Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arctic Explorer Mystery

Arsenic and Old Ice

Robert E. Peary onboard ship
Robert E. Peary onboard ship
Robert E. Peary finally planted the American flag on the North Pole--or close to it -- in 1909, 38 years after Capt. Hall died trying. Hall and his peculiar expedition were relegated to a historical footnote for nearly a century.

But in 1968, a young Dartmouth University professor named Chauncey Loomis mounted his own Arctic expedition -- not to the North Pole, but to the icy grave of Charles Hall on the Greenland tundra at a point that had become known as the Polaris Promontory.

After delicate international negotiations, Loomis had gained permission to exhume Hall's body for scientific tests that the professor hoped would determine, once and for all, the cause of his death.

The gravesite, mounded with stones, was not difficult to find. It is marked with a brass plaque that pays homage to Hall.   Loomis and his colleagues chipped at the frozen earth, just as Hall's crew had done when burying him.

Peeling back the coffin lid, the men found Hall's corpse still enshrouded in an American flag. The skin and skeleton of the body were virtually intact, having spent 97 years in a deep freeze.

Loomis' bookcover shows Hall in coffin
Loomis' bookcover shows Hall in coffin
Loomis had hoped for a thorough postmortem, but he and the medical doctor accompanying him found the internal organs and brain had been freeze-dried to virtually nothing. He did manage to collect good samples of hair and fingernails, as well as several pieces of tissue, and he hurried to the Toronto Centre for Forensic Sciences to conduct tests.

There, a researcher reached a startling conclusion based upon tests of the hair and nails: "These results are fully consistent with the theory of arsenic poisoning being the immediate cause of Hall's demise almost a century ago."

Dr. Auseklis Perkons went on to declare that Hall's symptoms -- numbness of the mouth, feeble pulse, delirium and coma -- were "quite in keeping with acute arsenic poisoning."

Weird & Tragic Shores
Weird & Tragic Shores
Aficionados of English crime mysteries know that arsenic leaves a sweet, metallic taste in one's mouth. Hall had complained of just such an aftertaste after drinking the cup of coffee upon returning to the ship from his sledge journey.

Chauncey Loomis published the results of his investigation in 1971 in a book, Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer.

A careful academic, he did not flatly conclude that Hall had been murdered, despite the arsenic evidence.

But Loomis wrote, "If Hall was murdered, Emil Bessels is the prime suspect."

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