The Polaris Expedition & the Death of Commander Hall
Just behind Hercules is the Polaris Whaleboat. The Polaris Whaleboat is regarded as the only surviving artifact from the 1871 Charles Hall expedition into the Arctic. The expedition took place during a period of time when people were obsessed with the Arctic, appropriately named “Arctic Fever”. The Polaris Expedition was the first Arctic exploration funded by the United States government.
The “Polaris” was originally a tugboat built in 1864 from Philadelphia, and was called, “America”. She was sold and renamed “Periwinkle”, and then sold once again, this time to the United States Navy, for the purpose of Hall’s expedition into the Arctic, renamed Polaris and was outfitted for the voyage.
The crew of 29 people was primarily made up of Americans and Germans, with a few Danes and Inuit natives. Three members of the crew identified themselves as captain of the vessel: Hall, who was recognized by Congress as the commander of the expedition, Sidney Budington, sailing master (whom Hall had quarreled with years prior) and George Tyson, the assistant navigator. The remaining members: Hubbard Chester, first mate; William Morton, second mate; Alvin Odell, second engineer; Frederick Meyer, meteorologist; Richard Bryan, astronomer and chaplain, were American. Chief scientist and surgeon Emil Bessels, chief engineer Emil Shumann, as well as most of the seaman on board were German. Iprivik, a native guide and hunter, Taqulittuq, an interpreter and seamstress, and their infant child, as well as the esteemed Greenlandic Inuk hunter and survivalist Hans Hendrik, his wife and three children also joined the expedition.
While many Americans were infatuated with the idea of Arctic Exploration, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle vocalized a contrary belief: that the expedition was useless, nonsensical, and a massive waste of taxpayers’ money. In the words of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “We have already expressed our opinion of the practical nonsense of any such expedition, its in-utility and its wanton waste of capital and life….Every preparation has been made, and these brave men go forth on a long and perilous voyage to make a discovery which must be so comparatively useless to the commercial and social interest of the world. The discovery which has most benefited mankind, is the sewing machine…”
The leadership of Hall was questioned heavily as well, being that he had no sailing experience, the title of Commander was purely honorary. Would Hall’s abundant Arctic experience and survival skills be enough to lead the expedition through the vast, frigid, and desolate tundra?
Despite its many doubters, the Polaris Expedition departed on June 30, 1871, more than a month behind schedule. The goals of the Polaris were simple: Go as far north as possible, make a few scientific discoveries and return home in one piece. Easier said than done.
By the time they had reached St. Johns, Bessels, the surgeon-chemist and Meyer, the meteorologist, had already publically rejected Hall’s command over the scientific staff. This opposition spread through the crew which had already been divided by nationality.
By September, the Polaris had sailed into the aptly named “Thank God Bay”, a cove in Greenland. Within a matter of days, Hall made preparations to continue the expedition on land with first mate Chester and native guides Iprivik and Hendrik.
Before their departure on October 10, Hall, (an apparent micromanager) did a few things that may have alienated his crew further: firstly, he left a list of detailed instructions for the management of the ship for Budington, a captain with over 20 years’ experience, he reminded Bessels, a scientist with three degrees, to wind the chronometers (a very accurate timepiece) to the right time every day, and, the cherry on top, Hall left Tyson, the navigator, with the ship to watch over the crew. Hall, while inexperienced with commanding a crew, was aware and concerned about the division between his men, the obvious lack of respect for himself and the drunken behavior that had become rampant.
Hall and the guides returned two weeks later. Upon drinking a cup of coffee, Hall claimed it tasted too sweet and began to feel ill. At first an upset stomach, then vomiting, and finally delirium the next day. While ill, Hall accused a number of the crew, including Bessels, of poisoning him. After he had made his accusations, Hall refused any treatment from Bessels (the only doctor, surgeon and chemist on board) and only drank liquids directly from Taqulittuq. His condition improved for a few days and Hall was even able to go up to the deck. Bessels asked the chaplain, the ship’s ordained clergy member, to convince Hall to allow him to treat him. Hall eventually gave in and Bessels’ treatment resumed. Shortly afterwards, Hall’s condition deteriorated and he resumed vomiting and delirium. Bessel diagnosed Hall with apoplexy, what we now call a stroke. Hall died on November 8. His body was taken to land and given a formal burial.
In 1968, while working Hall’s biography, Chancey C. Loomis became fascinated with the idea that Hall had been poisoned. He got permission to travel to Greenland, exhume Hall’s body and perform an autopsy. Because of the permafrost, Hall’s body had been kept perfectly preserved. Test results from his bones, hair and fingernails showed that Hall received large doses of arsenic in the last two weeks of his life.
When Hall died, the United States investigators agreed with apoplexy being the cause of death. But with this information, it is clear that he was poisoned. Here is what we know: Firstly, Arsenic can have a sweet taste to it: Hall had complained about the sweetness in his coffee. Secondly, three crew members – namely Budington, Meyer and Bessels – expressed their relief when Hall died and said “the expedition would be better off without him”. Thirdly, and most interestingly, both Bessel and Hall were romantically involved with a woman named Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream before they departed on their expedition. Ream was a sculptor, most famously known for sculpting the statue of President Lincoln in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. It is reported that Bessel vied for Ream’s attention, but that she preferred Hall. Both Hall and Bessels had been sending love letters to Ream aboard the Polaris. There were no charges against any crew member for Hall’s death.