Part five: Unreliable memories

This is the final section of an article that Robert Goodsir is writing in Australia in 1880. He does not have access to the notes he kept during the 1850-51 search expedition, and the two crewmates who also emigrated to Australia post-1851 have since died.

When compared to the contemporary accounts of others on the expedition, written at the time or published shortly after, Robert’s don’t always match up: 30 years had passed. All corrections will be made in the text as and when needed (in red), and expanded upon in the notes at the end. 

By the last San Francisco mail, there came a telegram dated London, 23rd October, in which is stated that Commander Cheyne has stated “his belief that Sir John Franklin and the members of his expedition were murdered by the contractor who filled the tins labelled ‘beef’ with bone and offal.”

I can corroborate this statement of Commander Cheyne’s with the most perfect confidence; though I cannot help thinking that his denunciation of the contractor comes rather late in the day.

(John Powles Cheyne – the Franklin searcher who also created stereoscopic photographs of the relics discovered by Francis Leopold McClintock and the Fox expedition – had in fact been repeating this statement for many years. And Cheyne wasn’t the only person. The belief that the contractor – Stefan Goldner – had hastened the demise of the Franklin Expedition by supplying inedible provisions was a widely-held one.)

I have mentioned above a certain pyramidical cairn of meat tins or canisters that I and my party found on first landing in Beechey Island, and as then promised I now return to it with special reference to Commander Cheyne’s statement.

An image from the Illustrated London News, showing three figures at a pyramid of object, with one pointing to shapes in the distance.

This cairn or pile of meat tins was carefully taken down, in the expectation of finding in it or under it despatches from Sir John Franklin, but unfortunately without success: but what was found augured most dismally for the welfare of the missing ships.

DEPRESSING EFFECT

Two-thirds of these tins had evidently been condemned as unfit for human food. They contained not only great junks of bone, but the most disgusting offal.

This discovery had a most depressing effect on even the most sanguine members of the different search parties.

An image of Peter Cormack Sutherland as an older man.
Peter Cormack Sutherland as an older man.

(Robert is wrong about this: the cans were full of gravel, and only one had a very small amount of organic matter still in it. The surgeon of the Sophia, Peter Cormack Sutherland, was perfectly clear about this in the two-volume expedition narrative he published in 1852.

He wrote: “The meat-tins were piled up in heaps in the same regular manner as shot is piled up; each had been filled with loose shingle, and when the tiers of a single layer were completed the interstices were also filled up with shingle.

“Six or seven hundred tins were counted, and many more besides these were dug up and emptied out in search of documents.”

This is an eye-witness account reported within months of the search expedition’s return to Britain. Robert was with Sutherland when the cans were carefully examined in August 1850: he would have seen exactly what Sutherland reports here.)

On our return in 1851, I knew the matter had begun to be inquired into.

(The rancid Goldner food at Gosport’s Royal Clarence victualling centre was not discovered until the end of December 1851, more than two months after the Lady Franklin arrived home. The story did not break until 3rd January 1852.)

The contract was annulled, and the contractor, I believe, absconded, forfeiting a heavy sum of bond money. This most unmitigated scoundrel was said to be a Polish Jew. Though his name long lingered in my memory, I cannot now recall it. He had his meat-preserving establishment at Galatz, at the mouth of the Danube.

When the preserved meat in store at the different dockyards came to be examined, only a very small proportion of it was found to be at all fit for human food. This was given to the poor, the remainder was taken out to sea and sunk.

We may judge from all this of what the state of matters must have been in the Erebus and Terror even in 1847, at the date of Sir John’s death.

Empty cans in the shape of a cross.
Franklin-era tin cans on Beechey Island rearranged into a cross. Photo © Paul Ward/Cool Antarctica

Part one: Australia 1880 – Part two: Humble headstones, painted black – Part three: Silent for four long winters – Part four: “Cabined, cribbed, confined 

A transcript of the full article – uncorrected and in plain text – is also available here.


Notes

The idea that the men of the Franklin Expedition were poisoned by badly-tinned rotten food is one of the most enduring stories within the mystery. 

Victualler Stefan Goldner’s reputation was ruined in 1852 after rancid meat, bones, and other awfulness was found in tins produced by his factories for supply to Royal Navy ships.

A portrait of Sir John Richardson
Sir John Richardson by Stephen Pearce, 1850. NPG 909, © National Portrait Gallery, London

A possible connection with the loss of the Franklin Expedition was seized upon immediately.

The veteran Arctic explorer Sir John Richardson argued that there were far too many empty tins on Beechey Island to have been used by two ships’ companies over one winter. Something may have been wrong with the food.

Large amounts of Goldner produce had just been found unfit for human consumption – could the goods supplied to Erebus and Terror in 1845 have been similarly compromised?

There was a parliamentary inquiry into the scandal held in May 1852 and, while Goldner was ultimately cleared of any wrong-doing connected to supplies produced in 1845, his name became synonymous with Franklin’s fate. 

The media campaign against Goldner was relentless, with the victualler portrayed as a cackling, moustache-twirling villain straight out of Victorian Central Casting.

CONDEMNED

Franklin scholar Peter Carney is examining this story in detail in an excellent series on his Erebus & Terror Files blog. In the opening segments, Carney reprints the article in The Times that ignited the scandal, and writes:

The Times article had phrased the question quite neutrally, ‘Suppose, for instance, Franklin and his party to have been supplied with such food as that condemned…’, it did not pretend to have the answer. Nonetheless, within a few years, the supposed poisoning of the Franklin expedition was being treated as established fact, and it grew from there.”

Was Richardson right? Was the huge number of empty cans a sign that Goldner had supplied bad food?

NEW EVIDENCE

Until such times that new evidence is found – perhaps by Parks Canada, during its excavations of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror – we can’t know.

Likewise, we can only speculate how and why Robert internalised this story over three decades, to the extent that his first-person memory of examining the gravel-filled tins on Beechey Island was effectively overwritten.

In any case, it is distressing to think that Robert spent more than half of his life blaming Harry’s death on the tinned food, and imagining what his death might have been like. 

KING WILLIAM ISLAND

One emotional truth about the Goodsir family seems to be that everything can always get more painful. And so we move into a part of the story where a skeleton is found on King William Island by Franklin searcher Charles Francis Hall in 1869.

The skeleton had a long journey from the Arctic to the United States and then onto England – a capital story detailed in a series of posts by Russell Potter – but ultimately it arrived in late 1872, at time when Robert, Jane and Joseph Goodsir were all still alive and grieving for their missing brother.

Back then, the bones were loosely identified as Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte of HMS Erebus. But careful 21st Century scientific scholarship (notably by Mays et al, 2011) indicates that the bones likely belong to Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir. 

NO DESCENDANTS

This brilliant and tragic group of Goodsirs all died unmarried and without any offspring that we know of. They have no descendants. And as yet, no distant relatives on the matrilineal line have been found who could provide a DNA sample to conclusively confirm the identity of the bones now lying at the Franklin memorial in Greenwich’s Naval Chapel. 

Two images from an academic paper by Mays et al, 2011
Image from Mays et al (2011) showing a daguerrotype of Harry Goodsir alongside an image of the facial reconstruction of the King William Island/Greenwich skull.

If this skeleton is indeed Harry – and I don’t doubt what the science is telling us – it’s upsetting to think that his surviving siblings were denied the opportunity to say goodbye to him, and to bury him, back in 1873.

Maybe they would have chosen to lay him down alongside his elder brother, the great anatomist John Goodsir, in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery. Or perhaps they would have carried him across the Firth of Forth, to lie in eternity with his younger siblings Archie and Agnes, and his beloved mother Elizabeth – bringing him home to Fife.

Thank you:

Peter Carney, Allison Lane, and Logan Zachary.

Sources:

Ardeleanu, Constantin – A British Meat Cannery in Moldavia (1844–52), The Slavonic and East European Review (2012)

Austin, Captain Horatio T. – the log of HMS Resolute (1850-51)

Bailey, Lt. Col. Fred – List of objects shown at the Franklin commemoration meeting, Edinburgh, on 4th June 1895, and on subsequent days, Scottish Geographical Magazine (1895)

Battersby, William – Identification of the Probable Source of the Lead Poisoning Observed in Members of the Franklin Expedition, Journal of the Hakluyt Society (2008)

The British Newspaper Archive

Carney, Peter – Further Light on the Source of the Lead in Human Remains from the 1845 Franklin Expedition, Journal of the Hakluyt Society (2016)

Carney, Peter – The Erebus & Terror Files (2020)

Carter, Robert Randolf (ed. Gill & Young) – Searching for the Franklin Expedition: The Arctic Journal of Robert Randolph Carter (1998)

Cyriax, R.J. – Sir John Franklin’s Last Arctic Expedition (1939)

Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections: The Goodsir Papers

Goodsir, Robert Anstruther – A Fragment from the Story of Franklin’s Fate, The Australasian, (1880)

Markham, Clements – Franklin’s Footsteps (1853)

Markham, Clements – The Arctic Navy List 1773-1873

Mays, S; Ogden, A; Montgomery, J; Vincent S; Battersby, W; Taylor, GM – New light on the personal identification of a skeleton of a member of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition to the Arctic, 1845, Journal of Archaeological Science (2011)

Miertsching, Johann (trans. LH Neatby) – Frozen Ships: The Arctic Diary of Johann Miertsching (1967)

The National Archives – The log of the Lady Franklin; the log of the Sophia; ADMs 187-193.

Osborn, Sherard – Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal (1852)

Osborn, Sherard and McDougall, GF – The Illustrated Arctic News (1851)

Ross, Sir John – A narrative of the circumstances and causes which led to the failure of the searching expeditions sent by government and others for the rescue of Sir John Franklin (1855)

Ross, M.J. – Polar Pioneers: John Ross and James Clark Ross (1994)

Ross, W. Gillies – Hunters on the Track (2019)

Royal Scottish Geographical Society – The Goodsir Papers

Stuart, John – Personal journal, 1850-51

Stuart, John – The Relief of the Franklin Expedition: What Has Been Done and What May Yet Be Done (1852)

Sutherland, Peter C. – Journal of a Voyage in Baffin’s Bay and Barrow Straits in the Years 1850-1851, Vols 1 and 2 (1852)

The Times archive

The Victorian Royal Navy

Trove

Woodward, Frances. J. – The Franklin Search in 1850, Polar Record (1950)

Zachary, Logan – The Cape Riley Rake, illuminator dot blog (2020)