In 1845 two ships named the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, carried 134 men towards the frozen waters of what is now Nunavut, Canada in order to finish mapping the then theoretical route, known as the Northwest Passage. Other than 5 men who fell ill early into the expedition and were discharged, the renowned Caption Franklin and his entire crew would be dead in just a few short years.
It would be 169 years until the first of the two ships were found, thanks to an Inuit historian named Louie Kamookak who was from a place called Gjoa Haven. Mr. Kamookak dedicated his life to documenting Inuit oral history and all the legends about the Franklin expedition told to him by the community elders. When the fleet first went missing, the Inuit testimony was disregarded due to racism, but Louie knew in his heart that they were true, and he proved it - to all of us.
Intro plays here......
The ship wheel is an iconic symbol of exploration and travel. It represents being a captain, and what it means to take control of your own destiny. However, it is important to note that this symbol, which can mean freedom and exploring new lands for one group of people, can mean terror and invasion for others who are indigenous to lands that have been colonized.
When doing my research for this wheel episode, I was determined to give you something as spooky as possible. I took notes on haunted ships, skeleton crews and fleets lost to time, but as I looked closer into the story of the Franklin Expedition, I knew this was the story I needed to tell today. Besides, we have an anchor episode for card 35, I can share those other tales then.
I would also like to note that this script contains a lot of time jumping. The issue with telling a story about a lost expedition, is I am continuously going back and forth between a few years, and even between different centuries. I have done my best to simplify it as much as possible for you, and it’s an incredible story, so I hope I do it justice.
And If I mispronounce anything in this episode, please let me know.
As mentioned at the start of the episode, The Northwest Passage is a sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by way of the Canadian arctic archipelago. During the 1800s, this route was still theoretical. It had been partially mapped and of course there was a race to be the first to discover it. Not only would its discovery be a political achievement for Britain, it would allow for faster trade with Asia. As it stood during this time, ships from Europe bound to Asia would have to travel around Africa, which was risky due to pirate capture.
Now of course travelling through the frozen arctic waters had its risks as well, but it was believed that if you had a great captain that nothing could go wrong, but as you’ll learn shortly, you can’t prepare for everything.
Sir John Franklin was born on April 16th 1786, in Lincolnshire England to Hannah Weekes and Willingham Franklin. He was the ninth of twelve children, and was said to be a gregarious boy who strove to improve his social standing. Now the Franklin’s weren’t a poor family by any means, but in the late 1700s england, any setback such as an illness or early death could send an entire family to the workhouse, which was a terrible situation to find yourself in.
When Franklin was at the King Edward Grammar School, he showed a keen interest in a career at sea, and actually convinced his parents to let him do a trial voyage with some merchants when he was just 12 years old. Now, I don’t know about you, but at that age I was nowhere near being ready to go on a ship and explore the world.
This trip solidified Franklins interest in the open waters, and in 1800 his father helped secure him a position with the royal navy on HMS Polyphemus. By this time he was the ripe old age of 14. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be that sure of your future at such a young age, but Franklin obviously was. He advanced quickly, and by 1814 he was a lieutenant in the navy and was actually injured in the Battle of Lake Borgne. That didn’t stop Franklin though, and in 1819 he was chosen to be the captain of the Coppermine Expedition.
The Coppermine expedition was a journey across northern Canada to chart and map the area from the Hudson Bay to the beginning of the Coppermine river. It was during this expedition that Franklin fell into the Hayes River and nearly drowned. Though he was rescued, this accident would set the tone for the rest of the expedition. Between 1819 and 1822 eleven of his group were dead, mostly due to starvation, though at least one man was said to be murdered, which I couldn’t really find more info about. There were also rumours of cannibalism, something that would become associated with the captain again in the future. The remaining survivors of this group would be forced to survive on lichen , and were reported to attempt to eat their own leather shoes. This earned Franklin the nickname: “the man who ate his boots.”
In 1825 Franklin’s wife Eleanor Anne Porden, died of tuberculosis, and he would leave his one year old daughter behind to once again explore the Canadian arctic. It was during this expedition that he became the second European to reach the mouth of the Mckenzie River.
In 1828 he married a woman name Jane Griffin, who had been close friends with his first wife. She was an avid traveller herself, and the two obviously had some sort of connection. She would go on the play a substantial role in the search for the ill fated expedition where her husband would be lost forever.
On May 19th, 1845 Franklin and his crew set sail from England on two triple masted navy ships
Called the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus. These two vessels had plenty of sea experience and had already survived freezing temperatures and war, and were considered the best of the best. They were even given upgrades like reinforced steel bows, new engines and piping was put into their hulls to allow for steam heating to keep the crew warm.
The ship upgrades weren’t the only thing the expedition planned for. They also carried with them enough food for three years, over 1000 books to occupy the minds of the sailors, and they had cameras and other equipment to document the flora and fauna of the region.
While Franklin was the lead captain of the entire expedition, each ship had its own captain as well. The HMS Erebus was commanded by James Clark Ross and the HMS Terror was commanded by Francis Crozier. There was also a physician onboard and the crew were the best you could get.
The British government was so confident in this endeavour that they declared it the perfect expedition. When the first search parties were sent out to find the lost fleet, the public didn’t believe it was real.
The first stop the expedition made was in Greenland and the letters the crew wrote here would be the last communication they ever had with their loved ones back in Europe.
When they reached Canada, they spent the winter of 1845/1846 at a place known as Beechey Island - which is spelled B-E-E-C-H-E-Y and it is the furthest thing from paradise. It is remote, it is cold, and their ships were locked in ice for 80% of the year . This is because there was only a small window of time in the arctic summer when they’d be able to pass through the ice flows, so it was part of their schedule (you can see now why they brought 1000 books). However, this is where things began to go wrong.
In 1850, one of the first search and rescue teams sent to find the Franklin expedition landed on Beechey and discovered the graves of three of the crew members. They had been given a “proper christian burial”, headstone and all.
If we jump ahead to 1984, it helps to give a better picture of this British cemetery in the middle of the arctic archipelago. A man named Dr. Beattie was given permission by the North West Territories (Nunavut didn’t become its own territory until 1999) to exhume the body of John Torrington.
He was the first of the cursed Franklin crew to die and his headstone was dated January 1st 1846. When Dr. Bettie and his team dug into the permafrost and lifted the icy coffin lid from the ground, they were delighted to see a frozen corpse staring back at them. Known as an ice mummy, Torrington looked almost as fresh as the day he died.
I would like to note here that ice mummies aren’t actually mummies at all. They haven’t undergone any form of preservation, they just haven’t been exposed to air so they don’t decay.
Dr. Bettie was the second person to perform an autopsy on his body (the first was performed by the dr who was with the crew in 1846). He listed his cause of death as pneumonia induced tuberculosis, but he also noticed elevated levels of lead.
In 1986, Beattie was granted permission to exhume the other crew members.
The next was John Hartnell who died January 4th 1846 of tuberculosis and also had elevated levels of lead, and finally William Braine on April 3rd 1846. His cause of death was the same, though his lead levels were lower.
There is actually a fourth grave present on the island, and it belongs to Thomas Morgan. He was part of one of the many expeditions sent to find the missing men, but he was not exhumed.
After his autopsies were completed, the team reinterred the bodies of the men and crafted them new headstones. They are supposedly replicas of the originals (which were actually removed in the 1970s and seem to have vanished), but with their bronze placards on white washed wood, they couldn’t be more different.
During my research I came across a website called Visions North Blog - which I will link at the end of this episode in the transcript - and the guy who runs that, posted photographs from 1858 and 1876. The headstones placed there by the Franklin men were actually wood painted in black with white writing.
Because of the initial discovery of the cemetery, Beechey Island would become the starting point for every subsequent search party, and if they had listened to the Inuit people, they may have found the men a lot quicker.
Time and time again, the Inuit groups (who are) of the area watched their land be invaded by search parties, and each time they approached the British men with the information they had to try and help, and each time they were dismissed because of racism.
The Inuit recounted stories of the crew abandoning their ships and trying to cross the frozen tundra on foot, to reach one of the Hudson Bay outposts in the area. None of the men made it, and even resorted to cannibalism as a last desperate attempt to stay alive.
Other than the Inuit testimony only one document from the expedition has ever been found. On king William island in 1859, inside a cairn was a note with two separate intonations, dated 1 year apart.
Nick reads the note....
So Franklin is dead, and the crew head south in a last attempt to save themselves, but die before reaching their destination.
So where do we go from here?
Well we go to the Boothia Peninsula in the year 1959. It was here in a small hunting camp on August 26th that Louie Kamookak was born. His parents Mary and George Kamookak were Netsilik hunters and he comes from a long line of high profile Inuit people.
He was taught how to work with the land from a very young age. In the Arctic your skills are honed early because it is a difficult place to live, and Louie would be taken frequently on exploratory trips with his father, and his grandfather who was actually an Irish Hudson Bay trader named Paddy Gibson. Paddy was a Franklin enthusiast himself and had discovered skeletal remains of some of the crew in 1931.
Between the knowledge told to him by Paddy about the expedition, and the oral legends passed down to him by his great-grandmother, who a respected community elder, it is no wonder why Louie became enthralled with the search for Franklin. He spent the next 30 years of his life, transcribing the stories from surrounding Inuit communities, and cross referencing those to the logs of the European search parties to develop a strong theory about the location of the sunken ships.
In 2008, Parks Canada decided to work with Mr. Kamookak, who was at this point a staff support teacher at the local high school. This was a big deal for the Inuit community who had been ignored by explorer after explorer for over a century.
In 2014, HMS Erebus was discovered in the exact location that Mr. Kamookak had proposed, and this news shook the entire world. And two years after that, more of his information would lead to the discovery of the HMS Terror.
It’s easy for us to talk about how it was a great day for Canada, or even Britain, because a large portion of one of the worlds greatest mystery had been solved. But ultimately this was a great day in Inuit history - it was always their home, their land, and their stories. In one interview I watched, Mr. Kamookak teared up as he said “it was kind of emotional for me, to think about all the elders I had been interviewing, they had been right all along, and Inuit oral history was powerful and was the only way information was passed down through generations.”
Louie Kamookak passed away from cancer on March 22nd, 2018. Shortly before he died, He was awarded both the Order of Nunavut, and the Order of Canada for his contribution. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society has also created an award in his name, and it is given to those who show noteworthy deed that has served to advance the discipline of geography.
John Franklin has never been found, though Mr. Kamookak had a theory about his final resting place, and I am sure it is only a matter of time before he is proven right, again.
This has been the Memento Mori Oracle Podcast, and I will return on August 23rd for the Grave episode. I would also like to mention that there are less than 40 decks left in stock, so if you’ve been on the fence, grab one ASAP.
Special thanks to Nick Denton who brought the cairn note to life, and to Esther from the Wildly Tarot Podcast for editing this episode.