Tag Archives: Arctic


A6The 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage was one of the biggest disasters in exploration history. Despite being outfitted with the best provisions and equipment of the time, the entire complement of 129 officers and men aboard the British Royal Navy ships HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror perished in the wilds of the frozen north. It was the nineteenth century’s equivalent to having lost the International Space Station.

The cause of what truly led to the demise of the Franklin Expedition has fascinated historians and scientists for years, creating many theories based on scarce evidence. In 2014, the well-preserved wreck of the Erebus was found on the sea floor near King William Island in Canada’s Arctic. It’s discovery renewed interest in Franklin’s fate and a look through modern forensics tells a tale of how the ships’ cutting-edge technology probably snuck up to kill the crew.

First, a look at some history.

A8The Franklin Expedition was commissioned by the British Admiralty to do more than just find the elusive Northwest Passage. It was also a scientific venture to record the Arctic’s flora and fauna, map the terrain, observe magnetism and meteorology, inspect geology, and establish Commonwealth sovereignty in the north.

The voyagers were equipped with the finest navigation instruments and stocked with ample provisions to survive far longer than the planned three-year venture. The ships had been specifically refitted to withstand crushing ice pressures and upgraded with inboard steam engines to assist in turning through the maze of ice, as well as for the first time having an onboard desalination plant for turning seawater into fresh.

They debarked England on May 19, 1845 and made their first stop in Greenland to top off supplies. Already five crew members were ill and were discharged back home. The expedition departed and was last seen by other Europeans from two whaling ships in August in the vicinity of Lancaster Sound at the entrance to the Passage.

A9History shows the Franklin Expedition camped the winter of 1845-1846 on Beechey Island where later parties discovered artifacts and the graves of three sailors. When the Expedition failed to return to England in 1849—a year after planned—search parties were formed and a slight trail of clues was discovered to shed light on their fate.

The only document recovered was a note in a rock cairn on King William Island stating the ships had been ice-locked for nineteen months and were abandoned on April 22, 1848, three days before the note was written. It also advised that Sir John Franklin died on June 11, 1847 and that the remaining 105 officers and men were attempting to venture by land for a Canadian mainland settlement at Back’s Fish River. None made it.

Progressive searches over ten years found pieces of human skeletons and artifacts that were proven to have come from the Franklin party, however no mass death site was located and their final demise was attributed to starvation and exposure.

The Franklin story and explanation for what caused a perfectly outfitted expedition of experienced explorers who prepared for these exact conditions and time interval never strayed from public interest.

A10In 1981, a team of scientists led by Dr. Owen Beattie, a professor of anthropology, began a forensic examination of the Beechey Island wintering site, including an exhumation of the crew members’ graves in hopes of determining their cause of death. This is documented in the great book Frozen In Time – The Fate Of The Franklin Expedition.

What Dr. Beattie’s team found was truly remarkable—not just in eventual toxicology evidence—but in the incredibly well-preserved condition the bodies were in, given they’d spent over 135 years in the permafrost.

A4The team autopsied John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine, concluding that pneumonia was possibly their primary cause of death, with tuberculosis maybe being a contributor. Otherwise, they appeared perfectly healthy. Malnutrition, chronic disease, foul play, or any form of accidental death was ruled out.

Being diligent, the team later ordered toxicology screening including a test for trace elements in the tissues, blood, bone, and hair. The results astounded them. All three sailors showed a presence of lead in amounts far, far exceeding normal levels. Braine, the last to die, showed 220 parts per million (ppm) in his hair, which is over one hundred times the acceptable level.

This led to a theory that the crew may have perished as a progressive result of lead poisoning with known side effects being a loss of cognitive awareness and the eventual inability for organs to function.

A11The team continued their search of the suspected southward trail of the doomed expedition and found considerable pieces of human skulls and bones which were anthropologically linked to European Caucasians, giving proof they must have belonged to the Franklin group. Every single bone contained an exceptionally high lead content. In total, the remains of thirty-two different individuals were identified. What became of the other seventy-five percent of the Franklin crew who abandoned the ships is a mystery.

Pursuing the lead poisoning theory, suspicion fell on the lead solder used in the tin-canned provisions of meat and vegetables which the ships stored. Inventory records show the Erebus and the Terror held over 8,000 tins of preserves each with a total weight of 33,289 pounds.

A12With the British being ones to keep meticulous records, the tin-can contract was documented to have gone to a London food processor named Stephan Goldner. The low-bid contract was awarded late in the Expedition’s outfitting process and Goldner’s company was under a huge rush to complete on time. To speed the delivery and to profit more, Goldner began using larger containers and slipped on the quality control.

Examination of the numerous discarded cans in the Beechey Island site’s garbage pile showed that the soldering on most cans was very sloppy with big gobs of solder spots on the interiors. It appeared Goldner’s greed and rush may have doomed the Franklin expedition.

A13However—digging deeper into the Goldner tin-can theory, it was recorded that Goldner had been providing the Royal Navy with lead-soldered canned goods for years before, and for years after, the Franklin fate and there were absolutely no reports of anyone suffering from lead poisoning anywhere within the rest of the British fleet.

Additionally, reports from the Inuit people who came in contact with the Franklin crew near their end  indicated the members were in starvation—half-mad and resorting to cannibalism. This was forensically corroborated by striation marks on many bones which were consistent with disarticulation and the mechanical stripping of flesh.

Curiously, it appeared that the crew was starving—desperately short of food in less than three years after embarking with stores that were capable of lasting five years, if properly rationed. Combined with the extremely high lead content in the sailors, it was evident something else was amiss.

A2Now, between 1818 and 1845 the British Admiralty instigated ten ship-borne Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, three of which Sir John Franklin was part of. These folks were no strangers to cold, harsh, and lengthy trips. After Franklin’s disappearance, thirty-six separate search expeditions were conducted into the Northwest passage. While a few men perished and a few ships were destroyed, none of these expeditions suffered such a total and devastating loss as did Franklin.

Clearly it was evident there was some unique and fatal flaw in the Franklin Expedition and it was thought it must have something to do with the lead.

William Battersby is a British Naval Architect who published a brilliant report titled Identification of the Probable Source of the Lead Poisoning Observed in Members of the Franklin Expedition.

A15Battersby identified what was different on board the Erebus and the Terror than on all other Royal Naval vessels, before or since. Remember, these two ships were refitted for this lengthy voyage into a harsh, frozen land and they carried with them new technology specifically designed for these two ships—a new infrastructure for desalination—for turning salty seawater into drinkable freshwater.

This was a complicated system as it was not just distilled, potable freshwater for consumption that the system was providing. It also produced freshwater for the engines’ steam boilers as well as making hot water for the ships’ heating systems.

A3And—you guessed it—the system’s entire plumbing was made of lead pipes soldered together with lead.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Humans have been using lead pipes for plumbing since the days of the Romans and nobody’s been reported to have died from them.”

Hang on. There was something really unique going on aboard the Erebus and the Terror that affects how lead transfers from water into blood.

Here’s a quote from Battersby’s report:

The amount of lead absorbed by water from lead pipes or solders greatly increases where:

  • Water is soft, such as when freshly distilled.
  • An installation is new and has not built up a layer of scale. Scale insulates water in older installations from direct contact with lead.
  • Water is warm or hot. This dramatically increases the amount of lead which water can carry.

All these conditions applied to the installations in the HMS Erebus and Terror.

A17“Interesting theory, Garry”, you say. “I buy it was the pipes, not the cans, where the high concentration of lead came from, but how do you explain the starvation when there was ample canned food to go around?”

Great question and I think Scott Cookman might have answered it in his book Ice Blink – The Tragic Fate Of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition.

Cookman’s theory is that in Stephan Goldner’s greedy rush to drop quality control standards, he failed to cook the preserves at a high enough heat for a long enough time, thereby introducing botulism in a portion of the cans.

It falls into the facts that early in the voyage, five sick crew members were discharged and then three seemingly healthy, well-nourished sailors—Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine—suddenly up and died.

The theory continues that once the magnitude of the tainted canned-food scandal became apparent, the Franklin Expedition was solidly locked in ice and forced to exhaust the remaining stores of flour and beans—all which would be cooked in heavy-lead water.

Once the edible food stores ran out, the crew made a desperate, lead-poisoned and half-mad trek across land and probably perished, one-by-one, with the last of them insanely resorting to cannibalism.

What a horrific fate for the Franklin Expedition.


AA3Albert Johnson, known as the Mad Trapper of Rat River, was a murderer and a fugitive from the largest manhunt in the history of Canada, leading a posse of Mounties through the Arctic on a six week, winter wilderness chase in 1932. He killed one Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and wounded two others before dying from police bullets in a firefight on a frozen river. Today, the Mad Trapper tale is symbolic of the North American frontier. He is an icon. A legend. But was he really Albert Johnson? Find out what modern forensic science tells us.

AA14The story began on July 9th, 1931, in the Northwest Territories when a stranger arrived in Fort McPherson. Constable Edgar Millen of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police routinely questioned the newcomer who identified himself as ‘Albert Johnson’ but provided no other personal information. Millen satisfied his responsibility to ensure Johnson was equipped for survival in a frontier land with sufficient money and supplies but thought it odd that Johnson declined to buy a trapping license. He noted Johnson was slight of stature, clean in appearance, and spoke with a Scandinavian accent.

Albert Johnson ventured far into the McKenzie Delta and built a small, log cabin on the banks of the Rat River where he reclused. Come the winter, local natives found their traps being raided and concluded the only suspect was Albert Johnson. They complained to the RCMP in Aklavik, causing two Mounties to dog-sled 60 miles through waist-deep snow, arriving at Johnson’s cabin on December 26th, 1931. Johnson was there but refused to speak, forcing the police to return to Aklavik and get a search warrant.

On December 31st four Mounties returned to Rat River. As they attempted to force into Albert Johnson’s shack, he shot at them with a 30-30 Savage rifle, seriously wounding a constable. The police retreated to form a larger posse.

AA1They came back with nine, heavily-armed men, forty-two dogs, and twenty pounds of dynamite. Johnson again opened fire, causing the police to hurl in explosives which blew the cabin apart. Rather than himself also being in pieces, Johnson emerged from a foxhole under the cabin and blasted back with his rifle. A 14-hour standoff, in -40F temperatures, took place until the posse backed-off to Aklavik for more help.

A severe blizzard delayed the return, but on January 14th, 1932, a huge squad of police and civilians arrived to find Albert Johnson long gone. The pursuers caught up with Johnson two weeks later far up the Rat River where Johnson opened fire from a thicket of trees on the bank and shot Constable Edgar Millen dead. Again the police retreated.

AA11By now the news of the manhunt had reached the outer world through an emerging medium called radio. Listeners all over Canada, the United States, and the world, were fixed to their sets to hear the latest on the cat and mouse game between a lone, deranged bushman and the might of the famed Canadian Mounties who ‘always got their man’. It was like the OJ Simpson case of the time.

The ‘Arctic Circle War’ represented the end of one era and the beginning of another as the police turned to technology to capture Albert Johnson. They embedded radio into another new tactic – the airplane. World War One flying ace W.R. ‘Wop’ May and his Bellanca monoplane were hired to find Johnson from the air and radio his position to the dogsled and snowshoe team on the ground.

On February 14, May spotted Johnson on the Eagle River in the Yukon Territory, confirming Johnson had traveled an incredible 150 miles, crossing a 7,000-foot mountain pass in white-out conditions, in temperatures with windchill hitting 60 below Fahrenheit. He’d eluded his trackers by wearing snowshoes backward and mingling with migrating caribou herds.

AA7The police overtook Johnson on a river bend on February 17th, 1932. It ended in a mass of bullets leaving another Mountie seriously wounded and Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River, dead on the snow.

They sledded Johnson’s body back to Aklavik where it was examined, fingerprinted, and photographed. Remarkably, dental examination showed sophisticated, gold bridgework which indicated this man, age estimated at 35 – 40, came from an affluent background. In his effects was $2,410 in Canadian money (worth $34,000 today) but absolutely no documents on his identification. An extensive investigation ensued to find his true identity. His death photos and description were circulated word wide, causing some leads to come in, but nothing definite. No one came forward to claim the body and ‘Albert Johnson’ was buried in a perma-frost grave near the village of Aklavik.

Here are the GPS coordinates for significant Mad Trapper locations.

These latitudes and longitudes can be plugged into iTouch Maps for satellite viewing. https://itouchmap.com/latlong.html

  1. Cemetery / Gravesite at Aklavik:   +68.222979N   -135.010579W
  2. Trapper’s Cabin on Rat River:  +67.713444N  –135.127873W
  3. Settlement of Fort McPherson:  +67.436700N  -134.88100W
  4. Richardson Mountain Pass:  +67.278236N  -136.122161W
  5. Eagle River Death Scene:  +67.165926N  -137.172716W

AA12The Mad Trapper case was of enormous public interest, many sympathizing how a loner – almost super-human – could endure the environment, living off the land for forty-eight days and outwitting some of the most bush-wise and toughest people of the time. As with the mystery of Albert Johnson’s identity, so was the question of his motive.

Over the years, a number possible identities were offered for who ‘Albert Johnson’ really was.

AA8The most widely accepted theory was Arthur Nelson, a prospector who was known to be in British Columbia from 1927 to 1931 and had left for the Arctic. Photos of Nelson appeared to be a dead-ringer for ‘Albert Johnson’ and descriptions of Nelson’s effects (rifle, pack, and clothing) were identical to those recovered from Johnson.

Another promising lead was a man known as John Johnson, a Norwegian bank robber who’d done time in Folsom Prison. Again, the physical description was similar and the Scandinavian accent noted by Constable Millen seemed to fit.

The Johnson family of Nova Scotia identified the Mad Trapper as their lost relative, Owen Albert Johnson, who was last heard of in British Columbia in the late 1920’s. Again all the pieces fit – physical appearance, personal effects, and disposition.

AA6Sigvald Pedersen Haaskjold was suggested as being the real ‘Albert Johnson’. Haaskjold, who was last seen in northern British Columbia in 1927, was a recluse who was paranoid of authorities because he’d evaded conscription in the First World War. He’d built a fortress-like cabin near Prince Rupert before disappearing. Once more the looks, age, accent, and mentality fit the Trapper’s profile.

As with advances in 1930’s technology like the radio and the airplane which tracked ‘Albert Johnson’ down, forensic technology in the twenty-first century came into play for a once-and-for-all attempt at solving the mystery of who the Mad Trapper of Rat River really was.

AA10In 2007, seventy-five years after his death, ‘Albert Johnson’ was exhumed for another look. As part of a Discovery Channel documentary, a team of eminent scientists including forensic odontologist and DNA extraction expert Dr. David Sweet, forensic pathologist Dr. Sam Andrews, and forensic archeologist Dr. Owen Beattie, examined the skeletonized remains.

This forensic story is every bit as exciting as the hunt for the Trapper himself.

It took a pile of wrangling to get legal approval for exhumation, then obtain the consent of native peoples who laid claim to the land in which the Trapper was interred. Due to permafrost, there was only a slight window of time when the archeological dig could be made. And the exact location of the grave was in doubt.

AA9Perseverance came down to the last available day when the team and film crew zeroed-in on a shallow grave with a rotten, wooden casket. Using archeological skill and precision, the forensic scientists carefully detached the lid and exposed a perfectly preserved male skeleton. There were no longer traces of flesh or fabric, but what gleamed in their faces was gold bridgework from a sneering skull. Dr. Sweet used dental records made in 1932 to positively identify the ghostly remains as that of the Mad Trapper.

The team cataloged the bones, making three interesting observations. One was a deformity in the spine which led to questions as to how the man could have performed the physical feats described in legend. Second was that one foot was considerably longer than the other, again questioning his mobility. And third was the entry and exit marks of a bullet path through the pelvis which was consistent to the reported fatal wound.

AA13The team had the right remains but were no further ahead in determining identity. Dr. Sweet sectioned the Trapper’s right femur and extracted bone marrow samples as well as pulling four teeth for DNA examination. The remains were replaced in a new casket and re-interred in the original grave.

Back at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Sweet and his colleagues developed a perfect DNA profile of the Trapper. Extensive field investigation located relatives of the primary suspects – Arthur Nelson, John Johnson, Owen Albert Johnson, and Sigvald Pedersen Haaskjold. Descendant DNA profiles were developed for these men and compared to the known biological signature of the Trapper.

And guess who’s DNA matched?

AA4No one’s.

All four suspects were conclusively eliminated by modern forensic technology as being the Mad Trapper – as were a number of other remote possibilities. One sidenote is that oxygen isotopes developed from the teeth enamel indicated that the Trapper originated from either the mid-western United States or from Scandinavia.

So who really was Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River?

The mystery of who lies in the Aklavik grave remains unsolved.

*   *   *

Here are links to the fascinating made-for-television documentary on the forensic exhumation of the Mad Trapper’s skeleton.



And author Barbara Smith wrote The Mad Trapper – Unearthing a Mystery which documents the forensic adventure.  Click Here