Joseph Mauch, captain's clerk, came into the cabin in the morning and told us that there had been some poisoning around there.
—HENRY HOBBY, TESTIMONY AT INQUEST
The morning of September 27 the barometer plummeted, and one hour before noon a fearsome storm struck. Swirling walls of sleet and snow engulfed the Polaris and erased all view of land or sea. Wind jangled the rigging and tore at the canvas tenting. Attempts to clear the lines of ice failed, since the sleet cut the men's eyes so badly, they were forced to retreat below decks to safety. The gale lasted three days. During that time the surrounding ice broke and crowded the anchored vessel. While Providence Berg shielded the ship from direct assault as the ice rolled into the bay, nothing could protect the ship from the rolling blocks sweeping in from the sides. Once again the icy jaws clamped down on the vessel.
For three days the frightened men huddled below and listened to the slabs of ice crashing and grinding along the hull. Hourly, Schuman and Alvin Odell, the assistant engineer, scoured the bilge looking for leaks as the planking groaned and complained while tons of ice pressed upon all sides. The ice and snow banked against the sides for insulation vanished. What little the wind failed to wipe away fell into the frothing sea as cracks and fissures opened around the hull. Roiled by wind and waves, the Polaris rocked from side to side, lifting at times when bergs wedged under the stem and stern.
On Sunday, October 1, the maelstrom subsided as suddenly as it had arrived. A cobalt-blue sky, devoid of clouds and sharp as crystal, filled the heavens. Slanting rays from the low-hanging sun striped long purple and violet shadows across the blinding white landscape. For all the surrounding beauty, everyone aboard realized how dangerous this harbor could become and how precarious the safety of the Polaris was.
More provisions, including some precious coal, were moved ashore. Several feet of drifted snow had buried those supplies previously placed on the beach. A day passed while these were moved beneath the shadows of bluffs farther inland.
The fractured ice field re-formed, mending the cracks brought by the storm. Captain Hall's thoughts turned to probing along the coastline by land. On October 10 Hall led an exploratory party of two sleds, each pulled by a team of seven dogs. He and his faithful Ebierbing had one sled while Chester sat in the sled basket of the second, driven by Hans. Before he left, Hall took Tyson aside. He pointed to Captain Buddington, who wandered just beyond earshot, and whispered to Tyson, “I cannot trust that man. I want you to go with me, but I don't know how to leave him on the ship.”
Tyson shrugged. “I would like to go,” he admitted, biting back his desire. Inwardly he hoped his disappointment did not show. Duty came first, he realized. “But, of course, I'll remain and take care of the ship,” he added.
Hall nodded. “I'd like to reach a higher latitude than Parry did before I come back from this trip,” he said. He then explained to Tyson that this foray would seek out the best route for the main thrust in the spring. He hoped to find the land route that would be better than traveling over the ice floes and pressure ridges of the ever-changing straits.
Under diamond-bright stars the two teams raced off into the velvet night on a northeasterly track. Clouds rolled in later that night, and another snowstorm layered a foot of fresh snow over the sled tracks.
The next morning Hans Christian returned with his empty sled. He carried a note from Captain Hall. In his excitement the meticulous planner had forgotten several vital things. The party camped five miles from the ship, waiting for Hans to return with the items. The letter, addressed to Sidney Buddington, read like a shopping list:
Just as soon as possible attend to the following, and send Hans back immediately:
Feed up the dogs (14) on the seal-meat there, giving each 2 pounds.
In the mean time order the following articles to be in readiness:
My bearskin mittens
3 or 4 pairs of seal skin mittens (Greenland make)
8 fathoms lance warp
20 fathoms white line for dog lines
1 pair seal skin pants, for myself
12 candles, for drying our clothing
Chester's seal skin coat
1 candlestick, 1 three-cornered file, 4 onions
1 cup, holding just one gill
1 fireball and the cylinder in which it hangs
Have the carpenter make, quick as possible, an oak whip handle, and send the material for 2 or 3 more.
A small box that will hold the 1 pound of coffee which I have
A small additional quantity of sinew
Try and raise, if possible, 2 pairs of seal skin boots that will answer for both Chester and myself
Hall then ordered Bryan to calibrate his watch with the ship's chronometer and send it with Hans. He wrote more detailed instructions for Tookoolito to sew a bag for the timepiece, which Hans was to wear around his neck on the return trip.
As an afterthought, he wrote, “Tell Dr. Bessel to be very mindful that the chronometers are all wound up at just the appointed time every day.”
Whether he meant to or not, Hall's letter surely rankled both Buddington and the good doctor. The long list of demandssome vital, others trivialmade the sailing master appear to be his servant. Who was Buddington to be packing C. F. Hall's things like a mother sending her boy to summer camp? The men must have muttered below decks. And what was Hall thinking while he sorted his own gear that he should forget so many things? In his efforts to micromanage everyone else's work, was he being overwhelmed? The sailors must have shaken their heads over a commander who would focus on the winding of a watch yet forget his essential mittens and pants.
Overlooking the forest for the trees, the saying goes. Hall's actions must have shaken those of the crew who supported him and strengthened the innuendos cast by Buddington that their commander was dangerously in over his head. The ice's incessant chewing on the ship's hull served as a constant reminder to all aboard that disaster hovered around the corner, waiting for just such an omission or a mistake to destroy them.
Distressingly the reminders to Buddington and Bessel reflect the siege mentality developing aboard the ship. Hall sensed sabotage of his efforts to press northward. Without the dogs and an accurate chronometer, he could not reach the North Pole. The letter's tone smacked of imperialism and treated Buddington like a dolt. Surely he would know enough to feed the dogs before sending them back. But the note also raised questions about Hall's own competence. All those odds and ends for him, yet nothing needed for Hans or Ebierbing. Apparently the Inuit knew how to pack their kits.
Far worse, that offhanded remark to Bessel stung the haughty Prussian. As with the instructions for Buddington, Hall's reminder to wind the chronometers assumed that the doctor would otherwise forget. For a man who had a string of degrees from Heidelberg, Stuttgart, and Jena and served as the head of the scientific corps, it was a deep insult.
Here was another example of Hall's attempting to micro-manage his expedition. Even before he left on this first overland trip, he presented Buddington with a long, detailed list of instructions on how to manage the ship in his absence. It ranged from instructing Buddington (the experienced sea captain) as to what to do in an emergency to how to feed the newborn litter of puppies with canned pemmican. Too much coal was being burned to heat the ship, he complained. Only enough to keep the temperature at 50°F was to be used. All lights were to be out by nine p.m. except for a single candle forward for the night watch, and nothing was to be burned without the permission of Noah Hayes, who was to record every scrap.
Tellingly he appointed William Morton as quartermaster and ordered that only Morton could open supplies. For a final slap in the face, he commanded Buddington to keep a journal of any and all violations of this fiat, as if Buddington would be stupid enough to report his own pilfering. Nothing survives of the response that Buddington or Bessel made to either of Hall's letters. No mention is found in any of the recovered journals or diaries. One can easily assume, however, that their bitterness toward Hall only increased.
The requested supplies raced back with Hans, and the men worked at banking more snow and ice against the sides of the ship. On October 17 the sun sank behind the mountains of Greenland, not to be seen again until February. From then on each shrinking hour of daylight would be marked only by the rosy glow that shimmered along the southern horizon. Blackness and gloom began to permeate everything, slowly sapping the expedition's strength.
Captain Hall's party mushed northward along the foot of the mountains until they struck a frozen river. Since the river drained northward, they traveled along its relatively smooth surface, following the twisting riverbed until it emptied into the head of a bay. There Hall read a special prayer written for the occasion by John Newman and named the bay after Newman. He must have reflected bitterly over the lines in Reverend Newman's prayer that said: “And here in this far-off northern clime Thou givest snow like wool and scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes. Who can stand before Thy cold?” For a cleric who had not sailed north of Disko, Newman's words proved remarkably accurate. Already the trip was bogging down. Although Hall had planned to travel a hundred miles, the sleds had made less than fifty.
Sledding over the frozen water, they reached the mouth in two days and turned north again. Scaling a mountain, Hall and Chester viewed the surrounding land. Below lay the ice-choked Robeson Channel. Across the straits Ellesmere Island ran north by west in a curving arc while the earth beneath their feet rounded to the east.
Hall correctly surmised he was standing on an island and looking at the northern ends of both Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Here was the end of land. Ahead lay the Lincoln Sea and the North Pole. No solid earth remained above water between the tips of these two islands and the top of the world.
Hall's viewpoint of the top of the world was dutifully named Cape Brevoort, after his generous benefactor J. Carson Brevoort of Brooklyn. Hall sat among the rocks on a windswept portion of the mountain to draft a dispatch to Secretary of the Navy Robeson.
Below him stretched a missed opportunity, one that might never come again. Sanguinely he wrote:
On arriving here we found the mouth of Newman's Bay open water, having numerous seals in it, bobbing up their heads. This open water making close both to Sumner Headland and Cape Brevoort, and the ice of Robeson Strait on the move, thus debarring all possible chance of extending our journey on the ice up the strait.
The collusion between his troublesome Captain Buddington and the ever-shifting sea ice had cost him dearly. With his own eyes he watched the fading light fingering across the open water. The route farther north by sea still lay open! Had Buddington the stomach, they could have laid to, set the ship in irons, or anchored while the storms passed, then steamed on! At the very least they might have pushed their way into this fine bay to winter over. Deeper than Polaris Bay and guarded by the sheer headlands, Newman Bay offered far better shelter than the shallow scallop of Thank God Harbor. By whatever quirk of nature, Newman Bay remained open, even now, where thick ice gripped the Polaris fifty miles farther south.
Most disheartening was the fact that the open water now blocked any farther progress by dogsled. From the speed of the icy cubes sweeping south in Robeson Channel, Hall realized that the current of more than two knots would keep the straits open for days to come. It would do no good to wait for ice to seal the sea. Weeks might pass before the ice grew thick enough for safe sledding.
He was blocked by land and by sea. Clouds the color of hammered pewter, reflecting the dark mood, closed in as the men descended. Like Moses, Hall had been to the mountain and had seen the promised land. Like Moses, he would never set foot on it.
Huddled inside an igloo hastily built by Hans and Ebierbing before the storm broke, Hall finished his dispatch. He neglected to mention two close calls that had nearly spelled disaster for the probing mission. One night in particular almost proved deadly as they sat inside a snow house. Expertly crafted by Ebierbing and Hans to retain the warmth of a single seal-oil lamp yet block the howling Arctic wind, the house matched the Inuit's usual specifications of being airtight. With everyone inside, the Natives dutifully sealed the door with a block shaped for that purpose. Tired, preoccupied, or perhaps careless, no one had bothered to cut a vent hole in the top.
While Hall calculated his dead reckoning and star sights, the kerosene lamp flickered and went out. Assuming it had run low on fuel, Hall continued by the light of the one candle while Chester and the Inuit dozed. Then the candle sputtered and died. Exasperated, Hall struck a match to relight the taper. Match after match extinguished as soon as it was struck. Puzzled by this, Hall suddenly became dizzy. The candle and lamp had consumed all the oxygen in the sealed igloo, he realized. They were out of air.
“Kick down the door!” he ordered Ebierbing, who was closest to the entrance. The Inuit obeyed, and fresh air rushed into the room to revive them. It had been a close thing. Had they been sleeping, they would have suffocated.
Danger and death lurked at each turn. Back at the ship, Chester picked up a pot of coffee boiling on the portable metal stove, called a conjurer because it resembled something a magician might use to brew a potion. Finding the pot handles too hot to hold, the first mate dropped the pot and splashed boiling coffee over his face. Blisters immediately formed. Luckily Chester's eyes were spared, and his burns responded to Cosmoline, the rust-inhibiting grease, wiped from the rifles and metal tools and applied to his burned skin.
If anyone on the trip needed a reminder of the harsh nature surrounding him, he had only to look about. Grim evidence abounded.
During the sled passage one of the dogs had given birth to a full litter of pups. As the animals slept in harness, tied to the sled, the tracings kept the mother from moving her babies to safety. In the night the other dogs killed and ate all the puppies.
“Up to the time I and my party left the ship all have been well, and continue with high hopes of accomplishing our great mission,” Hall wrote the next morning. In his heart he knew he could not account for the actions of Captain Buddington or Emil Bessel while he was absent from the ship.
Hall must have feared that Buddington would sail the ship south at the first opportunity. The skipper had wanted to winter over at Kane's winter camp, farther south. Perhaps the fact that Kane had survived the winter at that location provided Buddington with assurances, whereas their advanced position did not. Bessel, however, appeared happy collecting and measuring where the ship now lay anchored. With his feet on land and overseeing the construction of his observatory, the Prussian scientist seemed fully occupied. But his apparent contentment worried Hall. The man detested him, he and Tyson realized all too well. Bessel hated taking orders from someone he rated far beneath him. Since the episode at Disko, Bessel looked as if he were biding his time, waiting for the right moment to strike.
Up to the time Hall had left, everything was fine. But what mischief awaited his return he could only guess.
Nothing of Hall's concerns survived, but George Tyson's diary and testimony as well as that of the men paint a picture of growing acrimony between the chief scientist, the skipper, and Captain Hall.
Trying to end on a positive note, Hall added:
I have omitted to note that our sleeping-bags, our vestments, everything that we wear, are all saturated with the moisture, and frozen stiff. But these kinds of difficulties we do not mind much. So long as we can forward the service we are engaged in, so long will we laugh at such obstacles as these mentioned.
Reluctantly they turned back in the morning. Before departing the men scraped away the snow until they found enough rock to build a cairn of stones. Placing the dispatch inside a copper cylinder as prescribed by his orders, Hall sealed the opening and trudged away. His dispatch was written on a form instructing the finder in six different languages to forward the message to the secretary of the navy. Chester further marked the site with an empty two-pound meat tin and a condensed-milk can filled with sand. The rough draft of the letter Hall cached remained inside his portable writing desk and so survived for us to read. His scribbled notes tightly fill all four corners of the printed official paper.
The pack ice and icebergs jostling within Robeson Channel mocked any idea of crossing by sled. The rugged slate-gray mountains lining the tip of Greenland blocked farther travel overland. He would have to wait until spring, Hall realized. Already this short trek was proving more arduous than expected.
George Tyson dropped the snow block he held and looked up. The sled dogs tethered on the ice and near the observatory barked and strained against their leashes. Beside him Morton and Sieman continued their work of hauling the cut squares to bank against the sides of the ship. Whenever the weather permitted, insulating the Polaris continued. This was the fourth day, and the snow bank measured ten feet thick in parts. Still, much more needed to be done.
Tyson scanned the horizon. The thick twilight restricted his vision to a few hundred yards. Something had disturbed the animals. No musk ox would be foolish enough to blunder into camp. Polar bears were another matter. He squinted harder. The white bears blended so well with their surroundings as to be almost invisible. Only their black eyes and black nose stood out. But he saw nothing.
The dogs renewed their yelping. Now they all stood, howling and facing to the east. In the cold, dense air, sound carried for miles across the jumbled ice field. Faint barks returned from the base of the foothills. Tiny dark dots crested the rise of a snow ridge and sped toward the ship. Captain Hall and Chester had returned.
Instinctively Tyson fished his pocket watch from the folds of his sealskin coat. It read one o'clock. Two weeks to the day, the advance party was back. He waited as the sleds drew nearer.
Expertly Ebierbing brought the team to a halt alongside the observatory building. Hall rolled out of the sled basket and sprang to his feet. Walter Campbell, one of the firemen, greeted him. To Campbell, the commander looked unwell.
Hall shook his head. “No, I'm pretty tired, but quite well in health.”
Emil Bessel emerged from the hut. The two shook hands, and Bessel walked beside Hall, talking about several of the experiments. Frederick Meyer and Noah Hayes stopped stacking provisions to welcome their commander. Hayes thought Hall looked “very much exhausted.” Once again Hall insisted he felt fine.
A crowd gathered as Hall walked toward the Polaris. Budding-ton and Morton approached. “Do you think the Pole can be reached along the shore you just explored?” Buddington asked.
“It can,” Hall answered firmly. He then clasped Tyson's outstretched hand and smiled warmly. Patches of hoarfrost silvered Hall's beard and eyebrows, contrasting with the ruddy complexion of his flushed face.
“How was the trip?” Tyson asked.
Hall grinned widely. “Wonderful time. Only went fifty miles instead of the hundred miles I planned. But, all went well. Didn't lose a single dog.”
Hall wiped his running nose with the back of his mitten. “Going again,” he said. “And I want you to go along.”
Hall shook hands with everyone in the work party. Before climbing the gangplank, he addressed the men. “Men, I thank you for your good behavior during my absence,” he said.
Ebierbing and Mr. Chester, both covered with snow and frost, climbed the platform with Hall. Campbell and Morton followed. At the tumble home Bryan and the steward, Herron, waited as the reception party. Hall exchanged a few words with the chaplain before crossing the tented deck and making his way below to his shared quarters. Joseph Mauch greeted the captain at the doorway. In his hands he held a bound ledger recording the events that had taken place during Hall's exploratory trip. Before he left, Hall had ordered Mauch as secretary to keep an accurate log of all happenings. Proudly Mauch thrust the book at Hall.
Hall eyed the ledger. He nodded his approval but waved off the book. “I'll read it as soon as possible,” he said. Perusing the log was not on his mind. He was thirsty.
“Have you any coffee ready?” Hall asked Herron.
“Always enough,” the steward beamed. “Under way down stairs in the galley. Would the Captain care for anything else?”
“No. Just the coffee.”
Herron rushed off to find the cook, Jackson. But the pot was empty. Dinner would not be served to the working parties for another two hours. The thirsty crew stacking provisions by the hut and banking the ship had drunk the morning's coffee to keep warm. Campbell, acting as assistant cook, watched as Jackson brewed a fresh pot. Later, under cross-examination, Jackson would claim that the captain's cup was filled from the same pot everyone else had sampled. Whether he lied or had a lapse of memory, the truth remains that the cook brewed a fresh cup for Captain Hall. Both Campbell and Mauch remembered watching him make one.
In the cabin William Morton pulled off Hall's mukluks and washed his feet. The commander sat on his bunk. Going from minus-zero temperatures to the relative warmth of the ship caused him to sweat, further drenching his already damp shirt. Throughout their trip moisture had plagued Chester and Hall. Without modern synthetic fibers to wick perspiration away from their bodies, the two men had steamed inside their clothing as they ran beside the dogsleds. Furthermore, the wet wool lost all of its insulating property.
By evening their undergarments had literally dripped. Each morning they had awakened to sleeping bags frozen into stiff cocoons from the water vapor. Hans and Ebierbing avoided this problem by sensibly wearing nothing beneath their furs and sleeping under the hollow-haired caribou robes.
As an afterthought Morton went out to retrieve a change of dry clothing for his commander. Bryan and Bessel stood inside the cabin. When the mate returned, Hall sat drinking his cup of coffee. Herron had returned with the brew. Captain Hall drank his coffee sweetened with sugar “white lump sugar,” as the steward described it. How many hands beside Jackson's and Herron's passed the cup to Hall is unknown, but Dr. Bessel and Mr. Bryan were present.
As Hall gulped down the coffee, he grimaced. Those present saw him do so. The taste was awful, unlike any coffee he had drunk before, far too sweet and metallic in character. He mentioned it to Morton and again, later, to Tookoolito. He set the cup aside and rose to pull his shirt over his head. Suddenly his stomach burned, a visceral fire deep inside as if he had swallowed molten iron.
“Something is the matter with me,” Hall stammered. “I … I feel sick.” Abruptly he doubled over as the pain struck even harder. He vomited suddenly. But the pain continued, and he collapsed onto his bunk.
The vomiting continued unabated.
Helplessly Morton and the steward watched as wave after wave of pain and nausea swept over the captain. Bryan wrung his hands, while Bessel studied the attack with medical detachment. Within minutes Hall appeared to improve. Emptying his stomach seemed to relieve the symptoms.
Fearing that something in the coffee had affected him, Hall asked Dr. Bessel for an emetic. If his vomiting had left anything harmful behind, further regurgitation could only help. With problems in food handling, preparation, and preservation rampant in the nineteenth century, food poisoning was common. On an Arctic vessel with little water used for hand-washing, the problem was compounded. Emetics were a common way of dealing with contaminated foods.
Surprisingly Bessel shook his head. “No. You are not strong enough,” he said. “One would weaken you too much.” Bryan blinked at this unexpected recommendation. Purging was standard practice, and the captain's vomiting had seemed to help him. However, he deferred to Bessel's medical experience. Since he had not examined Hall, the Heidelberg-trained physician had no basis for such a pronouncement regarding Hall's relative strength or weakness, unless he was trying to keep the contents of the coffee cup inside Hall.
Captain Buddington arrived. Hall looked up from his bunk,pale and shaken. “I felt a little sick coming in from the cold to this warm cabin,” Hall explained, “and I've been vomiting slightly.”
Buddington frowned. The man looked sicker than what he described.
“I still plan on going north again after a few days,” Hall insisted. “This may be a bilious attack.” Then he enlisted Budding-ton's support for a purgative. “Don't you think I need an emetic, Captain Buddington?”
“Yes.” Buddington, like all the rest, believed in purging the body of noxious elements.
Both men turned toward Bessel, but the physician remained adamant. Folding his arms across his chest, he shook his head again. “It will not do for you to take an emetic,” he stated flatly.
George Tyson stopped supervision of the snow-banking as soon as he learned of Hall's attack and visited the cabin. Hall asked him also if a purgative might not help, and, like Buddington, Tyson thought it would. But Bessel still refused.
Denied what he believed his best chance to cure the burning in his stomach, Hall finally turned his face to the wall, rolled onto his left side, and drew his knees up. Buddington, Bryan, and Bessel filed silently out. Herron and Morton took stations outside the door to the cabin in case their captain needed them.
Strangely, just after that first onslaught of vomiting, Bessel told Buddington that Hall's illness was fatal. This was an extraordinary thing for him to say. He had not examined Hall. While the vomiting was sudden and severe, nothing else pointed to a fatal outcome. Either Bessel was an incredibly bad physician, or else he knew something about the attack that no one else did.
Word of Hall's sudden illness quickly spread. A palpable feeling of uneasiness flowed outward from that darkened cabin and seeped throughout the ship, spread into every corner, onto the ice to the men banking the sides of the ship, and across the frozen bay to the sailors working around the observatory. Men whispered to one another: the skipper was down. Within minutes everyone knew. In this isolated anchorage, ill news traveled fast.
As soon as he heard of Hall's collapse, Herman Sieman uttered a silent prayer for his commander's speedy recovery. From the most religious to the most blasphemous member of the crew, each sailor probably echoed similar sentiments.
On any ship the captain's words and deeds can save or sink the vessel. Few other places on earth bestow such awesome power on a single individual, but the merciless, unforgiving nature of the sea demands that a ship have one ultimate authority whose word is law. While some of the crew might not recognize Hall as that ultimate authority, everyone realized they depended upon him. Captain Hall knew more about surviving in this bitter wilderness than anyone else aboard. His years in the Arctic had proved that. His expertise strengthened the odds they would all return home alive.
Everyone on board knew that three factions divided the Polaris expedition, and even the dullest Jack among them realized that Captain C. F. Hall was the only thing that held them all together.
By morning, October 25, Hall felt better. Although the cramping pain had continued throughout the night, it subsided somewhat by daylight. He ate some chicken and arrowroot. An anxious Tookoolito and Ebierbing reached his side.
“Did you drink the coffee, Joe?” Hall asked his friend. “I don't know. I took a cup of coffee, and then I got very sick and vomited.”
He looked at Tookoolito. “I think the coffee made me sick. It tasted too sweet.” Drawing the two Inuit closer, he whispered, “I think there was something bad in the coffee. It burned inside my stomach. I never tasted anything like it before. Not like the coffee you make for me, Hannah.”
The two Natives backed away as Dr. Bessel entered the cabin. For the remainder of the day, Hall rested in bed while Bessel hovered about applying cold compresses to the captain's head and mustard plasters to his legs and chest. No record is made of Hall's eating anything that day, but he steadily improved, according to Morton and Bryan.
Nevertheless, Bessel wrote in his diary that Hall suffered from paralysis of the left side of his body, including his tongue something no one else saw on that day. With minute detail Bessel recorded his findings and treatments. Later he would use his notes to defend his care of Captain Hall.
Furthermore, Dr. Bessel recorded an irregular pulse and now decided to purge his recovering patient. How massive diarrhea might correct an irregular pulse is a mystery. If Bessel had been worried about weakening Hall before, he must have gotten over his concerns. He administered castor oil mixed with four drops of cro-ton oil. Presumably copious glasses of water followed to wash down the objectionable concoction. To solidify his diagnosis even more, Bessel announced that Captain Hall had suffered from a fit of apoplexy and was not expected to live. Other than Bessel's questionable findings of paralysis, little documentation exists that the captain had had a cerebrovascular accident, or stroke.
Granted, medicine has progressed considerably in the last 130 years. And granted, cathartics and purgatives were commonly prescribed at that time. But Bessel's treatment is inconsistent and without good foundationeven for that time. If Hall's irregular pulse was the result of electrolyte imbalance from his vomiting, knowing what we do now, inducing further loss of sodium and potassium through diarrhea only worsened the problem.
By evening the stomach pain returned. Hall resumed vomiting all night. With the arrival of morning, once again, he improved. Although still weak, Hall inquired about the ship and speculated on his next trip by sled. The paralysis that Bessel described had vanished, although the doctor noted that Hall had difficulty swallowing. What trouble the captain had nevertheless failed to prevent him from taking some sustenance. His appetite had returned somewhat, as the stomach pains were also gone. He ate some preserved fruit, peaches or pineapple.
During this time Dr. Bessel checked his patient's temperature. Taking both oral and axillary readings, the doctor recorded wildly diverse measurements, ranging from lows of 83°F to highs of 111°F. What sort of thermometer had Bessel used? Certainly it could not have been one of the carefully calibrated “black-bulb” or “naked-bulb” mercury thermometers that the National Academy of Sciences admired for their superb accuracy. The numbers Bessel recorded are unbelievable. His readings are incompatible with survival. The heart fibrillates when the core temperature drops below 90°F, and the brain cooks when temperature rises past 107°F. More worrisome is the fact that Bessel used these findings to initiate further treatment. Because of the elevated temperature, the physician prescribed quinine injections.
In the 1870s quinine was used for a variety of ills, fever being just one. By dilating the small blood vessels in the skin, quinine will lower an elevated temperature. Other than its primary use in combating malaria, the drug also produced pain relief by depressing areas of the central nervous system. It can also produce digestive upsets, visual disturbances, and a skin rash. Bessel gave Hall an injection, which he described as “a hypodermic injection of one and a half grains of quinine, to see the effect.”
The doctor's choice of quinine is open to question. Certainly Hall did not suffer from malaria, the drug's primary usage, nor did he complain of pain, another indication for quinine during that time. With the captain's temperature all over the map, quinine probably should not have been used, and it could be expected to further upset an already disturbed stomach.
According to Bessel's notes, the effect was beneficial, and the captain's appetite and mental acuity improved over the next day. Not wanting to let well enough alone, Bessel injected Hall again, even though the man's temperature was no longer elevated. During this time Morton and Chester stayed at the sick man's bedside and clearly remembered the injections. Both men recalled Bessel's mixing a white powder into the solution before injecting it.
The fact that the treatment improved the captain's appetite and mental conditionjust the opposite of what might have been expectedraises the question of whether the white powder was quinine or something else.
Trouble began the next day. Hall leaped from his bed suddenly and shouted that Chester, Tyson, and Buddington planned to shoot him and that Bessel and the cook were poisoning him. For the next four days, Hall ranted and raved about his cabin.
When Jackson, the cook, entered the cabin to fetch his pipe, Hall mistook the pipe for a pistol and cried out that Jackson meant to shoot him. The frightened man fled when Hall ordered Budding-ton to strip the cook's bunk and search it for weapons. Hall also refused a change of stockings from Chester, fearing they might be laced with poison.
Focusing primarily on Bessel as the ringleader of a plot to kill him, Hall finally refused to let the doctor treat him. Pointing directly at Bessel, Hall told Jackson, “That man is trying to poison me!”
Bessel abandoned his previously haughty demeanor and now suddenly adopted the patience of Job, affecting an air of extreme kindness toward his ranting leader. That appears to have been out of character for the brusque man. When Captain Buddington offered to drink a glass of medicine first to prove to Hall that it was safe, Bessel strangely would not allow it. Why was that? A sip of any medicine would have allayed Hall's fears and would not have hurt Buddington. Were the contents of the glass harmful instead of helpful? If it did contain poison, Bessel certainly would not wish to kill Buddington, a man whom he could readily control and who was needed to ensure their safe return.
To the men around him, Hall appeared to accuse everyone, especially Bessel and Buddington, but he never laid any blame on his Inuit friends.
Hoping to cure himself by tried-and-true methods, Hall asked for raw seal meat. Bessel refused to allow it, and Hall accused the doctor of starving him. To avoid the poison he feared, Hall refused all food unless it was proved safe. Like the Roman emperors with their food testers, the explorer ate only after Chester, Morton, or Herron had first sampled his meals. Tookoolito assumed the task of preparing his soups and teas. Hall even suspected that the water used to wash him might have been harmful.
During this time Noah Hayes and Herman Sieman asked to visit the captain. Sieman wished to pray over a fellow Christian and Hayes to comfort his idol. Buddington and Bessel refused their requests. Why is unclear. The disturbed Hall might have garnered comfort from friendly faces. Was this a kind of psychological warfare being practiced on Hall? Or was it meant to prevent Hall from poisoning the crew with innuendo and accusation? No matter the reason, the skipper and doctor managed to isolate Hall from the crew during this time, allowing only the Inuit and officers access to the sick man.
In the close confines of the ship, engulfed in darkness and hundreds of miles from help, the captain's raving unnerved the crew.
One day Joseph Mauch took Henry Hobby aside and whispered darkly that “there was poisoning around there.” Mauch had studied some pharmacology in Germany and recognized the odor of a certain poison within the captain's cabin. Unfortunately Mauch could not recall the English word for the poison he smelled.
Concurrent with the captain's illness, a strange affliction struck a litter of newborn sled dogs. One by one the previously healthy pups developed prolapsed intestines. With their protruding entrails dragging behind, the unfortunate creatures fell victim to the other dogs, which attacked and pulled on the exposed organs. To end their suffering, the animals were killed. Death and dying permeated the atmosphere of the entrapped ship and further unnerved the sailors. To the superstitious seamen, what befell the puppies was just another sign that their ship was unlucky. No one stopped to consider that someone might have been testing poisonous mixes on the unfortunate creatures.
Meanwhile, Captain Hall teetered between the brink of madness and guilt for his outbursts. To Emil Schuman he apologized repeatedlyup to ten times, according to the engineer. “Mr. Schuman,” he lamented, “if I ever did wrong to you, I beg your pardon. I'm extremely sorry.” With Schuman's limited English, most of Hall's invectives went unnoticed; Hall's profuse apologies did not.
Hall's hallucinations peaked one night. Awaking suddenly, he jumped up and seized Buddington by his collar. The startled whaler shouted to Tyson and Chester for help. But Hall barred their way. With his left hand (the one that was supposedly paralyzed), the captain held the door closed, grasping the doorknob so tightly that the men outside could not turn it. Showing remarkably good strength for a “paralyzed” and weakened person, Hall kept the two men at bay while he questioned Buddington.
“There are blue vapors surrounding the cabin lantern,” he insisted to his captive audience while the other officers hammered at the door. “Do you not see it?”
“Sir!” Buddington stammered.
Hall's wild eyes rolled toward his captive. His already waxen face tightened, and his mouth gaped in horror. “What's this? Blue flames shooting from your mouth, sir!”
Hall's grip on the handle relaxed, and Tyson forced the door ajar. Chester and he rushed inside and pried Hall's fingers from Buddington's throat. Gently they forced Hall back into his bunk. The stricken man wiped futilely at Chester's coat, brushing away the cloud of blue vapor that drifted around the first mate and clung to his coat. After anxious moments the men quieted Hall and covered him with his blankets. Tyson sat beside him.
Weakly Hall raised on his elbow and ran his fingers around Tyson's mouth. “What's that coming out of your mouth?” Hall whispered. “It's something blue …”
Bryan hurried to the cabin. Seeing him, Hall pointed to the bunk Bessel used. “Doctor Bessel had an infernal machine in his berth that emits blue vapor. Don't you see it? It is there. Can't you see the vapor coiling around in the air? I know the machine is in there because I can see blue vapor hanging along the edge of the berth. Don't you see it, Mr. Bryan?”
The distraught chaplain looked about. Only smoke from the kerosene lamp circled inside the small cabin.
Hall inclined his head toward the other bunks. A look of madness crept into his eyes. “Bessel has put his machine somewhere inside here. He is pumping his blue vapor into my berth.” Fear filled Hall's stricken face. “It is killing me,” he said slowly. Then a conspiratorial look replaced the terror. “That little German dancing master doesn't think I know that he is at the center of this, but I do.”
During this time the “thin-skinned” and “sensitive” Bessel demonstrated remarkable equanimity. Before, he took offense at the smallest slight; now he seemed inured to the poison charges. The chief scientist wandered around the ship casting dire prognoses about Hall's chances of survival. Before Hall dismissed his services, Bessel had remained close by his patient, often sleeping in a chair by the captain's bed. On one occasion the doctor tied a string to Hall and then to his own arm to awaken him if his patient needed care. The men assumed that this was to spare the others sleeping in the cabin from loss of their rest, but the string arrangement conveniently enabled Bessel to treat the befuddled Hall without arousing possible witnesses.
In lucid moments the explorer fed himself from tins of food stored under his bunk, which he opened himself.
After treating all other foods as poisoned, drinking only water or tea directly from Tookoolito's hand, and not letting Bessel near him, C. F. Hall began to improve. From November 1 through November 3, he steadily regained his strength. His mind cleared, and he resumed his plans for another trip northward. If Bessel was poisoning the captain, this improvement when out of the good doctor's hands is damning evidence.
On November 4 Hall kept his secretary, Joseph Mauch, busy revising the ship's logs and bringing his journal up to date. Throughout the day he chatted with anyone who passed about his plans for reaching the North Pole. His appetite was strong, and all signs of the mysterious stomach pains had vanished.
At this time Dr. Bessel prevailed upon Mr. Bryan to intercede with the captain on the doctor's behalf. Bryan, acting mostly in his role of ship's chaplain and conciliator, implored Hall to let Bessel resume treatments. It was Dr. Bessel's highly skilled talents, learned in Heidelberg, that had brought about Hall's miraculous cure, Bryan argued.
No one could doubt that Hall had improved remarkably. But was this due to Bessel's injections and solutions or to Hall's paranoid actions? Bryan's arguments must have been convincing, for the captain relented and allowed the doctor he had accused of poisoning him to resume his care. Years later Bryan would express doubts about whether he had done the right thing.
By that evening Bessel once more injected his medicines into the captain's thigh. In his journal Bessel wrote that Hall had difficulty speaking, appeared slow, and had numbness of his tongue that day, and that is why he restarted his treatments.
The next two days Hall walked about on deck and continued amending the ship's journals with Mauch. As a seaman passed his porthole with a freshly killed seal, Hall laughed and pointed to the man. He seemed well on the road to complete recovery.
He ate a full meal before turning in. He told Buddington he would have breakfast with him in the morning and added, “Mr. Chester and Mr. Morton need not sit up with me at night. I'm as well as I ever was.”
Near midnight Hall developed labored breathing. Alarmed at this sudden change, Chester awoke Bessel and relayed his findings.
Strangely, the doctor who had tied himself to his patient now appeared unimpressed with Chester's report. In the words of the startled first mate: “I asked the doctor about it. He said it was all right and started out quick as he could to the observatory.”
What was so important for Bessel to do in the observatory in the middle of the night? Whatever scientific observation he needed could not have been that crucial, for Bessel would have slept through the night if Chester had not aroused him. Was he just trying to get in a few observations while awake? Was the good doctor trying to establish an alibi, one that put him in the science hut when Hall died? Most important, why would he ignore Chester's report when respiratory depression is frequently a terminal sign?
When Chester returned to his charge, he found Hall muttering incoherently around a dangerously swollen tongue. The captain's condition so unnerved Chester that he ran on deck to dispatch the first man he saw to retrieve the errant Bessel from his observatory. The first mate then rushed to find Captain Buddington. “Captain Hall is dying,” he blurted to the ship's master.
Both men reached Hall to find him sitting upright, legs dangling, and his head wobbling from one side to the other. The man's glassy-eyed stare and cadaveric appearance were “frightful to look at,” according to Buddington.
“How do you spell … murder?” Hall rasped. He kept spelling the word over and over, using different and incorrect spellings. Buddington and Chester could only look at each other in confusion. As Bessel returned and entered the cabin, Hall straightened up. “Doctor, I know everything that's going on,” he whispered. “You can't fool me.”
Calling for water, Hall choked on the drink, then vomited before collapsing back onto his cot. Bessel immediately diagnosed a second attack of apoplexy.
Hall remained unconscious. They rolled him onto his stomach to keep him from swallowing his tongue. Then he lay, facedown in his blankets, drooling and breathing heavily. Chester and Morton continued their bedside vigil. Hall's breathing grew heavier.
For the first time Chester noticed blisters and sores developing around Captain Hall's nose and mouth. Soon blisters encircled his entire mouth. Blisters such as these would not be the skin rashes possible from quinine; however, certain types of poison do produce circumoral blistering.
All that night and throughout the next day, the stricken explorer lay on his stomach, his face almost buried in his blankets. No words issued from his mouth until evening. Then he raised his head as Dr. Bessel straightened his blankets.
Recognizing the doctor, Hall murmured, “Doctor, you have been very kind to me, and I'm obliged to you.” He then sank back into his coma. Around midnight the faithful Morton took his turn on the dreadful watch.
Chester looked up at his relief. “He's asleep, and I don't think he's any better,” the first mate responded to Morton's unspoken query. He shook his head sadly. “He's very bad.”
Morton slipped into the chair. He watched the sweaty tangle of dark hair and unkempt beard half buried in the pillow. Heavy gurgling sounds came from the body. The shoulders rose and fell as the captain fought for each labored breath. The air inside the cabin tasted stale and reeked with the odors of unwashed bodies. The gurgling grew more pronounced.
Fearful that the captain might be choking, Morton called out to him. There was no reply. Gently, gingerly as a rough-handed worker might raise a newborn infant, Morton lifted Hall's head. The eyes remained closed, and saliva dripped from the man's half-opened mouth. Moisture matted the mustache and beard surrounding the pallid lips. Morton wiped the crusts and drool away with a cloth and rolled the unconscious man more onto his back. He propped Hall's head against his pillow to give him a better airway. On a table beside the bed rested a glass containing liquid. It might have been medicine left by Bessel or tea, for all Morton knew, but he hoped some fluid might relieve the awful sounds that accompanied the captain's labored breathing. With infinite care the old traveler ladled a spoonful between Hall's lips. His efforts produced little effect. The fluid dribbled between the opened lips onto the pillow. Morton returned to his seat to resume his watch.
At 2:25 in the morning of November 8, 1871, Hall's breathing stopped. Morton rose and examined him. Leaning over, he placed his roughened cheek close to detect any movement of air. There was none. Morton stepped back and gazed upon his friend.
Charles Francis Hall was dead. In death his face resumed the sallow complexion it had held in life. Neither blotches nor flushing nor contortions distorted the peaceful face. Sadly the mate roused Dr. Bessel. The doctor confirmed the diagnosis and placed the official time of death at 3:35 a.m. Morton awoke Buddington and Chester. Within minutes everyone sleeping in the cabin was up.
Word spread to the forecastle. One by one the seamen filed into the crowded room to pay their respects to their fallen leader. Quietly they gazed upon the still face before shuffling out. What feelings Bessel and Buddington had they kept to themselves at this time. Later their true sentiments would emerge.
For all their rebellious actions, every one of the common seamen professed a genuine grief. Whatever Hall's shortcomings, the men's best interests occupied his central thoughts, next only to his desire to reach the North Pole. Unfortunately some among them believed that his zeal to conquer the Pole threatened their lives.
The death of any member of a ship strikes hard at the core of the vessel. By the very nature of its small size, the Polaris fostered familiarity among officers as well as crew. Everyone aboard had shared experiences with Hall and felt his touch. Furthermore, his death amid the dark shoulders of the threatening icebergs and icy fingers of the remorseless Arctic served all the more to remind them that death and disaster shadowed every foray into the far North.
The blow of Hall's death came even harder since the men had dropped their guard. His wonderful recovery from a malady that Bessel said was fatal had inspired them. Only the previous day, Hall had looked strong and fit. He had walked on deck and resumed his plans. Now he was dead, less than three months into the expedition.
Morton and Chester dressed Hall in a fresh navy uniform. Dark blue wool with double rows of brass buttons, it looked like official U.S. Navy issue, but like Charles Francis Hall, it was ambiguous, for no gold braid adorned the sleeves. Like Hall, the commander's uniform was incomplete, lacking a full commission.
Down below, Nathan Coffin, the ship's carpenter, who had struggled so hard to recover from his illness in New York in time to sail with his shipmates, began his grim task. Using his plane and saw, he built a pine coffin from spare wood.
Morton, Tyson, Chester, and Noah Hayes began digging a grave. Picking a level spot near the observatory and depot of ship's stores, they commenced to dig. The rock-hard frozen ground resisted all efforts. A few shovelfuls of scree and coarse gravel lay beneath the snow. That much was easy. After that there remained nothing but frozen ground, cemented in ice since the first Ice Age.
An entire day passed while the men battled with pick, crowbar, and ax to chisel a hole deep enough to hold the coffin. While the men labored, Hall received one final viewing before Coffin nailed the lid shut. Progress on the grave proved agonizingly slow. Worried that the dead man might begin to decompose in the warm cabin, Captain Buddington ordered the coffin moved to the poop deck.
By the end of the second day, a depression barely more than two feet deep existed. That would have to do. Further efforts gained little. Noah Hayes, in frustration, rammed the crowbar he was using into the ground near the head of the grave.
The burial service took place in the dark. The Arctic sun no longer shone even at eleven o'clock in the morning. The ship's bell rang the departing of the captain, this time forever, and the coffin was loaded onto a waiting sled. Somberly, the line of men hauled the sled and coffin along while Tyson led the procession with his lantern. Shuffling behind the body of their friend walked the Inuit, with Hans's children led by their mother. Chaplain Bryan read a simple service. The men piled the loosened gravel and stones over the half-buried coffin, and the procession wended its way back to the darkened ship. The soft weeping of Tookoolito faded into the distance with the shuffling sound of her mukluks, leaving only the cold, lonely Arctic night.
The American flag that Charles Francis Hall had hoped to plant at the top of the world now hung at half-mast over his grave.