Thursday, February 2, 2017

Weird and Tragic Shores

Charles Francis Hall may well be the most singular explorer in the entire history of the western fascination with the Arctic regions. Unlike the vast majority of such men, he never served in the Navy or merchant marine of any nation, nor did he have any family or local connections with whaling, fishing, sail-making or any other nautical trade. Although he published a sort of newspaper in Cincinnati, it would be a bit of a stretch to call him a “journalist,” and while for a time he had a business making engraved seals for business use, he himself was not a particularly accomplished engraver. Never apparently much of a family man, he more or less abandoned his wife and children when he first set off for the Arctic, and they were almost never the subject of his letters and journals. Indeed, if it were not for the singular leap he made out of the ordinary life of commerce and middle-class life, he might very well have never made much of a mark in any of his endeavors. Hall’s destiny was to do one thing, to do it with faith and fury and a determination which bordered on the monomaniacal – and yet, in so doing, he revealed a deeply humane and conflicted character, at once absolutely unique and yet absolutely a man of his time.

One of the most notable aspects of Hall's career was his close reliance on his Inuit guides, "Joe" Ebierbing and "Hannah" Tookoolito. Throughout his career, they were Hall’s most faithful and trusted companions, accompanying him on numerous sledging expeditions, providing food and shelter, and translating and interpreting at hundreds of interviews with Inuit who had stories to tell about the Franklin expedition. No only were they tireless and constant in their support for Hall’s often very demanding Arctic plans, but, between expeditions, they accompanied him throughout the United States, as well as permitting Hall to arrange for their exhibition in New York and Boston to raise funds for further missions, as well as appearing alongside him on his east coast lecture tour (see here for details of his Providence engagement).

And yet, astonishingly, they remained constant despite the death of two of their children while working for Hall, even though in each case the deaths were at least partly due to Hall’s demands – in the first case, for exhibitions and lectures, and in the second, for a difficult sledge-journey to King William Island (their second child, indeed, was named “King William” by Hall). Hall could be an imperious master, especially when his ‘sacred cause’ of finding Franklin’s men was at stake; Ebierbing, in his only surviving letter, recalled that during the attempt to reach King William, “Mr. Hall tease me all time. Make me go their [sic].” Yet not once, during the entire time of their association, did “Hannah” or “Joe” waver in their service to this man who, without their assistance, would likely have never earned the sobriquet he so dearly coveted – “Charles Hall, Arctic Explorer.”

When Chauncey Loomis arrived at "Thank God Harbor" to exhume Hall and conduct tests for arsenic, he -- like Owen Beattie -- felt that establishing the cause of death would be sufficient service to science and history to justify disturbing his bones. As this photo shows, the body was in considerably poorer shape than those uncovered at Beechey Island, although traces of his beard can be seen. Loomis felt the evidence was less than conclusive, but for my part I am personally convinced that Hall was poisoned with arsenic, most likely by Bessels. The "smoking gun" may well be a series of letters I came upon just a year ago, in which both Bessels and Hall corresponded with the young sculptress Vinnie Ream, letters in which Bessels seemed quite smitten.

Hall's death had many reverberations. One of the documents I found among the Hall papers at the Smithsonian was a printed copy of a petition circulated in Congress by Hall's widow, Mercy Ann Hall. In tones that evoke those of Lady Franklin, Mrs. Hall allowed that her late husband, "in his devotion to duty, was unsparing of his family and himself," asked only for "tender consideration" and some small "pecuniary assistance" (i.e, money) -- the amount was not specified. She was eventually granted a pension of $40 a month (about $750 in today's currency).

"Joe" and "Hannah" returned to Groton where, as Joe wrote with some pride, their daughter Panik "go to school every day." Alas, there were not many more days remaining; her health had never been good, and she died at the age of nine. Hannah herself followed her adopted daughter to the grave on New Year's eve of 1876; Joe returned to the Arctic, and died some years later under uncertain circumstances. You can visit the graves of Hannah, little "Butterfly," and Panik at the Star Cemetery in Groton CT -- this article has a photo I took of the gravestone.

We'll have many judgments to make about Hall, but love him or hate him, it's hard not to admire his persistence. And, in a field of endeavor crowded with fateful, haunting endings, his may well have been strangest of all. Weird and Tragic shores, indeed.


  1. On page 206, Loomis includes an excerpt of a letter by Hall in which he gives his justification for going to the pole. Loomis says the letter is an example of the type of rhetoric Hall would use on Grinnell, but I also think the letter is more than rhetorical. It reveals a lot about Hall’s ideology and worldview. Hall is a seasoned explorer at the time of this letter being written, which I think begins to explain why he uses the map as his metaphor of choice to represent human understanding or lack thereof. He then explains man’s purpose on Earth is to “subdue” it, showing a popular but interesting philosophical perspective. One has to wonder why God would create such an inhospitable place on Earth if it was here for humans. Finally, I see Hall as participating in the western tradition of imagining the arctic, just as many European civilizations had done in McGhee’s The Last Imaginary Place. I wonder what Hall expected to be at the pole, if he had a guess. He says it must be the “most interesting and glorious” part of world, which is ironic in many respects because in reality the pole could be seen as a novel, but largely uninteresting part of the world.

  2. Hall’s agitation towards the Eskimo’s is, at times, humors to me. Especially when he is upset during all the setbacks he experiences due to hunting. You would think he would have grasped the importance/necessity of it. I liked the descriptions of cabin fever and how Captain Budington seemed not so affected by it. I think Hall being so strongly affected with cabin fever and going on a hunger strike, lends to the plausibility of his shooting Coleman. I can easily imagine this man, who becomes fixated with things, becoming paranoid, and breaking (again) under the extreme psychological stress he was experiencing. I sympathized with Hall having to remain tolerant/silent of the customs involving Queen Emma, Kokleearngunun and his wife’s honor killing. It must have been difficult. I’m interested in the phycological effect/process that occurs when violating ones moral/ethical codes become paramount to survival.
    I do have a few questions: (1) Does “angeko” mean shaman or is it a ritual? I feel like it’s referred to as a ritual but I wanted to clarify. (2) Could the boils that Hall experienced in Noowook, the one’s nearly blinded him, have been second degree frost bite?

    Also, as to the question I asked in an earlier class I found an answer in Weird and Tragic Shores!
    I had read the excerpt below and wanted to know if it was true, or based on anything substantial:
    “Do you know how the Inuit tribes of Earth killed wolves?” I ask. She doesn’t. “Slower and weaker than the wolves, they chiseled knives till they were razor sharp, coated them in blood and stuck them upright in the ice. Then the wolves would come up and lick the blood. And as the wolf licks faster and faster, he’s so ravenous he doesn’t realize until it’s too late that the blood he’s drinking is his own.” I nod to the passing military vessels. “They hate that I was one of them. How many prime soldiers do you think those ships will launch at Phobos to take me, the great abomination for their own glory? Pride will again be the downfall of your Color.”
    —Morning Star by Pierce Brown (197)
    The Eskimos of Fox Channel soaked knife blades with blood and imbedded them in the ground so the wolves would lick them. The wolves would not feel the cuts b/c of the cold. The more blood they licked, the more of their own blood would spill, until they collapsed from blood loss (Weird and Tragic Shores, 142)

  3. This passage about how Hall was in search for freedom really stuck out to me. These two quotes were really what made me start thinking:
    "He had come to the Arctic hoping to find freedom and independence" (Loomis 185).

    "They will be INDEPENDENT in the fullest significance of the world: We Americans talk about Freedom and Independence. We are far behind these Northerners." Since that time hard experiences had changed his ideas and made him look back at his earlier beliefs with irony" (Loomis 185).

    I find it interesting that Hall was looking for freedom in a place like the Arctic. We often think of places we have not been before, or empty places, to be an open door to freedom. However, like Hall we come across many obstacles that prevent us from actually feeling this freedom. It is not always easy to adapt to another way of living with other people you come across in a different environment.

  4. Although I think Hall was an interesting figure and a successful explorer (it's crazy to me that he died from being poisoned and not from starvation or something else) I found the information on page 88 alarming. This page talks of how Hall was very much a "creature of his time" and how he thought of himself as a superior white man. The fact that Hall expressed anger toward white men who had intercourse with Eskimo woman, and that he thought having intercourse with one would be demeaning for him was startling. I'm not sure why I found these details surprising or any of the other things we learn further in the book, but I did.

  5. After reading Weird and Tragic Shores, I thought what happened to Lady Franklin in chapter four was extremely sad. I can’t imagine losing someone special to me and not knowing the cause of their death. She had faith that Hall would do his best to help answer some of her questions on his voyage but he turned his back on her. After he returned he announced that he was not going South again but rather to the North Pole which meant that Franklin would be left behind and Lady Franklin’s question would never be answered. However, even if Hall went back to K.W Island that still did not guarantee that she would get the answers she wanted. Hall basically deserted his own family meaning that if he was willing to leave his own family behind what made Lady Franklin believe that he was going to feel bad enough to stop his plans of going North just to help her. He knew what he wanted and wasn’t going to let anyone alter his plans.

  6. Weird and Tragic Shores left me quite torn after reading. On one hand, I admire Hall and his desire to start over and fulfill what he thought was his destiny. I often wonder what it would be like to leave everything behind and challenge myself in a whole new environment; I also know that it could never be easy. I admire his efforts and the fact that he had to change not only his surroundings but also his entire way of life. Living and surviving in the Arctic is vastly different from anywhere else; the survival techniques are far more extreme. However, on the other hand, I am skeptical on whether Hall was aware of all of this before he left on his expedition. As I said after reading The Last Imaginary Place, many people had a very different view of the Arctic than the actual reality of it. I wonder if Hall was one of these people. Nevertheless, his expedition was undeniably remarkable.

  7. After reading about Charles Francis Hall's as an explorer, I give him some credit for going beyond what the common man might do and go out and explore what no one else has before. It might have been not as logical to venture out on his expedition without any training or experience but he boldly set out to find the survivors of Sir John Franklin's expedition. Many at the time did not know of the Arctic and what was out there and he contributed to more knowledge about the climate and environment there and it adds to this idea that the Arctic is an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.