This Arctic murder mystery remains unsolved after 150 years
Published November 22, 2022
10 min read
Along with much of the American and British public in the mid-19th century, Charles Francis Hall was riveted by accounts of Sir John Franklin’s tragic 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, the fabled Arctic sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The scale of the loss–two vessels and 129 men–and the mystery surrounding the fates of Franklin and his crew, prompted many expeditions that set out to discover the outcome of their story.
“Hall was a deeply eccentric man, perhaps the unlikeliest fellow to ever become an Arctic explorer,” said Russell A. Potter, a professor at Rhode Island College. Hall was a quiet man with a modestly successful publisher and engraver in Cincinnati, Ohio. He had only a few years of education. However, his fascination with Franklin’s doomed expedition turned into an obsession and a personal mission for survivors.
By the late 1850s various expeditions had found bodies and relics from the Franklin crew, dimming hopes of finding anyone alive. Still, in 1860, the 39-year-old Hall left Ohio for the Arctic to see if there were any lives left to save.
(Arctic shipwreck found “frozen in time. “)
Victim: Charles Francis Hall
Hall undertook two trips to the Arctic during the 1860s. He found no survivors from the Franklin party, but he lived among the Inuit people for nearly eight years and documented their culture more than anyone had before him.
When he returned to Washington, D.C., in 1869, Hall had his sights set on going to the North Pole, which had replaced the Northwest Passage as the chief goal of Arctic explorers. Many believed that the passage could not be made commercially viable, despite the high cost of finding it. Hall lobbied hard for his expedition, winning the backing of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Congress authorized $50,000 for the voyage, making it the first Arctic exploration entirely funded by the federal government. An old Union steamer, a screwpropelled steamer, was modified for Arctic ice. The hull was strengthened with oak and the bow was covered in iron. Renamed U.S.S. Polaris, it set sail from New York on June 29, 1871, with 25 crew members, among them Inuit guides Ipirvik and his wife Taqulittuq, as well as their infant son. In Greenland, Hans Hendrick, Inuk hunter and guide, joined the crew.
Polaris power struggles
Hall knew how to survive in the Arctic
But not how to run a full-fledged business.
expedition. He was a commander without any military or naval rank and a captain without navigational experience. Sidney O. Budington was the navigator and George E. Tyson was the assistant navigator. The command of the vessel was divided in three ways.
Another source of division soon materialized in the form of a German scientific team also on board, led by scientist and surgeon Emil Bessels. He was a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Heidelberg’s medical school. Bessels and the Germans had little respect for the uneducated Hall.
After a month of sailing, tension and conflicts were growing. Tyson would later write that “some of the party seem bound be contrary anyway and if Hall wishes to do a thing, that is exactly what they will do.” There are two parties already, if not three, aboard.”
(Arctic obession drove explorers to seek the North Pole. )
Meanwhile, the Polaris advanced, reaching latitude 82deg 29′ N, the first ship in history to sail that far north. This would however be the limit of the ship’s ability to travel. Turned back by ice in the Lincoln Sea, the Polaris put in for the winter in northwestern Greenland, a spot Hall called “Thank God Harbor,” about 500 miles south of the pole.
On October 24, 1871, Hall returned from a two-week sledge journey to the north. He had a cup of coffee, and he became severely ill, with symptoms including delirium and partial paralysis. Bessels diagnosed the condition as apoplexy (a stroke).
Meanwhile Hall insisted that Bessels was trying to poison him. He even banned the doctor from his bedside between October 29 until November 4, during which time his condition improved. Hall allowed Bessels to continue treatment. He seemed better, even taking a walk on deck, then suffered a relapse and died on November 8, 1871. His body was buried near.
Budington, now the ship’s leader, had no interest in reaching the North Pole, calling it “a damned fool’s errand.” Once the ice cleared, the ship headed south on August 12, 1872. Two months later, when Polaris ran aground on a submerged iceberg, Budington ordered cargo to be thrown onto the ice to buoy the ship.
That night, 19 members of the expedition, including Tyson and all of the Inuit, were on the ice pack nearby when it suddenly ruptured. The ship broke apart in the darkness of night, leaving them on the floe. Before long, the ship, with 14 crew members (including Budington), and the party on the floe lost contact. After being lost for six months, the group was rescued by a whaler off Labrador. They would have died if it weren’t for the Inuit who hunted at the floe’s edge.
Meanwhile, the 14 survivors on the Polaris experienced their own odyssey. Budington decided to abandon the ship near Etah in Greenland because coal supplies were running low. The crew built a shelter there and the local Inuit assisted them through the winter. The crew then built two boats out of wood from the Polaris and sailed south. They were rescued on June 23, 1873 by a whaler off Cape York.
The Navy held an inquiry into Charles Francis Hall’s death, but with conflicting testimony, and no body for an autopsy, no charges were made. There was no incentive to add scandals to an already tragic outcome.
Nearly a century after Hall’s demise, Arctic historian Chauncey C. Loom is investigated the mystery, which he recounted in Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall. In 1968 Loomis had Hall’s body exhumed. His body was exhumed by Loomis in 1968. Analysis revealed that Hall had consumed large amounts of arsenic during the two weeks preceding his death. Arsenic was a common ingredient in medical kits at the time, but it was never given in such large quantities. Loomis suspected Budington, who was anxious about the northward journey, as a suspect. Budington would not be able to use the arsenic because it had been administered to simulate apoplexy.
Loomis concluded that Bessels was the only one with the skill to murder Hall, but a clear motive was lacking.
Bessels was openly dismissive towards Hall, who in turn called him “the little German dancing Master.” But Loomis believed that personal dislike was not sufficient to justify the murder.
Another piece of evidence emerged in 2015, when Russell Potter, the Rhode Island College professor, came across an envelope postmarked October 23, 1871, and addressed by Hall to 24-year-old Miss Vinnie Ream, a talented artist who had been commissioned to make a statue of Abraham Lincoln when she was 18. Before sailing on the Polaris, both Hall and Bessels socialized with Miss Ream in New York.
Potter knew there had been correspondence between her and Bessels that suggests a romantic connection. Miss Ream also sent a bust of Lincoln to Hall, which he placed in his cabin on the Polaris. Potter speculates that Hall’s death might have been caused by a love triangle. “The additional motive for Bessels makes the case a strong one,” said Potter, “but absent a time machine, I don’t think it can ever be 100 percent resolved.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.