The Horrific Mystery Of The Arctic's Stupidest Expedition
Everyone knows the story of Moby Dick. Sure, many of us just skimmed it when it was required reading and only remember something to the effect of, "Dude grows massive hard-on for whale and gets a bunch of dipshits killed and loses his shit because of his huge whale boner." This story has such lasting resonance because this is a truism as old as time itself. Dudes get hard-ons for shit that's way out of reach and end up getting themselves, or worse yet, other people, wrapped up in their shit tornado because of their insatiable wood for dumb shit.
One of history's most legendarily ill-fated expedition erections was the doomed Franklin Expedition that led to the mysterious, awful demise of over a hundred men. And it all happened because one Sir John Franklin just couldn't stop pitching a tent for an unbelievably bad idea ...
Not the Hottest Choice
John Franklin was a seasoned explorer. Now, when we talk about someone being seasoned, remember that this may not indicate quality, as well. Seasoned just means that they've been out there and mixed it up some. There are seasoned boxers walking around with 0-64 records and absolutely no idea where they are. Franklin leans closer to that than what you might call a seasoned ... pro. Despite having been in the exploration game for years, Franklin was probably best known for eating shoes. He gained this appetite for shoes when one expedition to the Artic went south, and he was forced to throw a little bit of ketchup on some Sketchers to get his ass out of there alive.
The press ran with it, and this, along with his history of other expeditions not quite as productive as those of his counterparts at the time, Franklin found himself in desperate need of a big exploration win.
That opportunity came in 1845 when Franklin was chosen to search for a Northwest Passage deep into the Canadian Arctic. In what sounds like a great honor, it's important to note that Franklin was about the Royal Navy's last possible choice for the gig. They went down the list of his more famous and successful contemporaries who quickly rejected the job.
This was probably because it was the equivalent of getting one of those pestering LinkedIn messages to the effect of, "Greetings, explorer! I hope you're having the best Monday so far. My name is Diane, and I'm a recruiter with the Royal Navy, and we have a fantastic opening that you look perfect for. This position calls for you to sail boats, like shitty ass wooden boats, to the frozen Arctic. Like, the serious Arctic where after you pee and there's a tiny little droplet still left on your knob, your dick will actually freeze to your thigh and will have to be ripped off. If you're interested in this dick ripping cold trip on fucking hell boats, I'd love to chat more! Have a wonderful day. Talk soon. P.S. The pay is just below minimum wage."
Every choice before him reported the Royal Navy recruiter as spam until Franklin gleefully accepted the role.
Packing for the Trip
Loading up the car for a trip can be a testy experience for just about any relationship. There are bound to be arguments surrounding just what items are important enough to necessitate the Tetris shuffle that goes on in the back of most sedans before heading out. But guess what, BABE? I will not go to the beach without my mannequin in a full set of plate armor and 16,000 loose Milk Duds, and that's just how it's going to be. Will that make planning our trip complicated? Sure. Am I single? That's really beside the point. Take the kind of headache that minor trip planning may cause you, and then multiply it by loading up a wooden death trap for a trip to what's essentially a frozen alien world via waters that have stopped being water and instead are just basically earth, which is different from water and substantially harder to sail across.
Packing up the 19th-century Kia became a big part of the challenge for Franklin and his crew. Because this was such an arduous journey, the expedition was going to need two vessels. The largest, and one that Franklin himself would be commanding, was the Erebus. His second in command, Francis Cozier, was pulling up the rear in the Terror. For the time, these were actually some well-equipped, modern vessels. They weren't strictly sail-powered as they had a rudimentary steam engine system that would help them move along when the winds weren't cooperating. On top of that, they were outfitted to withstand the elements both on the outside, with reinforcements for driving through the ice, and on the inside, where a heating system was put in place to help keep the crew from turning into blocks of ice. Something of a spoiler, though, these POS for sure still turn into blocks of ice.
Then came arguably the most important part of any good road trip: snack prep. I simply will not get into a car for more than a 45-minute journey unless I've had to mortgage my non-existent house to buy a couple bags of beef jerky. For those aboard the Erebus and the Terror, they didn't quite have the selection of a roadside gas station at their disposal, so they were going to have the choice of: shit tons of tinned food or ... shit tons of tinned food.
Tinned food it was, but in a rush to get these provisions tinned and packed aboard, shit went wrong. It turns out, jamming a bunch of slop into metal containers at a time before we've perfected the art of jamming shit food into tight packages like we have mastered in modern times. The boats were then, unknowingly, heading into years in the ice with food that began rotting before they even left the dock.
Going South in the North
The Erebus and the Terror left England in May of 1845 and headed off for Greenland. At the onset, things went pretty alright. The biggest drama came when Franklin banned cussing and drunkenness. Arguably the most horrific thing done on the entire expedition. Getting drunk as fuck and drunkenly saying "fuck" is a right of passage on any boat, let alone one where these things are genuine survival necessities.
Franklin even went on to dismiss five of his crew members, men who may actually be the luckiest men in history. Guys who would go on to have the best story at the bar for the rest of their lives, "You remember that boat that got stuck in the ice and where people started eating each other? Yeah? Well, I was on that boat, but I wouldn't stop slamming beers and calling other dudes 'cheesedicks' so now I'm here, slamming beers with you cheesedicks instead of frozen solid in a block of ice like an action figure."
Besides bans and dismissals, however, it appears that Franklin had successfully begun his search for the Northwest Passage and was on his way to their destination. They pulled up to the Baffin Bay on the coast of Greenland to wait out the optimal conditions for their next leg. It was here that their support ships would leave them. And it was the final place where any Europeans laid eyes on Franklin and his crew.
I love to picture their support ships rolling out of there. The people onboard shooting each other that knowing glance that they're just flat out never going to see those assholes again. Like watching your buddy try to start up a conversation with a woman far outside of his range, and you just look to everyone else with a wry smile that it ain't happening. Except this buddy is about to be hit with Sub-Zero's freeze move before she bites his nose off of his face.
What's believed to have happened to Franklin's boats next is suboptimal for navigating the seas: they got frozen alongside blocks of ice. I'm going to be straight up with you guys here; I actually am no master of the seas. I don't know how to sail all that well. Please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm just going to editorialize some here and say that I, personally, do not believe that Christmas Story-ing your boats to icebergs is the move in this particular situation.
But either way, that's what happened, and it's thought that Frankin's boats just began to helplessly drift along wherever their new icy autopilot wanted to guide them. Franklin believed that his ship would thaw out when spring rolled around, but spring never came, leaving him the captain of two of the world's most expensive ice cubes.
Like the Titanic ... But Worse!
Now that the Royal Navy's pride and joy exploration vessels were just glorified Flav-or-Ice, Franklin and his mission were going absolutely nowhere. With the warmer weather clearly not coming around, they needed to come up with a plan. Part one, apparently, was for Franklin to just die, actually. Though there are minimal details about everything that happens with the Franklin expedition from here, notes found later indicate that Franklin died some time in this period where they were frozen and stuck, and that's literally all the note said.
Written by crew members, they likely left out some pretty critical details. Though it's entirely possible that his ass just froze to death or died as everyone did at this time when they reached any age over 50, which is just to crumble into a pool of old rags like a fallen Jedi. Let's think about the potential that these dudes were maybe pissed off enough to ice their hapless leader.
This is a man who had taken away their booze, told them they couldn't cuss in the Arctic, and then got them stuck in ice all in pursuit of his own redemption story. Trusting a crew member's note on this is like a detective leaving the Manson Murder search at his note left on the front door: "Had a great weekend house sitting your place! Dogs were great, the litterbox is scooped, and I restocked your fridge. I hope I left the place just like you found it."
No matter how Franklin died, the fact of the matter was that this expedition's leader was no longer living, and they needed a plan. After having wintered on the ice, the crew figured that this shit wasn't going to thaw, nobody was coming to get them, and they needed a new approach. Quite frankly, the guys were probably just getting tired of chilling at their little anchorage and needed a walk. Though another 15-20 men on top of Franklin died by this point, the remaining men abandoned ship and started marching across the ice.
Heading for the Back River in Canada, the men set out to find anyone, or anything, that could get them out of their icy hell. The problem was, they chose a route that put them hundreds of miles from the nearest outpost and eventually set off on a frozen death march with no real outcome besides skating ahead on their very own production of Franklin Expedition on Ice: Holy Hell Is This Horrific and Really Sad.
A Really, REALLY, Cold Case
Everything from here is pretty sketchy, but one thing is for sure: they never made it. Think about that first really cold day of winter. Go back to the old days when you had to maybe even drive in to work in the morning. You go outside, and it just hits you like the lash of a whip, right down your bones. Then, you get in the car. It's the single coldest place on earth at the time. It seems to take years for the heat kick in, and you're truly, singularly, miserable for 10 to 15 minutes, maximum. Now picture that feeling for years. Every single day. That's basically the life of the men of the Franklin Expedition, except the heat in their sedans never kicked in, and they croaked behind the wheel before ever making it into work.
Back home, Franklin's wife never gave up. She petitioned the people in charge to send out a rescue party for the crew, despite the Navy's insistence that they had plenty of provisions to make it for years. Eventual rescue parties found nothing but a few notes from the crew that state, basically, "Hey, we got stuck in ice and just started walking. Franklin's dead. This really kind of sucks." Having returned no real signs of life, the Franklin Expedition became something of a sensation back home, with people furiously scrambling to find out what became of the men, their ships, and their mission to find the Northwest Passage.
Though subsequent searches came up short, there was something of a breakthrough in 1854, when one search party linked up with local Inuits who had information, artifacts, and details regarding parties of starving men who resorted to the unthinkable... cannibalism.
This scandalous rumor sent shockwaves throughout England, and the press ran with it. Could this really have been the case? Why not? It's pretty safe to assume that when you've been marching across a sea of ice for months on end without anything substantial to eat, you begin sizing up the sailor next to you. That right cheek bouncing up and down on the guy in front of you starts looking like a bag of pizza rolls that you forgot was in the freezer after a long night out drinking.
Though we've come to be pretty convinced that these men did for sure start cutting off hunks of each other and checking the backs of their package for microwave times, people in England at the time simply couldn't believe it. Most notably, Charles Dickens, who penned some pretty racist shit that blamed the Inuits because it was simply impossible to believe those good English boys would make tasty English boy kebabs.
In recent history, searchers have located both ships and put together pretty credible accounts of what took place. Though there were debates about everything from potential lead poisoning in the provisions driving the men crazy, to various diseases impacting the fate of the men, we've pretty reliably come to a conclusion that: Sir Franklin got his men and boats trapped in ice, his ass died and was maybe even killed for the uncool stuff I just said, and the rest of the guys tried to march across a genuine ocean of ice before resorting to chomping on each other and dying out in that sea of ice.
The Inuits most certainly had no hand in their deaths, and they just plain screwed up out there. What is certain is that bad shit can go down when you're forced to follow one man's tunnel vision in pursuit of redemption, fame, or just plain vanity. Though it's undeniable there was a level of courage and freedom to Franklin's drive to find the Northwest Passage, it's also the case that he got a lot of men frozen stiff and eaten by other guys in the process. It should live on as a lesson that any time we're considering throwing it all out there for our personal dreams, just make sure a bunch of people won't get frozen stiff and eaten by other guys to make it happen.
Top image: National Maritime Museum, London