Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arctic Explorer Mystery

A Final Journey

Capt. Hall returned from a two-week reconnaissance mission on October 24. He was in high spirits, telling subordinates he believed he could make it to the pole via a coastal route he had just explored.

Hall seemed to summon energy from these rough outings -- shambling up icy hummocks behind baying dogs, sleeping in ice huts, and, in general, outsmarting the frigid Arctic.
On his return, Hall warmly greeted crew members, then retired to his cabin, where he drank a mug of hot coffee. He complained that it was lousy coffee -- too sweet and foul-tasting. Not an hour later, Hall suddenly felt sharp pain in his stomach and legs. He summoned the ship's doctor, a stern young German named Emil Bessels.

After speaking with Bessels about his symptoms, Hall lapsed into unconsciousness. His pulse rate varied wildly, surging up, then plunging. Dr. Bessels declared the captain comatose.
The doctor applied a mustard poultice, and after 30 minutes, Hall awoke to find his left side paralyzed.

Emil Bessels
Emil Bessels
Bessels administered a laxative of castor and croton oil and made a diagnosis: Hall had suffered a stroke.

The captain awoke the next day with a mild fever, but his paralysis had waned. He told other officers he suspected his coffee had been spiked, perhaps with poison. That evening, when Hall again began feeling ill, Bessels administered a shot of quinine, a standard fever treatment in those days.

Over the next few days Hall complained of numbness in his mouth. He was likely hallucinating, as well. At one point, he said he saw "blue vapor" emanating from the mouths of visitors.

Capt. Hall gradually became convinced that he was being poisoned by Dr. Bessels. On October 29, Hall refused Bessels' treatments and banned the doctor from his cabin. Over the following week, his condition fluctuated from near-normal to near-death.

On November 4, he agreed to once again accept Bessels' doctoring. The German sat beside his bed for the most of the next two days and nights.

Two days later, Hall managed to spend several hours dictating to a scribe or writing in his journal. At one point, he asked the men gathered in his cabin, "How do you spell murder?"
Some 12 hours later, at 3:30 a.m. on November 7, 1871, Capt Hall drew a final, shallow breath.

Burial of Charles F. Hall
Burial of Charles F. Hall

Four men spent two days chiseling a 2-foot-deep grave in the permafrost on the northwest shore of Greenland, not far from the Polaris. The ship's carpenter built a coffin. Hall's body was placed inside and covered with an American flag. The casket was solemnly toted to the gravesite, where Richard Bryan, the expedition's astronomer and chaplain, led the crew in prayers.

The flag that Hall hoped to plant on the North Pole was lowered to half-mast on his ship.

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