.
When the researchers undressed Torrington, they discovered how sick he had really been. His body was so thin that each rib was clearly visible; he weighed only about 85 pounds. Though Torrington's body would have lost weight and shrunk due to the fact that its moisture began to evaporate once he died, Beattie concluded he had been thin and frail at the time of his death. His hands were callus-free; his nails were clean. Although he was the head stoker of the Terror,Torrington obviously had been too sick to work for a long time before his death.
The autopsy process, which involved the removal of tissue and organ samples, bone cuttings, and fingernail and hair clippings, took four hours. When they were finished, the men had little time left before they were scheduled to be picked up by a small plane to escape the onset of the early Arctic winter. They quickly visited the site of a large tin can dump used by Franklin's men during their stay on the island. Beattie examined some cans — still there after 138 years — and removed a few to study later. Then the team returned to civilization to analyze their findings.
The autopsy results showed that Torrington suffered from a variety of lung problems caused by smoking or by breathing coal dust. He appeared to have died of pneumonia. But this condition was aggravated by a surprising condition: a high exposure to lead. This fact was discovered by analyzing a ten-centimeter length of Torrington's hair taken from the back of his neck. Microscopic examination of this hair revealed that Torrington had ingested large quantities of lead during the first eight months of the expedition.
Beattie wanted to know where the lead had come from. He examined the tin cans from the island and found that they were improperly soldered, which would have allowed lead to leak into the food. Could this have been responsible, he wondered, for the deaths of all the men?
Two summers later, Beattie returned with a team of ten researchers. This time the group would be performing autopsies on Hartnell and Braine — and taking x-rays of their bodies. If they found evidence of lead poisoning, Beattie would be close to confirming his suspicions. Following the same process they had used on Torrington, the team uncovered and then thawed the two bodies.
Hartnell's body held a surprise for the team: it had already been autopsied, most likely by Harry Goodsir, the doctor on board the Erebus. By looking at the type of incision and noting the organs that had been removed, Beattie and his team realized what Goodsir had concluded: Hartnell had died of tuberculosis. Nonetheless, Beattie took samples of Hartnell's tissues, hair, fingernails, bones, and organs.
The team was also surprised by Braine's body. His face was covered by a bright red handkerchief. When it was removed, Beattie and the others saw a grinning mouth and a flattened nose. Because the coffin had not been quite deep enough, the coffin lid had pressed into Braine's nose when it was sealed. Although his eyeballs weren't well preserved, his half-opened eyes and glassy eyeballs made him look as if he had just woken from a long nap.
Unexpectedly, they found that his left arm had been amputated and placed under the body. Examination also revealed teeth marks on his shoulders and other parts of the body: his body had been gnawed on by rats before it was buried. In fact, his body showed signs of decomposition, which indicated it had not been buried immediately after death, but had been exposed to the elements and the rats for a while. That might explain the evidence of his hasty burial (and the removal of his left arm).
When the autopsy was completed and the two men reburied, Beattie and his team left the island. All of the samples that they took were sent away for analysis, and Beattie anxiously waited for the results.
The labs confirmed what Beattie expected: high lead levels in all three men. Unquestionably, their exposure to lead had come from the tinned food that had made up so much of the crew's nourishment. Then, as now, government contracts were awarded to the lowest bidder. The company that had supplied the canned goods had a reputation for producing inferior goods. And although the three men had not died of lead poisoning itself, their exposure to such high amounts of lead weakened them to the point that other diseases could take hold and eventually kill them. As for the remaining crew, their reasoning powers had been damaged — fatally, one might say — by their exposure to lead. The 120-mile march across the ice with the heavy lifeboat and irrelevant goods was proof of that.
The problems of lead poisoning were not well known in 1845, and it wasn't until 1890 that soldering the inside of food cans was banned in England — forty-five years after the Franklin expedition. Nonetheless, the mystery of the disastrous expedition was explained quite clearly by the mummies of three of its crew members.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Originally published in How to Make a Mummy Talk (Houghton Mifflin, 1995). All rights reserved.