Jun 14, 2020

The Story Of The Doomed Franklin Expedition And The Mummified Body Of John Torrington Left Behind

John Torrington and the other Franklin expedition mummies remain haunting reminders of that lost 1845 voyage to the Arctic that saw sailors cannibalize their crewmates in their final, desperate days.

John Torrington
Brian SpenceleyThe preserved body of John Torrington, one of the Franklin expedition mummies left behind after the crew was lost in the Canadian Arctic in 1845.
In 1845, two ships carrying 134 men set sail from England in search of the Northwest Passage — but they never returned.
Now known as the lost Franklin expedition, this tragic journey ended in an Arctic shipwreck that left no survivors. Much of what remains are the Franklin expedition mummies, preserved for more than 140 years in the ice, belonging to crewmen like John Torrington. Ever since these bodies were first officially found in the 1980s, their frozen faces have evoked the terror of this doomed journey.
Analysis of these frozen bodies also helped researchers discover the starvation, lead poisoning, and cannibalism that led to the crew’s demise. Furthermore, while John Torrington and the other Franklin expedition mummies were long the only remains of the voyage, new discoveries have since shed more light.
The two ships of the Franklin expedition, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were discovered in 2014 and 2016, respectively. In 2019, a Canadian archaeology team’s drones even explored inside the wreck of the Terror for the first time ever, giving us yet another up-close look at the eerie remnants of this grisly tale.
Hands Of One Of The Franklin Expedition Bodies
Brian SpenceleyThe hands of John Hartnell, one of the Franklin expedition bodies exhumed in 1986 and photographed by Hartnell’s own great-great nephew, Brian Spenceley.
Though the fate of John Torrington and the Franklin expedition mummies has only recently become more clear, much of their story remains mysterious. But what we do know makes for a haunting tale of terror in the Arctic.

Where Things Went Wrong With The Franklin Expedition

The unfortunate tale of John Torrington and the Franklin expedition begins with Sir John Franklin, accomplished Arctic explorer and officer of the British Royal Navy. Having successfully completed three previous expeditions, two of which he commanded, Franklin set out once more to traverse the Arctic in 1845.
In the early morning of May 19, 1845, John Torrington and 133 other men boarded the Erebus and the Terror and departed from Greenhithe, England. Outfitted with the most state-of-the-art tools needed to complete their journey, the iron-clad ships also came stocked with three years’ worth of provisions, including more than 32,289 pounds of preserved meat, 1,008 pounds of raisins, and 580 gallons of pickles.
While we know about such preparations and we know that five men were discharged and sent home within the first three months, most of what happened next remains something of a mystery. After they were last seen by a passing ship in northeastern Canada’s Baffin Bay in July, the Terror and the Erebus seemingly vanished into the fog of history.
Engraving Of The Hms Terror
Wikimedia CommonsAn engraving of the HMS Terror, one of the two ships lost during the Franklin expedition.
Most experts agree that both ships eventually became stranded in ice in the Arctic Ocean’s Victoria Strait, located between Victoria Island and King William Island in northern Canada. Subsequent discoveries helped researchers piece together a possible map and timeline detailing just where and when things went wrong before that point.
Perhaps most importantly, in 1850, American and British searchers found three graves dating back to 1846 on an uninhabited speck of land west of Baffin Bay named Beechey Island. Though researchers wouldn’t exhume these bodies for another 140 years, they would prove to be the remains of John Torrington and the other Franklin expedition mummies.
Then, in 1854, Scottish explorer John Rae met Inuit residents of Pelly Bay who possessed items belonging to the Franklin expedition crew and informed Rae of the piles of human bones spotted around the area, many of which were cracked in half, sparking rumors that the Franklin expedition men likely resorted to cannibalism in their last days alive.
Knife marks carved into skeletal remains found on King William Island in the 1980s and 1990s back up these claims, confirming that the explorers were driven to cracking the bones of their fallen comrades, who had likely died of starvation, before cooking them down to extract any marrow in a final attempt at survival.
But the most chilling remains from the Franklin expedition came from a man whose body was actually stunningly well-preserved, with his bones — even his skin — very much intact.

Recent Investigations Into The Fate Of John Torrington And The Franklin Expedition

Face Of Franklin Expedition Mummy John Torrington
Brian SpenceleyThe preserved face of John Torrington some 140 years after he perished.

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