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Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John…

Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition

by Scott Cookman

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This is a non-fiction account of Franklin's last polar expedition, and its tragic failure. Cookman makes the case that the major cause of the failure and loss of life was the poor food, particularly the canned food. The book contends that the supplier used sub-standard ingredients, and did not properly sterilize the food during the canning process. As a result, the author believes that many of the men died from botulism poisoning.

This book provided a fascinating look at the sheer logistics and complexity of planning and provisioning the Terror and the Erebus for the years' long voyages. Its descriptions of the conditions under which the food was processed rivals those in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

"The provisioner, Goldner certainly knew stinking meat from fresh, whole vegetables from peelings, and bone, animal hair, mold and rat droppings when he saw them. Even if he did not venture out of his tiny paper-filled office, he could hardly have avoided smelling them. But to Goldner, it looked and smelled like money. What he couldn't see or smell was the fact that it was a bacterial and viral Chernobyl approaching meltdown."

Although, other than its demonization of the provisioner Goldner, the book, as nonfiction, is not generally character-driven, it does portray Franklin as an incompetent, over-the-hill commander, and sypathetically portrays Crozier as the experienced and able arctic explorer who was passed over for command for class reasons. A very interesting read. ( )
  arubabookwoman | Apr 21, 2017 |
Heard about this particular book from a client who had a family member searching by air for any remains/artifacts from this expedition.
It's of great interest and I have other books on the subject, also.
Started reading aloud with Winston - during the summer on the MI cottage sunny hillside. But, he still didn't want to hear anymore about just how cold it was and how these men suffered from the cold.
It is a bit gruesome at times.
So I finished and shared the highlights of rest of book.
Read in 2005. ( )
  CasaBooks | Apr 28, 2013 |
The problem of historical mysteries is that they are often very hard to solve. The problem with mystical historians is that they often think they can solve them anyway.

We know, in very broad outline, what happened to John Franklin's Northwest Passage expedition: The men went to the ice, they were frozen in, they abandoned their ships, they died trying to get home. But we don't know why. There are many oddities about their behavior, even though their senior officers should have been well-equipped to handle the job.

The result has inevitably been much speculation. Driven mad by lead? Poisoned by botulism? Depressed by the lack of sun? Dead of scurvy?

Many scholars have backed one or another hypothesis. Sadly, the data does not exist to prove any of them. That there was lead in the men seems certain. That there were problems with some of the Goldner canned goods they carried seems likely. That they suffered from scurvy seems certain. But if I had to bet, I'd bet on scurvy above all.

Cookman doesn't. It's all one hypothesis for him, and he beats on it with droning regularity. One gets the feeling that he's perfectly willing to chase Goldner's soul into Hell if it will help him get back at this long-dead innovator (who may, in fact, have been guilty of nothing worse than poor quality control in his still-experimental process). Is it possible that Cookman's hypothesis is right? Yes, it is. But he puts too much effort into his thesis, and not enough into studying the alternative. Throw in some rather blatant errors, and a rather overwhelming intensity, and the result is simply not very convincing. What is needed is a more neutral analysis. I hope it happens someday. ( )
1 vote waltzmn | Feb 21, 2013 |
I have read several stories of the Franklin Expedition. This book covered material others didn't. I was especially interested in the background of , the supplier of the tinned food taken on the expedition. Between his greed and the drive of the British navy to cut corners at almost any costs, it doomed this expedition from the beginning. It is a book well worth reading. ( )
  dickcraig | Nov 5, 2011 |
A remarkably error- and conjecture-filled book -- nevertheless, contains much useful information about Franklin's last expedition that's hard to get elsewhere, such as crew-lists complete with names, and Admiralty documents on the ships' outfitting.

Here's a copy of the review I wrote when the book first came out:

Sir John Franklin's disappearance in the Arctic -- along with two ships and 128 officers and crew -- was a celebrated mystery in the nineteenth century, attracting enormous public attention both in Great Britain and the United States. Some forty expeditions were launched in search of his party, funded both by governments and public subscriptions. In a way, Franklin's expedition was the Apollo 13 of his times -- only, in his times, without radio or modern communications, such potential martyrdom came with painful slowness. It was three years, and possibly longer, before the last of his crews, scurvy-ridden and likely starving, resorted to cannibalism, having abandoned their ships and dropped their possessions in the snow as they marched wearily towards nowhere. The debate over the ultimate cause of this disaster has been going on for well over a century, and in recent years the old conventional wisdoms have been widely challenged. The lead poisoning hypothesis, suggested by the sloppily-applied beads of lead solder on cans left behind by the expedition, was supported by Owen Beattie's exhumation of three Franklin crewmen in the 1980's, and corroborated by dry-bone analyses conducted by Anne Keenleyside in the 1990's. Cannibalism, so long denied by Franklin worshippers, has similarly gained strong scientific support, as Dr. Keenleyside's microscopic studies of the bones of a group of Franklin's men showed clear cut-marks made by metal-edged weapons at likely sites for de-fleshing. Scurvy, of course, was known about and considered a factor from the start. With so much evidence of the collapse and ill-health of its last survivors, it hardly seems that a new culprit is needed, but this hasn't stopped Scott Cookman from trying. Cookman., a journalist who writes for outdoor magazines, hit upon the idea that it might have been botulism -- again the fault of the badly lead-soldered cans supplied to the expedition by Stephen Goldner -- which was the chief cause of the high rate of mortality of Franklin's men, and the major cause of the failure of his expedition.

Cookman has certainly done some worthwhile new research; his study of Goldner and his patent canning factory is well-documented and full of suggestive -- though far from definitive -- evidence. The chief trouble is, I think, that Cookman overstates his case; like many who succumb to the monomania of a single, unified, explain-it-all theory, he wants botulism to solve every mystery. Thus, he argues that the low number of deaths early on was due to the fact that the tinned meat & soup was well-cooked, and that therefore botulism toxins were eliminated, whereas later when fuel ran low, or on sledge trips where food was not heated thoroughly, the toxin ran rampant. The proportion of officer deaths to that of seamen is accounted for by two sledge parties which, we are to assume, were more or less wiped out by tainted food (yet would not sledge crews take pemmican, biscuit, and salt pork instead of the heavy and bulky canned food, and the equally cumbersome stoves required to heat it?). Yet these sledge trips -- as Cookman fails to make clear -- are entirely conjectural; we know only that one party, led by Gore, deposited records in cairns in May of 1847, and we know that Gore died between then and the record left in April of 1848. But to conclude, on this basis, that Gore and his men, as well as a second, hypothetical sledge crew, suffered a 100% mortality rate, is, at best, highly speculative.

In further pursuit of his hypothesis, Cookman invents scores of other similar "facts." He assumes that Lieutenant Irving, whose presumed grave was found not far from Victory Point by Schwatka decades later, must have died on the spot within days of the May 1847 record, which indicated he was alive and carrying out his duties. He further assumes that somehow, the correlation between eating tinned supplies and sudden death went unnoticed for a considerable time. Perhaps lead poisoning could be brought in to explain this extraordinary lapse of judgment, but Cookman doesn't even bother to address the issue. Most disturbingly, Cookman omits any evidence about Goldner's meats that might undermine his case. In January of 1852, as part of an investigation that is the key to Cookman's entire argument, inspectors at the Royal Navy's Clarence Victualling-yard went through eighteen cases' worth of Goldner's meats, finding that an extraordinary portion of the cans -- 85% -- contained putrid or inedible meat. You'd think that Cookman would tout this statistic, but he hardly mentions it. The inspectors' report, however, contains an observation that strongly contradicts Cookman's hypothesis:

In many of the cases is appeared that the putridity had arisen from the atmosphere not being thoroughly expelled previously to the meat being put in.
The bacterium which produces the botulin toxin is, as Cookman emphasizes, anaerobic. This means that it cannot survive in an incompletely sealed can in which air is present, and that the cans observed by the Navy's inspectors, despite their admittedly putrid contents, could not possibly have given anyone botulism.
If it is true, as Cookman alleges, that Goldner hired unskilled workers instead of tinsmiths or plumbers (professional solderers) to seal up his cans, workers who used only one sloppily applied bead of solder (instead of the two, internal and external beads called for), would not the problem with spoilage more likely be due to the cans being poorly sealed? Cookman never addresses this gap in his argument, relying on hyperbole to plaster over his omission. Yet if botulism were a widespread problem with Goldner's foods, one would expect very high mortality indeed -- as Cookman himself often notes, the botulin toxin is so powerful even a single milligram could kill a whole ships' crew. One would expect 40 or 50 casualties in the first year instead of three! His claim that the cooks heated the cans and thus eliminated the toxin is a tenuous one -- it takes at least 10 minutes at a full boil to do this, and with fuel (as Cookman notes) strictly budgeted, what cook would boil food so long? The food may well have not been boiled at all, excepting the soups, merely heated and served. That coal later ran quite short is likely -- but it was known all along that it was very limited, and no reason to imagine it was at first squandered through endless boiling of soup only later to be rationed to the point where food would hardly be cooked at all. More likely coal was rationed from the start, and when available alternate fuel (barrel staves, crate slats, etc.) would have been used, none of which supports the notion that shipboard cooks would have wasted it on a ten-minute boiling regimen.

Goldner himself is vilified to such a degree that he begins to take on an almost cartoonish degree of evil; like Lex Luthor, if there is any ill wind blowing, it's Goldner who operates the bellows. Cookman's purple prose, which abounds in fanciful scene-setting and fictive filler, doesn't help matters. Still, the carelessness and greed of Goldner, and the inadequate inspection of the Admiralty, certainly come through dramatically, and the hazards of early canning techniques have rarely been so thoroughly analyzed or so vividly described. As with other disasters in the history of exploration, it is often the very newest technology, whose presence reassures both explorers and the public that everything is the 'latest,' which proves to be the weak link in the chain. Alas, Victorian medicine understood neither lead poisoning nor botulism, and failed to follow up on what little it knew about scurvy. Competitive bidding, which meant that an inexperienced cut-corner supplier such as Goldner could underbid those who had safely supplied previous Arctic expeditions, and lack of meaningful inspection, laid the groundwork for disaster. Owen Beattie and others have made a clear, laboratory- corroborated case for lead-poisoning from Goldner's cans being a significant factor in the Franklin disaster, but Cookman's arguments, like Goldner's meats, are both half-cooked and packed with filler. The unfortunate thing is that the reading public will likely consume them without so much as a stomach-ache. ( )
4 vote rapotter | Mar 14, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0471404209, Paperback)

By the mid-19th century, after decades of polar exploration, the fabled Northwest Passage seemed within reach. In 1845 the British Admiralty assembled the largest expedition yet, refitting two ships with steam engines and placing the seasoned if somewhat lackluster Sir John Franklin in command of the 128-man expedition. After sailing into Baffin Bay, they were never heard from again.

Drawing on early accounts from relief expeditions as well as recent archeological evidence, Scott Cookman reconstructs a chronicle of the expedition in Ice Blink. Cookman, a journalist with articles in Field & Stream and other magazines, excels when firmly grounded in the harrowing reality of 19th-century Arctic exploration. When he speculates about what happened to the Franklin expedition, however, he is on less solid ground and his writing suffers.

Particularly overwrought is the promised "frightening new explanation" for the expedition's demise. Cookman suggests that it was caused by the "grotesque handiwork" of an "evil" man, Stephan Goldner, who had supplied its canned foods. This is hardly new. As early as 1852, investigators determined that the expedition's canned goods were probably inferior and canceled provisioning contracts with Goldner. How a hundred men survived for nearly three years despite lead poisoning and botulism remains a mystery. In the end, as Cookman himself acknowledges, the expedition was ultimately doomed by its reliance on untested technology such as the steam engine, armor plating, and canned provisions. These criticisms aside, Ice Blink is an interesting narrative of this enduring symbol of polar exploration and disaster. --Pete Holloran

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:33 -0400)

Absorbing.artfully narrat[es] a possible course of events in the expedition's demise, based on the one official note and bits of debris (including evidence of cannibalism) found by searchers sent to look for Franklin in the 1850s. Adventure readers will flock to this fine regaling of the enduring mystery surrounding the best-known disaster in Arctic exploration.--Booklist ""A great Victorian adventure story rediscovered and re-presented for a more enquiring time.""--The Scotsman ""A vivid, sometimes harrowing chronicle of miscalculation and overweening Victorian pride in untried technology.a work of great compassion.""--The Australian It has been called the greatest disaster in the history of polar exploration. Led by Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, two state-of-the-art ships and 128 hand-picked men----the best and the brightest of the British empire----sailed from Greenland on July 12, 1845 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Fourteen days later, they were spotted for the last time by two whalers in Baffin Bay. What happened to these ships----and to the 129 men on board----has remained one of the most enduring mysteries in the annals of exploration. Drawing upon original research, Scott Cookman provides an unforgettable account of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, vividly reconstructing the lives of those touched by the voyage and its disaster. But, more importantly, he suggests a human culprit and presents a terrifying new explanation for what triggered the deaths of Franklin and all 128 of his men. This is a remarkable and shocking historical account of true-life suspense and intrigue.… (more)

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