Monday, January 9, 2017

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Translated and Edited by William Barr

U. Calgary Press $44.95 (ebook free)


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Since it's already been the subject of quite a number of books -- Chauncey Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores, not to mention dueling exposés by Bruce Henderson (Fatal North) and Richard Parry (Trial by Ice), one might be forgiven for thinking that there's not much new to be learned about the ill-fated Polaris expedition to the North Pole commanded by Charles Francis Hall in 1871. One would be wrong, of course.

The expedition's doctor, Emil Bessels, published his own account of the voyage in Germany in 1879 under the title Die Amerikanische Nordpol-Expedition, but until now, there has been no English translation of his memoir. Thankfully, William Barr has undertaken this invaluable project, as he did earlier with Heinrich Klutschak's account of the Schwatka expedition, and this edition has all the customary hallmarks of his care and erudition. And, as Barr notes in an Epilogue, there's a new reason to take an interest in Bessels' version of events, since evidence has recently emerged giving him a powerful motive to have murdered his commander.

Those expecting such a book to have a lurid element will, however, be disappointed. Bessels, whatever his human failings, turns out to have been quite a good writer, seasoning his account with humor, relating events dispassionately, and demonstrating substantial knowledge of previous polar exploration. Early on, in giving his account of Isaac Israel Hayes's claim of a new furthest north, along with the sighting of an "open polar sea," Bessels offers an acute analysis, showing that Hayes's observations are completely inconsistent with both claims. Of course, it helped that the Polaris had just sailed through, and beyond, this purported open sea, but the clarity of his assessment is still impressive.

A few pages later, we're treated to one of the more wryly delightful accounts of the frustrations of shipboard dining in the frozen north that I know:
The food that was served up hot suffered a more significant cooling on its trip from the platter to the plate, and from the latter to the mouth, than the crust of the earth did at the start of the Ice Age; and food that came cold to the table became even colder there, before it could be eaten. Mayonnaise attained the consistency that properly prepared arrowroot ought to possess; English mustard reached the degree of hardness that a sculptor gives his modelling clay, and butter acquired the consistency of air-dried Swiss cheese.  Anyone who had a feeling heart beating in his breast would be moved to deep sadness by the sight of the sour pickled cucumbers. Half a dozen cycles of thawing and freezing which they had experienced in succession had etched massive wrinkles in their youthfully green skins which covered the wrinkled, shrunken flesh in folds. Surrounded by plump onions, slender beans and crisp heads of cauliflower that swam in crisping vinegar, they formed the saddest component that any still-life ever incorporated. 
Through passages such as these, the reader, quite naturally, begins to trust Bessels' account, and so of course wonders how he will treat of the death of his commander -- but here he or she will be disappointed. Hall's sickness and death are dealt with in very plain and prosaic manner, a bit surprising for someone who as the ship's doctor might feel that his readers would expect a greater degree of medical detail. There is, however, a telling moment after Bessels describes Hall's burial; he offers as his elegy a stanza from Canto 32 of Dante's Inferno.  The passage, which he may have chosen for its evocative imagery of sinners buried up to their necks in ice, has another significance: it's from that particular circle of Hell where those who have been treacherous to kin and country are punished.

Tookoolito at Hall's Grave (from a sketch by Bessels)
For there can be little doubt that Bessels possessed not only the means, but the motive for murdering Hall. As Barr notes, letters written by him to the young sculptress Vinnie Ream, with whom both he and Hall dined on several occasions before sailing, show that he was infatuated with her; my own research revealed that Hall, too, had special feelings for Ream (though his may have well been merely platonic). Bessels couldn't have helped but have noticed the gifts for Hall, including a miniature copy of her famous bust of Abraham Lincoln, that arrived by steamer at the Polaris's last stop at Upernavik, which were prominently displayed in his cabin. Jealousy, it seems, got the best of him, and augmented by the general resentment against Hall felt by others of the German scientific staff, led him to poison the captain's coffee with arsenic, with additional injections as "treatment" (Bessels claimed these were quinine), leading to the slow painful death of the one man who might, had he lived, have managed a sledge-trip to the pole.

Yet despite our knowledge of his crime, Bessels remains an observant and even charming narrator, and as Hall's death recedes into the background, the tale takes on, once again, the general descriptive tones of exploration narrative. As Barr notes, there's considerable information about climate, flora, and fauna, not to mention early Inuit settlements, that is elsewhere unavailable. Among these passages, though, there are some which raise still another concern.  According to the testimony given at the board of inquiry, the logbooks and journals from the Polaris were lost -- and yet Bessels, oblivious to this (or perhaps thinking his German readers would be unacquainted with the circumstances), seems at places to be drawing from them. It raises suspicions as to whether Bessels might have absconded with some of the missing logbooks, which might well have contained material he thought could incriminate him.

One gets the impression that Bessels was a methodial, efficient man who took pride in his scientific work, and hoped that his association with the disastrous expedition would not impede his overall career. If so, his hopes were largely unfulfilled; although a participant in some minor expeditions in the years after Polaris, the more ambitious ones he sought were postponed or cancelled due to difficulties with funding and other support. Along the way, he lost his office at the Smithsonian, and a fire destroyed his home near Washington D.C. (and with it, one supposes, any evidence for malfeasance there might have been among his papers); his last few years were marked by illness and instability, and he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-one.

William Barr, as ever, has produced a well-translated and throughly annotated edition. Extensive footnotes clarify many of Bessels' more obscure references, and the end-matter of the book includes a note on the new evidence as to his motive for murdering Hall, an account of the finding of the Board of Inquiry in his case, brief biographies of the senior members of the Polaris expedition, and a thorough bibliography. The University of Calgary Press has done the scholarly world a favor by making the book available as a free .pdf, but the printed version is well worth it; the quality of its production is high, and it's a book that deserves to be on the shelf beside any other accounts of the Polaris affair. It balances them, both with what it adds -- and what we know it withholds -- from that tragic story.

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