Sir John Franklin’s Lost Diary


On September 9, 2014, Parks Canada discovered the remains of the HMS Erebus, explorer Sir John Franklin’s remarkably newsworthy flagship. Among the artifacts retrieved from the ship was a Fortnum & Mason jar labelled “Sweets.” The jar did not contain any sweets, but rather a diary written by Sir John himself — a diary that solves at least part of the so-called Franklin mystery. What follows is that diary’s final entries:

FranklinApril 30, 1847. Ship lies groaning & straining in the ice off King William Island. On a whim, I brought out my maps of Arctic Canada, only to discover that the Admiralty had provided me with maps of Polynesia — an unfortunate error.

May 2, 1847. Sore gums & loose teeth indicate that many of the crew have scurvy, so I spoke out against this nefarious French disease & initiated tango lessons and likewise bench pressing of the ship’s spittoons to ward it off.

May 3, 1847. Ship still mired in the ice. The bosun, in the midst of a tango maneuver, fell overboard, went through the ice, & was promptly torn to shreds by a school of man-eating isobars. Bloody Arctic!

May 5, 1847. Dreamt Lady Jane came for a visit & asked, “Sir John, why are you late to supper?” “I’m looking for the Northwest Passage, dear,” I told her. “But you can’t eat the Northwest Passage, can you?” she replied ominously, then vanished.

May 8, 1847. Lost three men today, one to scurvy, another to terminal gingivitis, & yet another to ennui. To make matters worse, the steward told me, in his inimitable fashion, “we ain’t got no more elevenses for you, sir.” How can I captain this expedition without my elevenses?

May 11, 1847. The cook extremely upset over our empty larders. Says there isn’t even any solder left inside our food tins. “Hang in there, old chap,” I told him, but the roar of the wind in the ship’s rigging garbled my words, & he tried to hang himself. At least the men are still obeying my orders.

May 12, 1847. Dense fog. We can’t even see the ship’s prow, much less a possible shortcut to the Orient.

May 14, 1847. We’re totally out of crumpets, so I had to feed Cedric [Cedric was Franklin’s pet toucan] a few forlorn scraps of hardtack. Not surprisingly, he squawked in protest.

May 15, 1847. Took bearings & discovered that, instead of corpulent, I am now merely portly. Remarkable that I can now ascend the mast-head as well as descend from it.

May 17, 1847. Men shivering almost constantly, & their beards are hung with icicles, as the Admiralty somehow has seen fit to supply us with tuxedos & cummerbunds rather than parkas. Wrote a letter of protest to the First Lord, then such was my hunger that I proceeded to eat it.

May 27, 1847. Several Savages [Eskimoes] with prognathous jaws visited the ship today. They brought us a batch of pemmican eggs. Alas, all rotten. Must have been laid before the great pemmican migration south. In return, we gave each of the Savages a tuxedo & cummerbund.

May 29, 1847. More misfortune — one of the crew, doubtless a petty officer, has eaten poor Cedric! I said to Fitzjames [Franklin’s second-in-command], “Find the bounder responsible for this & give him a taste of the cat.” “Sorry, sir,” Fitzjames told me, “but we’ve already eaten the ship’s cat.”

May 31, 1847. Lieutenant Orme, a clean-shaven fellow except for his clump of grizzled whiskers, broke into my cabin & consumed the contents of my chamber pot, then began singing “Rule, Brittania.” I put him in the section of the sick bay reserved for nutters.

June 5, 1847. Weary of being mired in ice, we abandoned ship & began making our way to Back’s Fish River, thence, we hope, to England’s green & pleasant land. The men carried me in a sedan chair. Two days into our journey, I realized I’d forgotten my robe & slippers, so we marched back to the ship.

June 8, 1847. Abandoned the ship a second time. Curiously, my sedan chair seems to have disappeared, & I’m now being manhauled in a sledge filled with towels, kettles, sail-maker’s palms, porcelain cups, bedding, checkerboards, our portative organ, longboats, etc.

June 9, 1847. Met a group of Savages & asked them using signs for the route to Back’s Fish River. They fled in terror when Fitzjames produced a loud blast of flatulence. “Sorry, sir,” he said, “but starvation seems not to agree with me.”

June 10, 1847. Longboats abandoned owing to the terrestrial aspect of the land.

June 12, 1847. Dr. Goodsir, our surgeon, tried to enliven things by asking us which vegetable the Admirably forbade us to take on board the Erebus. Answer: Leeks! Only Goodsir himself laughed at this feeble joke, & as he did, several of his teeth loosened in his gums, then fell into the snow.

June 13, 1847. What a nuisance! I seem to have left my monogrammed cutlery & all my medals on the Erebus, so we had no choice but to march back to the ship, which was now a sorry sight — both the fore & aft decks were covered with a thick coat of scurvy.

June 14, 1847. A blizzard has kept us on the ship, so I began working on a talk to be given tomorrow at tea-time. Key sentences include: Eat your boots, men. They’re quite tasty. Give me a nice fresh boot over steak-and-kidney pie any day. [On an earlier expedition, Franklin had been compelled to eat his boots]

June 15, 1847. Hallo, what’s this? Fitzjames has barged into my cabin without a knock. “Sir John,” he says, brandishing his cutlass, “the men & I have made an important decision. The cabin boy is lean & emaciated, while you…”

Here the diary necessarily breaks off, but the percipient reader will have no trouble ascertaining why Franklin’s remains have never been found.

Santa Claus is a mushroom!

Christmas is nearly upon us, and I can’t help thinking of a certain mushroom. Specifically, I think of Amanita muscaria, a large, often obese red-and-white species that plays a part in the composition of Santa Claus. I can hear your gasps of astonishment, so consider the following:

Lapp life in the old daysIn the Middle Ages, Europeans had peculiar notions about Lapland. For instance, they thought all Samis (Lapps) were shamans. As it happens, many of them in fact were. Let’s say a sick person puts out a call for a noaidi (shaman). The noaidi would arrive at that person’s lodge in a reindeer-drawn sled. He would be obliged to enter via the chimney because the pile-up of snow prevents him from entering through the front door.

Before his arrival, the noaidi would already have ingested several dried karpassienis (Amanita muscarias), which would help him ascertain the cause of his patient’s illness. It’s said that the noaidi who has eaten this mushroom typically turns into a facsimile of it, or at least takes on its distinctive red-and-white color scheme. Also, payment for his services would be in food, often lots of it, so he would usually be a quite large man.

Giant Polypores and Stoned Reindeer

my latest!

Here I might mention that reindeer are inordinately fond of A. muscaria. Presumably, it gives them the same sensation that it gives to us non-reindeer — the sensation of flying. If you interviewed a reindeer, I suspect that it might say that it quite liked the feeling of flying through the air with the greatest of ease. It might add that a reindeer with a red nose is afflicted with a parasite, a bot fly larva (or larvae), and while this can be painful, it doesn’t usually result in one’s nose glowing like a light bulb…

To learn more about the Santa Claus-mushroom connection, I recommend that you read my book Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer. You can purchase a copy by sending at a check for $20 (postpaid) to: Lawrence Millman, P.O. Box 381582, Cambridge, MA 02238. You won’t regret it!

An Unsung Hero

In honor of the excessive media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, I’ve decided to write this bog posting about an Arctic explorer named Paul Bjorvig (1857-1932). What does this virtually unknown Norwegian have to do with recent events in Boston? Absolutely nothing. That’s why I’m writing about him.

P. Bjorvig

Paul Bjorvig

In 1898, Bjorvig took part in an American polar expedition led by two highly unlikely individuals, the Chicago journalist William Wellman and religious enthusiast Evelyn Baldwin. The expedition used Russia’s remote Franz Josef Land archipelago as a base for, among other things, searching for lost Norwegian balloonist Salomon Andree. Wellman and Baldwin also roamed about the archipelago. “We are giving the islands, straits, and points good American names,” Wellman wrote.

While the two leaders were traveling around Franz Josef Land, Bjorvig and another Norwegian, Bernt Bentsen, remained behind in an ice cave and looked after the expedition’s supplies. Bentsen grew increasingly ill, perhaps from scurvy, perhaps trichinosis, and in January of 1899 he died. His last request to Bjorvig: “Please don’t let a polar bear eat my remains.” I promise you that I won’t, said his companion.

The only way to prevent a polar bear from dining on Bentsen was to keep his remains in the ice cave. A not very pleasant thought, but Bjorvig had given his word. He wrapped Bentsen in his, Bentsen’s, sleeping bag and, because the cave was so small, kept that sleeping bag right next to his own sleeping bag. Days blurred into weeks, but Bjorvig and Bentsen remained together, so to speak.

Eventually, Wellman returned to the ice cave (Baldwin was now inhabiting the crude Masonic lodge he’d built on Greely Island). Where’s Bentsen? he asked Bjorvig. “Dead,” Bjorvig replied, pointing to the sleeping bag. If he had then screamed in anguish or beaten his head against the cave’s icy wall, he might be remembered today, but he did nothing more dramatic than offer Wellman a cup of coffee.

In fact, the media — such as it was in those days — paid almost no attention to Bjorvig. Nowadays, of course, the media would swarm all over him, ramming microphones in his face and asking him all sorts of questions. What was it like to hang out with a dead man for two months? Did you contemplate suicide? Do you think the Arctic has conspired against you? How about your companion’s smell? Could you evaluate it on a scale of 1 to 10? And was it a threat to, if not your sanity, at least your appetite? In the end, Bjorvig would have become a celebrity and doubtless a talk show regular.

Once he returned to Norway, Bjorvig did not undergo a period of healing, nor did he engage in prayer or reflection. Instead, he signed up almost immediately for an expedition to Antarctica. After the Antarctic trip, he signed up for an expedition to Svalbard (Spitzbergen). While he was in Svalbard, he heard that his 22 year old son had been killed by a bear back in Norway. Not a single member of the media ever asked him how he felt about the loss of his son. At the time, such a question would have been considered vulgar if not downright invasive.

In 1908-1909, Bjorvig overwintered in Svalbard with his friend Knut Johnsen. One spring day the two men went for a walk, and Johnsen fell through the ice. There was nothing Bjorvig could do to save him. After his friend’s death, Bjorvig decided that (as he wrote in his journal) “I have had enough sorrow from the Arctic.” Then he added the following line:

But if a man has no sorrows, he has no joys.


Thanks to Perspektivet Museum (Norway) for the image of Paul Bjorvig, used under Creative Commons license.

North of Siberia (Part 2)

Wrangel Island

Still on Wrangel Island (red arrow)

For those of you who read my previous bog post, I still haven’t left Siberia’s Wrangel Island. In the island’s tiny cemetery, among several rows of Russian Orthodox crosses, I noticed a Star of David. There was no name on the grave, so I asked one of the scientists on the island if he knew who was buried there.

“A Jewish doctor, Nikolai Vulfson,” he told me. “Killed by fascists.”

Later I researched Vulfson for a book I was writing on the Arctic and learned that he hadn’t been killed by the fascists. At least not by those of the German or Italian persuasion during the Great Patriotic War, so-called.

Let’s travel back to the 1930s. Vulfson was Wrangel’s doctor, a man who was dedicated to the health of the local Eskimos (Siberian natives never call themselves “Inuit”). In this, he was opposed by the island governor, Konstantin Semenchuk, who said: “If you give Eskimos what they want, they’ll become lazy or turn against us. Then we would have to shoot them.”

On December 26, 1934 Semenchuk seemed to have a change of heart. He told Vulfson to visit the village of Mys Florens and investigate an apparent typhus outbreak. The doctor left the main village of Ushakovshoe by dogteam, accompanied by Semenchuk’s henchman Stepan Startsev. Only Startsev reached Mys Florens. He told the Eskimos that Vulfson had somehow gotten lost in a blizzard. But there hadn’t been a blizzard at the time.

It wasn’t until January 4 of the next year that Vulfson’s bullet-riddled body was found. Someone, perhaps Vulfson’s widow, radioed for a government investigation, not believing the death was a suicide, as Semenchuk had professed. An investigator arrived and began collecting information about Semenchuk, who not only seemed to have been responsible for Vulfson’s death, but commonly raped young Eskimo girls and also promoted famine conditions on the island. He was recalled to Moscow.

At Semenchuk’s trial, his prosecutor called the governor “human waste.” Semenchuk protested. He was a visitor from Mars, he said, and thus was not subject to the same rules as a typical Soviet citizen. The court did not buy this defense. Along with Startsev, Semenchuk was declared an enemy of the State and executed by a firing squad.

If I had known Vulfson’s story in advance, I would taken a photograph of his grave. No, I wouldn’t have taken a photograph. For I would have been too saddened by the fate of this good man to reach for my camera.

North of Siberia

The more remote the destination, the happier I am, so in the summer of 2003 I joined a Russian expedition to Wrangel Island, a 5,180 square kilometer chunk of Arctic real estate several hundred miles north of Siberia. Such is the island’s remoteness that its first documented visit didn’t occur until as recently as 1881, when the American whaling captain Calvin Hooper briefly went ashore with the naturalist John Muir.

Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island (red arrow)

Wrangel is a state nature preserve, the Russian equivalent of a natural park. But unlike Yellowstone or Yosemite, it has no facilities for the public (no public, either). We first went ashore at Rodzhersa Bay, where there was a small Russian research station. For want of funding, this station was remarkably rundown. I got the impression that the half dozen scientists who worked here did so for love. They certainly weren’t here for the money.

Inside a makeshift barn were four baby musk oxen, descendants of 20 animals brought here from Canada in 1975. Something about Wrangel’s air must be aphrodisiacal, since now more than 800 musk oxen roam the island.

I asked one of the Russians — a lavishly-bearded man who resembled the young Dostoevsky — whether a large invasive species like the musk ox might have a detrimental effect on the local ecosystem.

“Is problem, da,” he replied, “which is why we will be sending these babies to the mainland. We have another problem — no womens.”

Before he could mention any more problems, a border guard approached me and said: “CIA?” The look on his face was very serious.

“Nyet,” I replied. “Ph.D.”

The border guard burst into laughter, and I was off the hook. But if I had been found guilty of stealing local secrets, such as (for instance) whether insects or the wind were responsible for early spring pollination, what could he have done? Send me to Siberia?

Later I decided to hike the several miles from Cape Litke to Cape Uering, where members of the 1914 Karluk research expedition had overwintered. I should say some of them had overwintered. Of the 25 expedition members, 11 died of food poisoning, malnutrition, and hypothermia. If it hadn’t been for Captain Bob Bartlett’s heroic heroic sledge journey back to civilization, all of them would have died.

Half a mile into my hike, I came upon a group of tumbledown wooden huts and an outhouse, perhaps the northernmost structure of its kind in the world. A broken anemometer suggested another Russian scientific station fallen on financial hardship.

Soon I was walking over seemingly endless rolling tundra. Birds were everywhere. Screaming tour-a-wee, tour-a-wee, a female black-bellied plover feigned a broken wing, a maneuver designed to lure me from her nest. Wildflowers were everywhere, too. Blue harebells. Red rose root. Yellow poppies. Bright pink bistorts. Lilac fleabanes. Buttercups. Such an explosion of color gave the lie to the notion that the Arctic is a dull, achromatic place.

And then I reached Cape Uering. Whatever might have survived of the Karluk expedition was gone, either picked up by the Russians or reclaimed by the Arctic itself. The site was now buried beneath a veritable carpet of moss campion, harebells, and purple saxifrage. This pleased me more than any Karluk artifact would have done. But then who would not be more pleased by a small, perfect wildflower vibrating in the wind than by a scrap from an old tent or a rusty tin can?