Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY, 19TH-CENTURY ARCTIC adventurer Charles Francis Hall immersed himself in Inuit culture while exploring the Canadian Arctic. Today in Part 2, let’s celebrate his discovery of 300-year-old Frobisher relics and lament his third Arctic expedition plagued by discord and his mysterious death.

Frobisher Relics. In three voyages, 1576–1578, English adventurer Martin Frobisher had sought a Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. Almost three centuries later, explorer Hall described his search for traces of Frobisher’s visits in his book Life with the Esquimaux, 1865. Particularly documented are Hall’s findings at Kodlunarn, also known as White Man’s Island.

Kodlunarn is in Frobisher Bay near Buffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This and following images from Life with the Esquimaux.

Hall wrote, “On the following day, July 14 [1862], we started for Kodlunarn, where we remained till the 17th, during which time I occupied myself in making researches for relics…. I must not omit to say here that the Esquimaux women and children, and occasionally the men, aided me greatly while on Kodlunarn, searching for and securing relics. The men were obliged to be off, most of the time, sealing and hunting tuktoo [caribou] for our subsistence.” 

Among the articles identified in Hall’s Frobisher relics are “Four fragments of glass (apparently of a jar or bottle), found on the ground near the ship’s way (4),” “A piece of pottery, found near ‘Best’s Bulwark’ (8),” and “Fragment of tile (glazed) apparently a portion of a human figure represented upon it—leg and foot in relievo. Largest piece of tile found; dug from beneath one of the ship’s embankments (14).”     

The Polaris Expedition. In 1871, Hall received a $50,000 grant from Congress to command an expedition to the North Pole on the USS Polaris, a converted Civil War steamer originally christened the America. As described in Wikipedia, “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.”

A Fateful Wintering-In. In the autumn of 1871, the Polaris had anchored for the winter at Thank God Harbor on the shore of northern Greenland. Upon returning from a sledging expedition, Hall suddenly fell ill after drinking a cup of coffee. 

This image is from Hall’s narrative of his earlier expedition aboard the George Henry captained by Sidney O. Budington.

Wikipedia writes that Hall “accused several of the ship’s company, including Bessels, of having poisoned him.” He died on November 8, 1871, and was buried ashore in Thank God Harbor, Greenland.

Death by Apoplexy? Or by a Poisoned Cup of Coffee? The official word was that Hall died of apoplexy. As noted in Wikipedia, “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 the last two weeks of his life.”

A Possible Poisoner? Wikipedia continues, “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, [2016]” Wikipedia reports, “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, suggests a possible motive for Bessels to eliminate Hall.”

Lavina Ellen Ream, 1847–1914, American sculptor. She sculpted the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Image by Matthew Brady.

Another Suspect? In, there’s a tantalizing commentary concerning Sidney O. Budington, sailing master of the Polaris and captain of Hall’s earlier George Henry voyage: “On November 8, 1871, Hall died under suspicious circumstances, the POLARIS was lost, and the crew returned to the United States in two separate groups with conflicting stories.” 

The Mystic Seaport commentary continues, “The ‘Polaris tragedy,’ as it was called in contemporary newspapers, raised many questions about Sidney O. Budington’s character. He was portrayed as a murderer, an alcoholic and a tyrant. Eventually cleared of any wrong doing by the courts, his reputation never completely recovered.” 

Charles Francis Hall’s life was one of adventure culminating in mystery. To me, his loftiest achievement was immersing himself in Inuit culture, as described in Life with the Esquimaux. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

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