After John Franklin’s ships, Erebus and Terror, were trapped in ice for successive winters, their crews were decimated by illness and starvation. We know today that Franklin died in June 1847 and in 1848 the expedition disintegrated as bands of survivors abandoned the ships and marched south towards King William Island and the Canadian mainland. But back then the lack of any news about Franklin’s fate caused a frenzy in Britain. The Admiralty was inundated with proposals, rumours, and even dream revelations from ordinary people keen to help solve the mystery.
When rescue expeditions finally reached the King William Island region in the late 1850s, all 129 crewmembers were dead, the ships had disappeared, and there was little documentary evidence found to reconstruct the expedition’s demise. As if the bare historical facts of starvation and cannibalism were not gothic enough, writers for more than 150 years have turned to horror and the occult when speculating about what happened.
If you think we’ve tired of Franklin, think again. A new television series on AMC, The Terror (based on a book of the same name by Dan Simmons), is part of this long tradition of filling in the narrative blanks. It adds a supernatural twist to the story by having Franklin’s famished crew pursued and picked off by a shadowy monster that seems to represent both the horrible cruelty of the Arctic winter and the moral darkness within the men’s souls.
It’s far from the only fantastical take on the past. The fictional story, like many others, has its roots in some of the chilling supernatural experiences that were reported during the British exploration of the Arctic—and during the Franklin era in particular. Some of these came out of British encounters with Inuit, such as Captain George Lyon’s reports of uncanny séances with the shaman Toolemak in the 1820s. Other stories relate to personal feelings: Captain Edward Belcher sensed that the soul of one of his friends from the Franklin expedition was in the body of a “charmed” wolf that prowled around his ship at night; the psychic Daniel Dunglas Home saw a vision of his brother die on a polar expedition in the 1850s “at the very time of its occurrence.” These supernatural experiences expose long-held cultural stereotypes about the Far North as a place of magic and mystery. They also provide insight into the psychological impact that the disappearance of the Franklin expedition had on those loved ones left behind.
The Franklin seers
The loss of the Franklin expedition inspired an outpouring of psychic activity in Britain ranging from national prayer sessions to spiritualist séances. In 1849 and 1850, when the first Admiralty search and rescue missions failed to locate the ships, Franklin’s desperate widow Jane turned to several psychics, crystal gazers, and clairvoyants to shed light on the mystery. These were generally young illiterate women who were placed into trances by male mesmerists and “sent” to the Arctic to report on the condition of the explorers and the locations of the ships.
One such clairvoyant, named Emma, attracted members of the Admiralty and Royal Geographical Society to her séances, and her visions received international newspaper coverage. She reported Franklin was alive and “comparatively well” in the Arctic, although his cheeks were sunken. Using a sample of Franklin’s hair to psychically connect with him, she said he was in “good hope of getting to England in nine months and a half.”
The visionary journeys of Emma, the “Seeress of Bolton,” were widely discussed by Franklin’s friends and family, and they were seen by Lady Franklin and several naval experts as complementing, rather than undermining, official naval and land journeys in search of the expedition. This was remarkable given that Emma was an illiterate domestic servant who, outside of the séance room, would have been kept at a great distance from the power structures that usually controlled Arctic exploration.
The Londonderry ghost
There were other strong connections between the search for Franklin and the supernatural. In 1850, an Irish shipbuilder named William Coppin contacted Lady Franklin claiming the ghost of his deceased daughter, Weesy, appeared to his family in the form of a blue orb. When asked about the Franklin expedition—because it truly was the biggest news story at the time—Weesy gave an enigmatic message that seemed to indicate its location: “Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.”
Lady Franklin was deeply impressed by Coppin’s “supernatural revelation.” She told her supporters about Weesy’s message and gave orders for a ship to search the Prince Regent Inlet area, south of Lancaster Sound. In 1852, this expedition discovered the Bellot Strait—an entrance from Prince Regent Inlet into a passage of water that had just been named Victoria Strait by explorer John Rae. However, at this crucial point, the ship turned away from the King William Island region and missed the many signs of the expedition.
It was not until 1859 that Lady Franklin found some closure, when the search expedition led by Leopold McClintock discovered a document housed in a cairn at Victory Point that told of her husband’s death. For Coppin and Lady Franklin, the discovery of the fate of Franklin via places called Victoria Strait and Victory Point would appear to validate Weesy’s spectral message. Despite this, neither party made the story public, probably because by the late 1850s spiritualism had become embarrassing to people after leading scientists ‘debunked’ such claims.
Although the Weesy story continued to circulate privately among explorers, it was not made public until 1889 when Coppin, now impoverished, employed a ghostwriter to publish the story. (Lady Franklin died 14 years earlier.)
Rae and McClintock denied stories of ghosts influencing Lady Franklin, but letters kept in the archives of the Scott Polar Research Institute prove them wrong. They show that Lady Franklin and others sought out clairvoyants in the late 1840s; that officials from the Admiralty and the Royal Geographical Society were kept abreast of their visionary journeys; and that Coppin was correct in claiming that the ghost’s message directed search expeditions to the Prince Regent Inlet region.
The spectral Arctic
This archival evidence means we should make room for the supernatural in the history and representation of the Franklin expedition, not least because the spirit (or spirits?) of Franklin continued to haunt people for decades after his death. In 1856, Franklin is said to have appeared at a séance in Baltimore to reveal that he had discovered a tropical land beyond the “Open Polar Sea” inhabited by a race of “quiet, inoffensive people.” The same year, he was said to have appeared again at a séance in Nottingham, UK, dressed in a “long loose brown garment,” to describe how he was killed by polar bears on September 24, 1853. In 1911, Franklin’s spirit even intervened in the infamous dispute between Frederick Cook and Robert Peary over who first reached the North Pole. This was announced in a letter from the journalist and reformer William T. Stead, who said he received a message from Franklin stating he had “personally conducted Cook to the pole and then left him to complete the journey himself.” Well, that settles it!
After decades of high-tech searches, the wrecks of Erebus and Terror were finally located in 2014 and 2016 amid great fanfare. These are being painstakingly examined during the all-too-brief summer diving seasons and it is hoped they will reveal more details about what happened on the ships.
Yet the supernatural is never far away from any discussion of the Franklin expedition. News reports of the discovery of HMS Terror in 2016 mentioned that some Inuit—who led searchers to the location of the shipwrecks with their testimony and geographical knowledge of the Arctic—believe King William Island is still haunted by the spirits of Franklin and his men.
Shane McCorristine is author of The Spectral Arctic: A History of Ghosts and Dreams in Polar Exploration (UCL Press, 2018), available in open access.