"It was a terrible thing to order the execution of a comrade who had borne with them the sufferings of an arctic winter without food or shelter, but the party could not allow their sympathies to affect justice at the expense of their own lives. The execution of Henry was an inexorable necessity."
The story of an American Arctic exploratory expedition, marooned for two years, and forced to violate the most ancient taboo.
Taken from ""The world's wonders, as seen by the great tropical and polar explorers, etc." by James William Buel (Philadelphia: Historical Publishing Company, 1884). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
THE FREQUENT DISASTERS that have overtaken expeditions sent to the Arctic regions, involving loss of life by cold and starvation, and intense suffering always, even when no fatalities occurred, have not in the least diminished interest in Arctic exploration, but on the other hand, seem only to incite renewed endeavor.
The US Army took great interest in Arctic research, and when scientists proposed the establishment of international polar stations, by which it was believed the Pole might be reached by gradual approaches, the Army’s Signal Corps at once gave the scheme its unqualified sanction. Congress, in 1880, voted an ample appropriation for equipping an expedition which was to establish permanent stations.
Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely, assistant to the Army’s Chief Signal Officer, was an enthusiast on arctic discovery, and supported the idea with all his influence in carrying the bill through Congress. The bill providing for the establishment of polar stations was passed, and Greely was appointed as commander of the expedition. When organized, the expedition consisted of twenty-four officers and men, chosen from different branches of the army.
Lieutenant Greely sailed from St. Johns, Newfoundland, July 7, 1881, on the steamer “Proteus,” and reached Disco Island, at Godhaven, two weeks later. Here he secured interpreters, fourteen dogs, two sledges, and a large quantity of provisions, including several tons of walrus flesh and dried fish as food for the dogs.
The season was very exceptional, and the passage through the Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay was the fastest on record. Then, when “Proteus” reached the southwest part of Lady Franklin Bay, and was within ten miles of her destination, she was moored to the ice for seven days , and Lt. Greely almost despaired of attaining his object. But the ice moved to the eastward, and the ship was forced at full speed until Discovery Harbor was reached, and there Lt. Greely established his settlement, calling it Fort Conger, in honor of Senator Conger, who had been instrumental in passing the bill which authorized the expedition.
The company at Fort Conger was well equipped for its exile. Stores of provisions sufficient to last two years were at hand, and relief ships were promised annually. The house erected had double frames and measured 61 by 21 feet. In addition to stores and supplies, about 140 tons of coal were landed. It was not doubted that the members of the expedition could be made as comfortable and as safe as are the men of the Signal Service stationed on the summits of Pike's Peak and Mt. Washington, or the employees of the Hudson Bay Company stationed at Fort York, where a temperature of minus 60 degrees is not uncommon.
The expedition went about its work without incident, but the promised relief vessels never appeared. After spending two years at Fort Conger, Lt. Greely was forced to abandon the safety and comfort of the station on August 9, 1883. Their goal was Cape Sabine, which was more accessible to relief ships, which they reached only after a dreadful journey of two month's duration.
The march from Fort Conger to Cape Sabine was replete with intense suffering and narrow escapes. Upon reaching Baird Inlet, on the 29th of September, Greely had to abandon his boats and was adrift for thirty days on an ice-floe in Smith's Sound. By rare good luck they were driven upon Cape Sabine on the 31st of October, 1883. A permanent camp was established here, and they expected relief to reach them at this point, according to the promises made in his instructions from the government.
ALL the provisions brought with them from Fort Conger were fairly exhausted before the expedition reached Cape Sabine, so that when they went into camp, it was with the gloomiest prospects possible before them. An occasional auk was killed, but very few were secured, as they usually fell in the water, where they could not be recovered, all the boats being lost. Seals, walrus, and ducks were plentiful and continually sporting in the sea before them as if to tempt and aggravate their hunger, for none of these could have been secured if killed. Their deplorable situation was rapidly destroying the minds of the men, weakened by the lack of food and strained by despair, and Greely realized the increasing necessity of securing relief at all hazards. As a last resort, in which there was but the least gleam of hope, on November 2, he detailed Corporal Joseph Elison and three others to attempt the recovery of beef cached by an earlier expedition at Cape Isabella, in 1879, thirty miles distant from camp.
The weather at the time was terrible, but the threatened starvation made it absolutely necessary to obtain the food if possible. Elison’s team started with a daily ration of four ounces of meat, eight ounces of bread, a little tea and five ounces of alcohol for cooking purposes. With the temperature 35 degrees below zero, the wind strong, the snow soft and the ice hummocky, in four days they had reached the cached meat. They left their rations and sleeping bags at Cape Isabella, where they had en- camped on the ice, and started with only a cup of tea, intending to subsist on the frozen meat and save the extra weight of sleeping bags, provisions, and cooking gear. They also intended to use the wooden barrels for fuel, and thus save their alcohol, and retrace their path to their previous night’s camp for dinner.
On their return Elison suffered with thirst and began to eat snow, against the orders and advice of the others. His hands and mits became wet, and, as a northwest gale was blowing, his hands were soon frozen. The snow had also caused his mouth and tongue to blister and he rapidly became weak. The men hurried into camp and then discovered that Elison had also frozen his feet. They cut his boots off and put him into the sleeping bag, and restored the circulation in his hands and feet by friction. After a terrible night they continued on their journey with the temperature at 25 below zero.
Elison was unable to help haul the load, which had been increased by their sleeping bags and camp gear. His hands and feet were soon frozen. The men passed another horrible night. They had no tent and their sleeping bags were frozen so stiff that it required an hour's work to unroll them. The men gradually worked themselves into their bags as the heat of their bodies thawed them out. A strong wind, drifting snow, and their exhaustion prevented them from restoring the circulation in their frozen companion.
When they broke camp they were obliged to abandon the meat or their companion, and they chose the former. Elison begged them to leave him to die and save their meat. They left the meat cached on the ice and also a rifle as a mark, and pushed ahead to Eskimo Point, where they could secure shelter in their old camp. After reaching the camp they worked from 7 in the evening until 3 in the morning, and partially restored the circulation in Elison's hands and feet. They dried his clothes and made him warm tea, the only warm food they had been able to make, the wind preventing them from lighting a fire.
Early the next day Elison was able to walk, and was sent ahead while the others packed and hauled the sled. They soon overtook him, he having strayed from the road. His hands, feet, nose and cheeks were frozen and he was scarcely able to see. His men took turns at leading and helping him, while also hauling the sled. At last it required all three at the ropes, and they tied Elison's arms to the back of the sled and hauled him in that way. His legs were stiff and he would frequently fall and be dragged several yards before his cries were heard. Elison's feet were frozen beyond cure and all his fingers and thumbs were lost. Even though he was carefully cared for after their return to Cape Sabine, and lived through the whole winter, receiving the best of rations and more than the others, he died on July 8.
This calamitous failure to bring the meat from Isabella Camp plunged the already despairing party into more wretched woe; their few stores, though portioned out in exceedingly small quantities, grew less until they were at last reduced to a soup made of boiled seal skins, boots cut up fine and mixed with reindeer moss, rock lichens and small shrimps. No man was allowed to sleep longer than two hours at a time, this precaution being necessary to prevent torpor and death from the intense cold. The men were awakened only by rough means and were then made to shake themselves, and beat and stamp their feet to restore circulation, for it must be remembered that no fuel was procurable, and that there was nothing but alcohol left to cook with.
Starvation was setting its seal fast on the party; to save himself, Private Charles Henry forgot his duty to his suffering comrades, and as early as November 1 he began stealing provisions from the scanty store. At first he was not suspected, though there was a suspicion that theft had been committed, and a threat was made by the men to kill anyone they might detect in such an act.
On January 24 the party was near perishing from asphyxia, and several of its members were unconscious. Private Henry, during this terrible experience, was seen to steal some of the bacon from the stores. He soon afterward was taken ill from overloading his stomach, and vomited up bacon undigested. Investigation was had and Henry proved guilty, not only of this, but of several previous thefts. Henry's indignant comrades demanded his death, but Greely calmed the men. Henry was then placed under guard for several weeks, until increasing feebleness of the other members of the party rendered it necessary for them to release him for duty. Shortly afterward he stole liquor from the stores and became intoxicated. Again his comrades clamored for his life, and again Greely restrained them. Then on June 5th Henry again stole and carried away some of the provisions. This was the last straw.
After revolving in his mind their circumstances, Greely, on his own responsibility, issued a written order commanding that Henry be shot on sight of the commission of any more thefts of food. At this time the party had left only pieces of seal skin and such shrimps as they could procure. About June 6, Henry went to the old winter quarters at Camp Clay, near Cape Sabine, and stole some of the last seal skin, which was the only food left. He also took the last pair of boots in store. Being closely questioned by Lt. Greely, he admitted his guilt, and was again ready with promises to do better.
His fate was upon him. He was, in the afternoon of that day, a little distance at the rear of the summer quarters, alone by himself. The written order for his execution was committed to three of the party. They were ordered to shoot him, encountering as little danger to themselves as possible, as Henry was the strongest of the party. Sadly the men departed on their terrible errand. Their comrades, left in the camp, turned their eyes to the ocean. In a few minutes the breeze bore to their ears the sound of two pistol shots. Slowly, the men returned. The written order was handed to Lt.. Greely, and the horrible, but necessary execution, was over.
It was a terrible thing to order the execution of a comrade who had borne with them the sufferings of an arctic winter without food or shelter, but the party could not allow their sympathies to affect justice at the expense of their own lives. The execution of Henry was an inexorable necessity.
Starvation and cold had destroyed several of the party even before Henry was executed, and after January 1, 1884, the death rate was appalling. Seventeen of the original twenty-five persons composing the expedition perished of starvation.
Starvation was now so near at hand that Sergeants Rice and Fredericks volunteered to bring the meat, left by Elison’s men, which involved a journey of thirty miles through deep snow and a temperature of 40 to 60 below zero.
It was, at best, a struggle for life. The two heroes set out for the deserted meat, weakened by the insufficient food which they had so long been compelled to subsist upon, but strong in heart and purpose. They took with them a sledge, rifle and hatchet, and provisions for a five days' journey, which allowance would force them to march at least six miles a day, a thing extremely difficult to do under the circumstances.
For three days the two brave fellows traveled, but without being able to find the meat, as it was, no doubt, now covered with snow. Enfeebled by scanty diet, and exhausted by excessive cold and exposure, Sergeant Rice was seized with a blood-flux, which so rapidly sapped his little remaining strength, that he speedily succumbed and died in his companion's arms.
The profound grief felt at the loss of his comrade, nerved Fredericks to greater effort, by suppressing hunger and cold, under his acute sufferings of heart. The little store of provisions, from which only one mouth was now to be fed, was drawn from more generously, and supplied strength and renewed hope, so that after three more days of wandering over the frozen plains, Fredericks at length found the camp again. His return without food plunged the party into despair, for the star of hope appeared now to set forever.
Is it really a matter for wonder that the Greely party, cast away and lost among the ice crags and pitiless snows of a perpetual wilderness; freezing, starving, dying, with minds distorted by acute suffering, where all nature howled a requiem of despair, and desolation swept round their tattered tents like a ghoul hunting for victims; is it wonderful that, under such desperate circumstances, the surviving members of the Greely party should relieve their famine on the pulseless bodies of those lying under the snow, and resort to cannibalism? Self-preservation being in truth the first law of nature, every one must answer, "No."
The sense of shame--civilization's most enduring mark--did not abandon these brave men even in the last hour of their dreadful trial, for as hunger drove them to break their fast upon their dead comrades, they waited until the still watches of night and crept in half bent attitudes to where the bodies lay; then, scraping back nature's winding sheet, they began the butchery. From arms, legs and bodies the pale flesh was stripped with keen blades and devoured only as starving men can devour; but that, for grace, God was asked to look down with pity and forgiveness, we cannot doubt.
The remnants of the party were eventually rescued in October, 1884, seven months after Sergeants Rice and Fredericks failed to bring back the cached beef that might have prevented the last resort to cannibalism.