Modern history

THE WHITEWASH

The Polar field is a great testing ground. Those who pass through the winters of darkness and days of trial above the circle of ice know better than others the weaknesses of human nature and their own insufficiencies.

ANTHONY FIALA, 1905

On September 19, 1873, a telegram from William Reid, the United States vice consul to Great Britain, via the new transatlantic cable, broke the news that Buddington had been found. That day the New York papers, including the Herald, spread the word to the anxious people of New York. “The Dundee whaling-steamer Arctic had arrived at Dundee, having on board Captain Buddington and the remainder of the Polaris crew,” read the quote from the telegram. Better than the best mystery novel of the time, the events of the Polaris expedition had captivated the public's attention and fueled its desire for more of the sordid facts.

Little more was known save the fact that Captain Allen of the Ravenscraig had divided the crew and transferred them to two other ships. All of the rescued men landed at Dundee aboard the Arctic except Chaplain Bryan, Joseph Mauch, and John Booth. These last three men reached Scotland aboard the whaling vessel Intrepid some days later. While the separation was undoubtedly prompted by limited space aboard the Arctic, why those three men were chosen is unclear. Perhaps the guilt-ridden Bryan could no longer stay with the others.

Although telegrams flew back and forth between England and the United States, not one of them came from Emil Bessel. Bessel sent no messages to Professors Henry, Baird, or any of those at the Smithsorian who had sponsored him. Curiously Bessel chose to send his telegram to Professor Petermann in Germany and not to his family or friends in Germany or to any friends he had in the United States. Why? Was the Prussian physician informing the German government of news that it had hoped to hear? That the United States expedition had failed? If anything, the doctor's actions sigiify that his loyalties were still to the fatherland rather than to America in general or to those who had appointed him in particular.

While the public clamored for more details, the board of inquiry dragged its heels, hoping the controversy would quiet down. Six days passed before Buddington and the ten men in his group caught a steamship from London to New York. They arrived in New York on October 4. There the navy tug Catalpa conveyed them to the waiting USS Tallapoosa. Unlike Tyson's party, who had been whisked before the board, the second group was allowed one whole week to prepare for questioning.

Mr. Bryan, perhaps recognized by all involved as an innocent, was permitted two additional weeks to travel abroad before returning home. Mauch and Booth waited for him, so the three men were not questioned until the day before Christmas. Their testimony would be taken more as an afterthought, appended to the report to become a mere footnote. Consciously or unconsciously Bryan had moved to separate himself from his shipmates.

Once more the board of inquiry met aboard the Tallapoosa. Significantly this time the board was smaller. Admiral Golds-borough extracted himself from the proceedings, as did Spencer Baird. Both men sensed that nothing good lay ahead. Keeping the Smithsorian and the rest of the navy at arm's length suited their purpose. Robeson, Reynolds, and Howgate plodded on. While these mea desperately wished to close the book on this unhappy matter, the spreading rumors prevented them from doing so. Whispers of rrutiny and murder persisted.

Captiin Buddington came first. Tyson had labeled Buddington as disruptive: “I must say that he was a disorganizer from the very commencement.”

Well aware of Tyson's damning testimony, Buddington approached the board with a mixture of bluster, denial, and anger. Immediately he attacked the credibility of George Tyson, his most vociferous critic:

Captain Tyson. He is a man that was rather useless aboard, and complained bitterly about the management generally. He did not appear to be satisfied with anything that was done. I would consult him on the subject and he would perhaps agree to it, and then afterward would say that he thought it was no use to do anything of that kind; that he knew it was of no use. He generally acted that way. I got so that after a while I did not pay much attention to him.

Portraying Tyson as a malcontent weakened the navigator's charges but only stirred the muddy waters. Rightly worried that he would be blamed for the failure to reach the North Pole, especially after Hall's death, Buddington denied having opposed Hall's desire to sail farther north when the ice once more cleared:

No conversation occurred in which Chester and Tyson expressed a desire to go north while I expressed a disinclination to do so. I never so expressed myself. I have seen that report printed in the papers, but it is not correct. No man in the ship would ever so express himself to Captain Hall and get along with him.

Lamely, Buddington added, “I did my very best to get the ship north. I never said anything about never going further north.”

Chester and Tyson said otherwise. Someone was lying. As the first mate and Tyson had little love for each other, it appears the liar was Buddington.

On the defensive from the start, Buddington slowly came to realize that he would escape the tribunal without punishment but his career was ruined. Gradually he lost his animation and slipped into mumbled, lethargic answers.

Yes, he “did not see any chance to get north” of Repulse Harbor, and no, “no formal survey of the ship was held” before he abandoned her. To the officers of the panel, failure to carefully document the problems of the Polaris before abandoning her was unthinkable. A survey in which the other officers and the ship's carpenter oamined the damage to the ship, including its weaknesses as well a> its strengths, would have determined whether the vessel was still sound. Now they had only Buddington's word on the matter. Unlike the tradition in which a captain goes down with his ship, Buddington appeared to have lost his will to fight the ice and a leaking hull and chosen to “go from his ship” rather than risk going down with it.

On the matter of his drinking, Buddington admitted to only two episodes, including the one when Dr. Bessel had caught him.

“I went to the aft hatch to get something to drink,” he admitted. Referring to Bessel's trap, he continued matter-of-factly, “He was down there at the time and made some remarks about it.” Trying to gauge the response of the secretary, Buddington shrugged and added, “I just took him by the collar and told him to mind his own business.”

The captain underestimated Robeson's reaction. “Was not the alcohol pat on board for scientific purposes?”

“Yes, sir,” Buddington answered sullenly.

“What did you drink it for?”

Buddington tried for sympathy. “I was sick and down-hearted, and had a bad cold, and I wanted some stimulant.” When he saw the frown on Commodore Reynolds's face, the whaling captain waffled. “That is, I thought I did.”

The frown deepened. “I do not suppose I really did,” Buddington finally admitted.

But hi refused to admit that the problem was chronic. When asked if he was “in the habit of drinking alcohol,” he lied. “I make it a practice to drink but very little.”

Ringing in the ears of the panel was Frederick Jamka's statement that “Captain Buddington was drunk very often” and the words of John Herron that “Captain Buddington if he drinks at all must get drunk.”

Inch ty inch Buddington retreated, confirming the picture painted by the ice floe survivors of his undermining Hall's authority at every opportunity and his vehement opposition to pressing farther north while Hall had lived and even after he died. While Buddington never disobeyed a direct order, his opposition hamstrung the pliable Hall's efforts.

Buddington admitted growling at Noah Hayes to “save all those shavings and put them in a barrel.” While Hayes looked on openmouthed, Buddington continued his diatribe against Hall's orders to save any combustible scraps, taking the opportunity to jab at Hall's enthusiasm for sledding to the North Pole. Referring to the scraps, Buddington snapped, “They will do for the devilish fools on the sledge-journey.”

Of course, Hall overheard. Studying his clasped hands closely, Buddington admitted to the panel, “It was the worse thing I could have said in his case, as he was very much in favor of sledge-journeys. …”

As to the nature of Captain Hall's death, Buddington confirmed the man's fears of poisoning but remained strangely vague for one who had spent much time watching Hall die. His recollection of Hall's words to him the afternoon before his death raised more questions about the mysterious relapse. “I shall be in to breakfast with you in the morning, and Mr. Chester and Mr. Morton need not sit up with me at night,” Buddington recalled his commander saying. “I am as well as I ever was.”

Buddington's recounting of Hall's sudden relapse that night is chilling:

He was sitting in the berth, with his feet hanging over, his head going one way and the other, and the eyes very glassy, and looking like a corpsefrightful to look at. He wanted to know how they would spell “murder.” He spelled it several different ways, and kept on for some time. At last he straightened up and looked around, and recognized who they were, and looked at the doctor. He says, “Doctor, I know everything that's going on; you can't fool me,” and he called for some water. He undertook to swallow the water, but he couldn't. He heaved it up. They persuaded him to lie down, and he did so, breathing very hard.

About the captain's papers, Buddington was even more evasive. He insisted that Joseph Mauch had charge of Hall's papers. “The clerk had charge of them and stored them in a box … a large japanned tin box.” According to Buddington, Tookoolito held the keys to the box. “The key was among a lot of keys. I think Hannah had the whole of them. She had control of the keys and about everything Captain Hall had.” To suggest that the officers of the Polaris expedition would entrust an Inuit woman with important journals and logs that were official records is incredible.

Contradicting Meyer's testimony that the papers had been on BuddingtDn's desk the night of the separation, the captain insisted that the box was thrown onto the ice. He did, however, reveal that Hall's letter criticizing him had been burned:

At one time during his sickness we were having a talk together about one thing and another. He said he had written a letter to me and took it out, and he thought I had better not see it; but if I insisted, he would show it to me. I told him it didn't make any odds. He then said he thought it oughr to be burned, as he did not approve of it, and he held it to the candle and burned it.

Tyson's previous testimony was quite different. Referring to BuddingtDn's conversation with him about the burning, the navigator told the panel: “He told me he was glad the papers were burned, because tiey were much against him; and he got him to burn them.”

Had Buddington influenced the dying Hall to do that? Did he burn the letter himself? Was he responsible for cutting the pages referring to Hall's death and the abandonment of Tyson's party out of the discarded journals and logs? The committee would never ask, and it would never learn the answers to those questions.

The c onfused structure of command now hamstrung the committee as it had Charles Francis Hall. Buddington had surely been insubordnate and weak, but he was a hired whaling captain, not a commissioned officer. The navy could not court-martial him. The scientific advisory panel had no hold over him either. At worst they might sue him for failing to uphold his sailing contract. But even that was doubtful.

One can almost feel the somber realization seeping into the minds of the hearing officers. Every stone they overturned revealed another ugly fact. And all the findings pointed to one dismal conclusion: there were no heroes and no glory to be found from the Polaris expedition. To a man the examiners must have realized that their best course was to close this proceeding down as quietly and as quickly as possible. Putting a lid on the rotten events would keep the stench from spreading to the panel and would allow the whole affair to slip from the public's view.

The whaling captain stepped down. Now it was the turn of the others to tell their side of this murky tale.

As the crew testified one by one, they fleshed out the details of an expedition in serious trouble from the start. No one escaped unscathed except perhaps for Chaplain Bryan. But even he found himself lacking.

If the panel had intended to hang Buddington over his drinking, their hopes dissolved as the hearing unfolded. Raiding the liquor stores and later the specimen alcohol had involved both crew and officers. Fingers pointed at one another. The half-mad carpenter Coffin stated that he had seen Hubbard Chester “under the influence of alcohol.” Evidence emerged that Emil Schuman made a key in his engine room workshop to open the lock to BessePs alcohol locker.

Schuman attempted to deflect the blame onto George Tyson. “I saw Captain Tyson drunk like old mischief,” the engineer volunteered. “I saw Captain Tyson when he could scarcely move along.”

When Bryan finally came before the board, he implicated everyone except Captain Hall. The chaplain told of how the crew discovered they could reach the locked alcohol by crawling along the space surrounding the engine shaft. Of the officers, he said, “Of course when the officers did go and take the liquor and did get drunk, all that could be done was to accept the fact, and keep them quiet and get them to bed as soon as possible.”

No easy answers came from the second inquiry. Events following the terrible night of October 15 remained frustratingly out of focus, even when seen from the other point of view. How diligently had Buddington and the crew aboard the Polaris really looked for their companions? For every question the board asked, it got an ambiguous answer.

Chester insisted he had spent most of the day up the mast looking for his shipmates. Hobby also claimed to have looked. “I was up twice to look for the separated party,” he testified. But he admitted that “there was no one looking from the masthead about 4 p.m.,” the exact time Tyson's party saw the ship tie up to the iceberg.

Noah Hayes added more: “After the separation, when morning came, I do not think we looked for our comrades right away.”

Only Coffin thought he saw the abandoned party. Unsure and confused about reality, he told Chester. “In regard to the ice floe party, I had an ideawhether it was imagination or not I do not knowbut I thought I saw a large number of men on the piece of ice that v/as nearly like a berg, and a number sufficiently great to indicate that it was our party.”

Chester spoke of seeing dark objects on the ice that he took to be provisions, but Coffin disagreed. “I saw no provisions, or anything else.” What he saw were men, he thought. “They were near enough to me to take in the whole outline of them; they were on a piece of ice that was floatingmoving with the current very rapidly. The time I thought I saw these men on the ice was just before dark.”

Of al those left aboard the Polaris, the paranoid carpenter was the last person anyone would believe. In the end the carpenter doubted his own eyes.

One of the doubts that plagued Bryan emerged under questioning. ‘The separation of the ice floe party was entirely accidental,” he said. But then his concern slipped out. “Unless some person maliciously cut the rope.” Shaking his head, he corrected his lapse. “Which I have no idea was the case,” he added.

Finally the board turned to the lastand most disturbingpart of its examination: the death of Charles Francis Hall. Since Bessel had treated Hall, Robeson enlisted the help of W. K. Barnes, surgeon general of the army, and J. Beale, surgeon general of the navy, to evaluate the treatment. After all, the patient had died. The testimony by Noah Hayes of Bessel's laughing and lighthearted quip that “Captain Hall's death was the best thing that could happen for the expedition” raised serious questions that the doctor might have murdered his commander. The blue vapors and poisonous odors that Mauch (who had some training in pharmacology) smelled further fueled the fires of suspicion.

Bessel faced the two surgeons and his three interrogators with his usual haughty disdain. While everyone else managed to lose their scientific records and logbooks, Bessel had saved his notes, especially the ones made during Captain Hall's final days.

Apoplexy, Bessel answered without hesitation. Captain Hall had suffered a stroke.

“What might have been the immediate cause of the seizure?” Surgeon General Barnes asked.

“My idea of the cause of the first attack is that he had been exposed to very low temperature during the time that he was on the sledge journey,” Bessel surmised. “He came back and entered a warm cabin without taking off his heavy fur clothing, and then took a warm cup of coffee.” The “little German dancing master” paused for effect. “And anyone knows what the consequences of that would be.”

A hot cup of coffee will not cause a strokenot even in a hypo-thermic person, and Hall was not hypothermic. He had just mushed back to camp, so he was, if anything, overheated.

Incredibly the two surgeons general of the military swallowed Bessel's explanation. Perhaps the two officers had not practiced medicine for some time and had forgotten their clinical training. Rising to the rank of a surgeon general in the army or navy, a medical officer trades in his stethoscope and becomes an administrator. In all likelihood the two physicians cross-examining Bessel had not laid hands on a patient for years. That would be the kindest interpretation for their lack of medical knowledge. Sadly the admiral and general fell victim to their pride and refused to admit to their ignorance of clinical medicine.

A far darker possibility exists. Perhaps the two examining doctors refrained from criticizing Bessel's treatment under orders. Hall was dead. Nothing could bring him back. Accusing Bessel of poisoning Hall or even mismanaging his care would have opened grave questions that would lead directly to those who had chosen the doctor. After all, the reputations of the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences rode on the line with Bessel's competence. Not a shard of evidence exists to support this, however. But the blind acceptance of Bessel's strange antics by his medical peers is very troubling.

When Bessel saw the two doctors' heads nod sagely in agreement, the Prussian must have known after that they would believe whatever he told them, especially since he had it written down.

Using his notes as reference, Bessel continued, glossing over the fact that stomach pains, of a burning nature, and vomiting do not usually precede a cerebrovascular accident. “While he was in this comatose state I applied a mustard poultice to his legs and breast. Besides that, I made cold water applications to his head and put blisters on his neck.”

Slapping cold compresses and mustard plasters on his body did nothing to help Hall but is consistent with medical treatment of the time. Having nothing useful to offer, a doctor would fall back on poultices. When President Abraham Lincoln was dying after a bullet had destroyed his brain, his doctors applied mustard plasters for want of something else to do.

“In about twenty-five minutes he recovered consciousness. I found that he was taken by hemiplegia. His left arm and left side were paralyzed, including the face and tongue, the point of which was deflected to the left. I made him take purgatives. I gave him a cathartic consisting of castor oil and three or four drops of croton oil.”

Purging would not help a patient with an acute stroke. In fact, the dehydration and shift in electrolytes it might cause could prove harmful. But here again, Bessel's treatment was within the scope of current practice. Certainly paralysis of one side of the body is consistent with a finding of cerebrovascular accident, but certain types of poison can produce the same effect. Yet Hall's paralysis is confirmed only by Meyer's testimony. As the others stated, Hall was up and about before his fatal relapse. Herman Sieman wrote in his journal en November 1: “The captain appeared to grow better, as he spoke as sensibly as any of us.”

The next day Bessel found Hall's temperature to fluctuate between 83°F and 111°F. To correct the elevated temperature, the doctor told the committee he injected one and a half grains of quinine under the skin of the explorer's leg. It is hard to imagine the two surgeons' accepting this. Quinine was used at the time to reduce fevers, but no human can survive with a temperature as low as 83°F or as high as 111°F. As mentioned before, the readings are unbelievable.

No one on the panel questioned why Bessel had continued injecting Hall with his white powder long after the man's temperature returned to normal. And no one wondered why Hall got better when he refused to let Bessel near him. When the suspicious leader permitted only Tookoolito to make his food, he recovered miraculously. When Hall refused to take Bessel's medicines, why did the doctor not allow Bryan to take the drink to prove to Hall it was not poisoned? Maybe it was. Perhaps the fact that it was the chaplain who eventually convinced Hall to resume the Prussian's injections later tormented Mr. Bryan.

The doctor at one time wanted to administer a dose of quinine, and the captain would not take it. The doctor came to me and wanted me to persuade Captain Hall to take it. I did so, and saw him prepare the medicine; he had little white crystals, and he heated them in a little glass bowl; heated the water apparently to dissolve the crystals. That is all I know about any medicine. It was given in the form of an injection under the skin in his leg.

Immediately after that, Hall suddenly reversed his recovery and died.

In the end the surgeons found no reason to suspect foul play or criticize Emil Bessel's conduct. It was easier to turn a blind eye. Questioning the good doctor's actions would besmirch the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian. Their select committee had, after all, chosen Bessel. It was bad enough that the expedition had failed to reach the Pole and lost the bulk of its scientific observations. Finding a killer in their midst was too unthinkable, especially one who had been chosen by the country's preeminent scientists.

At Secretary Robeson's request, the two surgeons general affixed their conclusions to the report:

We, the undersigned, were present by request of the Honorable Secretary of the Navy, at the examination of Dr. Emil Bessel, in regard to the cruise of the Polaris and the circumstances connected with the illness and death of Captain Hall. We listened to his testimony with great care and put to him such questions as we deemed necessary.

From the circumstances and symptoms detailed by him, and comparing them with the medical testimony of all the witnesses, we are conclusively of the opinion that Captain Hall died from natural causes, viz., apoplexy; and that the treatment of the case by Dr. Bessel was the best practicable under the circumstances.

That was it. Bessel, the chosen one, was above reproach. Bud-dington, for all his faults, was a civilian and could not be court-martialed by the navy. Tyson and his complaints were dismissed as the rambings of a malcontent. The poor performance of the crew? Well, they had suffered enough.

The board recommended that no action be taken against any of the members of the expedition. No further investigations ought to be undertaken, they wrote. To the relief of all the bureaucrats, the case was closed.

All the dirt was swept under the rug. But it made a sizable bump, ore that refused to flatten out of view.

The public's taste for Arctic discovery, for the brave men who risked their lives in that region, and especially for more details of what had happened to the Polaris remained unsatisfied. Already books about the disaster were in the works. The specter of the doomed ship continued to loom over the whole affair. Instead of being called the United States polar expedition, everyone referred to the exploration as the Polaris expedition.

Charles Francis Hall was elevated to the status of a martyr. His only known photograph was copied and transposed onto various lithographs. In the first book published about the Polaris, Hall's image appears as the frontispiece, sharing a page with a photograph of the saintly Dr. Elisha Kent Kane.

The f rst book to hit the bookstalls tried its best to put a good face on the fiasco. William H. Cunnington appended The Polar

Exploration onto Epes Sargent's The Wonders of the Arctic World, published by the Philadelphia Book Company in 1873, just months after the rescue and hearings.

“From Official and Trustworthy Sources,” the subtitle said. But no mention was made of the divisiveness that had rocked the expedition. Little was said of HalPs ranting about poison and nothing about Buddington's attraction to liquor. One example demonstrates the book's tone:

It is known to our readers that when news of Captain Hall's death was first received in this country the grief and consternation in the public mind was intensified by rumors that he had been poisoned. As ill reports like ill news travel apace, it was soon in everybody's mouth that malice, engendered by jealousy or by distaste of his rule, had destroyed the daring and enterprising navigator. Secretary Robeson, with his characteristic promptness, determined to sift these vague charges, and fearlessly to bring the foul deed home to its perpetrator, or to prove their falsity and relieve the absent from their taint. He saw that a thorough investigation alone could effect this….

The cover-up had begun.

The authors quoted from the official report: “We reach the unanimous opinion that the death of Captain Hall resulted naturally, from disease, without fault on the part of any one.” Grandly Sargent and Cunnington followed that with a sweeping paragraph:

Thus, the vague rumors, and the more positive charges built on them, were swept away, and the people of the country, while sincerely mourning their eminent fellow American and heartily deploring his death, were relieved from the state of excitement that his supposed murder had naturally induced.

The next book out was not so kind. Arctic Experiences, Containing Capt. George E. Tyson's Wonderful Drift on the Ice-Floe, edited by E. Vale Blake, was published in 1874 by Harper & Brothers in New York. The publisher that had caught the first photographic image of the Tyson party saw the need for a more informative treat ment.

Relying heavily on George Tyson's journal, the book widely disseminated the navigator's bitter accusations against Budding-ton, Meyer, and Bessel. Unlike Cunnington's work, Blake included testimony from the hearing, notes, and Tyson's journals. On December 22, 1873, two days before testifying, Chaplain Bryan had answered a letter from Blake requesting his thoughts on the number of people who had climbed the mast to look for Tyson's group. Sadly, Bryan answered with candor: “During the winter I greatly regretted that I did not go up the masthead myself, but I never had an idea that I would have seen them.”

Blake's book fanned the embers of the persistent stories, causing them to burst into flames. The fact that the Geographic Society of Paris awarded the Gold Medal of the Roquette Foundation posthumously to Charles Francis Hall did little to dispel the rumors. Finally the U.S. government moved to quash the whole affair. It comm ssioned Rear Adm. C. H. Davis of the Naval Observatory to write the official version of the event. Published by the Government Printing Office, the Narrative of the North Polar Expedition, U.S. Ship Polaris appeared in 1876 and sought to be the definitive work on what had happened. To those alert enough to read the title page, the words “edited under the direction of the Hon. G. M. Robeson, Secretary of the Navy” must have proved troubling.

Davis's 686-page book, bound with a gilt cover, amounted to a massive whitewash. Mesmerizing the reader with day-by-day minutiae, the admiral glosses over the conflicts and shortcomings of the expedition. Testimony, journals, and even the official inquiries are edited to present the most favorable picture. Viewed through Davis's rose-colored glasses, the Polaris expedition consisted of happy, singing comrades who had suffered bad luck yet went on in the best possible tradition of the navy.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. But the “official report” achieved its desired goal. The disaster of the Polaris expedition gradually faded from people's minds.

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