As they huddle around the snowy, makeshift grave, a team of researchers prepare themselves for the worst. Once the coffin has been prized from the ice, however, they realize that nothing could have prepared them for this. There, staring back at them, are the open eyes of a man who’s been dead for over 100 years.
In 1845 Sir John Franklin headed out from England’s shores. He was bound for an unexplored section of the Northwest Passage, through the Canadian Arctic along the coast of North America. A grueling journey lay ahead, but Franklin was no stranger to long voyages. Indeed, he had already been on three, serving on two as the leading officer.
This particular journey initially consisted of 134 crew members across two vessels, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. The ships were well-stocked with tools – and also provisions to last for at least three years, including thousands of pounds of raisins, meat and pickles.
Three months after the ships had embarked from the port of Greenhithe, England, five of the original crew members had returned, having been sent home. But the remaining 129 men were never heard from again. Indeed, their fate was a mystery for more than a century.
Early expeditions to track down Franklin’s crew in the 1850s did locate a few clues to their whereabouts, however. A team of American and British explorers found an abandoned campsite on Beechey Island, a tiny parcel of land in the Canadian Arctic. What’s more, the discovery soon led them to three graves, dated some four years prior and purportedly belonging to Franklin’s crew.
Search teams on these earliest voyages also found notes indicating what may have happened to Franklin’s crew. It seemed that the vessels had run into ice in 1846. However, instead of investigating further, the search party returned home. And while other shreds of evidence came to light, they were all just pieces of an incomplete puzzle.
Ironically, those same search teams actually helped to complete Franklin’s original mission during the search for his crew. After all, sailing up to the Northwest Passage took them through it, charting new locations. And yet nobody would know what actually happened to that original voyage for over 100 years.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 138 years later that anthropologists finally cracked the mystery wide open. A team of researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada headed out to Beechey Island, where they managed to shed new light on precisely what happened to Franklin’s lost crew.
In 1984, then, Owen Beattie and his team made the journey up to Beechey Island. There, they too found the three graves that had laid undisturbed for over a century. Each one had been marked by a wooden headboard, indicating that the deaths had occurred over a period of three months.
And, four feet below the ground, the scientists discovered the coffin of one John Torrington. He had died 138 years ago, aged just 20. Torrington had been the first member of Franklin’s crew to perish, but it was obvious that he had not been the last – and nor had the other two men buried beside him.
Once Beattie and his team had retrieved the body from the coffin, they discovered, to their surprise, that it had been almost perfectly preserved beneath the Arctic freeze. Torrington’s body lay on a bed of wood chips, still dressed in the cotton shirt and linen pants that he’d presumably worn while alive. His crew mates had wrapped him in linen sheets and fabric. And, most chillingly, his eyes were still open.
“It was a startling sight. He looked more alive than dead,” Beattie told People magazine back in 1984. For while his team were used to seeing corpses, they were still shocked by how well preserved Torrington was. “It looked like there was somebody in there looking out at the world looking in at him.”
Torrington, it turned out, came from Manchester, England. Prior to signing on to Franklin’s crew, he’d worked as a steam boiler assistant. But in 1845 he joined the Royal Navy, subsequently ending up on that fateful journey to the Northwest Passage.
Intent on discovering more about the lost crew, Beattie and his team performed an autopsy on Torrington’s body. As a result, they were able to draw some conclusions about the way he may have died. For instance, he was very malnourished as death drew near, suggesting that the crew’s food supplies had been running low.
Nevertheless, his body had been very carefully buried. Hence, it was likely that the expedition had actually been going relatively well at the time of his passing – despite his obvious malnutrition. The real cause of Torrington’s death, then, was probably not starvation.
In fact, scientists believe that it may have been a case of lead poisoning. However, the cause of said poisoning is still up for debate – in particular, whether it had come from poorly packed cans of food or the ships’ water systems. And throwing yet another spanner in the works, researchers believe that it may have even been pneumonia that took Torrington’s life.
Whatever happened to him specifically, however, the possible causes still told Beattie and his team plenty about Franklin’s crew. Indeed, it’s thought that lead poisoning could have been a major factor in the fates of the rest of the men. And not simply because it may have killed them, but because the insanity that results from it would explain some of their more rash decisions.
Abandoning the ships for King William Island, for one, may not have been the first choice of sane, healthy men. And, like the crew, those ships would lay lost for more than a century. In fact, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror weren’t found until 2014 and 2016, respectively.
Eighteen months after their first journey, Beattie and his team returned to Beechey Island. Once there, they excavated and examined the bodies in the other two graves that lay alongside Torrington’s. Those tombs belonged to William Braine and Josh Hartnell. As they had done with Torrington previously, then, the team took away samples of skin, nail and hair for analysis.
Once they had finished with the bodies, the researchers carefully reburied them back in their original graves. And in Torrington’s coffin, they left something extra: a note written by one of the scientists, and signed by the rest, left in respect to the lost men. While we may never know precisely what happened to Franklin’s lost crew, the bodies of three of its men have filled in some important aspects of this century-old maritime mystery.