Mystery of the Ships that Never Returned.


Sir John Franklin commanded the expedition that never came home.
Sir John Franklin commanded the expedition that never came home.

“HEY, BOB, COME LOOK at this breaking news from the BBC. I think you will be very interested,” Nick called to his friend. They had stayed late at work to try to close out the company books for the month and were the only two left in the office.

Bob read the September 9, 2014 headline over Nick’s shoulder. “Fabled Arctic Ship Found.” The article stated that scientists did not know which of the two ships they had discovered, The Terror, or the Erebus, but they had definitely found one of them after 160-plus years. They had photo evidence of the wreckage.

“Wow, and thanks a heap for this. I had been wondering how this search was going. I couldn’t find any new information on the probe. It is so eerie. No one knows exactly what happened to the crews of the two ships. We know that because of a navigational error, the ships tried to go through the ice-choked waters of the Victoria Strait, looking for the Northwest Passage and their ships froze in the water, locked there, with no escape.”

Francis Crozier
Francis Crozier

Nick made a glib comment. “Yeah, this article is much more plausible than the one earlier in the week about the true identity of Jack the Ripper as Kosminski. It looks promising, but I think the jury is still out on that one. They need to have a team of scientists re-do the tests on the victims shawl, and also they need to do a total background check on the shawl itself. Did it actually belong to the victim? The tale behind it seems too vague.”

“I agree!” Bob exclaimed. “I will be watching the Ripper situation closely, but this discovery of the ships, well, we are going to get to see many interesting artifacts from that wreck in the months to come. They will be like time capsules. It will be fascinating. The article says that since they have found the one ship, that finding the sister ship will not be far behind. This is juicy!”

The mystery Nick and Bob found themselves engrossed in, is a strange mystery, indeed. The British Admiralty was hot to find a Northwest Passage that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through a waterway. Russia had been undergoing expansionism and needed to be headed off at the pass.

It was a forlorn area to consider—the Arctic regions of northern Canada. Most of it was covered with ice, ice chunked in the available waterways, frigid temperatures and unforgiving winds. There was no available food to be hunted on the land masses—it was too cold, the exception was possible fish to be caught.

The Admiralty began a search for the perfect commander of such an expedition. Fifty-nine year old Sir John Franklin was selected from all the candidates. His second in command was Francis Crozier. They set out for the area on May 19, 1845 in the 340 ton, The Terror and the 370 ton, The Erebus, former gunships. They had enough provisions to last for three whole years, including canned food. After they reached the area, they had dinner in Baffin Bay with the crew of a Scottish whaling boat, before continuing on their big and chilling adventure. This whaling crew was the last of humanity to see the explorers alive.

Mummy of  the Petty Officer found buried in ice.
Mummy of the Petty Officer found buried in ice.

The ships and their crews never returned. What happened? Rescue expeditions were formed and a reward of ten thousand pounds was offered by the British Government. In 1850, one of the rescue expeditions found evidence some camps made by the explorers. John Rae, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company ran across some Eskimos that were using silverware that had been part of Franklin’s provisions. The Eskimos said that they had seen bodies of the crewmen, and that it appeared that cannibalism had been a last resort in some instances.

The British Government tried to close the case and paid Rae the reward money.   Franklin’s own wife was not satisfied and sent a yacht, The Fox, to investigate further. Francis McClintock, the commander, did a serious search, even sending sled expeditions to King William Island. At two separate places they found messages from a crew member of the Erebus, Lt. Graham Gore.

The first message, from 1847 indicated all was well. The second message written in 1848 was desperate and grim. They had sailed to Beechey Island. Three of Franklin’s men died there during the harsh winter and they were given decent burials. They moved on when the weather allowed and sailed through Peel Sound.

At King William Island, where they stopped for a spell, they sailed on into Victoria Strait. Both ships became locked in vices of ice. John Franklin himself died in 1847 and Crozier tried to continue on, to no avail.

Twenty-three more men died. Crozier ordered the remaining men to march across King William Island with hopes of reaching an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company. No one survived.

Bob turned to his co-worker Nick and asked, “Back in that day over fifty expeditions joined in the search for the missing crews. Have you ever seen the photo of the dead sailor that anthropologists dug up in 1984? It is grisly, but fascinating, well-preserved by the cold temperatures. It was one of the three men buried on Beechey Island—one that did get a decent burial by Franklin.”

“Yes, it is macabre, but the body was loaded with information for the anthropologists who uncovered it.”

“Lead poisoning?” Bob asked, knowing the answer.

“Yes, they discovered that the crew had somehow fallen victims to lead poisoning.”

“At first they thought it was from improperly soldered cans that their canned food was packed in, but that was debunked by scientific tests. They considered, then, that it may be from plumbing in the ships themselves, or…”


“The truth is—no one really knows.”

Please click the book cover image to read more about Sara Marie Hogg and her books.


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