Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arctic Explorer Mystery

An Arctic Obsession

Charles Hall was an unlikely explorer. He had more moxie than credentials.
Hall was born in Vermont in 1821 and grew up in Rochester, N.H. He worked as a blacksmith as a young man, but that ancient occupation was an uncomfortable fit for Hall, who always had an eye toward science, invention and discovery.

He moved to Cincinnati, on America's western frontier, in 1849 and went into the printing business. He owned and edited two Cincinnati newspapers, the Occasional and the Daily Press, during the 1850s. He got married and fathered a daughter.

But Hall began to develop an obsession with the Arctic, apparently touched off in 1845 by the fateful attempt by the British navy to forge a northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Captain John Franklin
Captain John Franklin
Capt. John Franklin's two ships, carrying 128 men, were last seen in July 1845. Beginning in 1847, a long series of rescue expeditions were sent after Franklin. Hall's newspapers frequently carried accounts of these efforts, which continued for more than a decade.

In the late 1850s, Hall decided to mount his own search party. It was a quixotic plan -- not least because by the time he departed there was ample evidence that Franklin and his men had all starved to death when their ships became terminally locked in ice at Victoria Strait, about halfway between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Henry Grinnell
Henry Grinnell
Hall would not be deterred. He sold his newspapers and abandoned his daughter and pregnant wife to become an explorer. He had no money, no equipment and no experience. But Charles Hall would prove to be a convincing salesman. He wheedled $1,000 out of investors, including Henry Grinnell, a whaling magnate who had founded the American Geographical Society. Hall bought and outfitted a small sailboat, then paid for a berth aboard a whaling bark out of New London, Conn. His "New Franklin Research Expedition," an exalted title for his one-man show, sailed in May 1860.

Charles F. Hall with Eskimos
Charles F. Hall with Eskimos

Four months later, a fierce storm wrecked his boat and drove him ashore in Greenland. Hall located an Eskimo colony, where he lived for three years. He went native -- learning to dress, hunt, fish and survive like the Eskimos.

Hall resurfaced in civilization in 1863, but he stayed just long enough to mount another expedition. Then he disappeared for another five years in the north. Returning from his second Arctic adventure, Hall found that he had become a minor celebrity with the 1865 publication of "Life With the Eskimeaux," his journal of his years with the Greenland natives. He also discovered that the great naval nations of the world were engaged in a spirited contest to reach the North Pole first.

Yukilitoo, Eskimo, Hannah
Yukilitoo, Eskimo, Hannah
Hall embarked on a lecture tour about his explorations. His primary message was that America, which had fallen behind ambitious English explorers, should have its flag planted at the top of the world.

No hellfire preacher ever proselytized more effectively. Soon, he was invited to Washington, where he drummed up political support for a North Pole expedition.

Later, Hall delivered speeches to congressmen, senators and then-President U.S. Grant himself. He asked the government to fund his expedition with a special $100,000 allocation. And for stingy politicians, he dangled the economic bounty of whaling, where a single huge specimen could reap a $25,000 profit for the oil alone -- and even more for baleen, teeth and other byproducts.

With religious fervor, Hall testified that he was born to the mission.
"I believe firmly that I was born to discover the North Pole," he said. "That is my purpose. Once I have set my right foot on the pole, I shall be perfectly willing to die."
Not every politician was convinced. But by a close vote, Congress agreed to pay $50,000 to fund Hall's polar expedition.

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