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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic November 20, 2014 - 10:57 am

Taissumani, Nov. 21

Who Killed Charles Francis Hall?

Dr. Emil Bessels. If Charles Francis Hall was murdered, Bessels is likely the prime suspect, historian Chauncey Loomis concluded in the 1960s. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Dr. Emil Bessels. If Charles Francis Hall was murdered, Bessels is likely the prime suspect, historian Chauncey Loomis concluded in the 1960s. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Last week I wrote about the death of Charles Francis Hall on the Polaris expedition.

Hall was the only person to die on that expedition. Eventually, when the survivors had returned to the United States, a government inquiry was held.

George Tyson, the ice-master, spoke of Hall’s conviction that someone had poisoned him. He suggested that Captain Sidney O. Budington or the scientist Emil Bessels was responsible. At a subsequent inquiry, a crew member testified that Budington had said, “There’s a stone off my heart,” after Hall’s death.

Noah Hayes gave damning testimony about Bessels’ comments after Hall’s death:

“One day I was over at the observatory with Dr. Bessels. I was there a good part of the time about that time in the winter. He appeared to be very light-hearted, and said that Captain Hall’s death was the best think that could happen for the expedition… The next day he was laughing when he mentioned it. I was much hurt at the time and told him I wished he would select someone else as an auditor if he had such a thing to say.” 

When the ice-master, George Tyson, was asked if Hall accused anyone of trying to poison him, he replied, “Yes, sir, almost everybody; and when I was absent he might accuse me for aught I know. He accused Captain Budington and the doctor of trying to do him an injury.”

Bessels told the inquiry about the symptoms that Hall exhibited and the treatment he had administered. He claimed that Hall had suffered from a stroke and that he was paralyzed on one side. Another shipmate, Meyer, confirmed this, although others who had been present denied it.

Government medical experts who examined Bessels’ testimony agreed with his diagnosis and his treatment. A stroke would explain some of the symptoms – the alleged paralysis, the slurred speech, erratic behaviour and temporary coma, though it would not explain the high fever.

In the 1960s an Arctic scholar, Chauncey Loomis, was busy preparing a biography of Hall. The hastily-reached conclusion that Hall had died of a stroke troubled him.

In his book he wrote, “My conclusion was, not that Hall been murdered, not even that he probably had been murdered, but only that murder was at least possible and plausible.”

Loomis wanted to know more and he proposed an audacious plan to investigate Hall’s death, almost a century after it had taken place. He wanted an autopsy performed on Hall’s body, which he suspected had been well preserved in the frozen ground of Thank God Harbor.

In August of 1968, the famous Arctic pilot, Weldy Phipps, flying a Single Otter from Resolute, took Loomis, a pathologist and two assistants, to the grave site.

They dug into the permafrost and exposed Hall’s body, draped in the American flag that he had hoped to plant at the North Pole. The body was left in the coffin and the coffin in the ground. The pathologist performed his three-hour autopsy in the agonizing posture necessitated by bending over the grave.

Loomis recounts:

“There was still flesh, a beard, hair on the head, but the eye sockets were empty, the nose was almost gone, and the mouth was pulled into a smile that a few years hence will become the grin of a death’s head. The skin, tanned by time and stained by the flag, was tightening on the skull. He was in a strangely beautiful phase in the process of dust returning to dust.”

Hall’s intestines and stomach had dissolved, as had the brain, which they had hoped to study for signs of the alleged stroke. But the pathologist collected hair and fingernail samples, which continue to grow for some time after death. These were taken to the Centre for Forensic Medicine in Toronto for study.

The results showed that Hall had died of arsenic poisoning, from poison that he had received in the last two weeks of his life. There had likely been no stroke – and indeed everyone except Bessels and Meyers had denied that there was any paralysis.

His symptoms were consistent with arsenic poisoning — the sweet taste, “stomach pains, vomiting, dehydration, intense thirst, feeble pulse, vertigo, stupor, and even mania.”

Forensic medicine had determined what killed Charles Francis Hall — it was an overdose of arsenic.

But who had poisoned him? Several men might have wanted him dead, but Doctor Bessels had unrestricted access to him. He could have administered arsenic with the quinine injections, or put it in the coffee.

But Hall also had his own medicine chest. Had he been treating himself in addition to the medicines provided by Bessels, and accidentally poisoned himself? Or did another of the crew kill him?

Chauncey Loomis considered the situation:

“If Hall was murdered, Emil Bessels is the prime suspect… Bessels had the opportunity, the skill, and probably the material, but why would he do it? He had no apparent rational motive…”

And so Loomis considered irrational motives. He noted that Bessels was a very difficult man who “scorned Hall, as he apparently scorned many men. Hall was an uneducated boor, but he, Emil Bessels of Heidelberg and Jena, had to serve under him and take his orders. Their relations had been strained at the outset, and Bessels faced another year, probably another two years, on that tiny ship, suffering the humiliation of an arrogant man in a subservient position.”

But Loomis was only able to conclude:

“Perhaps Bessels murdered Hall. Perhaps. The only certain truth that can be found in this case is a knowledge of the inevitable and final elusiveness of the past.”

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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