The British Arctic Expedition That Left Behind Perfectly Preserved Corpses

The Franklin Expedition was a British arctic exploration mission designed to find and map the Northwest Passage along the northern coast of Canada. Sir John Franklin, who headed the expedition, left England with two ships, the Erebus and Terror, on May 19, 1845, and after brief stops off the coast of Scotland and in Greenland, the ships set off into the wilds. His ships were last seen by Europeans in July 1845. 

In 1850, a mission to discover the fate of the Franklin Expedition found the graves of crew members John Torrington, William Braine, and John Hartnell in far northern Canada. In 1984, the bodies were exhumed to determine the cause of death. Because Torrington was the first casualty of the expedition, it was thought that determining his cause of death would give some insight into what happened to the rest of the crew. The preserved bodies of the Franklin Expedition took their secrets with them however.

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  • The Expedition Was Doomed From The Start

    The Expedition Was Doomed From The Start
    Photo: Gordon Leggett / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    In 1984, Owen Beattie, an anthropologist, led an expedition to exhume the bodies of three deceased members of Franklin's crew to determine their cause of death. The members in question were John Torrington, John Hartnell, and Marine William Braine, and they were the first three people in the expedition to perish. 

    Torrington's corpse, which was fantastically well-preserved, was emaciated, and it showed signs of Torrington having been ill for some time before his death. Tests conducted by Beattie's team concluded Torrington died of lead poisoning, which was the result of the expedition's food being canned improperly in England. Regardless of the crew getting stranded on ice, they likely all would have suffered serious illness, and eventually, death, from lead poisoning. 

  • The Bodies Were Creepily Well-Preserved By Permafrost

    The eerily well-preserved bodies of Franklin Expedition members owe their preservation to the frigid weather of northern Canada. The area in which they were buried is rife with permafrost, earth so cold it's frozen solid for at least two years straight. The corpses of John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine were essentially buried in a freezer, which kept them fresh for about 140 years. 

  • This Map Shows The Probable Route Traveled By The Franklin Expedition

    This Map Shows The Probable Route Traveled By The Franklin Expedition
    Photo: Smurftrooper / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
  • A Note Found In 1859 Provided Details On The Expedition's Fate

    A Note Found In 1859 Provided Details On The Expedition's Fate
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1859, Francis Leopold McClintock was sent to determine the fate of the Franklin Expedition. A member of his crew found a note, pictured above, on King William Island in Canada, left by a member of Franklin's crew. 

    According to the note, the expedition had trouble with ice as early as winter 1846. On April 22, 1848, the crew abandoned the Terror and Erebus, having been stuck on ice since the previous September. At the time of abandoning the ship, 105 men survived. 

  • A 2008 Study Offered New Insight Into The Source Of The Expedition's Poison Problem

    Owen Beattie and his team of scientists concluded the lead poisoning that affected members of the Franklin Expedition was a result of improperly canned food. A study published in 2008 suggests the source was the water system installed in the expedition's ships. Author William Battersby argues the canned food theory is incorrect because the same canning was widely used by the Royal Navy, which didn't suffer similar cases of poisoning.

    As Battersby argues, the Terror and Erebus, Franklin's ships, were outfitted with unique water systems, which make them a far more likely source of poisoning. 

  • Crew Members Resorted To Cannibalism

    Crew Members Resorted To Cannibalism
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The remains of crew members found in the years since their disappearance show ample evidence of cannibalism.

    According to a piece on Smithsonian.com, this cannibalism took place in stages: it began with carving flesh from corpses for consumption and progressed to cracking open bones to suck out the marrow. The latter is known as end-stage cannibalism.