Arctic Arsenic

Charles Francis Hall was murdered during an expedition that might have taken him to the North Pole decades before Peary. Or was he?

Engraving of the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall
Engraving of the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall Wikimedia Commons

In 1870 Congress authorized $50,000 for an expedition to reach the North Pole under the command of Charles Francis Hall, a veteran of the north who knew more about living in the Arctic than any non-Eskimo in Europe or America. The expedition's ship, Polaris, left New London, Connecticut, on July 3, 1871, and headed for the Arctic, stopping off in Greenland to pick up an Eskimo guide, dogs and equipment.

Weather and ice conditions permitted the party to reach the northernmost point attained by any white men up to that time (somewhere around 82 degrees north latitude). Discipline, however, was breaking down. Hall and sailing master Sidney Budington fell out, and Hall did not get along at all with doctor and natural scientist Emil Bessels.

In October Polaris found a safe haven where the ship and its crew were to overwinter, locked in the ice. On November 8, Hall was dead. On returning to Polaris from a two-week scouting expedition, Hall had asked for a cup of coffee and, upon drinking it, was violently sick. He was in great pain and many times accused some of the officers of poisoning him. Bessels ministered to him until Hall refused all help. He was buried in a shallow grave.

The next fall, raging gales set the ship adrift and then drove her into an iceberg, damaging her hull. Budington, now in command, ordered everything thrown overboard. Some of the crew and the Eskimos jumped onto an ice floe. In the confusion and darkness, Polaris again broke free and was driven away by currents and wind.

 Convinced that Polaris had abandoned them, the castaways drifted for six months on their fragile island. On April 30, 1873, a sealer, the Tigress, out of Newfoundland, appeared from out of a fog bank and came alongside their now tiny ice floe. In the meantime, Captain Budington had run Polaris aground. Eventually he and the remaining crew made their way to New York. The Navy Board of Inquiry concluded that Hall had died of an apoplectic seizure, despite testimony from the rescued castaways that Hall believed he had been poisoned.

Would Hall have reached the North Pole? Anybody's guess, but many who had seen his single-minded drive would not have bet against him. Was he poisoned before he had the opportunity to fulfill this dream?

In 1968 Chauncey C. Loomis was writing a biography of Hall. Loomis traveled to Hall's grave and took samples of hair and fingernails from the still largely intact corpse. Analysis showed "an intake of considerable amounts of arsenic by C.F. Hall in the last two weeks of his life."

Arsenious acid was a common medicine aboard ships in those days, and Loomis concluded that "If Hall was murdered, Emil Bessels is the prime suspect."

But Loomis' "if" is a large one. Nothing further has come to light in the past three decades, so it remains a mystery.

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