Read Trial by Ice Online

Authors: Richard Parry

Trial by Ice

B
Y
R
ICHARD
P
ARRY

The Winter Wolf

The Wolf's Pack

The Wolf's Cub

The Fateful Lightning: A Novel of Ulysses S. Grant

To my wife, Kathie,
Just keep rer tinding me that
over the next hillies a new adventure.

And to my sons, David and Matthew,
For making me proud of them

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

Unlike the ill-fated vessel
Polaris,
this manuscript had many loyal hands, which skillfully guided
k
from inception to its final state. I feel fortunate in having had two editors direct my efforts. I would like to thank Gary Brozek for his insightful comments during the early stages of the manuscript. I am especially grateful to Tracy Brown and his assistant, Abby Durden, for grasping the reins in midstream and carefully guiding this project to solid ground. Their attention to detail and commitment to excellence are reflected throughout the finished product.

David Stevenson's artistic rendering of the book's jacket unerringly depicts the danger and uncertainty that must have terrorized the ship's crew. Jie Yang as production manager and Nancy Delia as production editor deserve special recognition for transforming the manuscript into print.

As always, my thanks to my agent, David Hale Smith of DHS Literary, Inc., for his unwavering faith and support.

I would also like to thank Robin Benway, Marie Coolman, and Kim Hovey of the Ballantine Publishing Group for their help in publicizing my work. Last but not least, a special thanks to Joanne Miller, my Arizona publicist, for beating the desert on my behalf.

A
UTHOR'S
N
OTE

Truth is stranger than fiction. Nowhere is that statement more true than in the facts surrounding the first American expedition to the North Pole in 1871. No fiction writer could invent a more convoluted plot. No one would believe what transpired aboard the
Polaris.
Yet what follows is true.

The events that led to the death of the expedition's leader, Charles Francis Hall, the disaster that left half the crew adrift on an ice floe in the dead of the Arctic winter, the folly that eventually sank the
Polaris
might read like a fantastic murder mystery or a Greek tragedy; nonetheless, what transpired is well documented. The plot contains all the elements of an epic novel: a glorious purpose; a journey led by a noble and dedicated man; a mission destroyed by treachery and the darker sides of human nature; a battle of man against the heartless elements, where unimaginable conditions degrade the best ideals humanity has to offer until those trapped sank to the level of considering cannibalism; embarrassed people in positions of power moving hastily to protect their own interests at the expense of the truth.

Even the dialogue is true, taken from the men's testimony at the inquiries following their return to the United States, their written journals and diaries, and their published accounts of the ordeal they endured. What these men had to say reveals the exciting truth of an expedition gone fatally wrong. Throughout the series of mistakes and misdeeds that plagued the
Polaris,
one fascinating truth emerges: miraculously, not all the men were lost. Despite the volume of material available that recorded these exploits, several puzzling questions remain. How could these men have such widely divergent perceptions of the events that took place? Who or what was ultimately responsible for Charles Francis Hall's death? And
perhaps most troubling of all, how much did the extremity of the conditions they endured and the imperfections in their troubled souls contribute to their collective and individual failure?

The select bibliography in the back of this book lists only the books from which direct quotations were used. An effort was made to use material published close to the time of the disaster so as to avoid the subtle variations in meaning that result over the passage of time. The list is by no means a complete record of all the resources consulted. In regard to the scientific, nautical, medical, and polar explanations, I drew upon my personal reading, my experience sailing in the Arctic, thirty years of medical practice, and the twenty years I lived in Alaska.

The astute reader will note the variation in spelling of places and persons in this work. This is due to the different spellings used in the historical references of the time. Within the body of the text all effort has been made to use the modern spelling, such as Disko for Disco, but the quotations retain the exact spelling used in those works.

C
ORRECTED
M
USTER
R
OLL
OF THE
P
OLARIS
E
XPEDITION

Corrected Muster Roll of the
Polaris
Expedition Corrected muster roll of the
Polaris
expedition as made out by Captain Hall on July 2, 1871, and forwarded by him to the secretary of the navy. (Nationalities added by the author.)

C. F. Hall
Commander
Sidney O. Buddington
Sailing and Ice Master
George Tyson
Assistant Navigator
H. C. Chester
First Mate
William Morton
Second Mate
Emil Schuman
Chief Engineer (German)
Alvin A. Odell
Assistant Engineer
Walter F. Campbell
Fireman
John W. Booth
Fireman
John Herron
Steward (former British citizen)
William Jackson
Cook
Nathan J. Coffin
Carpenter

Seamen

Herman Sieman (German)
Joseph B. Mauch (German)
Frederick Anthing (Russian/German)
G. W. Lindquist (Swedish)
J.W.C. Kruger (German)
Peter Johnson (Danish)
Henry Hobby
Frederick Jamka (German)
William Lindermann (German)
Noah Hayes

Scientific Corps

Emil Bessel
Surgeon and Chief of Scientific Corps (German)
R.W.D. Bryan
Astronomer and Chaplain
Frederick Meyer
Meteorologist (German)
T
RAGEDY

I believe that no man can retain the use of his faculties during one long night to such a degree as to be morally responsible.


—N
OAH
H
AYES
, S
EAMAN
,
P
OLARIS
E
XPEDITION
, 1871

November 10, 1871.
The black sky leaned heavily upon the land. So dark was the air that the earth glowed brightly by contrasta pale, ethereal light radiated from the ground itself. Faint blue and violet shapes of snow-covered earth blended with wildly strewn blocks of ice littered the landscape. Without distinction solid land and frozen water, sky and earth floated together into one shimmering, surreal dream.

But this was no dream. This was the Arctic winter, and a nightmare for the weary procession that wended its way over the ice. Led by a single figure holding a lantern, which cast a feeble light and flickering glow that the cold air quickly swallowed, the party moved slowly across the snow in a broken column. Behind them rose the dark hulk of their ice-locked ship, the
Polaris,
their only sanctuary in this hostile world. Slowly, reluctantly, the procession trudged on, separating themselves from their lifeline. Even as they shuffled in a single line, the party was sharply divided. While all ventured forth to bury their fallen commander, half feared his death might have been a result of deliberate acts.

Trapped in the grip of ice, the
Polaris
no longer resembled the sleek ship she was. A fish out of water, a vessel “nipped” in the Arctic ice provided neither speed nor security for its crew. Without open water to which to run for safety, their vessel was potentially a pile of scrap wood.

The black needles of the steam schooner's masts jabbed futilely at the sky to protest their captivity. Canvas tenting cloaked the decks while slabs of ice and snow were banked about the ship's sides to insulate it and to keep it from rolling as the implacable ice squeezed the hull out of its frozen cradle like a pip from a rotten apple.

Ahead, barely visible in the gloom, two tiny figures waited near a shack. Beside them an American flag drooped from a spindly flagpole. The fur-covered men pulled a rope that dragged a sled. Draped across the sled, a second American flag trailed its corners in the grooves left by the runners. Under the flag rested a hastily built coffin. Beneath the pine lid lay their captain, Charles Francis Hall, dressed in a simple blue uniform and wrapped in another American flag. The crew of the
Polaris
was burying their leader with as much ceremony as they could muster. No funeral dirge sounded. Only the scrape of the sled's runners and the crunch of their boots on the fresh snow broke the silence. Here in the Arctic, men replaced horses; a simple sledge replaced a funeral carriage.

This far above the Arctic Circle, no sun would rise in November, even though it was one hour before noon. Since October the sun had no longer battled with the growing Arctic night, no longer struggled to rise above the horizon, and simply fled south, abandoning the land to the perpetual blackness of the Arctic winter.

The party trudged along in silence, dwarfed by the immense presence of the sky, the unending whiteness, and the threatening rise of a shale bluff that towered before them like a crouching beast. Observatory Bluff, the sweeping rise of wind-scoured rock was called. Today it rose over them like a granite wave, waiting to roll down and crush them. Panting from exertion, the party drew to a halt beside the waiting individuals.

A wisp of wind riffled the flag and sent snow devils spinning across the ice. The men looked about uneasily. A burst of wind could easily fill the air with snow, blinding them and causing their ship to vanish. Men had frozen to death mere feet from safety in such whiteouts.

The wind ceased. The snow settled, and the sky cleared into an inky blanket pierced by innumerable diamond-hard chips of starlight.
The men's fears abated, and they turned back to the business at hand.

Before them lay a shallow depression scarcely two feet in depth. The hole looked like a sullied refuse pit where the snow and ice had been scraped from the hard earth and the frozen gravel attacked with pickaxes and shovels. From there the diggers had encountered permafrost, the eternal slab of ironlike ice that dwells beneath the Arctic ground. Since the last Ice Age, this permafrost possessed what ground the water renounced, and a mere mortal's grave was no cause to relinquish its hold.

Two days of backbreaking work with pick and crowbar had yielded only this rudimentary grave. Like every attempt by man on its sovereignty and secrets, the Arctic resisted. The coffin would lie in the meager depression, half-exposed. The only thing left to do was to cover the exposed box with shale and gravel from the diggings and hope a bear would not rip the lid off. The thought of their captain's corpse dragged over the hills by a playful polar bear, then left for the foxes and lemmings to shred, bore heavily on the crew's minds.

But this was the best they could do. Captain Hall's grave would be like his quest to reach the North Polea work unfinished.

The coffin was lowered into the ground, and Mr. R.W.D. Bryan, the ship's astronomer and chaplain, stepped forward to read the service. On board the
Polaris
were copies of four prayers written especially for the expedition by the famous Reverend John Philip Newman, the leading evangelist of the time. Cleric to kings, presidents, and magnates, Newman was the one who would baptize the dying President Ulysses S. Grant in 1885, then claim his prayers had done the trick when Grant miraculously recovered from a massive hemorrhage.

But Newman's prayers dealt with success, not death. One was to be read on reaching the North Pole. So Bryan read the simple seaman's burial service from the captain's Bible. Even this was difficult. In the gloom, George Tyson, the ship's navigator, thrust forward his lantern so that Bryan could read the words.

As he spoke, a serpentine coil of light burst forth overhead and snaked, hissing, across the sky. Undulating in bands of violet, blue, and red, the aurora severed the blackness from horizon to horizon and cast an unworldly glow upon the party. Suddenly the men could see their faces and hands shimmering in the light like apparitions from another world. Amazed and startled by this show of fireworks, they shoveled the scarce spadefuls of dirt over the coffin and hurried back to the security of their ship.

Emil Schuman, the ship's engineer, readied a wooden headboard with a hastily penciled inscription: “C. E Hall, Late Commander of the North Polar Expedition, died Nov. 8, 1871. Aged 50 years.” Noah Hayes, an Indiana farm boy far from home, struggled to drive it into the frozen ground. The board splintered and fell facedown across the mound. Cold, frightened, and depressed, Hayes drove his crowbar into the earth in frustration. In his journal he wrote of the iron bar. “A fit type of his will. An iron monument marks his tomb.”

There it stood jutting crookedly from the mound like a melted cross, marking the grave.

Hayes and Schuman hurried after the rest of the crew, heads bent, unmindful of the sinuous lights dancing over their heads. To them it was a coincidence, a scientific demonstration of the magnetism and electricity they had come north to study.

Behind Schuman and Hayes came the Eskimo guides of the
Po-laris.
Shuffling away from the grave of their longtime friend, the Inuit purposefully kept their backs to the northern lights. Unseen by the white men, each Inuit held a drawn knife behind his back, between him and the lights, for protection. For to the Inuit the hissing lights overhead were the spirits of the restless dead, those who had died violent deaths or had been murdered.

Not one of them doubted that their friend Captain Hall's spirit was overhead. Hall's spirit was calling out. Was he calling for vengeance? Bad things lay ahead for all of them. Their trial on the ice was just beginning.

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