Charles Francis Hall
Charles Francis Hall
Hall in the winter of 1870
|Born||Unknown date, c. 1821|
Rochester, New Hampshire, U.S.
|Died|| (aged 50)|
Thank God Harbor, Greenland
|Cause of death||Officially ruled apoplexy, evidence strongly suggests arsenic poisoning|
|Known for||Arctic exploration, possible murder victim on the Polaris expedition|
|Spouse(s)||Mercy Ann Hall|
Charles Francis Hall (c. 1821 – November 8, 1871) was an American explorer of the Arctic, best known for the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death while leading the American-sponsored Polaris expedition in an attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole. The expedition was marred by insubordination, incompetence, and poor leadership.
Hall returned to the ship from an exploratory sledging journey, and promptly fell ill. Before he died, he accused members of the crew of poisoning him. An exhumation of his body in 1968 revealed that he had ingested a large quantity of arsenic in the last two weeks of his life.
Little is known of Hall's early life. He was either born in Rochester, New Hampshire, or in the state of Vermont before moving to Rochester at a young age, where he was apprenticed to a blacksmith at a young age. In the 1840s, he married and drifted westward, arriving in Cincinnati in 1849, where he went into business making seals and engraving plates, and later published his own newspaper; the Cincinnati Occasional—later renamed the Daily Press.
First Arctic expedition
Around 1857, Hall became interested in the Arctic and spent the next few years studying the reports of previous explorers and trying to raise money for an expedition, primarily intended to learn the fate of Franklin's lost expedition.
Hall went on his first expedition by gaining passage on the George Henry, a whaler commanded by Captain Sidney O. Budington out of New Bedford. They got as far as Baffin Island, where the George Henry was forced to spend the winter. Local Inuit told Hall about relics of Martin Frobisher's mining venture at Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island, to which Hall travelled to inspect these items up close. He was assisted by his newly recruited Inuit guides, husband and wife "Joe" Ebierbing and "Hannah" Tookoolito.
Hall also found what he took to be evidence of the fact that some members of Franklin's lost expedition might still be alive. On his return to New York, Hall arranged for the Harper Brothers to publish his account of the expedition: Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux. It was edited by William Parker Snow, equally obsessed by Franklin's fate. The two eventually came to a disagreement—mostly due to Snow's slow editing. Snow later claimed Hall had used his ideas for the search of Franklin without giving him due credit.
Second Arctic expedition
During the course of 1863, Hall planned a second expedition to seek more clues on the fate of Franklin, including efforts to find any of the rumoured survivors or their written records. The first attempt using the 95-ton schooner Active was abandoned, probably due to lack of finances caused by the American Civil War and a troubled relationship with his intended second-in-command Parker Snow. Finally, in July 1864, a much smaller expedition departed in the whaler Monticello.
During this second expedition to King William Island, he found remains and artifacts from the Franklin expedition, and made more inquiries about their fate from natives living there. Hall eventually realized that the stories of survivors were unreliable, either by the Inuit or his own readiness to give them overly optimistic interpretations. He also became disillusioned with the Inuit by the discovery that the remnants of Franklin's expedition had deliberately been left to starve. He failed to consider that it would have been impossible for the local population to support such a large group of supernumeraries.[a]
Polaris expedition and death
Hall's third expedition was of an entirely different character. He received a grant of $50,000 from the U.S. Congress to command an expedition to the North Pole on the Polaris. The party of 25 also included Hall's old friend Budington as sailing master, George Tyson as navigator, and Emil Bessels as physician and chief of scientific staff. The expedition was troubled from the start as the party split into rival factions. Hall's authority over the expedition was resented by a large portion of the party, and discipline broke down.
Polaris sailed into Thank God Harbor—present-day Hall Bay—on September 10, 1871, and anchored for the winter on the shore of northern Greenland. That fall, upon returning to the ship from a sledging expedition with an Inuit guide to a fjord which he named Newman Bay, Hall suddenly fell ill after drinking a cup of coffee. He collapsed in what was described as a fit. For the next week he suffered from vomiting and delirium, then seemed to improve for a few days. At that time, he accused several of the ship's company, including Bessels, of having poisoned him. Shortly thereafter, Hall began suffering the same symptoms, and died on November 8. Hall was taken ashore and given a formal burial.
Command of the expedition devolved on Budington, who reorganized to try for the Pole in June 1872. This was unsuccessful and Polaris turned south. On October 12, the ship was beset by ice in Smith Sound and was on the verge of being crushed. Nineteen of the crew and the Inuit guides abandoned ship for the surrounding ice while 14 remained aboard. Polaris was run aground near Etah and crushed on October 24. After wintering ashore, the crew sailed south in two boats and were rescued by a whaler, returning home via Scotland.
The following year, the remainder of the party attempted to extricate Polaris from the pack and head south. A group, including Tyson, became separated as the pack broke up violently and threatened to crush the ship in the fall of 1872. The group of 19 drifted over 1,500 miles (2,400 km) on an ice floe for the next six months, before being rescued off the coast of Newfoundland by the sealer Tigress on April 30, 1873, and probably would have all perished had the group not included several Inuit who were able to hunt for the party.
The official investigation that followed ruled that Hall had died from apoplexy. However, in 1968, Hall's biographer Chauncey C. Loomis, a professor at Dartmouth College, made an expedition to Greenland to exhume Hall's body. To the benefit of the professor, permafrost had preserved the body, flag shroud, clothing and coffin. Tests on tissue samples of bone, fingernails and hair showed that Hall died of poisoning from large doses of arsenic in the last two weeks of his life.
This diagnosis is consistent with the symptoms party members reported. It is possible that Hall treated himself with the poison, as arsenic was a common ingredient of quack medicines of the time. Loomis considered it possible that he was murdered by one of the other members of the expedition, possibly Bessels, though no charges were ever filed. Most recently, the emergence of affectionate letters written by both Hall and Bessels to Vinnie Ream, a young sculptor they both met in New York while waiting for the Polaris to be outfitted, has suggested a further motive for Bessels to have been the killer.
- Potter 2006: "There's no way that a small band of Inuit, even the most skilled hunters, could have kept alive 30 starving men in the middle of that landscape."
- Barr, W. (2016). Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition. Calgary: UofC Press. ISBN 9781552388754.
- Berton, P. F. (1988). The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 9780670824915.
- Dodge, S. D. (1972). "Hall, Charles Francis". In Hayne, David. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. X (1871–1880) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
- Hall, C. F. (1865). Life with the Esquimaux: A Narrative of Arctic Experience. London: S. Low, Son, and Marston. ISBN 9781139151344.
- Henderson, B. B. (2001). Fatal North: Adventure and Survival Aboard USS Polaris. New York: New American Library. ISBN 9780451409355.
- Loomis, C. C. (1971). Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall. Lincoln: UNP. ISBN 9780375755255.
- Mowat, F. M. (1973). The Polar Passion: The Quest for the North Pole. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. ISBN 9780771066214.
- Nourse, J. E., ed. (1879). Narrative of the Second Arctic Expedition by Charles F. Hall. Washington: GPO. ISBN 9781108071468.
- Potter, R. (February 28, 2006). "Arctic Passage: Prisoners of the Ice". Nova. Transcript. PBS.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Charles Francis Hall.|
- Charles Francis Hall collection – Smithsonian Institution
- "A motive for the murder of Charles Francis Hall" – Visions of the North, July 6, 2015
- "Cincinnati's very own Arctic explorer: Charles Francis Hall" – Cincinnati Magazine, September 17, 2015
- "How a middle-aged Midwestern nobody made his mark in the Arctic" – Washington Post, August 16, 2017