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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic November 14, 2014 - 11:23 am

Taissumani, Nov. 14

How Do You Spell Murder? — The Death of Charles Francis Hall

Charles Francis Hall, the American explorer who died Nov. 8, 1871, off Greenland. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Charles Francis Hall, the American explorer who died Nov. 8, 1871, off Greenland. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Charles Francis Hall began his third expedition to the Arctic on June 29, 1871. This was the most ambitious one of all.

The previous two were in search of information on the missing Franklin expedition, but this one would be an audacious attempt to reach the North Pole by ship. The steamer Periwinkle had been completely refitted and even acquired a new name, more fitted to polar voyaging – the Polaris.

Hall’s old friend, Capt. Sidney O. Budington was in command of the ship, while Hall would be in charge of the expedition. Or so he thought.

Naively, Hall had said, “I have chosen my own men; men who will stand by me through thick and thin. Though we may be surrounded by innumerable icebergs, and though our vessel may be crushed like an eggshell, I believe they will stand by me to the last.”

But within a week of leaving the Brooklyn Navy Yard, two members of the expedition were challenging Hall’s authority and refusing to obey orders. These were Dr. Emil Bessels, a German physician and naturalist who was the expedition’s chief scientist, and Frederick Meyer, also German, who served as meteorologist.

The ship’s company was partly American and partly German, and the two groups did not get along. There were also two Inuit families aboard the ship.

The Polaris travelled north through Davis Strait, Baffin Bay and into Smith Sound. It travelled farther north than any ship had ever been before. Hall wanted to reach the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, from which, he hoped, the North Pole would be reached on sled journeys.

But ice stopped the ship at 82 degrees, 11 minutes north. The strong current from the north pushed the ship back into Hall Basin, and it found refuge in a small cove on the Greenland coast on September 10. Hall named the spot Thank God Harbor.

Exactly a month later, Hall set off with a trusted American companion, and Joe and Hans, the two adult male Inuit, on a reconnaissance trip by sled to learn about the geography of the area, as preparation for the hoped-for North Pole sled trip the following spring. They returned, cold but invigorated and optimistic, after a two-week absence.

Back aboard ship, Hall requested a cup of coffee. He drank the hot brew, but almost immediately he threw up, complaining of nausea. He told Joe’s wife, Hannah, whom he had known and trusted for over a decade, that the coffee tasted strange – it had an uncharacteristic sweet taste, and he felt a burning sensation in his stomach.

But other men had drunk of the same coffee — if indeed it was the same — without suffering any ill effects. Hall, though, had had stomach problems before. For whatever reason, he was the only one to get sick.

Hall asked Dr. Bessels to attend to him. He wanted something to purge his system, but Bessels refused, claiming that Hall was too weak from vomiting already. By the next morning, Hall had a high fever. Bessels injected him with quinine.

But Hall’s situation deteriorated. He became delirious and openly suggested that he had been poisoned. He suspected the doctor — the two had not gotten along since the beginning of the expedition.

Hall trusted Hannah, and refused to eat any food unless it was prepared by her. By early November he was feeling better. His appetite had returned and the stomach pains were gone.

But Bessels wanted to continue treating him, and prevailed upon the ship’s chaplain to convince Hall to agree to the treatment.  On November 4th Bessels began injecting a substance into Hall’s legs.

But Hall continued to improve. Two days later he took a walk on deck and announced that he was as well as he had ever been.

But the improvement didn’t last long. Within another two days he had suffered a relapse. Just past midnight on November 7, a seaman woke Budington to tell him that Hall was dying.

Budington, which whom Hall had also had a testy relationship, rushed to his side. Hall was sitting on the edge of his bed.

He asked Budington, “How do you spell murder?” Then he stared accusingly at Bessels and said, “Doctor, I know everything that’s going on; you can’t fool me.”

Hall was comatose most of the next day. Bessels attended to him in the evening. It was then that Hall spoke his last words. They were to the doctor, and they were quite different from his earlier accusation.

He said, “Doctor, you have been very kind to me, and I am obliged to you.”

Was this a genuine expression of thanks, or were these words spoken with a tone of bitter and resigned irony? Hall never woke up from his sleep, and died in the wee small hours of the morning of November 8, shortly after 2 a.m.

Next Week – Who Killed Charles Francis Hall?

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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