The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell

According to the Guardian online these words from Lord Franklin, a broadside ballad first published in 1850, are no longer true. Much, for sure, has been learned since then, and much more has been written about the expedition which set sail from England in 1846 to find a Northwest passage through the Arctic Archipelago, and never returned. And now, we learn, the Captain’s ship has been found. But what, after all, can we really claim to know?

The vessel we are told is in “pristine condition,” but you wouldn’t think so to look at the footage. John Franklin’s flagship, rotted and corroded by its long sojourn beneath the floes of Terror Bay, has been partially digested by the sea, its hull and its decks shaggy with weed, the helm encrusted with molluscs and colonized by weird, snot-like organisms. The video we are shown is stupendously dull, and, apparently at least, tells us nothing worth knowing. We knew already that the ship had been abandoned on the ice a full year and a half before the expedition’s tragic denouement; and like the chubby, grey, near-motionless fish loitering in the hold, seemingly blind, or half-torpid from the cold, the sea goes about its sullen business, oblivious, as it always was, to the heroic undertaking that floundered here 170 years ago, and even more so to the terrible fate that befell John Franklin and his men.

There are no stories to tell in this dreary submarine world, just more of the same, but nor does the song have much of a story to tell. The dreams our sailor dreams are never described, and the absence of a story – of the comfort a story can bring – is, after all, what the song is about. For want of more to tell, it offers instead its gentle words and music to soothe Lady Franklin in her anguish of unknowing, and neither seeks, nor achieves – despite the moving last verse – the intensity of a true lament. The song sounds more like a lullaby, our homebound sailor lulled by the ocean waves like a baby rocked gently to sleep in its mother’s arms:

It was homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true

Elsewhere in the ballad the Arctic wastes become a fabled land of blowing whales and mountains of ice, and the “cruel hardships” the men endured seem equally remote.1 & 2

This sweetening of the truth perhaps explains the ballad’s success. Four years after the ships were last sighted their disappearance had become a national obsession, and nine expeditions, no less, had set out, always in vain, to rescue Franklin and his crew or determine their fate. The public, by now, had had its fill of morbid conjectures, and the time had come at last to commemorate the mens’ lives and grant them the respect that is due to the dead.

Lord Franklin was not the only memorial to Franklin and his crew to exist at that time. During my earliest forays on the web I learned that in 1850 the burial sites of 3 lost seamen – John Hartnell, John Torrington, and William Braine – were discovered on Beechey island, 3 plain wooden markers salvaged, no doubt, from the wreckage of the ship. The graves were left undisturbed at the time, and the photographs I found of the site served my theme well, – a frigid waste of brown shingles in the summer months, a sweeping nothingness when covered with snow, – confirming, it seemed, that the fate of Franklin’s expedition would never be known.

But then I stumbled on the frozen mummies, and made virtual eye contact with John Shaw Torrington, immediately wishing that I hadn’t. There are 2 reasons for this: the first, obviously enough, is the natural horror one feels before the gruesome reality of death, and, in the case of this particular mummy, the hideous simulacrum of life; and secondly, the horrible matter-of-factness of these pictures woke me from the literary reverie I had embarked upon, freezing my imagination, and robbing me of the urge to write any more on this subject. Here, I felt, repulsed and transfixed, is where our fictions must end.

On the evidence of numerous songs, poems, novels and plays, many writers, possessed, perhaps, of bolder imaginations than mine, have felt no such inhibition but, although I cannot follow them, I understand and share their fascination.

By exhuming these bodies, it as though we had restored the past in the present, bringing the fate of Franklin and his men almost tangibly close. Their frozen corpses certainly bring home with terrible immediacy the “cruel hardships” they endured, although Torrington and his two companions were among the lucky (or less unlucky) ones, dying early on in the trip, a full year and half before the rest of the crew are thought to have perished, probably descending into madness and succumbing in their turn to the combined effects of starvation, exposure, and the ravages of lead poisoning.

The remains of some of these others may or not turn up some day, but Torrington’s will likely remain the face of Franklin’s lost expedition.

It is not the face he had in life, but if we are able to overcome our revulsion, to see past the gelid stare, the blackened brow, and nose, and lips, the horrible rictus, – which tells us nothing of his smile, – and restore our blue-eyed sailor to life, it’s not hard to imagine a fine-looking lad, his cheeks burned red, as one might suppose, by the dazzling sunshine and searing cold of the Arctic. There is a troubling girlishness, even, in his finely drawn features, and in the wispy, light-brown curls that flow around his head, an impression reinforced by the pattern fabric that was tied around his face like a scarf.3

We must remember, however, that his face was hewn by illness (he was only 20 at the time of his death but looks a decade older at least), and 150 years in his icy grave can only have disfigured him further.4

John Torrington was a Royal Navy stoker, and this was heavy manual labour requiring great stamina and physical strength. The body exhumed in 1984 weighed a mere 38.5 kilograms (84 pounds), but the strapping lad who set out from Greenhithe with the rest of Franklin’s crew would certainly have weighed two times that much. John Torrington, then, is no closer to us in the flesh, as it were, than the rest of Franklin’s crew for whom no trace has been found.

Subscribers to the online cemetery would not share such a view, despite the obvious fact that a cyber-visit to Beechey Island brings them no closer to his mortal remains. The webpage devoted to Torrington features a brief memorial (mostly an account of Franklin’s expedition), a few photographs of the burial site, and 100 or so postings and “remembrances.” In answer to the question “How famous was this person?” voters have attributed to John Torrington an average score of 3,5 out of 5, which makes him, one assumes, a second-tier celebrity.5

Some visitors are content to leave virtual flowers (There are a dozen varieties, from blue bells to forget-me-nots) or a straightforward RIP, but many post a message as well.

These messages are for the most part sober (“You have suffered so”) or admiring (“Here’s to your bravery and sacrafice (sic) in the name of exploration…”) but some are fatuous:

RIP Dude (Billy Beer)

Added: May. 10, 2005

Others simply baffling:

And thus the Roman Empire fell, as well…(Kathy Gallup)

Added: Nov. 16, 2004

Most, however, are expressions of devotion:

I first read about you when I was 10 years old. I’m 34 now, and hardly a day has gone by in which I haven’t thought about you (Tangerine)

Added: Jun. 25, 2008

Someday I’ll meet you in Heaven, we’ll never stop talking. I love you John. (A.K.)

Added: Mar. 15, 2010

A religious or mystical strain is found in several postings:

You will never forget and one day you rise again from the dead… with your DNA (Wolfgang Sans)

Added: Dec. 5, 2014

Awaiting to venture with you in the depths of heaven. Rest in peace, John (Brendan Stieren)

Added: May. 19, 2007

There is also this thought, posted on New Year’s Day, 2011:

You are fondly remembered on this day when you broke the shackles of mortality to become an angel (The Rebel Innovator)

Added: Jan. 1, 2011

One findagrave member sums it all up for me:

Dear one – the mystery of you has captured many – what a strange fame you’ve achieved. R.I.P. John Torrington. Your memory endures (RW)

Added: Apr. 26, 2010

“A strange fame,” indeed… And what is strangest, of course, about this fame of his, is that ‘John Torrington’ is no more than a name, and nothing is known of the actual person, the living, breathing human being who bore it for two short decades in the early part of the 19th century.

Nor is the face that so transfixes us his face at all. It is the mask of death, and behind that mask is nothing we can, or shall, ever know. Stare as we might, death will always outstare us.

The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell

1) A storyteller, indeed, cares little for facts, except as grist for his fictional mill, and this is truer perhaps of broadside ballads than of most other forms. There is, perhaps, a truth in dreams as the song itself suggests (“I dreamed a dream and I thought it true”) but since we’re dealing here with a tragedy (remote in time though it might be) and the loss of many human lives, a little pedantry, one feels, is not out of place. As the song has it, Franklin sailed away “with a hundred seamen,” but, according to my information, 129 men in total, embarked on two separate vessels, The Erebus and The Terror, took part in the expedition, and not one of them returned. Not only is 100 not the true figure, it isn’t even close. I don’t think this matters very much. 100 evokes a large company of men, as the song intended it to. It is a neatly divisible unit, unlike the true figure, and easier for the mind to apprehend. But there are also aesthetic reasons for this fudging of the facts. 100 is a “square amount” – or is that a “rounded figure”? – and flatters our fondness for regular forms. In the same line of thinking, the words ‘one-hundred-and-twenty-nine” use up too many syllables, and are almost impossible to sing.

2) Franklin’s sailing away “to the frozen ocean in the month of May” happens, happily, to be both poetically or metaphorically as well as factually true.

3) Those I gather are woodchips around his head, not wispy strands of hair (as I originally supposed, and led you, my reader, to believe).

4) One easily forgets that Torrington’s body is a solid block of ice, and if you struck him with a tuning fork he might even chime.

5) Having said that, People magazine described him as one of the most interesting personalities of 1984.3