Video | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Top of the World: The Lucky Ones

The graves of John Hartnell, William Braine, and John Torrington still rest on Beechey Island in the Arctic. Although there are many mysteries of Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition left to uncover, is it possible that these three men held the luckiest fates, as the first of the crew to die?

Video Transcript

In May of 1845, Sir John Franklin's crew of 134 men set off from England in hopes of successfully navigating the Northwest Passage through what is now the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

With three years worth of food, state of the art technology, an experienced commander, and a skilled crew, the mood was optimistic aboard HMS Erebus and Terror. It was an expedition built to succeed, until it failed.

Franklin and his men sailed without incident to the west coast of Greenland, where five men were sent home with the supply ship Barretto in July 1845. Franklin then set out with Erebus and Terror to make the difficult crossing of ice-choked Baffin Bay.

They were spotted by a whaling vessel on July 26, 1845—the last confirmed sighting of the Franklin Expedition. What happened to Franklin and his 128 men following that day in July is shrouded in mystery. Not only did they fail to sail through the passage to the Pacific Ocean, neither Franklin nor his men survived to tell the tale.

When the expedition failed to return after several years, expeditions were sent to solve the mystery, and the first clues were found at Beechey Island—a small expanse of rock and gravel at the western tip of Devon Island on Lancaster Sound, at the mouth of the hoped-for passage.

One such expedition, led by explorer William Penny, landed at Beechey Island after sighting a cairn made by Franklin's men. There they found hundreds of discarded tin cans, what looked like an attempt at a garden, and graves of three men: John Hartnell, William Braine, and John Torrington.

In hopes of finding more clues, Penny and his men decided to dig up one of the graves—a difficult task! Buried in the frozen, gravelly soil was the coffin of John Hartnell, whose body was remarkably well-preserved.

Hartnell offered no clues as to the fate of the expedition, but the fact that he and the other men had apparently been carefully placed in well-made coffins and laid in proper graves clearly suggests that their deaths occurred during a time of relative ease for Franklin and his crew.

John Hartnell, William Braine, and John Torrington were the first of Franklin Expedition to die. Ironically, as fate would have it, they were the lucky ones.

William Penny had neither the tools nor know-how to determine what went wrong with these men. But over a century later, in 1984, physical anthropologist Owen Beattie set out to perform modern autopsies on the men's remains.

Beattie's team had to dig through several feet of frozen solid ground, just like Penny's men had. Their efforts were rewarded with the sight of the frozen men staring back at them through time. Due to the freezing Arctic conditions, the three men's bodies were still remarkably well-preserved. Beattie concluded that the man had died from pneumonia and tuberculosis, common diseases in Franklin's time, but he also discovered high levels of lead in all three bodies.

This led to the theory that lead poisoning could have hastened the demise of the three men found at Beechey, and perhaps contributed to the tragic deaths of the rest of the men, who had sailed on to the region of King William Island at the heart of the passage.

The suspected cause was improperly canned food, stored in the tins found at Beechey Island. Over time, lead—like that used to solder the tins of food Franklin's men ate—can build up in the body, causing severe health issues. Lead poisoning might also have explained apparently irrational decisions Franklin and his men made after leaving Beechey Island, but this theory is far from proven.

Whatever the cause of their deaths, the three men who were buried on Beechey passed away peacefully. They were thousands of miles from their homes, but they were surrounded by friends, and were buried with kindness and care.

Their fellow crewmen never enjoyed that luxury. A brief note found on King William Island records the death of Franklin, but not its cause or his burial place. Not a single member of the crew made it out of the Arctic alive. Some were found frozen, hauling boats over the land. The bones of others were scattered across the tundra.

Speculation continues to this day about the fate of Franklin and his men. More than 170 years later, one thing is certain: the three men who were buried on Beechey Island were undoubtedly the lucky ones.