WARNING: The following material includes pictures and information that some may find disturbing.
One of maritime history’s biggest mysteries still baffles some experts to this day and leaves the door open for interpretation to what happened to the crew of what became known as Franklin’s Lost Expedition. The expedition was of the Northwest Passage to find a faster route for English ships to travel to Asia without having to cross the Atlantic and passing through Cape Horn (the southernmost tip of South America). The expedition led by Sir John Franklin departed from England in 1845.
Franklin lead 128 men on this voyage who crewed the two recently modified warships turned icebreakers, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The two ships made their way to the Canadian Arctic and were never seen again. Three years later an expedition was launch to find all 129 men. In 1850 one expedition made a mysterious discovery on Beechy Island, there was no sign of either ships or crew except for some artifacts and three graves. This leads many to believe that Franklin and his crew abandoned their ships and journeyed over the icy wasteland on foot.
In 1854 the Rae–Richardson Polar Expedition (that’s been searching for Franklin’s expedition since 1848) interviewed Inuit people and bought items of European origin from them, the items would have belonged only to members of the Royal Navy. The local Inuit said that the items were taken from the remains of white men who were wondering the hostile wasteland that even they would rarely venture to.
The report grew grimmer when the Inuit made a claim that would be considered “impossible” to Victorians, the men the Inuit saw were cannibals. The information from the natives led the expedition to King William Island where they found abandoned equipment, skeletal remains wearing clothes, and scattered bones that look to have been mutilated. Judging from the markings on the bones it was clear that the bones were defleshed with sharp knives, the report made by the heads of the expedition was clear, all 129 souls including Franklin were lost.
To date only 20 or so remains of Franklin’s crew have been found, it’s been believed that the ones that were found were those too weak to continue their journey towards the south and were left behind possibly with the promise that someone would return for them. Of the documents found in later expeditions it was confirmed that towards the beginning of the crisis, Franklin died on June 11th, 1847 nine months after the Erebus and Terror got trapped in the ice.
In the 1980’s an expedition went to Beechy Island with the mission to exhume the three bodies buried there and if possible perform an autopsy. To the surprise of the team, the bodies of Petty Officer John Torrington (21), Royal Marine Private William Braine (32), and Able Seaman John Hartnell (25) were all well-preserved thanks in part to the permafrost that the men were buried in. the three men were the first of the crew to die as the ships waited out winter before sailing to their doom the following autumn.
The result of the autopsies gave an insight of what possibly happened to Franklin and the rest of the crew. Torrington died from Tuberculosis, Braine and Hartnell both died from complications from high levels of lead poisoning but Braine also had signs of Potter’s Disease, a type of Tuberculosis. Torrington had high amounts of lead in his body as well which may have compromised his immune system since his lungs have shown scaring from pneumonia, making him vulnerable to infection. The rations on board to two ships mainly consisted of tin cans that were soldered shut with lead but theories have said the lead may have been in their water supply.
Lead poisoning may have contributed to the fate of their shipmates leaving them vulnerable to illness. Inuit eyewitnesses said that the white men they saw who were believed to have been from the Franklin Expedition were very thin and seemed sickly. Lead poisoning was bad enough but environmental factors played a major role as well, during the events of the doomed expedition the weather was a lot colder than usual leaving the crew unequipped for the sub-zero temperatures and burning many calories in hours thus depleting their rations quickly and having to resort to hunting penguin and seals which if not cooked properly may have lead to botulism.
For years many have looked for the two trapped ships and failed but in 2014 the HMS Erebus shipwreck was located under water and in 2016 the wreck of the HMS Terror is located not far. With many plausible scenarios believed to contribute to the loss of lives and the discovery of the two lost ships, it would seem that the mystery of Franklin’s lost expedition would be over right? Remember the bones found on King William Island? In April of 2017 DNA testing showed that the bones of four of the crew members belonged to European women, all personnel onboard the two ships were male. There have been cases in many military forces around the world at this time of women posing as men in order to serve.
Coming in March on AMC, Ridley Scott brings to life the fictionalized account of Franklin’s doomed expedition in The Terror.